Workin’ hard to break even


In the last of a three-part feature series on affordability, author Jessica Barrett examines the difference in the amount of job and life security that young people in Metro Vancouver have compared to their parents (read part 1 and part 2.)

At 24, Becca Clarkson has many of the trappings of an adult life. She’s got a full-time job doing event planning and communications with a non-profit, a boyfriend, a cat, and a lease on a shared home with two roommates. But before moving in this spring, she landed back at home with her parents for a few months.

The family home is no longer the sprawling suburban house in North Vancouver where Becca grew up, but a 1,100 square-foot condo in the Olympic Village, which parents Darcy and Angela bought two years ago when they started phasing into retirement. But downsizing hasn’t stopped Becca, like many young people, from relying on the safety net of her parents to catch her between jobs, educational pursuits, travelling and the general business of figuring out life.

“This has always been my home base,” she says. “It’s where I come back from flailing.”

Boomerang kids

Boomerang kids—adult children who leave and come back—have become commonplace across much of the western world in the last few decades. But in a city like Vancouver where the cost of living puts particular pressure on young people, reliance on parents often doesn’t stop once kids are out of the house for good. In fact, for the lucky ones, parental support is precisely what makes leaving the nest possible. And even those fortunate enough to have financial support from family are increasingly finding their futures will look very different from the lifestyle their parents enjoyed.

The rising costs of housing, childcare and education combined with stagnant wage growth mean that these two generations, both raised under the idea that with a little hard work and perseverance you should be able to do better than your parents, are locked in an odd dichotomy. What the older group has been able to achieve is unlikely to be repeated by the younger.

The Clarkson clan is the first to admit they’ve enjoyed considerable privilege. Hailing from Dauphin, Manitoba, Darcy and Angela were high school sweethearts who grew up in big families with little wealth and worked hard to build a life that unfolded to the ideal narrative of the Canadian Dream.

Thriving on a single income?

They left town as a young couple and followed Darcy’s career in accounting and finance to Alberta, Minnesota and eventually North Vancouver. They bought their first house on credit and moved up the property ladder as Darcy moved from the front lines to the executive level of the organizations where he worked, with, of course, a commensurate increase in pay. Along the way they had their two daughters, Missy, 36 and Becca. Angela was at home for much of their childhoods. On a single income they were able to give the girls dance, singing and acting lessons, provide them with debt-free university education, and, for Missy, help with the down payment on her first home. They plan to do the same for Becca when the time comes.

While the elder Clarkson’s say they are cognizant of the affordability issues plaguing young people in Vancouver —for instance Missy’s 800-square-foot Vancouver condo cost the same as their sprawling North Vancouver house did nearly 20 years ago —they’re not worried about the girls. “We’re pretty relaxed about it all because of where they are now,” Darcy says.


Relaxed parents & anxious kids

The same cannot be said for the two daughters. While Missy and Becca will almost certainly never have to worry about going homeless or hungry, there’s a constant anxiety that, not only are they unlikely to repeat their parents’ wealth gains, they won’t be offering the same standard of living they enjoyed to their own children. Even with the leg up in life, their financial future looks murky.

“My biggest stress just comes from, like, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to offer my family the spoiled life that I had,” says Becca. “I don’t see that as being feasible, and I don’t think that means I will have a less-than-great life, it’s just a different way of evaluating it.”

Starting a family later in life

For older sister Missy, the gulf between her own childhood and that of future offspring is an even more pressing concern. A hairstylist and owner of a successful salon, Missy and her wife, Amelia, are expecting their first child, conceived through the use of a fertility clinic—an expense that meant delaying starting a family and was only possible because of a windfall. Their situation as a same-sex couple may be somewhat unique, but they’re certainly not alone in reorienting expectations to align with economic realities. All around them, peers are delaying children for financial reasons, resolving to raise their kids in condos and planning to rely on daycare so both parents can work. The example set by their parents are pretty much moot. “Definitely starting things later, there’s not as much of a life map,” Missy says.

That doesn’t just pertain to family planning. Unlike Darcy and Angela, baby boomers who came of age in a time of unprecedented economic growth, the younger Clarkson’s have found today’s job market has severed the connection between hard work and wealth in many industries. Many children of the boomers, who were raised to follow their dreams, have already been disappointed by dwindling job prospects in the arts, media, education, and even law. Now, they’re increasingly finding the less inspiring fallback don’t necessarily offer financial security, either. “The work isn’t necessarily there so you have to make it for yourself,” says Missy. “That’s what I did.”

Working hard to break even

Missy counts herself lucky to have found her passion in hair styling, but even with a waiting list of clients, she’s far from certain everything will work out in the end. “I did some depressing math the other day and basically I’m breaking even,” she says, noting the physical nature of the job will eventually take a toll on her body long before she’s ready to stop working. And with her partner in an industry that is unlikely to see her in her salary increase without significant retraining, following in the older Clarkson’s footsteps and entering a retirement of luxury condos, timeshares in Palm Springs and, most importantly, the ability to help loved ones achieve their goals, seems impossible.

“For my dad it was basically start in the mail-room and end up as CEO, and that’s something that actually happened and now he’s doing really well,” says Missy. “But there’s no twenty-five year job with a pension anymore. You’re working for work, there’s no end.”

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