NDP MP Niki Ashton calls for bold federal leadership to address economic precarity of millennials

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      An NDP MP is in Vancouver on Sunday (September 25) hoping to hear from millennials on the challenges they're facing in their workplace.

      It's part of a series of cross-country consultations on precarious work hosted by Ashton, the NDP's 34-year-old critic for jobs, employment, and workforce development. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, she called this a "national emerging crisis".

      "It's a combination of more and more young people stuck in temporary work, contract-based work, zero-hour contracts, no benefits, no pension, that kind of thing," Ashton said. "On top of that, young people are carrying some of the heaviest levels of student debt in our history."

      The MP for Churchill-Keewatinok Aski emphasized that in Vancouver, there's also a lack of access to housing, and rental units in particular. And she said that it's being left up to millennials to tell their generation's story because nobody else is capturing the magnitude of the problem.

      "It's not something you can tinker around the edges with," Ashton stated. "It is really something that requires bold leadership from the federal government."

      Ashton launched this initiative last February and meetings have already been held in many other provinces.

      The Vancouver consultation takes place from 1 p.m. to 3 pm. at the Vancouver YWCA (535 Hornby Street), which is fully accessible for people with disabilities. The cross-country discussions will culminate in a national forum in Ottawa on October 26 to discuss solutions.

      Ashton says more millennials identify as working class

      According to Ashton, at every one of the consultations on precarious work, someone has mentioned how these issues must be looked at through a gender, race, and disability lens.

      "A disproportionate number of people in precarious jobs, particularly some of the most insecure jobs, are racialized, are women, are people with disabilities," she said.

      She also made a point of saying that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed himself as the minister for youth. However, she said that young people have told her that the prime minister and his ministers' comments don't reflect the reality of their situation.

      "For example, you hear the government talk about the middle class," Ashton stated. "More and more young people in Canada are identifying as working class. They certainly don't identify with the sort of aspirations of the middle class... We're hearing from a lot of young people where they're going to get the next rent cheque from—money to pay the rent—let alone talk about  buying a home. A lot of the rhetoric you're hearing from government is reflective of where we were at maybe 10 years ago but not reflective of the reality, the very difficult reality, that young people face right now."

      Ashton said that in some cases, these concerns are being articulated by young people who grew up in middle-class families. Yet she stated that these millennials cannot dream of enjoying what their parents had. Others have spoken to her about the disappearance of upward mobility.

      "We're hearing from people whose parents came as immigrants, thinking Canada was a country where they could move up, where they could do better," she added. "These are very heartbreaking stories of how young people feel as though they're disappointing their parents because the only options available to them are very similar job options that their parents had, which is working multiple jobs in the service sector, the retail sector, that kind of thing."

      In addition, she said the proliferation of unpaid internships—300,000 in Ontario alone—reinforce class differences. That's because it's easier for members of wealthier families to go without pay to gain working experience, which gives them an edge when seeking a full-time job.

      Neoliberal policies linked to rise of precarious work

      Ashton wants people to think about the structural issues that are underlying the collective experience of millennials, whom she defines as people born after 1980. She claimed that this generation is bearing the brunt of neoliberal policies such as privatization, deregulation, the shrinking of the public sector, and international trade deals. And she encouraged anyone with any thoughts about this to tweet messages using the hashtag #GenYasksWhy.

      "It's millennials and those that are coming up after millennials that are paying the steeper and steeper price," she insisted. "We're not hearing from anybody in any of these consultations that they think that when they're 50, things are going to get figured out."

      Ashton made no secret of her support for the Bernie Sanders campaign for the U.S. Democratic Party presidential nomination. Like Sanders, Ashton said there's a need for "good jobs" and doesn't want young people to resign themselves to the "gig economy".

      "We have a government that's all too happy to push TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership], CETA [Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union], and further erode good jobs from our country," Ashton stated.

      Later in the interview, she criticized the Liberal government for retaining former prime minister Stephen Harper's targets for greenhouse gas emissions and for not moving forward on reconciliation with indigenous peoples. In particular, Ashton cited the Trudeau government's support for the $8.8-billion Site C dam in northeastern B.C., which is vehemently opposed by First Nations and many farmland advocates.

      "Many Canadians ended up electing a government that talked left and is acting right," she said. "Not just acting right, but following Harper's agenda on a number of fronts—Harper with the selfies."

      Ashton has been asked to seek NDP leadership

      In 2011, Ashton entered the last federal NDP leadership at the age of 29, ending up far back in the pack. So does she plan on running again as a Bernie Sanders-type candidate to succeed Tom Mulcair?

      Ashton replied that she's been asked to run but is still considering her options.

      "It's been a very difficult summer in terms of job losses in my home [riding]," she said. "We also have the forum coming up in October... What's clear is the NDP has to find its way. The last election was a very difficult one."

      She also mentioned that she's busy completing a PhD in what she called "millennial feminism".

      So far, nobody has stepped forward to declare that they want Mulcair's job.

      When asked who were her intellectual influences, Ashton reponded by mentioning U.S. linguist and imperialism critic Noam Chomsky, U.S. feminist scholar Angela Davis, and British development-studies professor Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: New Dangerous Class. Later in the interview, Ashton added another name to the list: former Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies, who didn't seek reelection in 2015.

      "I miss her," Ashton said.