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Published: September 2, 2013, 3:00 pm
They’re your office interns, retail checkout clerks, and disembodied drive-thru voices asking if you want fries with that — and they’re set to be the single most powerful group of Canadians since the Baby Boomers.

Once dubbed “the hero generation,” Millennials were supposed to save us all with their idealism, tech-savvy and high levels of education. Then the recession hit, an employment logjam took hold, and they were re-christened “Generation Screwed” — most of us forgetting that even caped crusaders need the time, resources and proper conditions to transform.

In a new three-part series, Postmedia News checks in on the 7.2 million Canadians born between 1979 and 1993 (about 21 per cent of the population) and asks how they’re currently faring; what challenges they face, as well as the challenges they pose to business; the consequences of their lifestyle, from soaring stress to obesity; and what it all means for the future of workplaces, consumerism, and the culture at large.

“We won’t just be watching. We’ll be living out the future alongside them,” said sociologist Reginald Bibby, author of The Emerging Millennials. “If life is to be elevated for all Canadians, it’s critically important that we understand them, and they understand us.”


Because this generation includes a wide range of ages — Canadians aged 20 to 34 — painting them all with the same brush is unwise. As a demographic cohort, however, experts say Millennials do share many of the same values, obstacles and approaches to life.

For example, Bibby cited the legacy of the Boomers in observing “the supreme importance” Millennials give to pluralism in race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and even morality. These young Canadians are also marked by their reaction to Boomers — their parents — having the highest rate of divorce of any generation in the country’s history, which is fuelling a desire to do things differently.

“Millennials are determined to do a better job of balancing family and careers,” said Bibby, a professor at the University of Lethbridge. “Comfortable lives remain important. But there’s also a strong consciousness of needing to do what it takes to ensure that treasured family life is also nurtured.”

Kristina Leidums, a 29-year-old teacher from Creston, B.C., is among that group. Her life philosophy is to put happiness first, even if it comes at the expense of job security, a pension and benefits — none of which she or her partner, a professional forester, currently have.

Last winter, for instance, the couple took six months off work so they could live in a cabin by a lake in Ontario and enjoy her pregnancy (their first child was born this past June).

“We’re trying to intersperse freedom into our working lives so it doesn’t all seem like we’re grinding away until we’re 60,” said Leidums, who once canoed across the country. “It doesn’t suit us to have stable, full-time jobs with all kinds of security where you only get three weeks holiday and only see each other in the evenings.”


It’s no wonder Sean Lyons, a generational diversity expert, forecasts that Millennials “are going to reinvent everything.”

Sean Lyons

Sean Lyons

“I’m endlessly fascinated by their creativity and ability to connect with one another,” said Lyons, a professor at the University of Guelph and author of Managing the New Workforce. “They’re going to redefine parenting, they’re going to redefine what it means to be civically engaged, and they’re going to redefine what it means to have an important, satisfying career.”

Because Millennials are pursuing higher levels of education, they’re also incurring a large amount of student debt: a 2013 survey for BMO found the average student expects to graduate owing $26,297. This burden often sees a delay in leaving the family home, which in turn postpones marriage, which then sees children being born much later.

In 2010, for the first time in Canada’s history, the fertility rate was higher for women aged 35 to 39 than for those aged 20 to 24. And that gap has only widened since.

“If you compare Millennials to baby boomers at age 30, they seem like a horrible failure. But they’re just getting started,” said Lyons. “We have documented evidence now that it’s taking people a lot longer to become full-fledged adults.”

In 2011, fully a quarter of Canadians aged 25 to 29 were living Chez Mom and Dad, compared with just 11 per cent in 1981. This dovetails with Statistics Canada’s finding that an astounding 73.1 per cent of young adults aged 25 to 29 had never been married as of 2011, compared with just 26 per cent in 1981 (which isn’t to say they weren’t shacking up).

David Coletto, chief executive officer of Abacus Data, a firm specializing in Millennial research, said young Canadians do boast traditional family values but want to wait until they’re in a financially and professionally comfortable place to start the next chapter of their lives. His firm’s research reveals that 71 per cent of Millennials feel it’s important to have children, while 65 per cent disagree that marriage is an outdated institution.

Statistics Canada

Statistics Canada


As for generational stereotypes, they tend to skew negative. To wit, when Abacus asked non-members of that cohort to describe Millennials in one word, terms such as lazy, entitled and spoiled were among the most widely used.

David Coletto

David Coletto

Coletto said the problem is that the Canadians currently in their 20s and early 30s were raised with unrealistic cultural messaging about what’s possible, which has bred a sense of deserving the very best.

And he would know. At 31, Coletto is a Millennial himself.

“Throughout our entire lives, we’ve been told we could do absolutely anything we wanted to,” said Coletto. “But the reality is that there are no jobs, and opportunities are sparse.… All those jobs we were told would need to be filled by us aren’t yet ready to be filled.”

In 2011, Statistics Canada reported that a 50-year-old worker in 2008 could expect to remain in the labour force another 16 years — 3.5 years longer than pre-retirees of the same age in the mid-1990s. At the same time, Towers Watson unveiled a Retirement Age Index showing that pension freedom for most Canadians was drawing close to 67 years.

The result is that the younger generation has wound up underemployed in fields for which their schooling has no bearing.

The latest Labour Force Survey shows that in 2012, 50 per cent of retail clerk positions, 64 per cent of food and beverage jobs, and 65 per cent of cashier positions were occupied by Millennials. At the same time, however, this demographic is more educated than ever: 68 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 29 held a post-secondary degree or diploma in 2011 compared with 43 per cent in 1981.

Guelph’s Lyons described the scenario as a kind of limbo, but was emphatic that Millennials’ time will come once the Boomers exit the workforce.

“They’re going to be the holders of society,” said Lyons. “It’s going to be their world — and it’s not going to be too long from now.”



Defining a Generation: Who are the Millennials?

One of the most pervasive questions about Millennials is how they’re defined in terms of birth year. Some researchers peg the cohort’s start as early as 1978, while others believe the generation begins with children born in 1980; some say it ends as late as 2000, others in the early to mid-1990s. Sean Lyons, an expert on generational diversity, says the precise dates are less important than the shared experiences of Canadians who grew up during that general period: “There’s a lot of dovetailing that goes on from one generation to the next.… If you’re standing on a beach, where does one wave end and the next one start?”

Statistics Canada population estimates as of July 2011

Statistics Canada population estimates as of July 2011

Good Decisions Require Good Data.