Generation What Next?

Youth, work and the grey area in-between

The image most Canadians have of rural Atlantic Canada is the stuff of postcards. Wide open spaces punctuated with brightly coloured wooden structures, and cliffs overlooking stunning ocean vistas. A tourist’s dream, for sure. But within that perfect scenery lies a deep and immediate societal challenge that residents are trying to work out.

An aging population, coupled with a decline in the kinds of economic investment and industry that dominated in the 20th century, has left decaying infrastructure and concern for the economic future of the region. The solution is clear: stimulate economic growth by exploiting natural resources, boosting exports and attracting foreign investment. Or is it?

One Atlantic Canada-based, SSHRC-funded researcher is asking whether “de-growth” might be the way forward for the region—scaling back, producing and consuming less, work-sharing and keeping things local, practices many in the region have already embraced.

Karen Foster is an associate professor at Dalhousie University. She is also Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada. She thinks the environmental impact of accelerating industrial growth in the region has the potential to negate most benefits. So, she is examining case studies and regional surveys to see if a balance between long-term environmental sustainability and revitalizing Atlantic Canada can be found.

One key factor Foster is studying is whether people’s relationships to working, earning and consuming are generational.

“I was struck by this question watching two fishermen, a 50-something father and his 20-something son, walk into a café in a rural town,” recounts Foster.

“The father stumbled through an order of a drip coffee and the son confidently ordered something fancy like a macchiato. It got me thinking about the intergenerational dynamics around tastes—in food, music, politics—and how they might shape the trajectories of rural adolescents and their parents; where young people live, work, what they do for a living, and whether their parents encourage or discourage a move away.”

In fact, a phenomenon that seemed to peak about 10 years ago was that of young Atlantic Canadians venturing west, either to find work in cities like Toronto or in the oil fields of Alberta, only to miss the social cohesion they felt back home, with many eventually returning to Atlantic Canada.

Foster says this depiction is accurate, adding that “out-migrating” is still happening. And, she says, “Until we have economic development that truly begins from the needs and capacities of local communities, I think we’re going to see our young people pushed and pulled by economic forces largely beyond our control.”

One such force is precarious work. While it has been on the rise for everyone since the global recession of 2008, it has especially hit young people (those under 24) the hardest. Precarious work refers to jobs that are part-time or short-term (and therefore insecure), with no benefits and offer no real hope of becoming a sustainable career. Foster has been studying this trend and sees it continuing.

“The ‘job for life’ is eroding, and people’s confidence in it is fading even faster,” she says.

With so many differing economic opinions being lobbed about, is the small-town wisdom of moderation and de-growth the answer policy-makers and business leaders—far away in big cities—have been looking for all along?

Foster’s study aims to find out.