By Karen Foster

A sociologist argues that if we define this as social problem rather than an individual issue, it may be time for career practitioners to advocate for the preservation of the career itself

In work, wrote the late journalist Studs Terkel, we search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” The meaning we seek, the quality and quantity of recognition and cash, and the particulars that will astonish and enliven us vary over the course of our lives. Young people today bring a diverse but distinct set of expectations about work into workplaces and labour markets that are much different from those of the distant and recent past. And, as Terkel’s words remind us, peoples’ early experiences of work (like all experiences of work) have financial, professional, cultural, biographical and social implications.

Youth and (under)employment

One key social issue for young workers today is underemployment. There are increasing numbers of young people who find themselves in jobs that are, low-wage, non-unionized, temporary and/or part-time positions that rarely offer additional benefits. Many feel they are often overqualified (in terms of education/credentials, training and experience).

A number of trends have coalesced to create this situation. First, there is an overall tendency among employers to rely on short-term, flexible and part-time contracts to reduce their labour costs. Young workers, or anyone new to the labour market, bear the brunt of this change. The most obvious illustration of this is wherever employers have introduced “two-tier” structures, where new hires are denied the wages, benefits and security their existing workforce enjoys. (It is worth noting that some labour unions have refused to accept two-tier proposals.) This trend is confirmed by statistical data that shows the rising incidence of part-time, temporary and flexible employment across the country, and the disproportionate representation of young workers in such jobs.

Second, Canadians are becoming increasingly more well-educated, which means there is more competition for jobs that require post-secondary degrees and diplomas. Interestingly, although there is supposedly increased demand for “highly skilled” workers – which should, in theory, mean more jobs for highly qualified graduates, (and which may have contributed to the normalization of post-secondary enrolment) – there is some evidence to suggest that employers are simply beginning to seek post-secondary credentials for jobs that used to require high school or less.

These trends, and the employment and livelihood challenges they have helped create for young workers, have impacts that extend far beyond a person’s first job. Numerous studies have pointed to the “scarring” effects of unemployment and underemployment. In short, they show that un- and underemployment early in life lead to lower wages and slower career advancement.

But these are just the “daily bread” aspects of work. My research has explored the “daily meaning” aspects as well. This research suggests that young people who face diminished employment prospects (specifically low-wage, temporary and part-time jobs that nevertheless demand a great deal of training, time and energy) become disenchanted with work and do not believe there is a strong connection between work effort and reward. They find it harder to build lasting relationships with colleagues, and end up with fewer people to lean on for mentorship, support and friendship. They do not see a commitment from their employer (in the form of permanent contracts, predictable hours, opportunities for advancement and non-salary benefits) and they do not feel obligated to commit, faithfully, in return (in the form of long hours or job tenure). They do not see work as an important source of identity, at least not to the extent that their elders did. These shifts toward what I have called “disaffected” relationships with paid employment can fundamentally change our social fabric, and they ought to concern everyone – career practitioners included.

More than a generational problem

For sociologists like me, the macro-level causes and consequences of youth underemployment make it a “social problem” or a “public issue” rather than an “individual problem” or “private trouble.” In the words of one of our discipline’s most influential thinkers, C. Wright Mills:

“When, in a city of 100,000, only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we properly look to the character of the man, his skills, and his immediate opportunities. But when in a nation of 50 million employees, 15 million men are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find its solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed.”

If we define youth underemployment as a social problem rather than a private trouble, we can also sketch a distinct role for career practitioners. On the one hand, today’s young workers should be made aware of the long-term risks of underemployment and the degrees and credentials that could help save them. To some extent, they will have no choice but to adapt in order to survive, and will need help navigating the possibilities and contemplating the compromises that will work best for them.

In my research, I found that many young workers benefitted, at least in the short term, by leaving the fields they studied, to pursue unrelated, but stable jobs, or by trading income for autonomy and meaning in self-employment. Career practitioners can help people see options, like these, that they might not otherwise notice. But on the other hand, career practitioners understand the societal importance of careers – jobs that have advancement opportunities, some degree of security, prestige and meaning. It may be time for career practitioners to advocate, publicly, for the preservation of the career itself.


Karen Foster is a sociologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. She studies economic issues from a sociological perspective: from the history of productivity as a statistic and a concept, to generational divisions at work, to young peoples’ experiences on social assistance. Her current research focuses on these kinds of topics as they play out in rural Atlantic Canada.


Foster, Karen (2013). Generation, Discourse and Social Change. New York: Routledge.

Foster, Karen (2012). ‘Youth Employment and Un(der)employment in Canada’. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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Gregg, Paul and Tominey, Emma (2004) ‘The Wage Scar from Youth Unemployment’, CMPO Working Paper Series No. 04/097.

Li, Chris, Ginette Gervais and Aurélie Duval (2006) ‘The Dynamics of Overqualification: Canada’s Underemployed University Graduates’.

McFarland, Janet (2012). ‘Two-tier wage scales on the increase in Canada.’ Globe and Mail, September 24th. Accessed August 3, 2017 at

Mills, C. Wright (2000). The Sociological Imagination (Fortieth Anniversary Edition). New York: Oxford University Press, p. 9 (emphasis added).

Mroz, Thomas and Savage, Timothy (2006). ‘The Long-Term Effects of Youth Unemployment’, The Journal of Human Resources 41(2).

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Stark, E., & Poppler, P. (2016). What are they thinking? Employers requiring college degrees for low-skilled jobs. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 81(3), 17-27.

Terkel, Studs (1972). Working: People Talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. New York: Random House, p. xi.