L: McGill law student Damion Stodola and Arabella Bowen of Concordia discussed questions of identity and activism among young Quebecers
R: Head of Quebec Studies Alain Gagnon and École Polytechnique professor Pierre Milot


Young people hampered by unemployment, political divisions

SYLVAIN COMEAU | Are the kids still all right?

McGill's Programme d'études sur le Québec asked some experts at a special conference last week-end. The conference featured student speakers on the subject "Quebec Youth and the Challenges of the 21st century."

The subject of day one was the job market. Third-year McGill economics student Frédéric Mérand presented a pessimistic view of the grim labour market facing today's students and recent graduates, and decried the yawning intergenerational gap in job opportunities and wealth.

"There's not much debate on intergenerational inequality. Most of the focus remains on class, ethnicity or gender," said Mérand. "The assumption is that the old economic life cycle still holds. In that cycle, people start in their 20s to accumulate wealth through steady employment, and gradually become as well off as the previous generation. The socio-economic distance between young and old is thus brought down to zero. It doesn't work that way anymore."

That cycle was typically enjoyed by baby boomers, who subsequently spoiled it for their successors, Mérand said.

"I have nothing against baby boomers, but they don't seem overly concerned with the economic future they left for their children and grandchildren...and their votes endorsed the government's neoliberal policies, which are responsible for the economic situation of young people."

Those policies include a retreat by the government from social programs, the free trade agreement and "union bashing" decisions such as a refusal to draft anti-scab legislation. According to Mérand, when corporations started to face drops in productivity because of labour unrest, coupled with lowered competitiveness because of imports, they redressed the situation on the backs of workers.

"Companies compensated for dropping productivity by dividing workers against each other, for example by threatening to set up shop in Mexico, or elsewhere. Even if it was an empty threat, it worked -- especially in an era of high unemployment."

The result is an imbalance of power between unions and corporations. That phenomenon, Mérand argued, coupled with reduced social services, means that young workers are not protected by the institutions which worked for the previous generation.

The proof is in the numbers, according to Mérand. He cites alarming StatsCan figures on earnings and unemployment.

"Between 1981 and 1988, real hourly remuneration for young men in Canada decreased by 15% for those aged between 17 and 24, and 3% for those aged between 25 and 34. Meanwhile, real wages were increasing for older workers.

"In 1994, unemployment was 17.1% for men 20 to 24 years old, 20.9% for those between 15 and 19, while it was centred around 9.5% for males between 25 and 54 years old."

While he acknowledged that part of this trend is due to shifts toward highly skilled labour at the expense of low- and semi-skilled labour, "this is not all due to technological changes; it is also a question of economic injustice."

Professors were asked to comment on the students' presentations throughout the conference. François Ricard, a McGill professor of French Language and Literature, endorsed Mérand's jaundiced view.

"(Mérand's talk) confirms our own observations, intuitions, perceptions and fears. It paints a portrait of a victimized group, victimized by its age, at once marginalized and deprived, on the socioeconomic scale...This is a devastated world, a world in which young people don't have a place."

During a question and answer period, Mérand was asked whether the young can fight these trends. He replied that there is always hope, but that today "young people are not a strong social and political force. They are too polarized."

Presentations on day two, which examined questions of identity and political activism in Quebec, added credence to that observation. First-year law student Damion Stodola said that, despite growing levels of bilingualism among young anglophones, they continue to leave Quebec.

"Anglophones are becoming increasingly bilingual: 68% in 1995, compared to 48% in 1971. Despite this, Alliance Quebec predicts, based on its polls, that 70% of anglophones intend to leave the province. Of those who leave, most are going not for political or linguistic reasons, but for work-related reasons."

Of those who stay, bilingualism does not translate into harmony with francophones.

"How do you explain the linguistic integration but lack of political integration of anglophones? The French language is not tied to Quebec culture for anglophones; it is more an indispensable tool for working in Quebec."

Concordia master's student in communications Arabella Bowen looked at the sharp contrast between the activism of Quebec francophones and anglophones.

"The youth wing at the PQ is composed of approximately 6,800 members, while there are between five and nine members in the youth wing of Alliance Quebec. Anglophones tend to be politically active as students, not as citizens, for example when fighting tuition fee hikes."

Bowen believes that social change will be a long time coming if anglophones cannot become as socially and politically involved as their francophone counterparts.

"If young anglos integrate more into Quebec civil society, it could have implications on the framework in which this community has operated at the political level, and may even lead to the creation of new social and political movements. However, this will not occur until anglophones are given, or construct of their own volition, a social project on which to work."