Work Life : Today’s coders, tomorrow’s precariat?

Even tech wages have stagnated since the 1990s.
March 1, 2018

Despite being better educated than previous generations, there are fewer decent jobs for younger workers, even after they have paid their dues working entry-level jobs or unpaid internships. They’re taking on considerable student debt only to find a fractured labour market that denies them access to full-time jobs with decent pay and benefits. And it doesn’t seem to matter which sector of the labour market they turn to.

The non-profit sector relies on those who are willing to work for relatively low wages, few if any benefits and contracts tied to unstable funding. Many workers are between the ages of 23 and 35, and others have spent most of their working lives in the sector, often moving from one job to another. They work long hours at women’s centres, homeless shelters, co-ops and recycling centres. Others work with marginalized Indigenous and newcomer youth, and people struggling with addictions.

The majority of these workers have a bachelor’s degree and many have a master’s. They are analytical, articulate, strategic thinkers who feel as comfortable lobbying a cabinet minister as they do on the street. They can work all the social media tools, understand local politics, have business smarts, have built extensive networks and work collaboratively. But they may not have jobs next year or next month, they cannot afford to save for retirement, can’t afford to buy a house, and are putting off starting a family.

From a moral perspective, and in terms of reducing government costs for social services, the work these young people do is so important. Why does society undervalue their contributions? The easy answer is that they work in the non-profit sector: no profit, no glory.

But in today’s for-profit world there are no guarantees. As Canada’s economy continues its long transition from manufacturing to the service sector, the labour market has fewer good jobs and many precarious ones. Of increasing concern are the growing gig economy, robotics and declining unionization. This is the world Canada’s younger generations find themselves in. Inevitably, even promising sectors like tech may eventually dry up for young workers.

The high-tech sector has convinced educators to adapt school curricula to its needs. Coding is the flavour of the day, with experts calling it an “essential skill” for children’s future success. According to the Guardian’s(U.K.)Ben Tarnoff, 40% of American schools now teach coding. The Chicago public school system will soon make computer science a high school graduation requirement.

Supposedly, this emphasis will prepare students for high-paying tech jobs and open the door for the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. But Tarnoff offers a more plausible scenario: “At its root, the campaign for code education isn’t about giving the next generation a shot at earning the salary of a Facebook engineer. It’s about ensuring those salaries no longer exist, by creating a source of cheap labour for the tech industry.

It’s simple: high wages eat into profits. In fact, tech wages, although still high, have stagnated since the 1990s. Tarnoff claims that this stagnation is the result of collusion between the tech companies to prevent employees from switching jobs and bargaining up their wages. The industry also imports skilled and exploitable guest workers from low-wage countries, paying them much less than American or Canadian workers. 

It is increasingly clear that the generations behind the boomers have fewer and fewer job options. As the CCPA’s new report No Temporary Solution shows, the post-secondary sector is now heavily reliant on part-time, low-pay contract work, a growing trend throughout the public sector.

With almost no secure jobs in the non-profit sector, and fewer and fewer in the public and private sectors, where can younger generations turn for decent work? Even if coding remains a useful skill into the future—it’s hard to tell with things changing so fast—it will not protect workers from the proclivity of employers to lower wages. One way or another, today’s coders are tomorrow’s marginalized workers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the private sector, government needs to increase the minimum wage, better accommodate unionization, improve employment standards and tax corporations that don’t invest in job-creating strategies.

Government should also be providing long-term and increased funding for the non-profit sector so that its dedicated workers are adequately compensated. And by increasing public spending in the green economy, health care and education—including in foundational fields (math, science, language skills, civics and history) that will always be needed—all generations of Canadians could have decent jobs and access to necessary public services. 

The rapid deterioration of the labour market reminds us that corporations will not voluntarily create good jobs in perpetuity. It’s up to government to ensure that today’s young workers, and those in generations to come, are not squeezed out of decent work.

Lynne Fernandez is the Errol Black Chair in Labour Issues with the CCPA-Manitoba. Her column, Work Life, appears regularly in the Monitor. You can reach Lynne at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @LynneFernandez.