Three years ago, Tom Fern* was living the dream: he had three young children, he had moved in with the woman of his dreams, travelled the world with her, and cleared more than $20,000 in student debt.
He can barely believe how times have changed.
Back then, the price of oil was well over $90 per barrel, but today, the 32-year-old is struggling to make ends meet as a car salesman in the northern oil town of Grande Prairie, Alta. The lots — once full of patch workers buying new vehicles for work and play — have become increasingly barren for years, and Fern hasn’t sold a single car.
Any day now, the father of three is worried he’ll lose his job.
"Every day is scary," he said. "This is desperation.”
Fern has now exhausted all his resources. He tried to pick up extra jobs in customer service and retail, but two months ago, was told he was “overqualified” by a local McDonald’s.
“I was always a happy person, but lately it’s been a lot of suicidal thoughts,” he explained from the quiet car dealership. “I’m terrified about the future — in my head the only thing I can think of is trying to ride out the storm and hopefully the oil patch picks up.”
Fight, flight, or freeze
Although oil prices are starting to recover, reports warn that demand has failed to keep up with swelling global supply. The resource's future looks particularly uncertain in Canada, where governments face pressure to cut fossil fuel subsidies and transition to a green economy.
And today, for Alberta millennials like Fern, the career prospects seem irrevocably grim. Last month, Statistics Canada reported Alberta’s unemployment at its highest in more than 20 years, with roughly 12 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 currently in search of work.
“If you look back in history, [the boom and bust] is quite common,” he said. “I just didn’t think it would hit so hard so fast.”
Thousands of young people across the province have grown up on oil patch money and started careers in the lucrative business, which has now left them stranded in one of the toughest provincial economies since their birth. It’s a straightforward case of fight, flight, or freeze in ground zero of Canada’s crippling oil crash, but what option are millennials choosing?
Exodus from Alberta
Last year, Edmonton police caused quite a stir when they correlated a spike in province-wide crime to the crash of the oil industry. Two months later, CBC reported a 30 per cent increase in suicides in Alberta after massive oil patch layoffs in 2015, and an article in The Financial Post warned Canadians that “the worst is yet to come.”
Yet it was none of this depressing news that stirred 25-year-old Alisha Foeller to leave her home near Calgary late last year — it was the moment collectors started calling her for overdue payments on all of her credit cards.
“I thought Alberta was beautiful and I wanted so badly for it to work,” she explained from her new home in London, Ont. having opted for the 'flight' option after the crash. “There were lots of jobs I knew I was qualified for in hotels, customer service and administration, but I applied to anything and everything... and got not a single call back.”
Foeller, a native of Peterborough, Ont., initially moved to Fort McMurray in 2011 with the intention of finding her fortune in the renowned cash-pumping heart of Alberta’s oil patch. There, she met her husband Aaron Long, and in 2012, gave birth to their daughter Savannah.
Life was good when oil was booming, she said, and Long supported them while she took maternity leave. He made $85,000 per year as the head chef of a local bistro, but when he was laid off after the crash, she was stuck raising a family with two-part time jobs paying $18 and $22 per hour.
“I didn’t make nearly enough for groceries,” she told National Observer. “We had to borrow money from family and friends because we were paying $2,600 for a two-bedroom apartment and we had vehicle payments.”
According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, an annual salary of at least $73,640 is required to afford average apartment rent in Fort McMurray, where the cost of living has long been inflated by prosperity in the patch. After trying for a year however, the young couple just couldn’t crunch the numbers, and in April 2015, moved to a small town outside Calgary where they hoped the big city would deliver something better.
They were disappointed.
“I thought it really couldn’t be that bad, that the crash would only affect the oil workers,” said Foeller, who handed out more than 20 resumes a day at the time. “But everyone is literally fighting for the same jobs. We had to leave again because we couldn’t afford daycare… and things weren’t dropping in price to help accommodate people.”
By the time the couple fled Alberta, they had collectively cycled through more than 10 jobs and racked up credit card debt beyond their means. They weren’t alone in their flight either — earlier this month, Maclean’s reported that nearly 1,000 more people left Alberta than moved in during the last three months of 2015.
It was the province’s first quarter of negative interprovincial migration since the end of the recession in 2009, an exodus that since early last year has included a minimum of 18,000 people.
“It was really hard,” said Foeller. “It was so hard telling these collectors that I had a job, but couldn’t afford my rent if I paid them. If anything, it more broke me more than motivated me.”
Her husband now runs a bakery distribution company in London, and Foeller is on employment insurance looking after their daughter until she starts school in the fall. The couple is still tackling credit collectors, but with family both in London and Peterborough, they recognize that they were among the lucky ones.
Unlike many other millennials whose roots are planted in Alberta, they at least, had somewhere to go.
Riding out the storm
In 2015, the oil industry slashed nearly 40,000 jobs as energy giants like Suncor, ConocoPhillips, and Encana shed up to 20 per cent of their workforce. More slashing is expected this year, and according to data compiled by Bloomberg, the largest 23 Canadian producers are set to spend 11 per cent less in 2016 — a cut of roughly $3.6 billion.
Since the downturn, many of Fern’s friends have fled to B.C. for work in construction, but with three young kids enrolled in school and no funds to pack up and move, for him, leaving Grande Prairie was never an option. In essence, Fern took the “freeze” option of waiting for the cycle to go back from bust to boom.
“It’s a scary situation right now,” the young father explained. “The oil patch people understand it but the people in the province who don’t work in the oil patch kind of think it’s a joke and it’s not.”
According to Statistics Canada, more than 56,000 full-time jobs have been cut across the province, leaving piles of laid-off patch workers struggling to navigate one of the scarcest, most competitive job markets they have ever seen in their working lives. Employment insurance doesn’t last forever, and many, like Fern, have ended up in minimum wage jobs unrelated to their previous experience, if they have been lucky enough to find work at all.
“My kids think, ‘Dad is working, so dad should have all this money,’ but I don’t anymore,” he said, after going from a six-figure income to $1,400 a month in the space of only a few years.
“It’s hard to look at my four-year-old daughter and tell her she can’t get McDonald’s or the toy that she wants. It breaks my heart every day.”
Fern was laid off from his own patch job during the financial crisis in 2008, and has since worked as a chef, a tattoo artist and now, a car salesman. His wife however, pays most of the bills with two jobs as a house cleaner and bartender.
“I tell my kids to be smarter than me, to stay in school and get into something good like mechanics or be a doctor,” he said. “I’m 32 years old and I’m looking at going back to seven years of schooling myself.”
Are millennials entitled?
Yet despite Fern’s efforts, and those of thousands of other young Albertans caught in the crisis, he, Foeller, and her husband still feel stung by the “entitlement” tag often attached to the millennial generation. Since the industry collapse in 2014, they agree that a disturbing amount of rhetoric has made waves on social media implying that young Albertans are somehow deserving of their fate.
“They think we’re all foolish with our money, we all have sled decks and jacked up trucks,” Fern explained. “But not all of us are like that, and I feel sorry for those people to be honest because I’ve been there myself.”
Fern first moved to Grande Prairie from Strathmore, Alta. at the age of 18 to pay off student debt, and within a few years, had his loans covered with a patch job paying nearly $15,000 per month. It’s tough to adapt to having a lot less, he said, especially when your first job out of high school is the job that sets your expectations.
“In one sense, it’s nice never knowing what the oil patch money is,” he said, “but in another sense, [Albertans who don’t work in oil] are still paying the same rent and dealing with the rent increase because of oil.”
This is where Foeller and Long have been hit the hardest — despite not working in the industry themselves, they have been subjected to the same kind of vitriol for living in an oil town.
“People were assuming that just because of where I lived that I had money coming out of everywhere,” Foeller explained. “Trying to tell people, ‘No, I’m having a hard time, this is not what I thought it would be,’ — people didn’t want to hear it.”
Long, too, said that many critics forget the crash affects everyone, and used his own former place of employment as an example. While working as the head chef of a bistro in Fort McMurray during a boom, he paid his dishwashers $17 an hour, but today, he said those wages have dropped.
“All the restaurants, service, hospitality, hotels and local businesses revolve around the oil workers,” the 29-year-old explained, “but if the oil workers all of a sudden go away or lose all their overtime… that leaves other people with no jobs, like all the car dealerships over there.”
He understands how making good money in an oil town can “skew” one’s perception of reality and lead to some entitled behaviours, but discouraged the rhetoric of entitlement nevertheless.
“It’s horrible,” he insisted. “I think they’re all just doing what they can to get by and make ends meet.”
And according to career specialists in Alberta, 'making ends meet' has translated into some applause-worthy self-transformations that hurl accusations of entitlement into the dust.
Fighting the fallout
In September 2015, the Canadian loonie crashed to an 11-year low in its worst losing streak since 2013, an economic fallout infallibly related to the plummeting price of oil. Yet it was in October 2015, only one month later, that Edmonton native Chad McDonald decided to put all his eggs in one basket and open a parkour gym in Grande Prairie with his friend, Zach Wiebe.
“We were kind of nervous about opening at first, but that’s the area where we just followed our hearts and our passions rather than following what was logical,” the 24-year-old told National Observer.
He had been toying with the idea for quite some time, offering free parkour classes outdoors to gauge community interest in the sport and local analyzing census data on how much parents spend on their kids. He listened to business radio news during his overnight shifts at a convenience store on the risks of starting a company during financial recession, and spoke with gym owners about how the oil crash had impacted their profits.
McDonald and Wiebe saw an opportunity — with families tightening their belts as a result of the crash, they knew they could offer a healthy recreational activity for all ages at a fraction of the cost of dance class or hockey. They had no savings and less than $15,000 in funds from local investors, but today, A.P.E. (Alternative Physical Education) Inc., earns roughly $20,000 a month in profits.
“Whatever you have right now — start with those opportunities,” McDonald advised. “If you have something of value, and that means it’s going to be needed by someone and used by someone to make what they do better, then figure it out. Use whatever you have now to figure out how you can best cater to that need.”
The creative resolve is familiar to Calgary-based career coach Eileen Dooley, who has seen hundreds of millennials put up their dukes for a fight after widespread layoffs during the collapse. Her consulting firm, Gilker McRae, has seen a dramatic increase in clientele over the last two years, and based on personal experience, she countered the idea that “entitlement” is a defining trait of the millennial generation:
“The one thing that millennials are really good at is reinventing themselves,” she explained. “They’re constantly changing given the demands out there and what the expectations are.”
Throughout history, necessity has proven the mother of innovation, and since the fallout in 2014, green shoots have emerged from unexpected places in Alberta including startup companies. Membership to the entrepreneurial hub, Startup Edmonton, for example, has recently skyrocketed with an influx of young people skilled in the trades.
Many are proposing solutions for the oil patch, said chief operating officer Tiffany Linke-Boyco, including more cost effective work methods for small, struggling energy companies.
“Suddenly, more people are looking for a plan B because they’ve either been laid off or they’re concerned that could happen to them in the next little while,” she told National Observer. “Suddenly, all those ideas that have been in the back of people’s minds — people are more interested in pursuing those and focusing on them, whereas before, maybe the golden handcuffs were there with a good-paying job.”
And there's no denying that millennials are removing the handcuffs, said Dooley, having seen piles of young people fall in love with 'survival jobs' they never would have considered before the crash. Regardless of whether one chooses fight, flight or freeze in a moment of desperation, she promised millennials that solutions exist.
“At the end of the day, we’re just a package of skills and it’s all about how you apply those skills and market those skills,” she said. “How do I make myself more employable to meet whatever demands are out there?”
Editor's note: *This story was updated at 1:30 p.m. on March 31, 2016. This name has been changed to protect an identity.