Optimus is a tall, buff almost-26 year-old who appeared for an interview at my home office in a dark suit and dress shirt; he lives in Toronto but does business – he is a financial advisor -- in his home town. He doesn’t consider that he is ‘insecurely housed’ at present, but acknowledges that ‘if something went wrong’ he’d have to return to his home town to live, which would decidedly not be his choice. During high school he was a stellar student, athlete and musician, enjoyed and did well at university, and has achieved something close to the post-sec life style he envisioned, in conjunction with his partner. He is reflective about the challenges posed for his generation to do as well as his parents’ generation, the pros and cons of urban vs suburban vs rural life, and what would need to change for rural life to meet the social and economic means of his generation.
FM: Let’s start with you telling me a bit about your family – who is in it, where you were raised, what your folks did to pay the rent, etc...
I have parents, currently married 32 years. I have an older sister, 28, recently married. Parents have always worked steady jobs. I believe upper middle class. I was raised in Riverville. Moved a couple of times within the county.
FM: Could you say a bit more about what kind of work?
My mom is in a professional industry, taxes and accounting. My dad is in the contracting business.
FM: Okay. So talk to me about when you first began thinking about leaving where you were raised?
Well, I think it was quite early on. As a young kid, I always thought of doing something – policeman, astronaut, something – so I think I always knew I would leave home. But in reality it was probably middle of high school when I knew it would happen. I believe it was grade 11, I was 15. I was offered a sports scholarship out of town for school. So my planning began there.
FM: Did you think you would leave home because of what you wanted to be, which wouldn’t be available locally, or was it driven by wanting to leave – a push or a pull – or what mix?
Definitely both. The push was a lack of resources. My hobbies I couldn’t do post-high school, whether it be sports or music or simply hanging out with friends, who had also left. And the pull would be the opposite: there would be resources, opportunities to meet new people.
FM: A bit more about the sports scholarship – was that your ticket out?
Yes and no. It guaranteed me financial support, but I had also applied and gotten into 6 other universities. The sports scholarship just made my choice of which one.
FM: So you were a good student.
Yes, honour roll.
FM: And what did you study and where ?
I went to [university] and completed two majors in 4 years, one in psychology and one in music.
FM: What was your ‘bent’ in music?
I’m a drummer.
Absolutely! I’m the only athlete/musician in the county that actually continued to do both.
FM: And what sport?
Track and field.
FM: Okay, so you leave home after grade 12 to go to [university]. Where did you live there?
First year, residence. Followed by 3 different housing locations through my schooling.
FM: And how did those work for you?
Great. It was an excellent opportunity to grow up and become who I was or will be without being pushed into the work force right at 17.
FM: Talk a bit more about the details of those living arrangements and what life lessons you learned or what experiences [there] might have influenced your choices.
Okay. First year is learning to be on my own. I think I was the youngest in my residence – having a late birthday and graduating so young, at 17.
FM: Did you turn 17 at school, or 18 in the first November?
18. College or university was not the drinking, irresponsible behaviour that some would go through. I was focused on athletics. School was actually secondary. And fitting in was never an issue.
FM: By which you mean, you always were ‘popular’?
To an extent. Through it all, at university, certain lessons were learned. One in trust. I was victim of a fairly significant theft. And managing money became very important.
FM: How did you finance university?
I actually came back to Cottage County each summer through university, 4 months of work [at a lumber yard] paid for maybe half of my expenses away. And the rest was 100% OSAP grant. I won’t say grant – it’s a loan. My sister had 100% ‘granted’ – because she was a 90%+ student. She was magnum cum laude at her university and did a master’s as well.
FM: So your family wasn’t footing the bill?
No, financially that was not their responsibility, nor could they afford tens of thousands.
FM: Okay, and the non-res living accommodation – room-mates? How you did you select them, etc.?
Leaving residence, there were 3 of us who chose to live together. That was the party year. Following that, we went our separate ways and I lived in a bachelor basement apartment for my 3d year. Living alone was a really good decision. Fourth year I moved again into a house of friends where there were 7 of us, kind of the other extreme.
FM: No partying?
At this point I’m trying to complete my thesis and I was also touring with a band.
FM: So too busy to party?
Very. Balancing athletics, school, and music was probably my greatest accomplishment.
FM: The first round of roomies, were they kids you knew from [home]?
No. in fact there were 5 Cottage County graduates who went to [my university] in my year.
FM: Did you hang with them?
I was only close with one prior to going to university, where over the next 2 years we lost touch. We’d found our own groups.
FM: Okay, thanks for unpacking that a bit. I’m thinking about social networks as a factor
Funny you say that. When I went to university there was no such thing as social networking. Well, there was MSN and e-mail, but that was a way to keep in touch [with people] that you’d left behind or had gone to a different school. It wasn’t until my 3d year university that a friend of mine convinced me to get FaceBook.
FM: Actually, social networking was a construct before it became a media
Yes, I know what you mean. I did a study, myself, a research project in 2nd year in psychology directly related to technology as it relates to human interaction.
FM: Okay… so then you graduate, and?
I graduate and I had to find a job. For the previous summers I’d always gone back to Cottage County to work, but this time I knew that if I returned [home] for the same summer job I’d always gone to, the next September I would still be there. That thought was scary because graduating, having an education, which I jokingly call a degree in fun or partying, in the real world mean nothing. Luckily, I had met my spouse half-way through my last year at university and I stayed that summer in [university city] with her, and got a minimum wage job. Not quite, but...
FM: A McJob...
Minimum wage would [have] been $9.50 and I was paid $13. So a job. I was happy. I was going down a path with the one I love, and a career became secondary. I think what kept me going was that immediately after I graduated, I had applied for a cruise ship position as a session drummer. The pay would have been exceptional and I was hired. However, the 2008 recession and the devastating hurricane season kept me on hold till Feb of 2009.
FM: Just to contextualize, you graduated...
April of ’08. So, I got the job that I was working in April, knowing I was going to leave. I knew that was temporary, so a McJob, if you will, would have been just fine. Unfortunately, my departure became delayed so September of 2008 I got a phone call that I wasn’t going to be leaving in Sept. or Oct. I became very disheartened. I instantly hated my job, because now I was lost, for lack of a better word. So I quit that job. Something about myself: I could not do something that I don’t believe in and don’t enjoy. It worked out quite well, though. I actually moved back home to Riverville for 6 months, worked odd jobs. I had little expenses. So everything worked out. During the latter 3 months of that 6, I had put up over 150 on-line applications looking for work in the city. At this point, my girlfriend had graduated as well, moved back home with her parents in Toronto. I was looking for work there to be with her.
So application after application, I finally got a phone call in March 2009 for an insurance company. They didn’t require any training or experience, for that matter. They were a recruitment company that did their own training for the industry. I got the job, commission based. Not so much getting the job as being willing to accept the job. I went through the insurance course in 2 weeks – some people take months to do it – and I joined the sales force immediately. It was at this point that I knew that I was going to be in Toronto. I had moved in with my girlfriend and her parents, which lasted about a year. I broke sales records at the company and almost earned 6 figures the first year. That’s why I still live there now.
I have since left the company, but I’m still in the industry.
FM: So you and your girlfriend – wife – when did that happen, when did you get married?
We aren’t married, but we’ve been living together for 4 years.
FM: And are you still at her parents’?
No, about 9 months after I moved in with them, she got a job, after looking for a year, and we got our own place. We are still there.
FM: So she’s a year younger than you?
No, same age.
FM: Right, because you’re a year younger than most of your school cohort. What did she study and what work is she doing?
She graduated with a French degree and works as a collector/consultant for Toyota. Earning about $48,000. Living in Toronto and paying rent with her income alone, she could barely afford to live there. Since I make the same if not more, we are getting closer and closer to purchasing a home.
FM: In Toronto?
Yes. Funny – I have clients all over Ontario and we looked at – my dad made us look at – a house in Riverville. We could have bought that with a little mortgage, where we’re still going to be 3 years for a down payment in the city.
FM: And a much bigger mortgage!
Definitely. Beside that, I have $20,000 left from a $40,000 OSAP loan to repay.
The difficulty is that we don’t want to be in Riverville. She would not find work. And my work is like I said, all over Ontario, but we would be bored in town.
FM: She was raised in Toronto?
FM: It would be a culture shock to live here, for her?
Not so much. More for me than her. It might sound strange, but she is a home-body, quiet, quiet atmosphere wouldn’t bother her. And she even would prefer to raise kids up here. As for myself, I’m not ‘tired’ of the city yet.
I also don’t think I want to raise kids in Toronto.
FM: Talk about that.
It’s interesting, growing up in the country, I loved it. It was – I couldn’t imagine anything else. And I see kids today, in my neighbourhood and in the GTA, and I wouldn’t want my kids subject to that environment.
FM: What part of the environment – attracts you and repels you – I hear both…
For us, the environment allows us to do anything we want. Anything and everything is at our disposal. I even have a gym membership at a 24-hour YMCA. If I want to play squash at 3 in the morning with one of my buddies, we just go. Tell me, can we do that here, in Riverville?
FM: But what repels you, what do you not want your kids to be exposed to?
Non-English-speaking schools. Minority status does not appeal to me.
FM: What part of the Big Smoke do you live in?
North York / Willowdale.
FM: So not the GTA. Would the ‘burbs’ suit you better?
We’re definitely in the GTA.
FM: But you’re in the City of Toronto as opposed to the 905. I meant the ‘burbs’ as the 905, really.
Okay. The 905 demographically is not different. There’s no change from where we are. You’d have to go out as far as Oshawa east, Newmarket north, and Guelph west to find the demographic we would like to live in. And also for affordable housing.
FM: Would that be the plan, then?
I think so. But relocating to Riverville is no option.
FM: You’ve got lots of family here; is that a factor one way or the other?
FM: Did your sister stay around?
No. After her second year of university, she never returned.
FM: But it sounded like your dad thought you being back here was a good idea.
Yeah. His dream was to own a business together, a contracting business. I have no interest in that. That was my summer work from 11 or 12 years old, my whole life helping him out, and that’s not what I’m interested in doing. Even if it pays well, or not – I know contractors make great money, but typically only if they own their own business. And there’s nothing here for my spouse.
FM: Okay, so that’s a fairly straight-ahead couldn’t-wait-to-leave, wild-horses-couldn’t-drag-me-back story.
FM: Okay, let’s go through my little check list: we’ve talked education, employment -- I know, talk a bit more about your change of employer and the security of your employment, and your spouse’s.
Start off with myself. I have no employer. I am an independent financial advisor and insurance broker. I simply submit my business to a brokerage with complete freedom.
FM: What are the risks of losing a good income?
FM: But I mean, what are the factors that could lead to a down-turn?
My income fluctuates. My spouse’s does not. If she were to lose her job, which in this economy is always a possibility, she would need to clear $30,000 annually, with my fluctuating income, to afford where we live now. If we both were to lose our jobs, if we can’t make $65,000 combined, Riverville becomes a possibility.
FM: What kind of housing do you have at present in the city?
Right now we rent. We’ve been there 2 years.
FM: An apartment? High rise?
Don’t know if 20 stories is high rise. That’s where we are, on the 15th. It’s a nice apartment, condo style. Minus the fees.
FM: Do you mind saying what rent you pay?
We pay about $1500/month
FM: Plus utilities?
With parking and utilities, it’s about $2000 a month.
FM: One car for sure
We have two. There’s no transit or commuting in our lives. She works in Markham, 15 minutes away, and my office is in Vaughan, same distance.
FM: Okay, so fairly middle-of-the-road accommodations
I think we are successful for in our mid-twenties. We didn’t live at home while working to save up a lot of money. We made it on our own, from the beginning.
FM: Are you suggesting that lots of young people live at home as a strategy for getting a jump-start on home ownership?
It’s a must. There is no option. We’re on a financial plan to purchase a home outside of the GTA in 2015. If we lived at home, like many people do till almost age 30, that’s between 8 and 10 years after schooling, our own accommodations could have been purchased much earlier.
FM: Where does having a family fit into this plan? Would you want to wait until you have your own home? What would a year off working do to the plan? Etc.
The family comes in after a home. My kids will not be raised in an apartment building. What do you mean a year off working?
FM: Mat leave.
My spouse has one year off, exceptional benefits. Following the one year, with my industry, I could stay home.
FM: That’s a good plan. Because child care is also a big ticket item.
FM: And would you be okay being a home-dad?
Umm, hmmm, at this point it’s what’s needed, but we’re a couple of years away, so no significant thought has gone into it.
FM: Right, I was rushing you along a bit.
You’re not the only one.
FM: So that’s the sub-theme on the buy-in-Riverville push?
FM: Okay, back to the list.. Any health issues that influenced your choices? Including substance use and mental health.
None whatsoever. We’re both in excellent health.
FM: How was it on your mental health, and your spouse’s, that year or so that you were job-hunting and getting spat out of mouths a lot?
At that point, we were only together for a year or less. Commitment wasn’t the be-all and end-all. So what would happen with the jobs and the relationship was undecided.
FM: Okay, so if you’re a singleton, getting a job is not central – important, but not enough to get in the dumps about, yeah?
Yeah. I was never too upset with how things were at that time. I was always working towards a higher goal, with her, as well as a better career.
FM: Okay, so annoying but not destroying?
FM: Alrighty…involvement with the law?
I forget to mention this. The only involvement with the law is that in November of 2008, following the cruise ship fiasco, I applied to the OPP.
FM: That’s a switch.
I was told from a young age I was going to be in a suit or a uniform.
FM: Did it go anywhere, the OPP?
I had a secondary interview, which is when it would have become serious. But I declined to go because in March of 2009, I made $11,000 with the other company I’d joined in the meantime.
FM: And why did you leave that company? It seemed like it was treating you well…
It was a pyramid structure. I’d climbed to the second to the top rung of the ladder, had nowhere to go. I learned more about the company than I wish I did, and my proper ethics took over. Income also started to decrease.
FM: So you got out when the getting was good.
FM: I have some finish-up questions, if we’re there. Are we there? Anything more that’s important to this story?
I don’t know. I could probably talk for hours.
FM: Well, the finish-ups sometimes bring on new perspectives. So let’s go there. For the people who will read this story, will you provide some focus and shape by saying what you think is the Most Important Event in the narrative, that influences how it unfolds. Could be something that happens, or something that didn’t happen, an absence or a hole.
I think personally what keeps me wanting to live right in Toronto, a significant reason why I went there in the first place, aside from everything we’ve already discussed, is my music career. Which... it is a career, I’m not a helpless hopeful looking for a big break. The bands I’ve always played with have been in Toronto. We play in Toronto, and if I live more than an hour and a half outside of Toronto it would be wise to just sell my drums. And heartbreakingly decide that there’s no point.
FM: How often do you perform?
It varies. Not quite once a week.
FM: And what kind of venues?
Some small bars, and some large events where many bands you would recognize by name have played.
FM: And what kind of music?
It’s modern rock. I’ve played in a number of bands, but that’s the current group that I’m playing and recording with, would be in that genre.
Furthermore, my personal life has always been strongly influenced by athletics and music. I realize I can play hockey 3 or 4 nights a week in Cottage County, but that would be it. There wouldn’t be enough musicians in the county – I don’t think – with a similar enough interest to even speak. I’m an avid tennis player, squash, basketball, baseball, etc – I could go on all day. And it’s not that I can’t do that here, but I can’t do these things alone. There’s no organizations, no groups, no pick-up basketball. I would sit at home, drink beer, gain weight, and have kids.
FM: That’s a pretty damning perspective.
That’s my perspective on things. I have clients in the area, which is why I’m here now. I see their lives. They enjoy their lives, I assume, but I couldn’t do it.
FM: You’re not alone: I’ve heard this from others. Including those who are doing it.
And I think every single person, well maybe 90%, if they had the opportunity, the finances, and the know-how, they’d all leave.
FM: There is a bit of a theme among some participants about planning their way back – your scenario, but the house is ‘back home’, but they also plan to bring the job with them, and I think have a bit of a different take on whether the people back home would provide an adequate social life. But also not here, other rural villages. Anyway, just doing my rolodex…
FM: Okay, so Most Important Event was leaving? Yeah?
FM: Alrighty. Next question: The people who read this narrative will form an opinion about how it will turn out, for good or not so good. What do you think?
Turn out, in what regard?
FM: I mean, will the trajectory of the story lead to a good end, or a not-so-good end?
Definitely a good end. I’m confident in all the aspects of our lives. That the city is what we need and want right now, and a rural city, a smaller city, long term.
FM: Such as?
We’ve talked about living in [our university city] since we left. We love the town, it’s about 150,000 people and it has the resources we’re looking for. But in a more country environment. Best of both worlds.
FM: Yup. Okay, now two advice questions. First: What advice would you give your younger self, whether or not your younger self would take that advice, that you think would make the story unfold easier or better or smoother, whatever?
Hmmm. Be confident. There were a number of times l questioned whether I could do it and succeed in the real world.
FM: At what stage in the story were you lacking confidence?
Throughout. Grade 12, preparing to leave. And not again until I finished university.
FM: Okay, that segues nicely into the last question, which is: What advice you would give to those of us who would to be helpful to young people like yourself, that would make this transition easier or more likely to turn out well. What advice, say, re bolstering confidence. Or anything else – I just pick up on your last comment.
Hmmm. Advice to others. Well, don’t hold anyone back. But also don’t give false hope. Reality is something we need to recognize. Depending on how close family is, what you want to do in life, and who is in your life, I think, strongly affects your decisions. If I had a close network of friends who stayed here and maybe a relationship, I could see things going differently for me. But don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.
FM: So are you suggesting that we ‘helpers’ should be a bit more maybe informed, or maybe straight-forward about what becoming ‘independent’ involves?
I think what distracts me in your questioning is your use of the word helper. I don’t think anyone can really help. I think it’s a personal voyage. People can influence your decision/s, but to help you stay or go, especially to go, I don’t see how people can help. Maybe because I did it all on my own, I didn’t know there was help, I don’t know what help entails.
FM: I was thinking about non-institutional ‘help’, like knowing that your family has your back, that they’re there for you if necessary – which I think is your situation, but definitely not everybody’s.
Right. I had support from my family. They always believed in me. They were also accepting if I had to come home. For whatever reason. I think there are those who feel forced to leave because of the lack of support or help here. A small town can be devastating for those who are alone. Or have had differences with people in the town. News travels fast in a small community and it can certainly hurt someone.
FM: The ad about you only get one chance to make a good first impression, in a small town means you can be screwed forever with a bad decision?
FM: Okay, I think that’s me done. Anything more?
I think a reason people don’t leave is because they don’t know what to do. They don’t know there are options. They fall into jobs, I don’t even want to call them careers, because it just pays the bills and life continues. How many people, young people I should say, are working in careers they enjoy? Some people grow up wanting to be contractors, some people want to do other things. But I can guarantee I didn’t think I’d be working in finance after university. Jobs are hard to find. Most people fall into them. But there are very few to fall into, less variety, in a small town like Riverville. If there was a way to bring in industry relating to anything young people could get involved with. My parents always had work. Most people who have worked in town still have those jobs. But if I wanted to come back, if anyone wanted to come back, there aren’t many doors open. In a small community, a retirement community, maybe nursing is an option, contracting is obviously an option, but there aren’t many more.
FM: Is this area fertile ground for your business? Or are your clients—well, what kind of people are your clients?
Anyone from white collar, blue collar, and no collar. Small businesses. There’s an excellent opportunity for my business here in Riverville to work with specifically contractors. And if I was single, and there were music resources, more people, a way that I could play my sports organizationally, I could certainly stay here in Riverville. There’s enough work for me here for the rest of my life. I choose to split that time with other areas and Toronto businesses so it makes sense for me to live there.
FM: Well, this is very interesting, because you could make a living here, but you can’t have a life.
Exactly, you hit the nail on the head. I could be part of the top 1% of earning individuals in this county, I have no hesitation about that, but I also know I could earn 1/3 of what I do now and live quite comfortably. But my free time becomes empty.
FM: And your spouse would have to find a niche for herself.
Yeah, she could do anything. A McJob might bore her but it’s not required.
FM: And in a small community – sounds like I’m doing a sales pitch, but I’m not – in a small community, you can make a space for yourself if you have some personal resources and room in your life to do what’s necessary – there’s lots that needs to be added to the community to make it a better place.
I’ll use an example. A few years ago, I wanted to go to the gym. I like to keep fit and play sports. Riverville had a small gym. It was targeted to senior ladies. I wasn’t welcomed. This is just an example of how the resources are shared. And also, if there are other options for working out -- or I’ll use playing hockey as another example -- because of the small town, all it takes is one person that you don’t get along with that can isolate you or make doing what you want to do difficult.
FM: Point taken.
I mean I play pick-up basketball couple times a week during the day because my schedule allows it. There are two gymnasiums with 30-50+ young men to jump into a game at whatever caliber suits you. This isn’t available in any small town. I played in a hockey group 2 years ago in Toronto, in the GTA, with a friend and his brother’s group of friends. It wasn’t fun, competitive but sometimes too competitive, so I decided to play somewhere else. Although you can play hockey a number of times a week in this area, will you really enjoy it, should the scenario arise?
FM: Yup. It is a small world here.
It can be your best friend, could be your worst enemy. I’ve heard both.
FM: Yup. Okay, anything else?
I think it’s a catch 22. You need more people to have more resources / things to do in a small town. But in order to do things, you need people. So how do you solve this? Do you dump the next 10,000 immigrants in a small town to see what flourishes? You can’t. It won’t work. And as a side-point, in order even to immigrate in, you need to be in the city. So a small town like Riverville will always maintain a steady population, because few come in, some stay, and most go. Some come back, but for there to be more people, there needs to be more work. And it might just come down to that. And young people are the ones with families. Family is what increases population. When teenagers leave for school, post-sec, I should say, and they see more options, why would they come back? There would have to be something to draw them back. Family, a loved one, perhaps work. But when you have more resources at your fingertips, and you have more choices when you do leave, I think less come back. Once you have access to something it’s hard to give it up. And that’s where I find myself.
FM: Okay, a very useful perspective to put in my pack. Thanks.