[This is the unabridged version of an article published in the Globe and Mail on February 22nd, 2016.]
Canadians should be thumping their chests, after all many others are patting us on the back. When it comes to social mobility we are among the world leaders. Even U.S. President Obama acknowledged that a poor child is more likely to move up in life in Canada than in the United States.
This kind of mobility, the capacity for children to become all that they can be without regard to their starting point in life, is the bedrock of fairness.
For sure this distinct Canadian accomplishment of making the American Dream more of a reality north of the border was never without its imperfections, ringing rather hollow for many native communities, some immigrant groups, and certain visible minorities. Great accomplishments on average never reveal the full diversity of experience.
But just as importantly winning the social mobility sweepstakes is something for the record books, not a guarantee for the future. The foundations of fairness are shifting; luck will matter more, meritocracy will be perverted by growing inequality, and our public policies haven’t really changed to prepare for the new reality that is already pressing on young people.
Even the weakest test of social mobility is now clearly under threat because economic growth has stalled not just in the short-term, but for what some economists believe looks increasingly like the long-term. Young adults are not on average likely to be better off than their parents. “Just get a job” is no longer wise fatherly advise for today’s youth, even if it was a recipe of success for those raising their families in the 1960s and 1970s when wage rates increased steadily year-after-year. Over the course of the last three decades new waves of young people entering the job market began their careers with a lower starting wage and experienced slower wage growth, stretching their capacity for independence and eventually raise a family.
Slow growth naturally focuses our attention on how the pie is shared, and puts pressure on policy makers to start slicing differently. But Canadians should be rethinking the winning recipe in much more fundamental ways if the concern is the future of our children.
Good solid health care and high quality education accessible to all were the ingredients used in the past, and definitely shouldn’t become lower public policy priorities. But these kinds of social investments are only the first gateway to higher incomes.
Increasingly, luck will matter a lot more, no matter how much education kids get. The winners and losers in today’s economic sweepstakes will look a lot more alike: bright, well-educated, sincere. But the rewards and the losses are now more fickle, and meritocracy will ring hollow for those who did get an education but not quite in the right field, or from the right university, or happen to live in the wrong place, or did not have the contacts from parents and friends to land that crucial first job. All that tuition paid, and for what? Another coffee-shop job?
There are both big opportunities, and big risks in the job market facing millennials. And going forward our public policies should be rethought in light of another ingredient for our past success, not just investment in our kids but also insurance against the unknown.
Canadians need to build a “second chance” society so that the consequences of bad luck or bad choices don’t matter as much.
There is a whole host of ways our social programs built up in an era of stable and steady job growth need to be refitted for a polarized labour market hard-wired to generate inequalities. We don’t just need unemployment insurance, as much as we need “wage” insurance that will top up the earnings of someone with a long work history who is laid-off and forced to take a lower paying job.
We don’t just need quality education, but also full tuition relief through income-contingent loans that tailor repayments and forgiveness to a graduate’s income. Rather than strapping them to low paying jobs to pay-off debts, they need to be given the room to drop back into school to get a different diploma or degree.
We don’t just need infrastructure as make-work or to maintain our bridges, roads, and sewers, but also as social infrastructure to enhance all of our lives, regardless of our incomes: transportation networks that work, housing, neighbourhoods, and parks that buck the market tendency to segregate and separate.
But the final ingredient of Canada’s success needs to be nurtured no less than the twins of social investment and social insurance. That, of course, is a sense of identity that values and even fosters diversity, where newcomers not only “integrate” but the mainstream also bends, adapts, and redefines itself. A broad sense of citizenship, and a culture of community and sharing are all the more important now in an era of inequality.
Ultimately the most corrosive dimension of inequality is that it feeds a sense of entitlement among the lucky, and a sense of shame among the unlucky, and this perverts our long run capacity to collectively invest, support, and care for ourselves and our children. This is the deepest foundation of social mobility in Canada, and something that we should continue to celebrate and value, but also something that we need to continue to nurture.