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Milestones of the new economy: One T4 slip at tax time

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Photo: kate hiscock/flickr

Last year marked a milestone for me: 2014 was the first year since high school where I had only one income source to include in my tax return and I continued working for the same employer the following year.

That's at least 25 T4 slips and 17 employers over 14 years of tax returns, folks.

This is what it's like to be a millennial working in a precarious labour market.

Over the years, I've filed T4 slips from all sorts of workplaces: restaurants, greenhouse farms, a bank, teaching assistantships, research assistantships, part-time contracts that turned into full-time contracts, and short-term contracts that lasted only a couple of months.

And, just like many millennials hoping to get a solid foothold into the labour market, I've been willing to do whatever it takes.

I've worked as a waitress and a short-order cook.

I've picked vegetables in the 40-degree heat of a greenhouse.

I've sold flowers (but the bloom quickly fell off the rose and I left that job).

I've painted a house, a garage and even the kitchen of a family friend.

I've taken up residence in the basement of a number of family members' homes.

And when paying gigs in my chosen field were nowhere to be found, I offered up my expertise as a volunteer in order to gain experience.

Research shows that I am not alone in this experience.

As my generation came into adulthood, work in Ontario had become more precarious and unpredictable than it was for our parents. We're the most educated generation ever, but many of us have been graduating into jobs that don't provide enough pay, hours, benefits, or permanency to make ends meet, let alone sustain stability in our lives.

And it's getting worse. Since I came of working age in 2000, inflation-adjusted median weekly earnings in Ontario have increased by less than one per cent -- for a total increase of $4.94 per week; the share of workers working in minimum-wage jobs has almost doubled; temporary work increased by 20 per cent; and involuntary part-time work is at its second highest level since Statistics Canada started keeping records in 1997 (it reached its peak in 2010).

Life on an unsteady path.

Over my 13-year job search I've heard it all. I was a boomerang kid. Was I experiencing a failure to launch? People wondered why I was so afraid of "committing to adulthood" and where I had developed my propensity for "flightiness."

And those are just the things that people have said to my face.

The truth is I moved from job to job because there was always the possibility of real stability in the next role; maybe even slightly higher pay or the opportunity to form a healthier work-life balance.  I want more from my work than just a paycheque.

The public narrative for millennials is that we are entitled, lazy and out of touch with reality; that we'll ask you for a raise just for showing up to work; that we have no loyalty and will leave our workplace at the drop of a hat if something better comes around.

As a result, and I'm ashamed to admit this, I prefer to identify as Generation X -- even though technically I was born one year after the first Canadian millennials arrived on the scene. Let me reiterate that point: public discourse has vilified my generation to such an extent that I am embarrassed to admit that I am one of them.

And I've found I'm not the only millennial to try to distance myself from our own generation. Some of the luckier among us seem to believe that they're the exception to the rule -- that the rest of us would be better off if we simply followed their example and worked harder. The problem is this thinking puts the focus back on the failures of the individual and abdicates society of its responsibility to address systemic issues.

Certainly individuals have a responsibility to do their best in the circumstances they are given, but that does not preclude the fact that the parameters of work have changed.

All job searchers, regardless of their age and experience, ­have two things in common:

  1. They are facing a post-2000 labour market that offers lower-quality, less stable, more precarious work than the previous generation faced;
  2. The quality of the public services that Ontarians rely on to mitigate precarity, improve our quality of life, and level the playing field has eroded over that time period as well.

Both of these issues mean that getting to a place of relative stability ­-- where we can make ends meet today and trust that we'll be employed a year from now, so that renting an apartment on one's own or buying a car that will take 5-7 years to pay for doesn't seem like such a risky move -- is out of reach for many.

It took a while for me to get to a point in my working life where I've found a sense of stability for the long term. I don't have that car anymore, but I am able to afford the rent these days. For me, last year's T4 slip is a symbol of the stability that I wish for all Canadians.

Kaylie Tiessen is an economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ontario Office. Follow her on Twitter: @KaylieTiessen

Photo: kate hiscock/flickr

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