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Underemployed and overextended

For a generation of young adults, massive debt goes hand in hand with the middle-class dream. Some are determined to get by on less.

By Pieta Woolley

After a long day at the office, Jodi Hooper goes home to her wife, seven-year-old boy and toddler girls. The twins, who turn two this fall, have spent the day with their stay-at-home mom, Leah Meredith. Hooper, a 38-year-old social worker, is the family’s sole income earner. They live this middle-class dream in one of the least affordable cities in North America: Vancouver.

Hooper, if you don’t dig too deeply, is the Ward Cleaver of the 21st century. Responsible. Professional. Family oriented. Unlike the average Canadian, who owes an outrageous $29,998 in non-mortgage debt, according to a March 2011 report by the Certified General Accountants of Canada, this family has amassed zero consumer debt.

How do the Hooper-Merediths do it? The attractive phrase “simple living” is a euphemism for some very tough, unglamorous choices: home is an apartment in a non-profit housing complex in the inner city; they shop second-hand; vacations involve camping.

But for many in generations Y and X — those between about 20 and 45 now — debt is an uncomfortable part of pursuing the symbols of middle-class success: owning a house, driving a new car, paying for daycare and taking swank vacations. In February, the Vanier Institute for the Family sounded the alarm once again over Canadian family debt. Twenty years ago, it reported, Canadian households owed just $56,800 (or 93 percent of their income) and saved $8,000 a year. In 2010, the debt load catapulted to 150 percent of income, and families saved on average just $2,500. “We see the age group from 30 to 40 taking on a lot of debt,” says Katherine Scott, Vanier’s director of programs. “They’re still paying off student loans, buying their first home and cars.”

Scott notes it’s not iPhones and Prada bags that are the problem for most young Canadians. Rather, it’s a brutal combination of circumstances that are creating the crunch.

Post-secondary education is increasingly costly and a major contributor to debt. Accounting for inflation, tuition for one year of undergraduate study spiked from $1,496 in 1990-91 to $5,138 in 2010-11 — a 343 percent increase when the rate of inflation has been about 40 percent, according to the Bank of Canada.

Starter jobs are often contract or temporary rather than permanent positions that offer benefits and pensions, Scott says. Home prices, too, have mushroomed. Toronto’s story is illustrated in an extraordinary chart created by Royal LePage, which documents the increase in the cost of buying a home from 1953 to 2010. In today’s dollars, the average home in 1953 cost just under $100,000. In 2010, the average is $431,463.

Furthermore, dual incomes are needed to support a middle-class lifestyle, Scott adds. Often, when a two-income couple has kids, the cost of paying for daycare or giving up one income whacks even the most responsible families.

Of course, this cash crunch hits the offering plate, too. At Bedford United near Halifax, the thriving congregation is home to an unusually large number of young adults. While the church is in a relatively wealthy suburb, the chair of the stewardship team said there’s a generational difference in giving. “They [under-40s] do give money, but they don’t feel the same obligation that their parents do,” says Patricia Bell, who is also a financial planner. The church has experimented with ways to get this generation to give, from presenting “stewardship testimonials” about how giving money has changed someone’s life, to asking for money for specific projects rather than ongoing expenses. Solar panels on the roof? Yes. Staffing and electricity? Not so much.

Of course, not everyone agrees that gen X and Y’s financial woes are due to unavoidable expenses. This fall, the author of the 1989 all-time Canadian bestseller, The Wealthy Barber, is releasing his second book on personal finance. In The Wealthy Barber Returns, David Chilton slams Canada’s easy access to credit — plus regular folks’ growing hunger for opulent attire and showy home renos. “Over half of the people I know who are in trouble with their lines of credit . . . arrived there via excessive home-renovation expenses,” he writes in an excerpt. “I really don’t have a problem with indulgences like heated marble floors — I wish I had them. However, when people are purchasing that type of extreme-pampering item, especially with borrowed money, while not fully funding their RRSPs or saving for their children’s educations, yeah, that’s an issue.”

On the popular TV show Til Debt Do Us Part, Canadian financial guru Gail Vaz-Oxlade encounters plenty of families whose spending on flat-screen TVs, vacations and even shoes has sent them into the red. She shames, bullies and bribes them into more responsible spending habits. Her newest show, Princess, highlights overspending on status goods.

While blaming the young for their own financial troubles is trendy, the most famous rumination on post-boomer debt was published two decades ago. In Generation X, Vancouver author Douglas Coupland articulated the betrayal felt by the children of boomers, forced to accept a standard of living markedly lower than that of their parents. Coupland defined the term “homeowner envy” as “feelings of jealousy generated in the young and the disenfranchised when facing gruesome housing statistics.” His protagonists, like the Hooper-Merediths, chose to dial back rather than assume debt.

If the debt-inducing situation was bad for Coupland’s heroes 20 years ago, it’s dismal today. In a Toronto Star opinion piece published in July, writer Linda McQuaig noted that Canadian households earn about as much as 30 years ago (adjusting for inflation), but with two incomes instead of one. “In other words,” she wrote, “Canadian families are working about twice as hard to keep up to where they were a generation ago.” Half the jobs lost during the recession were held by 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Vanier report. Furthermore, the number of Canadian workers who belong to a union fell below 30 percent for the first time last year, and many young people who do join unions are hit with tiered contracts, which offer new workers a worse deal than their more senior colleagues.

Should they just roll with the times and reduce their expectations as the Hooper-Merediths have?

At 23, Klay-Ann Thoring takes a different approach: she’ll simply do what it takes to earn more. Raised in a family that struggled with money, she owes $8,000 on a line of credit — money that paid her part-time tuition fees. Early in her forensics degree, she landed a full-time job as a researcher with Vancouver’s police department, and as such, she earns too much to qualify for a student loan. But she sees the debt as an unavoidable investment in herself, and one she plans to pay off soon.

Within five years, she and her fiancé will have paid for a $20,000 wedding, retired their student debt and bought a condo or maybe even a house on the posh North Shore, if everything goes according to plan. Both are working toward goals that will boost their family’s earning potential to at least $120,000 a year by the time they’re 30. That’s wealthier than six out of seven Vancouver households, according to Statistics Canada. It’s not a pipe dream; it’s careful planning.

Like the Hooper-Merediths, Thoring and her fiancé have rediscovered thrift — that none-too-alluring skill of bygone eras. “I don’t like shopping. I like to read,” Thoring explains. “We’re very much anomalies. Our peers work mostly in retail and either live at home or are going into debt. We were sure of what we wanted to do [for work], so we got into it, and we’re happy in it.”

With the disorienting chorus shouting “buy now, pay later” at gen X and Y, plus the urge to acquire the trappings of middle-class life in the midst of spiking costs, it’s no wonder there’s a debt crisis among the young. Considering that the average Canadian’s debt load excluding mortgage is almost $30,000 and rising each year, simple living — and all that implies — has never seemed so attractive.

Pieta Woolley collects Depression-era housekeeping books in an effort to learn the lost art of thrift. So far, they’re not helping.

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