I was putting the finishing touches on my feature for this month’s issue of Atlantic Business when a news alert crossed my screen. The Governor of the Bank of Canada, Stephen Poloz, was testifying before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, apparently offering words of wisdom and encouragement to Canada’s unemployed young people.
It so happened one of the young people in my story (about the union drive to organize workers at Halifax’s Just Us! Café) was a twentysomething barista named Charlie Huntley, a recent Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion grad who’d spent much of the past three years unemployed, under-employed or barely-above-minimum waged.
What sage words would Mr. Poloz give to Charlie Huntley?
“When I bump into youths, they ask me, you know, ‘What am I supposed to do in a situation?’” Poloz blithely explained to reporters after his testimony. “I say, ‘Look, having something unpaid on your CV is very worth it because that’s the one thing you can do to counteract this scarring effect. Get some real-life experience even though you’re discouraged, even if it’s for free.’”
That is the best advice the Governor of the Bank of Canada, salary circa $435,000 a year, has to offer Canada’s youth, 13.5 per cent of whom are officially unemployed, officially twice the national average but, unofficially, almost certainly more than that?
Poloz is not alone, of course, in his stunningly tone deaf response to the realities of contemporary lives that do not mirror his own privileged variants.
Last year, to give but one related example, Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to U.S. president George W. Bush, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal headlined: “How to Fight Income Inequality: Get Married.” Forget that silly idea of “increasing taxes on the better off and transferring the money to the poor,” Fleischer wrote. “A better and more compassionate policy to fight income inequality would be helping the poor realize that the most important decision they can make is to stay in school, get married and have children — in that order.”
Right, Ari. Just tell poor women living in poverty they should hold out for the ring. And they should marry well, don’t forget. That will help.
Back to Poloz. Back to Charlie.
During his degree, Charlie did do an internship, a four-month placement helping develop support materials for caregivers working with that growing cohort of seniors who identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.) Charlie wasn’t paid for that internship, of course; it was considered part of his education, so Charlie paid. But even that legitimate educational work experience didn’t lead to a job in the health promotion field.
Unpaid, non-education-related internships have become even more controversial for all sorts of good reasons, starting with this question: who can afford to do them?
Charlie couldn’t. Charlie came from a working class family of just-getting-by folks who hadn’t been in any position to contribute to Charlie’s post-secondary education, which is why Charlie’s degree came with a $47,000 bill at the end.
So Charlie’s family certainly couldn’t provide comfy room and board while Charlie continued to work for free, likely for a government department or non-profit whose funding had been slashed to help pay for an unending series of corporate tax cuts that have, in the end, done nothing to create jobs for Canada’s jobless youth (perhaps because many of those same corporations are so busy taking advantage of “free” interns).
Ironically, Charlie earned a degree in what should be an in-demand, career-oriented science discipline. Promoting good health is far more cost effective than treating the results or poor health.
But like many jobs that matter, it isn’t valued.
As Isabelle Duchaine, a Master of Global Governance candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, put it in a recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail. “I would make more money flipping burgers than I would interning for the United Nations.”
Perhaps it is time for Mr. Poloz to stop giving beside-the-point advice to Canada’s young people, to stop blathering abstractedly and antiseptically about the “scarring” effects of long-term joblessness among the young, and start trying to figure out how to create an economy where young people are valuable — and valued.