Losing Yukon’s youth

It’s high school graduation time. Even if you didn’t get invited to make the inspirational grad speech at your old high school, you should still prepare a few words of wisdom for the next generation. Teenagers love to get career and life advice from adults, so don’t hesitate to share your life experience next time you spot a future leader in a restaurant, motor vehicles lineup or even at the home dinner table.

I’ve heard lots of advice given, and sometimes received, over the years. My mother’s grad class in Whitehorse had a dozen girls but only one boy, apparently since all the guys quit school for lucrative jobs during the post-war boom. “That new Alcan Highway is going to be huge, so you should quit school and get a job driving a truck” was probably pretty good advice as the highway opened up big new economic opportunities and self-driving mining trucks were still the stuff of science fiction.

The next generation heard things like, “Move to Barrow, Alaska. The Alaska Highway pipeline is going to be huge!” The career fair I attended about opportunities on drilling rigs in the Beaufort Sea falls in the same category.

Today, the chatter is generally not about the resource frontier. It’s about opportunities in the city. Think of all the television series, such as Big Bang Theory, Silicon Valley or Suits, and how many of them are about groups of young friends living exciting experiences together in a big city.

Statistics show that young people are moving to cities in ever greater numbers. In the U.S., Forbes and real-estate firm Trulia did an analysis of 2013 census data. The population growth of millennials, categorized as people from 20-34 years of age, was lowest in rural areas and small towns. The fastest growing areas were suburbs of big cities. Exorbitant real estate costs in the centres of big cities probably had something to do with this. But in downtowns or nearby suburbs, the draw of the bright lights is clear in the figures.

Overall, the U.S. population of millennials grew 1.2 per cent in 2013. The growth rate for Seattle, Denver, Colorado Springs, Honolulu and San Antonio, for example, was more than double that.

Statistics Canada figures for the Yukon suggest something similar. In 2011-12 there were 446 twentysomethings (aged 20-29) who moved to the Yukon. In the same year, 415 left the territory. We netted 31 twentysomethings.

Since then, it has been a steady outflow. For the four following years ending in 2016, we averaged 419 arrivals and 481 departures, for an average net loss of 62 young Yukoners per year. 2016 was a particularly big year for twentysomethings leaving the Yukon.

One way to think of it is that for the last four years we lost three school classrooms of twentysomethings per year.

This is not good. Many grad speech cliches revolve around the idea that young people are our future. Not only are they fun to have around, but they work in entry level jobs older Yukoners don’t want, don’t use the healthcare system much and their taxes will support the rest of us when we’re at the Whistle Bend seniors facility.

Some of these out-migrants may move away and come back. I was not reassured, however, that the older 25-29 year old cohort showed similar migration behaviour to the younger twentysomethings. There was not an obvious pattern in the data of 20-year-olds moving away for a few years then returning at age 25 to pay taxes and drive our economy.

The problem will not be helped by the territorial government’s financial challenges. Given its dwindling cash reserves, it will probably be forced to clamp down on spending. Typical government cost-saving measures like hiring freezes hurt young people in particular, since in that kind of economic environment existing older employees tend to stay in their roles longer. Any cuts in grants and contributions to non-profits will quickly flow through into fewer jobs and contracts, and it is usually the junior jobs that go first.

Meanwhile, we don’t have a big mine or tech company in growth mode hiring lots of young people.

All of these things make it harder for young people to get on the career ladder.

There are lots of things that can be done: More internships and co-op positions locally that can lead to full time jobs, cost reduction programs that are more sensibly designed than across-the-board hiring freezes, continuing to grow education programs at Yukon College as it becomes a university.

These things are all useful. But the opportunities young people have in 21st century cities are a powerful draw. We need to get creative to make sure today’s young people associate the words “Yukon” and “opportunity” the way previous generations did.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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