The best thing to happen to jobless young adults in ages might be last week’s comment from Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz that unpaid work is better than no work.

The central bank chief was not at his rhetorical best in handling this subject at a news conference. He sounded like an out of touch old geezer, and he’s neither. Still, he did manage to break the unofficial embargo on people of influence talking about the problems of Generation Y.

Earth to Ottawa, and all the provincial capitals: It’s tough out there for young adults who are graduating from college or university and trying to build a career. Employers are taking advantage of their leverage over young workers by withholding permanent work and offering contract jobs or, worse, unpaid and semi-paid internships. High schools are graduating students with minimal guidance on how to best navigate the job market and parents are digging into their savings to help their 20- and even 30-something kids.

Gen Y’s problems in the work force affect the entire country’s personal finances, but the issue gets zero play with politicians and business leaders. In that context, Mr. Poloz did something helpful in a speech he made last Monday. In looking at the legacy of the global financial crisis that began more than six years ago, he mentioned young people who are out of work, underemployed or trying to improve their job prospects by extending their education. He said the Bank of Canada estimates there are around 200,000 such people. “I bet almost everyone in this room knows at least one family with adult children living in the basement,” he said.

(As an aside, can we please be done with the “basement” theme when talking about millennials moving home? This phrasing implies an infestation or otherwise unpleasant intrusion. The reality is that parents are providing shelter for older children who cannot find work that generates enough pay to cover student loan repayments, rent and other living costs. Where in the house these young adults live is irrelevant.)

After the speech, Mr. Poloz was asked in a news conference about his comment, and that’s where he suggested it’s worthwhile for young people to volunteer or work for free because it gives them experience and helps them to avoid looking like slackers. The comments were badly enough received that Finance Minister Joe Oliver tried to explain them the next day. “What we are obviously looking for are more paying jobs for youth,” Mr. Oliver said.

After years of official silence on the employment issues faced by young adults, the comments by both Mr. Poloz and Mr. Oliver represent progress. Finally, the issue has pushed its way into a political culture that has endless time for families and seniors, but never mentions young adults. Now, the question is how to keep the momentum going.

Parents of millennials, a lot of this is on you. You need to do more than commiserate with your peers about your kids while quietly raiding your savings or taking on debt to support them. If you’re the parent of an educated millennial who can’t find work despite maximum effort, talk to your member of Parliament or provincial representative. Ask them, not to solve the youth employment problem, but simply to look at ways to encourage businesses to offer full-time jobs to young people. Politicians excuse themselves for ignoring young adults on the basis that they don’t vote. Whether that’s true or not, their parents do.

Gen Y itself needs to find a voice on this. Tell older Canadians you can’t afford to buy their houses, and you may not be able to pay the taxes that fund their health care and old age benefits. Tell them, as Mr. Poloz suggested, that your employment issues are a legacy of a financial crisis that continues to warp our financial system in all kinds of ways (low interest rates, for one).

Finally, it’s time to consider a Just Say No policy toward the unpaid positions that Mr. Poloz suggested millennials accept in lieu of paid work. U.S. surveys have shown that these internships are ineffective in getting people hired full-time (paid internships are much more productive). Companies may think they’re doing good by offering unpaid internships, but what they’re really doing is valuing young workers at zero.

Government can’t solve Gen Y’s employment problems, but it can encourage companies to open up full-time jobs for young people. The personal finances of the entire nation would benefit.


Thoughts on unpaid internships

The U.S. National Association of Colleges and Employers: “Among 2013 graduates who had applied for a job, those who took part in paid internships enjoyed a distinct advantage over their peers who undertook an unpaid experience or who didn’t do an internship.” Read more online at

Forbes on the question of whether internships of all kinds help people get full-time work: “The short answer is: It depends on if you’re getting paid. Unpaid internships are unlikely to help grads-to-be get a job.” Read more:

Freelance writer Kaleigh Rogers, writing in The Globe Debate: The Unpaid Internship – Doorway to Employment or Unfair Exploitation? “… [P]erhaps the most egregious flaw with unpaid internships [is] the selection bias that inevitably occurs when you only offer opportunities to those who can afford to work for free.” Read more:

Writer-editor Andrew Lovesey, in the same Globe Debate: “I didn’t feel exploited when I returned to live with my father for a couple of months, in Ottawa, when I volunteered to work as an intern at Canadian Geographic two years ago. I felt lucky.” Read more:

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Nov. 10 2014, 7:34 PM EST
Last updated Tuesday, Nov. 11 2014, 9:10 AM EST