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Is the Canadian dream broken? Study suggests it might be

New research shows negative trends in social mobility among second-generation immigrants
By: Surbhi Bir
March 21, 2024
A Black mother reading a book with her son.

Despite being more educated than the mainstream white Canadian population, some racialized second-generation immigrants are earning relatively less, leading to lower social mobility and growing disenchantment with the Canadian dream. Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels

For generations, people have immigrated to Canada from all over the world, hoping to find better social, professional and financial opportunities for themselves and their children. That dream now appears to be out of reach for many, as trends in social mobility among second-generation immigrants indicate gender and racial disparities, despite increase in education levels.

Based on her own experience as a second-generation immigrant and through conversations with her peers, Rupa Banerjee recognized that the experiences of people who arrived in the 1970s and early 1980s look different from the experiences of those who came to Canada in the 1990s and 2000s. 

“Many studies have shown that immigrant outcomes have deteriorated between the early 1980s and the early 2010s. Immigrants are more skilled than ever before, but continue to face difficulty finding jobs in their field and having their credentials recognized,” said Banerjee, who is the Canada Research Chair in economic inclusion, employment and entrepreneurship of Canada’s immigrants, and professor of human resource management and organizational behaviour at TMU. 

To find out how the changing experiences of immigrants might be affecting their children over time, Banerjee collaborated with researchers at Western University, McGill University and the University of Toronto in a study currently being prepared for publication (a research brief with key findings is available).

The team studied the education and employment experiences of three successive 10-year birth cohorts of second-generation Canadians, from the 1960s to the 1990s. They compared the progress of second-generation young adults from five racialized groups – South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino and Latin American – with those who are third-and-higher generation white Canadians, who are considered as the mainstream Canadian population.

What they found is that educational attainment and employment earnings are not equal across racialized second-generation groups for either men or women, and for some groups in the most recent birth cohorts, social mobility has begun to diverge significantly below the mainstream average. 

Questioning long-term processes of integration

The study found higher education levels among Chinese and South Asian people, while Black, Filipino and Latin American people showed educational declines across the three successive birth cohorts. The median annual earnings of the second generation also declined across the cohorts, despite a higher proportion holding university degrees. 

“It’s important to note that despite the education level of some second-generation groups dropping, they are still more educated than the third-and-higher generation white Canadian population,” Banerjee said. “It’s concerning to find that the earnings of the Black and Latin American groups are going down compared to the mainstream average, even though they are more educated.”

Decline in incomes was especially pronounced among Black second-generation men and women. In the 1966-1975 birth cohort, Black men earned 15.2 percent less than their mainstream counterparts. In the 1986-1995 cohort, the earnings gap increased to 33.4 percent. Black women had a 17.6 percent earnings advantage in the first cohort, but by the last cohort, they earned close to 10 percent less than the mainstream.

So, is the Canadian dream really broken? “Well, it’s broken for some people, and I think the worrying part is that it's broken along racial lines,” Banerjee said. “What we think is happening is that when the labor market is tight, everybody suffers; but those who are already at the margins suffer the most.”

While further research is needed to fully explain the declining socio-economic experiences of second-generation immigrants, the findings of this study highlight the need for policymakers in Canada to question the equity and fairness of long-term processes of integration for racialized immigrants.

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