[Editor's note: The Tyee Solutions Society's Pieta Woolley has been writing about the reasons why many graduates of the provincial foster care and child protection system become homeless as young adults. As 620,000 B.C. children and teens return to school, she looks at why the "launch" from adolescence to financially-independent adulthood is proving so hard for so many -- not just the most vulnerable -- and some ideas about how to help. Today, Woolley explores the ups and downs of that much-maligned first-job setting, the fast food restaurant. Find the entire series here.]
The oniony, greasy smell of deep fryer oil wafts through the air-conditioned air inside the strip mall chain fast-food restaurant. Outside it's hot and dry and the over-bright summer sun blasts the parking lot. Several cars are lined up at the drive-thru and a trickle of customers visits the counter seeking late afternoon snacks.
This joint is located at the outer reaches of the Lower Mainland, in a small city where family incomes are slightly below the provincial average (because this is a small place where privacy is scarce, The Tyee agreed to conceal the name of the location). Nearby are farms, a reserve, a mill, and the remains of several utopian communes. Life is pleasant here. People work at it. Not least, those who are working here.
The workers at this burger joint -- both the Gen Y youth behind the counter, and the restaurant's Gen X owners -- represent B.C.'s uncertain future, where class, race, globalization and age all combine to tell a complicated tale. They're not classifiable as "at risk" or "vulnerable." Nor are they the kids who more often show up in articles about tough transitions in Canada: neither the most vulnerable, nor the young but unemployed university grads.
These are B.C.'s mainstream youth, "middle class" by family income standards.
With scant opportunities in the resource sector that traditionally offered good wages straight out of high school, how are they managing the transition from adolescent economic dependence to self-supporting adulthood?
Let's meet some of them.
The responsible family man
It's 4 p.m. and Grant, 25, has just finished an eight-hour shift toasting buns and frying chicken. He joins me at a table in the restaurant while his wife and kids -- a three-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl -- wait in their silver beater car outside. His bright blue eyes are run through with red over his scruffy young man's beard, and his tight skin gleams. He's chugging orange pop from a water bottle.
"I don't see working in fast food. I see working full time," Grant says, after telling me he's worked here for one year this week. Before that, he'd patched together part-time jobs in a corner store, at Walmart, mowing lawns, and teaching guitar to support his family. This is the first job that's offered him full-time hours.
"Seeing my dad with one job for his entire life, that's how I figured out that it doesn't matter what job you have," he tells me. "It matters that you take care of the people you love."
His dad worked for the mill, a once-flourishing local employer now down to a bare-bones staff. Grant would like to apply for one of its few remaining entry-level union jobs, but he doesn't have the required high school diploma.
Shuttled with his older brother between their separated parents' houses, he says he endured beatings from his bigger sibling during unsupervised hours. Short and scrawny as a youngster, he was an easy target for primary school peers to pick on as well, he said; it made him timid.
Then, in Grade 9, he could barely get out of bed. His body craved sleep. And food. He missed the bulk of his classes because of the symptoms of a growth spurt that added 14 inches to his height. No longer was he the smallest kid in his class, but now he was seriously behind his classmates.
A change in B.C. graduation requirements, which would have forced him to re-take much of Grade 9 as prerequisites, thwarted his effort to catch up and finish high school. He gave up.
By 19 he was working part time, building model war figures and learning to play guitar. He was also drinking too much. After a roommate kicked him out, he moved in with his girlfriend. Within a year she was pregnant. He married her "officially" before she gave birth, and after their son was born the couple held a proper wedding, so she could wear a traditional wedding dress.
Recently, Grant says, they took on five roommates to make ends meet, bringing the total house count to 10. That includes his dad, who lives downstairs and pays half the mortgage after helping them with a down payment. It's too tight, Grant notes -- a mistake he says he hopes not to repeat.
So far, Grant says, he's learned three things.
First, he's not good with money. Working at the corner store, he believed he figured out how to win at Keno, and spent his evenings playing and, surprisingly, winning. In six weeks, he claims, he'd collected more than $3,000, which he blew on several generous presents.
Second, his only regret is not learning to play the guitar earlier. He loves it, he's good at it, and he writes his own songs. And, he believes, it would have helped his popularity and cut down on the bullying in high school.
Third, he believes that greater social problems stem from his generation's working poverty. Youth can never strike out on their own on part-time wages. Forced to exchange dependence on their parents for dependence on roommates, he thinks, he and his peers enjoy no chance for self-discovery or self-definition.
Going back to school is not on his to-do list, even though he knows how many jobs are closed to him for lack of graduating. "I didn't enjoy high school," he says. "It's like piano lessons. I use the skills I learned, but I don't plan on continuing."
From the outside, Grant's life may seem precarious, even short-sighted. But that misses too much. Instead, the young family man has built a life around music, steady work, the dignity of responsibility, and an appreciation for being surrounded by people who love him.
The quiet Aboriginal superstar
Rose, 20, meets me at a coffee shop on her way out of town. She's jangling a handful of keys: one of them is to her new basement suite three hours away. She's on her way to move in. Petite with a broad, soft face and very straight, thick hair, Rose is no-nonsense. She's about to enter her second year in indigenous studies at a Victoria college, aiming for a degree in social work. Her boyfriend -- and roommate -- is studying indigenous business leadership.
Growing up on the reserve, Rose was surrounded by peers who weren't as driven as she was. Now, she says, many of them are floundering: not skilled enough to find decent work, but too frightened to leave home for school.
So what made the difference between her and her peers?
"I think it just has to do with their parents. Mine made sure we were awake, and that we were getting ready for school. They drove us to school if we missed the bus. In First Nations communities, a lot of parents are too involved in their own life to think about the kids," she says without judgment.
Rose's mom went to college; she's a kindergarten teacher. Her father works as a logger and serves on the band council. Both of her older sisters went to university. Her younger brother is planning to get his bachelor of sciences.
Rose, who was a very shy child, credits some of her willingness to pursue a life off the reserve to an exchange program in Grade 9. She was chosen to live overseas with a French family. Succeeding in such a profoundly different environment and forming a bond with her host family, she recalls, allowed her to open up. After graduation, she returned and stayed with her French family for the entire summer.
"I feel like growing up happened really fast," she says. "I didn't have time to process it. After Europe, I came back just in time to move out [for first year at college]. I didn't even have the chance to say goodbye to friends."
She's spent this summer as a cashier, and saved every minimum-wage penny. Between her summer earnings, shared rent, and the grants her Indian status allows her, she'll manage to scrape by at school. But money is much tighter now than when her sister went to college -- on the same grants -- 15 years ago, she explains. "I just pay for food and rent and laundry, and that's about what it covers," she says.
For Rose, working in fast food is about more than money. Dealing with people when their order is wrong and they get mad forces her "to think about what to say, about how to fix things," she says.
It's a skill she expects to need in her planned career. Rose's aunt is a social worker on the local reserve, and has warned her it can be very stressful.
"I just want to help people in any way I can," says Rose. "I want to be remembered by the way I helped even one person in a significant way."
The once competitive gymnast hopeful
Immediately after her last shift ever, Maria, 19, shed her drive-thru head set and polyester uniform, got into denim short-shorts and a violet top, and ran across the parking lot to visit her boyfriend, a barista at Starbucks. She graduated high school with the class of 2012, and has been working the take-out window ever since.
But next week she's off for an eight-month esthetics course: hair styling, massage, skin care, make-up and nails. It's a ticket to travel and work anywhere, even at resorts, she says. She doesn't know how much esthetics pays, but she doesn't care either. It's fun work. She loves fashion.
Maria's parents divorced when she was six. Her father is a paramedic and her mom a medical secretary. They pushed their kids to succeed. Maria's older brother has his carpentry ticket.
At age six, Maria began a competitive gymnastics career that took her within sight of the national team. She was a favourite coach at the club and it was a great job, for a while.
Then one day two years ago, dismounting off the parallel bars, she landed with a straight leg and hyperextended her knee. It was never the same. Now, a build-up of knee cartilage means her competitive years are over.
"Everyone thought I'd be a teacher," she said, mentioning jubilantly that she'd loved high school. "I was a really good gymnastics coach. But after six years, I was sick of teaching."
Esthetics, a practical career that suits her interests -- with a short and affordable course -- appeals now. This fall, Maria and her boyfriend will both be going to the same school, where he's planning to become a nurse.
"Moving away from home is scary," she reports. "Oh my god! Sometimes I wonder what I am doing. I had a hard time after I graduated. I didn't know what to do. Taking a year off really helped."
Salaries tend to be dismal for estheticians, especially without advanced training. But it's likely Maria will figure that out and jump to the next thing -- and probably nail her landing.
The last lucky generation
The chain restaurant franchise belongs to Nadia and Mike. They're both 38, and have three kids, the oldest one in university. That's right: spring break of her Grade 12 year, Nadia had her first baby.
It was 1992. Despite the socially dreaded "teen pregnancy," and unlike Grant, Rose or the other kids who work for them now, Mike and Nadia were making enough back then to start an independent life.
To take care of his new family Mike got a job at the mill. The money was great: he was pulling in $3,000 a month, after taxes, with no post-secondary school. Nadia stayed home to look after their daughter. For a time, life was straightforward.
Then Mike got laid off.
The duo moved across the Lower Mainland so Mike could go to school. She worked as a cashier in a fast food restaurant while he finished his accounting diploma. Money was tight and their family support was 200 kilometres away.
At 18, Nadia clued in to how important income is to family stability. "I realized what money stress is," she says. "Do I hate you [Mike]? Or is it just money stress?"
Even after her husband started working for the federal government, their finances were stretched to the limit. Between rent, utilities, groceries and one car, every penny disappeared.
"This was in the era before credit cards and cell phones [were universal accessories]. Things were simpler then," says Mike. He notes that his young employees spend heavily on cell phones and travel, luxuries that were beyond his dreams until recently. "Now there's all that money that just pours out on a daily basis."
Two more kids later, the young family moved home to this small city where houses are cheaper and opportunity wide open. In 2007, they bought the restaurant franchise.
A front-row seat to Gen-Y angst
At an age when many Vancouver parents are strolling their first baby around the Seawall in a Bugaboo, Mike and Nadia are nearing the finish line. At work however, they feel they're perpetually parenting their motley crew of late teens and aspiring young adults.
It's a very different generation from their own, they report, with very different struggles. For one thing, Nadia says, "When I started working, whatever your boss asked you to do, you did… I asked one new employee to do the dishes the other day. He said, ‘No, I don't feel like it.'
"We fired a kid recently; he said he'd rather argue with us about his job than actually work."
Firings are rare, though. Nadia and Mike see their role as many teens' first boss to be one of mentorship. But Nadia has had to pull back in frustration from her initial impulse to help the most troubled kids.
The couple has hired several former and current foster kids, but none stayed long. Nadia recalls one young woman whom she hired in spite of a pierced and shabby appearance. She kept the teen on even when she showed up drunk for several shifts. Nadia finally had to let the girl go when she punched through a window at the restaurant after a fight with her boyfriend -- but only after she drove her ex-employee to the hospital.
They hired another young man in the foster care system, but his home life was so unstable he wasn't reliably appearing at work, and they eventually lost track of him. Yet another foster kid started work, but stopped showing up for her shifts.
She says they've also seen an influx of job applicants with autism and other diagnoses: ADHD, epilepsy, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Some have worked out as employees. A cook in his mid-30s has Asperger's syndrome, which they've been able to help him manage at work. Another older employee, a former foster kid, overcame fetal alcohol syndrome to become a manager, but was eventually let go when his own alcoholism affected his work.
But in Nadia's view, simply getting kids working -- especially in a busy, typical first job -- would go a long way to getting Gen Y past its failure to launch.
"It teaches them how to manage their money, what life is like, it gets them over the idea that life is easy," she notes. "The school system and parents can do a better job, simply by letting them fail every once in a while."
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