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Melissa Kargiannakis: The rude awakening for millennials

Melissa Kargiannakis: The rude awakening for millennials

How student debt is holding back a generation

Melissa Kargiannakis has nearly $100,000 (CAD) in student debt and no job – a situation that is all too common among young adults today. Here she describes how this has affected her and explains what she plans to do about it.

Melissa Kargiannakis on a balcony in Canada

I invested in my future. I completed two degrees with above average grades and performed master’s research. I have 11 years of paid work experience – eight in my chosen field. To validate my abilities, I have won numerous accolades including the inaugural Queen’s Young Leaders Award shared by only two others in Canada and 59 others globally. I have also applied for over 50 jobs to have only three interviews.

The factors that have brought me to today are systemic and extend to many other Millennials. We are made to feel as though this is exclusively our fault, like we are the only ones in this situation, and we carry the shame as if this were true.

Yet the statistics tell a very different story. Youth unemployment in Ontario, where I live, is the worst in Canada while our tuition fees are the highest. With a situation like that, at some point, something has got to give.

Debt generation

Graduates today face unprecedented obstacles and more entrenched systemic challenges than ever before.

In Canada, the cost of tuition has almost tripled in 20 years – rising by a rate of 3.2% a year and as much as 13% in four years – far exceeding the 1.13% rate of inflation. The cost of food rose by 30% from 2004 to 2014.

Scrabble letters spelling debt

Image copyright Stockmonkeys.com

Canada has the most over-valued housing market of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. This has made home-ownership a dream and driven rent to more than 48% of net undergraduates’ starting salaries and 33% of net master’s graduates’ starting salaries.

And that’s just for those of us who can get jobs. Canada’s unemployment rate is currently about 7% overall yet doubles to 13% for young adults. It shouldn’t be surprising that more than half of Millennials have less than $1,000 saved, much less paid off their student debt.

Self-sufficiency

In Canada, I have been given opportunities that I know others have been denied because of bigotry, racism, and systemic oppression. I’ve had employment opportunities since I was a teenager, a home and basic necessities. I had help with my homework growing up and was able to perform well academically, winning the favour of teachers who graded me toward success.

When my father left in 2004 our financial situation changed dramatically. Since the age of 15, I have paid for everything I have through multiple afterschool jobs. I still remember the moment in Grade 11, running to my guidance counsellor in tears when I realised that an education was something that my afterschool jobs could not afford. The staircase to my future had seemingly collapsed all because of my family’s situation.

That’s when I learned about bank loans and government assistance to supplement limited scholarship opportunities that only offer a median of $1,600. So away I went to Western University in 2008 without fully understanding the debt I was beginning to incur.

Scrabble letters spelling loan

Image copyright Stockmonkeys.com

Broken promises

Formal education is touted as the best way to ensure your future. I never questioned whether or not I would get a job upon graduation, that was how it worked. Or rather, that was how it was supposed to work – how it had historically worked before academia became more profit-driven and businesses became more interested in candidates with years of experience for entry level positions.

Even before completing my undergrad, I met many a vice-president, director, or manager, who expressed interest in hiring me. But none of these conversations materialised into money-paying positions. And despite working all through school, my debt load continued to grow.

Now, I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have no idea how I will ever be able to pay back all of my debt. The future seems impossible.

As a result, I have struggled with severe and dangerous depression – that is thankfully now managed. Ongoing anxiety can immobilise my mind for hours or even days at a time. My mental health adds a layer of complexity. You can’t be at the bottom of the job market and explain to your potential employer that sometimes you will need some extra help because you are only human – you won’t get the job.

Looking up through a tunnel to see light

Image copyright CP Storm

The way out?

University was the right place for me. I am very glad I went. It was where my abilities were able to grow and shine. It was also where I developed many of the ideas I am now transforming into projects and organisations.

My personal struggle with overwhelming student debt – coupled with the mirrored narrative of many friends, acquaintances, and fellow graduates – has led me to start The ZeroZero Foundation.

The ZeroZero Foundation will use new financial mechanisms such as social impact bonds to help graduates become debt-free. It will operate in partnership with academia, government, and lenders – such as banks – to change the student debt system, think about the graduate first and work with them to realise a better future for everyone.

At scale it will turn around the economy for an entire generation.

Given my personal and family situation precludes any financial assistance, perhaps trying to be a social entrepreneur is the furthest thing from prudent at the moment. But I cannot sit by anymore watching my friends in difficulty and struggling myself. I know that I am not alone even though sometimes it really feels that way.

Are you struggling with debt? Do you think Millenials are having a hard time? Add your comments below.