Financial struggle is a guarantee for many young people in Toronto today. For first-year international relations student Cypress Chernik, this guarantee was made apparent by her older sister’s experience of moving out at 18. Chernik’s sister lived on her own when she moved out 10 years ago, only to be driven by the rising costs to move back home last year despite her well-paying job.
“I can see myself in [that] future as well,” Chernik worries.
For a long time, the big city has been thought of as a place of inspiration. Cities like Toronto are emblems of hope for their abundance of opportunities for self-expression, work, and connection. It’s this richness of possibility that makes the city appetizing for those most eager to find their place in the world: youth.
Yet in Canada, this pasture for opportunity is becoming increasingly abandoned by its citizens. An article published in January 2023 by Better Dwelling, Canada’s largest independent housing news outlet, reveals that just last year, 78,100 residents left Toronto for another part of Ontario, and 12,625 emigrated to another country. The Ontario Real Estate Association reports that more than 40 per cent of Ontario post-secondary graduates intend to leave the province after graduation due to the cost of living crisis .
Unsurprisingly, the ever-rising cost of living can be held responsible for Toronto’s population losses. Although the City of Toronto reports that the average household rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,538, online housing site rentals.ca reports that the market average for a new one-bedroom apartment listing in Toronto costs around $2,620. The rentals.ca report also detailed that between May and August of 2023, landlords demanded a 5.1 per cent per month increase in rental prices.
The financial turmoil Toronto residents experience extends beyond housing. In April this year, Toronto’s public transportation system demanded 10 more cents per fare from its riders with no adjusted compensation for students. Groceries have also become more expensive: an article published by Global News reported that Canadian food prices have increased 20 per cent since 2021.
“Under the dark cloud of inflation, it does not matter whether young people are paying their rent yet; the weight of debt still rests on our shoulders.”
These rising costs affect everyone living in Toronto but are particularly demoralizing for the city’s youth who are only just graduating high school and university. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Gen Z — short for Generation Z, a term used to describe people born between 1997–2012 — to imagine a life of success and independence in Toronto.
The anticipated burden of debt
The city’s unaffordability places an enormous burden on the shoulders of Gen Z to plan their futures around impending debt.
“Money is a big, big factor that worries me,” said Chernik. Though she would have preferred that her university experience included living independently, she didn’t have much choice but to live with her parents during undergrad and settle for a commute of at least “40 minutes on a good day.”
“I don’t think there was a better option for me,” Chernik said. “Even if I had tried to find a place that’s near the campus or closer to the campus, it would have been so expensive, and it wouldn’t have been a worthwhile way to spend my money right now.”
The life decisions young people make today are heavily influenced by the idea of debt, which confines their aspirations. Since living alone for Chernik is an elusive pursuit for the foreseeable future, her decision to live at home is less of an economic choice and more of an obligation. Under the dark cloud of inflation, it does not matter whether young people are paying their rent yet; the weight of debt still rests on our shoulders.
For Andrew Fiorido, a 2023 U of T graduate who works in a New Democratic Party community office, this financial burden was actualized once he started university and became responsible for managing his own finances: “When it came time to go to university, I had to put myself through. I had to work, I had to take OSAP, and I had to [recognize] that I was going to be thousands of dollars in debt after university. It was a real eye-opening moment for me, stepping into adulthood and realizing how difficult it is out there.”
Fiorido said that his interest in politics shifted after the pandemic to a focus on the struggles of the middle class: “I saw that the pandemic was extremely hard on the middle class. People lost their jobs, [they] had to rely on food banks,” he said. “Life is getting so much more expensive, but wages are stagnant for the middle class.”
This idea of the death of the middle class is supported by a statement the Liberal government made in May 2023 regarding a “grocery rebate.” According to the statement, this rebate for “lower-income Canadians” is expected to aid 11 million Canadian households. There are approximately 15.3 million households in Canada as of 2021, which means those 11 million represent more than half the country’s households — emphasizing how much the disparity of wealth is reducing Canada’s financial middle ground.
Even after the sacrifices youth are making — trading independence and ambition for more affordable paths — debt seems to remain an inevitability. As of 2022, 1.9 million Canadians owe the federal government a collective $23.5 billion in student loans, according to an article published this year by CBC. After taking into consideration provincial loans and private debt, the total amount of debt the Canadian public holds only increases.
A shortage of opportunity
Having a well-paying job seems not to matter as much as it should now, as Fiorido’s difficulty moving toward living independently illustrates: “I think I have a very well-paid job for someone straight out of university. But at this point of time, where the average rent is $2,400 a month, that’s just [too] difficult to afford.” Fiorido also mentioned a friend fresh out of university working for Bell Canada, who he estimates makes $20,000 more than the average Canadian, yet still struggles to afford a place to live.
An article published in July of this year by the Toronto Star writes that for workers to affordably live in a two-bedroom apartment — which would mean allocating no more than 30 per cent of their income before tax to paying rent — Ontario would have to increase its minimum wage to $40 an hour. This shows not only how Ontario’s minimum wage is insufficient to sustain a basic comfortable lifestyle, but that the cost of said lifestyle in Toronto has become unaffordable for the average person.
“I think a lot of people want to get out of here, but at the same time, there’s something very, very charming about Toronto.”
Acquiring a well-paying job in this city as a young person today is commendable in itself, as breaking into the job market appears to be a trial. “I have a lot of friends who just graduated university as well, and they are having a lot of trouble even just getting entry-level jobs,” said Fiorido. “There’s just not a huge job market right now.”
“The government is a great employer for students [to get] entry-level jobs,” Fiorido said. However, such opportunities for young, educated people to begin their careers are currently scarce due to a hiring freeze. “I know this first hand,” Fiorido said. “[Government offices are] not hiring [someone] unless they drastically need to. It’s estimated that one in five City of Toronto positions are vacant because they can’t afford to provide them.”
Chernik too considers the difficulty of finding a job in Toronto highly discouraging for youth: “When I did an exchange trip in Quebec [this past summer, I noticed] every young person starting from 15 or 16 was able to find a job… It was just something that you did there. Here, having a job is pretty uncommon until you’re 18 or 19, at which point it is still extremely difficult.”
As expenses climb, the barrier around the job market grows thicker. “You really need paid work experience to get paid work experience,” said Chernik. “A lot of people work or volunteer for their parents now, and that’s how [they] get into the workforce… That should not be the case, because getting into the workforce shouldn’t be this massive task, [even just] to work a retail job.”
Indeed, Statistics Canada numbers in a CBC article published this year show that the employment rate for people between the ages 15 and 24 has dropped dramatically since 2021, from 19.1 per cent that January to 10.7 per cent this May. Yet, as of that same May, the food and accommodation services sectors have gained 10,000 jobs.
Since youth unemployment and jobs are simultaneously on the rise, it is evident that the problems students encounter with finding work lie not in the misfortune of a small job market but in a market that resists letting young people break through. For today’s youth, the sluggish endeavour of entering the workforce makes the idea of a well-paying job — which still does not guarantee sufficient funds for independent living — elusive at best, and hopeless at worst.
“I don’t want to say there’s a lack of jobs,” said Fiorido. “But I think right now there’s definitely difficulty acquiring a job even for people who did ‘everything right’ — you know, you went to university, you graduated, you got your degree… [Those students are] having trouble.”
A crisis of despair
Toronto’s unaffordability, and the lack of opportunities available to achieve independence, are not merely obstacles that young people must overcome to master adulthood. They are part of a crisis of how the city undervalues youth, where young people are excluded from the workforce and the opportunity to live independently.
Meanwhile, past generations seemed to benefit from their hard work more quickly. “A couple of my buddies are having a very hard time finding jobs right now,” said Fiorido. “And they come from families that maybe have a hard time understanding why [it’s so difficult for someone] straight out of university to find a job.”
This crisis is also shaping the ways in which Gen Z experiences youth and views the future. “The city is just that common point of misery for a lot of young people,” said Fiorido.
“There’s this weird… nihilism, cynicism about it… Especially for a generation who [had to] come of age and go through high school and university during a pandemic,” he said. “It makes the city feel more alien, more fractured.”
Despair is a common feeling that many young people today experience in anticipation of their future, or amid the struggles of their present. “If I am going to attempt to live independently [right now], I am going to feel awful about the fact that I am putting a high sum of money into providing for my own living situation every single month,” said Chernik. “I think that is such a hopeless thing.”
This “hopeless thing” is the reality for many students, whose youth and university experiences are being overshadowed by the burden of rent and tuition. With the reality of life in Toronto working against them, many youth are forced to keep their early adulthood in the confines of their family’s home. “I think our generation has been infantilized,” said Fiorido, “by the fact that it’s really hard to own property, it’s really hard even to rent [a place].”
“There’s definitely a sense of hopelessness,” said Fiorido about the emotional impact of unaffordable living in Toronto. “In our generation, it’s like a common joke, like, ‘Wow, imagine owning a home someday!’”
Right now, the inaccessibility of financial independence for Gen Z is robbing them of the opportunity to gain and experience autonomy. “There is a big leap between our generation and our parents’ generation,” said Chernik. “I think this divide makes it even more crucial that young people have an opportunity for independence.”
Fighting to stay
While the solutions to this crisis may not be under our control, and though our big city pastures are not looking so green, we can learn to surpass this hopelessness flooding Toronto.
More and more Canadians are taking initiative to acquire higher pay and better benefits by leaving their jobs in search of greater opportunities. In January 2023, CBC reported that 50 per cent of Canada’s workers planned to search for a new job in the coming year. According to a survey conducted in May by business consulting firm Robert Half, Gen Z Canadians are the most likely to make such career changes by the end of the year.
Gen Z is also more conscious about their relationships with money, demonstrating the financial control and initiative they are taking in their own lives. According to The Globe and Mail, seven in 10 Canadians aged 18 to 26 refrain from spending money on nonessentials and prioritize saving for greater investments, such as home ownership, car ownership, and emergency funds.
“This might be me being overly optimistic,” said Fiorido, “but I am very hopeful that [the housing crisis in Canada] will get better within the next 10 to 15 years… It’s at the point where every political party has to address this issue… [and] this is an issue they can’t ignore.”
Fiorido is not the only one who is optimistic. In March 2022, CityNews stated that Gen Z youth between the ages 18 and 28 see homeownership as a prosperous investment, and that one in three expect to make a housing purchase within the next five years.
Yet, despite the sense of despair that rising costs are causing Gen Z, Toronto is still a place that many young people still want to live in. “[Toronto] is where I want to stay for the rest of my life,” said Fiorido. “My plan is to gain experience at the job I have, and hopefully be able to move up [and] earn more one day.”
“I think that when you are young, things tend to seem pretty hopeless,” said Chernik. “[But] rent prices aren’t everything… There’s a lot to any given place, especially a place like Toronto.”
“I think that despite the challenges, we are ultimately quite a resilient generation, having grown up during the pandemic… [and] that [resilience] is already starting to show in all of the ways art and culture are still very much alive in Toronto — just maybe in different ways than they were before.”
According to the Toronto Arts Council (TAC), the city continues to be Canada’s richest creative community, with 93 per cent more artists than elsewhere in the country. TAC provides more than 60 grants each year to support young artists and youth-led organizations.
There are also many efforts to make culture accessible in Toronto, with organizations like the Toronto Public Art Strategy that seeks to revive public art in the city. Other programs encourage youth involvement in art, like the Art Gallery of Ontario’s free admission for youth under 25, and the Soulpepper Theatre’s free tickets for people under 25 and anyone accompanying them.
“I think a lot of people want to get out of here, but at the same time, there’s something very, very charming about Toronto,” said Chernik. “[There are] places that have a lot of art and a lot of soul to them. And I think that the incoming generation, our generation, as we grow, will continue to make the city our own.”
Editor’s note (November 6): This article has been amended to remove personal employment information printed without a source’s knowledge and consent.