Canada was a nation founded on its natural expanse: a sprawling wilderness of massive forests, mountains, and endless prairies. Historically, the Canadian economy was based around our natural resources, but after the Second World War ended in 1945, many Canadians returned to a completely different country. Manufacturing had taken hold in many cities as per the demands of the war, and the economy was rapidly shifting in a new direction. The rapid expansion of the manufacturing sector changed the layout of the residential landscape of the country. The world was stable, trade started occurring on a global scale, and all of those GIs turned skilled workers needed a place to settle with their families. Suburbia was born.
The invention of the automobile was the key driving force behind urban sprawl and the development of the suburb in post World War II North America. Before technology existed to transport humans quickly and safely over long distances, humans living in urban areas had to inhabit locations relatively close to their job and local amenities. This limited the size of house you could inhabit, as urban areas are very concentrated and densely populated.
The post World War II economic boom signalled the advent of the suburb, as returning war veterans shared a philosophy of settling down with a family outside of the city, and upon returning home from the war, they now had the money do put that dream in motion. Technology had rapidly advanced during the war, so construction machinery was advanced enough to undertake this task of providing houses for the millions returning home. The governments of Canada and the United States recognized this, and “The American Dream” became a mainstay in North American culture. This signalled the advent of the Baby Boomer generation.
With the jump in technology, cars also became more affordable. Before the United States entered World War II, annual automobile production barely surpassed one million passenger cars. During the war, no automobiles were produced because factory outputs were switched to producing vehicles for the war effort. After the war, automobile production resumed and more than doubled in volume, and continued to rapidly increase into the 1950s. Companies such as Ford and Chevrolet reported record annual production numbers exceeding one million vehicles each. With more cars being sold, this meant that the suburbs became accessible for more people, as the distance outside the city was no longer a factor against owning a house there.
The University Dream
With the world in relative homeostasis and the economy evolving, higher education became a more important pursuit for many young people to contribute to the quickly changing needs of the world. Potential students’ close proximity to schools combined with their parents’ level of income made university a viable option for those who desired to go. The economy was changing; more young people to be educated leaders of tomorrow to secure the economical future of their nation. As a result of the baby boomers’ higher level of education, a much higher percentage of these individuals were able to secure high-paying jobs and stable careers.
The secret to success was evident: study hard, go to university, land a high-paying job because of your degree, and live the American Dream. Unfortunately, the secret got out. The jobs were lucrative, housing prices were still reasonable, and now everyone wanted their kids to have the same successful life. A demand for higher education was born.
In 1980, there were 550,000 undergraduate students in Canada, when only about 10% of the country possessed an undergraduate degree, which equated to just under 2.5 million people. Tuition was also a very affordable $600 (in 2005 dollars). In 1980, the average Canadian per capita income was around $23,000, so tuition cost represented 2.7% of the average Canadian’s income. By 2010, almost 1 million undergraduate students existed in Canada, and 6.8 million Canadians now possessed university degrees. Tuition has soared to a national average of $5,100, while per capita income has only risen to $36,000, which means now tuition is roughly 14% of the average Canadian’s income.
In 1980, minimum wage was $3/hr, but it rose to $3.50 by October, 1981. A student working 40 hours a week in the summer could expect to earn $2240 before taxes, which is almost 4 times the price of tuition. A student working today in Ontario will earn at least $11/hr, which equates to just a shade over $7,000 before taxes, which won’t even cover the average tuition cost of $7,259. Despite this troubling situation, university enrolment has not been affected by rising tuition costs, and universities are constantly expanding their breadth of programs to increase enrolment numbers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, universities were provided with excellent funding from both the federal and provincial governments. Tuition fees remained low because research and faculty salaries were paid for using the government-provided money. When public funding was pulled, the burden was placed on the public to make up the difference. Tuition went up, but demand was also increasing at around the same time because the promise of a lucrative career was also getting know to the majority of the public. New universities opened, programs expanded, and entire new faculties were added to many universities. What was once a streamlined elite became a turbulent, diluted mess as more spaces opened in universities than the economy demanded their graduates.
In order to keep pace with the rapid expansion of their programs and the further cuts from the government, tuition fees continued to climb, far out-pacing the rate of inflation, but this did not deter bright-eyed youngsters from applying. The idea that a university degree was a golden ticket to living the good life was still engrained in the minds of high school students. Entrance averages to universities soared to newfound heights to help schools discriminate against the throngs of applications each year. High school grades became grossly inflated to ensure that the maximum amount of students were funnelled into the university system. In the 1980s, 20 percent of all students were on the honour roll, but today that number has risen to over 60 percent, and ten percent of all high school students today are graduating with an A+ average. Unfortunately, mental health problems are at an all-time high, and many students are finding it difficult to cope with failure when success is all they’ve known.
Universities are doing an excellent job at selling the perceived benefits of getting a degree, and high schools are doing everything in their part to ensure that students have a shot at achieving their dreams. Status is a powerful motivator in our society, and the notion that a university degree can provide that is primarily the reason why so many students are choosing to go that route. In the past, most respectable positions in society did not require a university degree, but the dramatic shift in dominant industry from primary/secondary to tertiary-based jobs changed that. When combined with the hype created by boomers, attending university changed that perception.
The Fallacy of Boomer Metrics
The one confounding mindset that is harming many young people today is the fact that we are basing our metrics for success on those of our parents. Most of our parents raised us to do well in school, get into a good university, and emerge with a piece of a paper and a job. The reality is, this worked 30-40 years ago, but the secret of university got out and the economy rapidly shifted gears, so this metric is outdated as the typewriters our parents used to write essays in school.
It’s the same reason that so many young people are going into so much debt. Our parents bought a car during high school/university because they were cheap, insurance wasn’t a scam, and gas could be purchased for pocket change. A mortgage on a house could be paid off within ten years; now most Canadians are lucky to pay theirs off in thirty. Today, a record number of Canadians are in debt either from school, car payments, their mortgage, or other major purchases, and they are all heavily rooted in Boomer Metrics.
If you talk to your parents about renting a place versus buying, you’ll likely get laughed at. Back in the Boomers’ heyday, renting was seen as a lower status lifestyle and a relatively poor investment. Buying a house was the way to go, since real estate will always be economically en vogue. Thankfully many young people are waking up. Condos, whether the occupant is renting or owning, are more popular than ever in Canada, with Toronto currently holding the title for the most active cranes in the world. People are sick of urban sprawl, and realize that you don’t need a large home to assert your place in the world.
Combined with the move to condos and other high rises, the notion of car ownership is also decreasing among young people in urban areas. Young North Americans are living closer to work, so why bother owning a vehicle that will just collect dust and cost you money? Many cities are becoming more cyclist friendly, and public transit is continually evolving, although Canada has a long way to go.
Despite the fact that two of three major Boomer Metrics are slowly turning over, the one that remains steadfast is that of a university education. Enrolment has not shown signs of slowing, and until young North Americans understand that a university degree is not some golden ticket for life, it will only continue to increase.
When our parents went to school, any degree had the potential to net you a job. Today, the majority of degrees can not promise that. If you critically examine what is going on in the world, you’ll discover a few things:
1) Technology is the one thing that will never stop developing; it is our ability to invent and use tools that makes us human
2) We will never stop building things; humans are creative, expansive species
3) We will need ways to sustain ourselves and keep ourselves alive, whether it be food, health care, or medicine.
4) We need energy to power our world
5) We will always pay taxes
If you look at what degrees are the most employable, you’ll find that the jobs that coincide with the points listed above fall into that category. Millions of students complain about being “underemployed”, but the term underemployment is a myth in itself. We are basing the notion of underemployment on outdated Boomer Metrics. The fact is, many university students were sold a false promise and are just now resenting it. We are entitled to nothing, as our sense of entitlement is based on our parents’ outdated advice. Despite this, a university education will continue to be seen as the only option for some students because of the motivation of status.
What Millennials need to let go of is basing their lives around how their parents grew up. The world has undergone such a dramatic shift that it is foolish to think that we can live like they did. Young Canadians are taking on more debt than their parents in an effort to live (or appear to live) a successful life. Unfortunately, those of us who went to university were raised under enormous pressure to succeed in life. It started with our university applications in high school, and it will continue as long as we keep basing our success on how our parents’ generation defines it. What our parents may have neglected to tell us is that university is more than just a bunch of boring classes and a piece of paper. In order to get the most out of your degree, think about what university actually taught you, and perhaps you’ll find the answer.
“The aim of education is not to fill a bucket; but to ignite a fire. “