Youngest workers hit hardest by instability; older employees may postpone retirements

The COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching effects on how Canadians in different age groups view their careers and work lives.

Canada lost three million jobs in March and April because of restrictions aimed at fighting the pandemic, and the weekly work hours of another 2.5 million Canadians were cut back. With the country’s unemployment rate at 13% – the highest since 1982 – the crisis has likely shaken the confidence many workers had that their job was secure.

Younger workers could be hardest hit by this realization, said David Andolfatto, a former Simon Fraser University professor and a senior vice-president in the research division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Andolfatto said they are likely to be disproportionally laid off because they tend to be in entry-level retail and hospitality jobs and those sectors are by far the hardest hit.

Many workers in their 20s and early 30s have been vocal on social media about how precarious their standard of living is in part because of Vancouver’s high home prices. The employment disruption therefore continues to make their lives less stable and postpones the start of stable careers for many, Andolfatto said.

He added that Canadians in their early 20s are likely to be in universities, and that this disruption could cause some to rethink their majors.

“If I was in university, I might be thinking, ‘Do I really want to work in the service sector, or can I somehow move the services online?’” he said.

Workers younger than 25 who are in university will be the lucky ones, however, said leadership speaker Merge Gupta-Sunderji.

She expects most members of what she calls Generation Z to feel stuck in dead-end jobs.

“It’s hard to pay for your education that will open the door to higher-paying jobs if you can’t make rent or get groceries on the table,” she said. “Fortunately, the federal government has put several programs in place that are designed to mitigate this outcome. Plus, if they’re fortunate, they’ll have family members that could help them continue to invest in their educations.”

The sharp rise in the number of people working from home could also have long-term consequences, said Andrew Sixsmith, scientific director at AGE-WELL, Canada’s technology and aging network.

Sixsmith foresees teleconferencing technology improving, and employers allowing or even encouraging employees to work from home – something that could particularly affect parents their 30s. These workers often put careers on hold so they can be at home to care for children. If they are encouraged to work from home, they may choose to stay in the workforce, he said.

With Canadians living longer than ever, more seniors are also likely to also be cared for by younger generations, so those people working from home may also be able to take care of aging parents.

“Technology can give us flexibility, and that will come with pluses and minuses,” Sixsmith warned, adding that the blurring of home life and work life could cause some to work around the clock, leading to burnout.

Older Canadians may decide to postpone retirement if a pandemic-caused recession depletes their retirement savings, or if their goal in retiring was to enjoy lots of foreign travel, and they are now afraid to get on an airplane, said Sixsmith.

Dan Levitt agreed that seniors may stay in the workforce longer.

Levitt, the executive director at the Tabor Village seniors home, has instructed classes at several post-secondary institutions. He said that having more seniors in the workplace is a good thing because it will add more diversity and therefore will foster corporate decisions that better represent all of society.

“There still is workplace ageism – the idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he said.

He pointed to the 89-year-old Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) CEO Warren Buffett as an example of a sharp elder worker who recently showed his acuity during his firm’s annual shareholder meeting

Older workers are likely to take continuing education programs and show younger workers that the cliche of old people being past their primes is false, he said.

The downside of having more older workers in workplaces, however, is that “it creates resentment and intergenerational conflict,” Levitt said.

Older workers have often been promoted to higher-level jobs, and their decisions to postpone retirement could leave workers in their 50s, who would have been promoted, frustrated in mid-level jobs.

Then again, people in the 41-to-56 age range may be sanguine about being stuck in mid-level jobs, suggested Gupta-Sunderji.

“While this group is certainly not excited about the changes that the pandemic might cause to careers and the world of work, it is the one demographic that is handling it with, perhaps begrudging, equanimity,” she said. “This demographic has always believed that there are no guarantees, so this group will weather the storm.” •