In part two of a three-part feature series on affordability, author Jessica Barrett examines what living a good life now means for young people in Metro Vancouver. In part one she examines how our housing market is impacting social connections.
The news is bleak for millennials hoping to follow the standard North American narrative to success. Lifelong jobs are a thing of the past, wages have stagnated and housing costs, well, we all know how that story goes. And yet, it’s not as if anyone under 35 has been completely disenfranchised.
Many young people have re-calibrated their expectations and are building lives that are indeed rich — when measured by their own standards. We caught up with three Vancouver residents to find out how they’ve come to qualify what it means to live a good life.
Justine Yiu, 24
After spending her early 20s working at Whole Foods and contemplating making a career of it on the managerial track, Justine Yiu concluded she just couldn’t do it. The 24-year-old longed for a career that would make a difference in the world, challenge her, allow her some creativity and flexibility as well as provide a degree of financial security. That’s a tall order in today’s world, and it led her to decide on studying engineering at Langara College with a goal to transfer to the University of B.C.
But if life thus far has taught her anything, it’s that there are no guarantees.
“The world is changing drastically. It’s hard to do the five-year-plan,” she says. Even in a relatively secure field like engineering there are many unknowns. Despite putting everything else in her life on the back burner Yiu knows she might not meet the 95% average necessary to transfer to UBC. And completing her degree won’t necessarily lead to a steady job. “A degree can land you a job at Whole Foods. I’ve seen it.”
The freedom to ask bigger questions
All that instability could be enough to crush her under “the intangible weight of an existential crisis.” But Yiu has worked to put in a positive light. As difficult as living with instability is, it also affords a degree of freedom. “You’re trying to find meaning in life beyond just surviving,” she says. “It’s a luxury to be able to ask those big questions.”
That luxury has led Yiu to put travel and self-exploration at the top of her priority list, even if it has come at the expense of a longer-term plan. “There was a time when I was thinking I was going to settle down and have kids. I’ve just wiped that clean.” Instead, she looks to more immediate opportunities, like her plan this summer to travel to Germany and stopover in Toronto at a music festival, despite living on student loans.
To an outsider, it might seem like a frivolous endeavour typical of a generation maligned as entitled, but Yiu points out her thirst for adventure is about more than just wanting to have fun. It’s a response to the feeling that her generation may well be the last to be able to explore a world in the midst of unprecedented environmental, economic and social change. Rather than trying to predict an uncertain future, Yiu would rather live life by the same principles she’s learning in engineering. “It’s trial and error,” she says. “Adjust as the challenges come along.”
Jordan Smith, 30
Living in a rental house with roommates when you’re pushing 30 is often portrayed as an unfortunate circumstance — a tried and true example of how millennials have been shortchanged by an economic reality that has put home ownership increasingly out of reach.
Jordan Smith doesn’t see it that way.
For the past four years, the communications grad has been sharing a three-story row house in Vancouver’s trendy Strathcona neighbourhood with as many as five other roommates, all professionals in their late 20s or 30s. The arrangement isn’t a stopgap on the way to a more grown up life, rather, it’s a conscious choice that’s enabled Smith to enjoy a distinctly adult lifestyle in the city he loves. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
It’s not ‘what do I want to own? but how do I want to feel?‘
For Smith, shared living is consistent with his value system, one that prizes community and utility over private ownership. “The question I ask myself isn’t ‘what do I want to own?’ but ‘how do I want to feel?’”
Growing up in a family of six siblings, Smith said he learned the negotiation skills necessary to build a collective household, and the question of how it should feel is at the centre of decision-making over guidelines, rules and allocating resources. It isn’t always easy, but together the roommates reap the benefits of a lifestyle that would otherwise be out of reach. They’ve created an environment that is inclusive, secure and boasts some serious creature comforts. For example, each housemate pitched in to buy the sleek new sectional in the living room across from a flatscreen TV, and when Smith noticed individual egg cartons had overrun the fridge, he arranged for them to buy high-quality farm-fresh eggs in bulk.
While more young people are exploring the idea of collective living out of economic necessity, Smith says they may soon find it also satisfies a much deeper need.
“What people are really saying when they say ‘I want the house and I want the backyard’ is that they want security and they want to not worry about their future and they want to have some sense of community and continuity,” he says. “There are lots of ways to accomplish that.”
Clinton McDougall, 35
Friday is normally Clinton McDougall’s day with his two-year-old daughter Juniper, but running two small businesses leaves little in the way of a regular schedule.
“I’ve already had Grandma into babysit this morning so I could work and I’ll probably hire a babysitter tonight so I can do more work,” says the 35-year-old.
As an entrepreneur, there are more days like this than not. But building community-minded local businesses that will eventually offer flexibility, financial stability and a meaningful life grounded in honesty is the ultimate goal. This is a particular desire as part of a generation that views work as more than just a means to make ends meet.
“It’s changing. It’s not like you get a good paying job that gives you a pension and you work your whole life so that you can retire and a good life starts there,” McDougall says. “A lot of people are more discerning about finding work that gives them happiness, or you make a conscious decision that you’re going to find work you don’t mind doing so that you can do the things you want. There’s a break there. The really, really fortunate people find something that gives you both.”
Find another job or take a leap of faith?
McDougall arrived at that break about four years ago when the design firm he worked for began cutting his hours. The job was disappearing and he had a choice: look for another job or take a leap of faith. He started Bestie, a sausage and beer parlour in Vancouver’s Chinatown with friend and former co-worker Dane Brown, and later put the proceeds of the business into their new venture, Sunday Cider.
Bestie was a risk; its success a welcome surprise. The payoff has seen McDougall align his work with his personal values create the conditions to be able to spend more time with family and friends down the road. The businesses do need to be profitable, but McDougall isn’t out to build an empire. Rather, he sees them as a vehicle to make meaningful contributions to the community. While he hopes Bestie will become an offbeat institution in East Van, he and his partners have plans to headquarter the cider company on the Sunshine Coast where, with the help of family, McDougall and his wife have purchased a plot of land where they plan to start an apple orchard.
“We want to create a space where we can get back to some real, tangible things,” he says. “Grow our own food, make our own libations and raise our kids with a connection to nature.”