Few jobs are uniformly good. But some are unrelentingly awful and you remember them as you would a bully’s fist.
I remember the wretched May of 1981 when, at the untempered age of 20, I sold encyclopedias door-to-door in poor trailer parks that ringed the outskirts of Dartmouth, N.S.
I remember the unemployed residents, drunk and foul in their singlets. I remember the doorless freezers, rusting in gravel drives. I remember the feral dogs chained (if I was lucky) to iron bars driven into cracked and broken lawns.
I remember the infamous summer of 1982 when the only jobs recession-ravaged Halifax offered a young, university-bound father of an infant daughter were dishwasher at a greasy spoon on the failing thoroughfare of Spring Garden Road and box boy at a woman’s garment store in a crumbling strip mall in the city’s dying west end.
I remember the middle-aged matrons who managed these establishments reeking of unrequited desire and cheap perfume. I remember the weekly pay packets, rattling with just enough loose change to pay for the bus rides home and 36 bucks (again, if I were lucky) worth of groceries.
All of which flooded back to me the other week when, while researching a piece on youth employment in Canada and the United States, I happened upon an item penned by my favourite parodic organ of news and opinion, The Onion, in the fine old days of 2002, before Donald Trump.
“In a keynote address at the National Economic Summit, President Bush issued a bold challenge to the nation’s business leaders Monday, calling on them to create 500,000 shitty jobs by next year,” the squib began. “‘So long as unemployment continues to rise, this recession will continue, as well,’ said Bush, speaking before nearly 400 of the nation’s top CEOs. ‘That is why I am turning to you to create thousands of new shit jobs. Whether it is a night-shift toilet-cleaning position at an airport or a fry-cook post … it’s up to you to help provide every hard-working American with a demeaning, go-nowhere job.’”
To be any good at all, satire demands verisimilitude, and this is good satire. More’s the pity, for in the intervening years, conditions have, if anything, worsened, especially for young people.
“Two in every five people employed in the U.K. are in ‘bad jobs’ – work which doesn’t provide a secure, living wage. This figure includes more than half of all self-employed people who are failing to earn a decent living, according to new research by the New Economics Foundation,” reports researcher Hanna Wheatley at the New Economics Foundation.
Oh, the jobs are there. Sort of.
According to RBC economist Nathan Janzen, writing in a bank report last year, “The unemployment rate is hovering at four-decade lows in Canada, at around 5.8 per cent overall. Young Canadians haven’t missed out entirely on the party. Youth joblessness has averaged 11 per cent so far in 2018. That is the best start to a year since 1989 and compares with a peak of more than 16 per cent at the height of the last recession.”
Moreover, he notes, for young folks “technological change has long disrupted the labour market. … (Still), a focus on developing transferrable skills may improve outcomes both now and in the future. That will require some new approaches: better integration between schools, businesses, and governments is almost certainly part of the answer.”
Of course, what we do about the gathering truly-bad-job phenomenon is anybody’s guess. Canadian writer and filmmaker Jim Munroe dissected it to marvellous effect in his 2012 mockumentary Ghosts With Shit Jobs. In it, he chronicles the daily working lives of a band of young professionals as they struggle to survive a dystopian future. His cast of characters assembled android babies for affluent baby boomers.
It’s damn funny stuff until you realize you haven’t finished ghostwriting product tags for some guy who pays pennies for a buck’s worth of work.
Hell, even bullies gotta eat.
Alec Bruce is a Halifax journalist who writes about business, politics and social issues.