Why Millennials Are Fleeing Vancouver

With no housing or jobs, a generation plots revenge.

August 28, 2015

By Daniel Wood

In a city that was just voted third most liveable in the world, a generation is struggling to find a way to stay.

For Jennifer Fox, 37, life in Vancouver has not turned out as she’d hoped. Despite having three university degrees and dreams of a West Coast home and family, she finds herself caught—like thousands of her contemporaries—with none of the accoutrements of success. She lives in a no-bedroom, 380-square-foot West End shoebox and is happy if her income as a research assistant at UBC leaves her $100 extra at month’s end.

Discouraged by the few job opportunities, massive education debt, and the conviction that life is passing them by, 10,000 members of the newly coined Generation Squeeze—ages 20 to 40s—have left the city in the last five years, according to Statistics Canada. Too expensive. A career black hole. In fact, every one of Fox’s dozen closest friends has moved away.

“I feel stupid not leaving in 2010,” she admits. “I’m young and live in Vancouver: my glass is half-empty.”

This sentiment is familiar to Paul Kershaw, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. Kershaw, 40, invented the term Generation Squeeze four years ago, and has spent the time since studying the economic and cultural trends that have led many of Canada’s frustrated millennials to ask themselves: “What am I doing wrong?” His conclusion? Nothing, but 21st-century demographics and economics—and their own political apathy—have conspired against them. This is particularly true, he knows, in Vancouver. Security based on higher education, job opportunities, a good income, affordable home ownership, manageable debt, and optimism about the future—touchstones of the boomer generation—is elusive in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

The economic and demographic statistics Kershaw has gathered provide vivid comparisons between what boomers faced in 1975 and what their millennial counterparts encounter today. Adjusted for inflation, the average household 40 years ago earned $65,000 (one family member working)—virtually the same as today’s $68,000 (two members working). But the average adjusted cost of housing in Metro Vancouver in 1975 ($251,000) is over three times higher today, at $813,000.

These ratios—typically two to three times worse for today’s Squeezers—apply to amount of student debt, likelihood of still living with parents, and chances of finding work in one’s chosen field. This, despite members of Generation Squeeze having higher levels of post-secondary education and working longer hours, often at two jobs.

Trying to overturn these odds is Iain Reeve, 32, who works as a union researcher by day and a Generation Squeeze organizer by night. He doesn’t blame the boomers, who by their numbers dictated the cultural trends of the ’60s and ’70s, and still define government priorities today. For example, every year Ottawa spends up to $40,000 on each person over 65, but less than $12,000 per person under 45. To redress this imbalance, Reeve, along with Jennifer Fox and 20 or so others—some, PhD-holding baristas—formed a Vancouver chapter of the new, 8,000-member Generation Squeeze (Gensqueeze.ca) in June.

The organization is a national lobby aimed at pressuring governments to pay attention to the crisis facing today’s alienated, underemployed, over-indebted youth. Its plan is modelled on the boomers’ million-member CARP (formerly the Canadian Association of Retired Persons). When pensions or health care get discussed, CARP by the tens of thousands speaks out and writes to MPs. But until now, no one has spoken for the often-cynical millennials.

The goal is to unite and amplify the voices of the Squeezed around economic and political issues that affect them: better terms on student loans; more affordable buying and renting of houses; a national child care program; job-creation investments in innovative fields that don’t contribute to global warming.

Reeve, for one, is optimistic about this new chapter. “We need to mobilize. We need to get political. That’s what the boomers did.”

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