Insights on Canadian Society
Young men and women without a high school diploma

by Sharanjit Uppal

Release date: May 4, 2017 Correction date: July 24, 2017

Correction Notice

Minor corrections were made in Table 4 of this article. The 2014 Consumer Price Index (CPI) is now used to express values in constant dollars, whereas the 2013 CPI was previously used. The interpretation of the results of this table do not change.

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Overview of the study

In this paper, multiple sources of data are used to study the profile and labour market outcomes of young men and women aged 25 to 34 without a high school diploma. The data sources include the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the Canadian Income Survey (CIS) and the Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD).

  • In 2016, 8.5% of men and 5.4% of women aged 25 to 34 had less than a high school diploma, representing about 340,000 young Canadians.
  • Lone parenthood was more prevalent among young women with less than a high school diploma (19%) than it was among young women with no more than a high school diploma (10%). Moreover, 11% of young men and women with less than a high school diploma reported that they had a disability, compared with 6% or less for those who had no more than a high school diploma.
  • In 2016, the employment rate of young adults aged 25 to 34 with less than a high school diploma was 67% for men and 41% for women. In 1990, 75% of men and 50% of women in the same educational category were employed.
  • In 2016, 51% of women with less than a high school diploma were not in the labour force, up from 40% in 1990. The proportion of non-participants also increased among men in the same educational category, from 12% to 22%.
  • Construction trade helpers and labourers and transport truck drivers were the two occupations employing the most men with less than a high school diploma. Among women in the same educational category, the top two occupations were light duty cleaners and cashiers.
  • On average, more than 60% of the income of young women with less than a high school diploma came from government transfers. This proportion was two times higher than that of young men with a similar level of education.

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Introduction

Western countries have the highest levels of educational attainment in the world. Many individuals, however, do not have a high school diploma and consequently do not have any certification from the school system. For example, among Canadians aged 25 and over in 2016, 14% reported that their highest level of education was “less than high school graduation.”Note 1 In the United States, the corresponding proportion was 12% in 2015.Note 2

Research focusing on the reasons for dropping out of high school has identified a number of related factors, which can be grouped into several major categories: family-related; peer; school-related; individual; and economic.Note 3 Family-related factors include low educational and occupational attainment levels of parents, low family income, and single parenthood. Poor academic achievement and poor quality schools are some of the school-related factors. Individual characteristics such as low self-esteem, low aspirations and teenage pregnancy are also related to dropping out of school. Lastly, if students with low cognitive skills expect that their wages might be similar whether they graduate from high school or not, their chances of finishing high school are lower.

Research in the U.S. has shown that not completing high school not only has individual consequences but also economic and social ones.Note 4 Individual consequences include low levels of academic skills and an absence of educational credentials, which translate into unfavourable labour market outcomes. Economic and social outcomes include forgone national income and tax revenues, increased demand for social services, increased crime, reduced social participation, reduced intergenerational mobility and poorer levels of health.

This article adds to the Canadian literature by examining the characteristics most likely to be associated with having less than a high school diploma. It then examines the extent to which the labour market and income characteristics of those individuals differ from those with higher levels of education among both men and women.Note 5

The analysis is limited to individuals aged 25 to 34. This age group was selected based on several factors. First, almost all individuals who finish high school have likely done so by the age of 25. Second, a large majority of young adults in this age group have completed their education by this age, making labour market comparisons more relevant. Third, focusing on youth outcomes is more reflective of the future prospects of current high school students, who must decide whether they should drop out or not. Lastly, examining the performance of young adults is important, given that future career prospects are often related to the type of experience acquired by labour market entrants.Note 6

The analysis is done separately for men and women, and comparisons are drawn with other educational attainment categories (high school diplomaNote 7; trade certificate / college diploma; and university degree). The following questions are addressed:

  • How has the proportion of men and women, whose highest level of education is less than a high school diploma, changed over time?
  • What are their sociodemographic characteristics?
  • How do their labour market outcomes – for example, employment rate, unemployment rate, type of occupation and income – compare to those with higher levels of education and how have these outcomes changed over time?

Data from various sources are used, including the Labour Force Survey (1990 to 2016), the Canadian Income Survey (2012 to 2014), and the Canadian Survey on Disability (2012) (see “Data sources, methods and definitions”).

In 2016, 340,000 young Canadians aged 25 to 34 were without a high school diploma

In 2016, 8.5% of men and 5.4% of women aged 25 to 34 had less than a high school diploma. In all, 340,000 young Canadians in this age group – 206,900 men and 133,100 women – did not have a high school diploma.

These numbers, however, represent a change from two and a half decades ago, when the proportions were significantly higher. In 1990, 22% of men and 19% of women aged 25 to 34 had not finished high school (Chart 1). This translated into 1 million individuals aged 25 to 34 (553,700 men and 478,200 women).

Chart 1 Proportion of population aged 25 to 34 who did not complete high school, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 1
Data Table for Chart 1
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 1 All, Men and Women, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  All Men Women
percent
1990 20.9 22.4 19.4
1991 20.2 21.7 18.7
1992 19.2 21.0 17.4
1993 17.7 19.4 16.1
1994 17.9 19.5 16.2
1995 16.2 17.7 14.8
1996 15.2 17.2 13.2
1997 14.1 15.6 12.6
1998 13.4 14.4 12.5
1999 12.8 14.3 11.4
2000 11.8 13.1 10.4
2001 10.7 11.7 9.6
2002 10.8 12.4 9.1
2003 9.8 11.3 8.2
2004 9.4 11.0 7.9
2005 9.2 10.6 7.8
2006 9.0 10.5 7.5
2007 8.7 10.3 7.0
2008 8.2 10.1 6.3
2009 8.1 9.6 6.7
2010 7.9 9.3 6.6
2011 7.6 8.9 6.3
2012 7.8 9.3 6.4
2013 7.5 9.1 6.0
2014 7.4 9.0 5.8
2015 6.7 8.0 5.3
2016 6.9 8.5 5.4

The proportion of those with less than a high school diploma mostly declined during the 1990s, as it declined by 9 percentage points for both men and women during that decade.Note 8 This was followed by a 4 percentage point decline for both sexes over the 2000s. Since then, the proportion of those with less than a high school diploma has remained relatively stable.Note 9

Aboriginal people were the most likely to have less than a high school diploma

In 2016, the distribution of men aged 25 to 34 across educational categories was the following: 8.5% had less than a high school diploma; 26.1% had a high school diploma or some postsecondary education; 35.9% had a trade certificate or college diploma; and 29.6% had a university degree. The same proportions for women were 5.4%, 18.5%, 34.3%, and 41.8%, respectively (Table 1).

Table 1
Highest level of education among men and women aged 25 to 34, 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of Highest level of education among men and women aged 25 to 34 Men, Women, Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Men Women
Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
percent
All 8.5 26.1 35.9 29.6 5.4 18.5 34.3 41.8
Canadian born non-Aboriginal 8.5 27.2 38.1 26.2 4.9 18.5 36.8 39.8
Aboriginal people 20.1 34.4 36.4 9.1 15.9 28.7 37.1 18.3
Immigrants 6.5 20.7 27.4 45.4 5.3 17.0 25.9 51.8
CMAs and CAs versus other areasTable 1 Note 1  
CMA/CA 7.7 25.5 34.5 32.4 4.8 18.1 32.9 44.2
Outside CMA/CA 14.2 30.3 46.0 9.6 9.9 22.0 44.7 23.4
Province  
Newfoundland and Labrador 8.2 24.8 45.5 21.5 3.5 21.9 42.1 32.5
Prince Edward Island 6.2 32.1 31.5 30.2 4.1 18.0 34.1 43.8
Nova Scotia 7.3 29.1 35.7 28.0 4.5 18.0 33.7 43.8
New Brunswick 7.4 30.5 41.5 20.7 3.8 22.5 39.0 34.7
Quebec 11.5 18.0 44.0 26.5 6.2 11.9 42.1 39.8
Ontario 7.6 26.2 32.5 33.7 5.1 17.6 32.1 45.3
Manitoba 9.4 34.5 31.4 24.7 6.3 27.1 29.7 36.8
Saskatchewan 8.9 31.2 34.8 25.1 6.7 24.7 30.1 38.5
Alberta 8.2 27.5 36.3 28.0 5.9 22.6 33.1 38.4
British Columbia 6.2 33.2 31.1 29.5 4.5 23.6 30.1 41.8

Aboriginal people (First Nations living off reserve, Métis and Inuit) were more likely to have less than a high school diploma.Note 10Specifically, 20% of Aboriginal men and 16% of Aboriginal women did not have a high school diploma.Note 11Among immigrants, the percentages were 7% for men and 5% for women; among non-Aboriginal men and women who were born in Canada, the percentages were 9% and 5%, respectively.Note 12

Among men, Quebec had the highest proportion of individuals without a high school diploma (12%), followed by young men in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (9% each). Prince Edward Island and British Columbia had the lowest proportions (6% each). Fewer differences were seen among women. Furthermore, the percentages were lower for young men and women living in census metropolitan areas and census agglomerations (CMAs/CAs) than they were for those living outside of CMAs or CAs.

Young adults with lower levels of education are more likely to have children

Examining the family status of those with less than a high school education is important in order to better understand, for example, whether young parents with a lower level of education have less of an incentive to integrate into the labour market given the costs of raising children (such as daycare), or if single parents have increased difficulty balancing working responsibilities with family demands.Note 13

The proportion of men who were married or living common law was lower among those who did not finish high school (47%) than it was for those with a trade certificate, college diploma or university degree (55% each). Women with less than a high school diploma were also less likely to be married or in a common-law relationship (55%) than those who had a college diploma or a trade certificate (63%) or a university degree (65%) (Table 2).

Table 2
Family status and student participation of men and women aged 25 to 34, by level of education, 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of Family status of men and women aged 25 to 34 Men, Women, Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using years and percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Men Women
Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
years
Average age 29.4 29.3 29.5 29.7 29.4 29.5 29.5 29.6
Spouse's average age 28.9 29.2 29.4 30.1 34.1 33.7 32.9 32.7
  percent
Marital status  
Married/common-law 47.3 43.6 55.1 54.5 54.8 58.6 63.0 64.5
Lone parent with child(ren) 1.5 0.8 1.1 0.2 18.7 9.6 7.6 1.5
SingleTable 2 Note 1 with no children 51.1 55.5 43.8 45.4 26.6 31.8 29.5 34.0
Age of youngest child  
Under 5 years 23.4 19.9 24.8 20.9 41.3 31.6 33.7 28.5
5 to 9 years 6.6 3.8 4.0 1.2 15.1 13.3 10.6 3.1
10 years or over 1.6 0.8 0.8 0.2 5.1 2.3 1.9 0.6
No children 68.4 75.5 70.4 77.7 38.5 52.8 53.8 67.8
Student 3.2 7.8 6.0 11.3 8.2 11.4 7.5 11.1

Lone parenthood was higher among women with lower levels of education. In 2016, nearly 1 in 5 women aged 25 to 34 without a high school diploma was a lone parent, compared with less than 2% of women with a university degree. Among men, however, lone parenthood remained below 2% regardless of education level.

Both men and women with less than a high school diploma were more likely to have children, but this was especially true for women. Among women aged 25 to 34 who did not finish high school, 62% had at least one child—compared with 32% for those with a university degree.

Women who did not have a high school diploma were not only more likely to have children, they were also more likely to have them earlier.Note 14 For one-third of young mothers who did not have a high school diploma, their youngest child was at least 5 years old. This compared with about one-tenth of young mothers who had a university degree.Note 15 Men with less than a high school diploma were also more likely to be a parent and more likely to be a parent at an earlier age. However, the differences for men were not as pronounced as they were for women. About 32% of young men without a high school diploma had at least one child, compared with 22% of young men with a university degree.

Young adults with disabilities are less likely to finish high school

Having a disability can affect educational attainment.Note 16 Also, not finishing high school might have an effect on psychological well-being and health, whether directly or indirectly, through its effects on employment and income. In this section, data from the 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD) are used to examine the disability status of young Canadians by level of education.

In 2012, men and women without a high school diploma were more likely to have a disability (11%) than men and women with a high school diploma or postsecondary degree (6% or less) (Chart 2). The most prevalent type of disability was also different. Of those who reported a disability, the most prevalent condition among the least-educated was of a mental/psychological nature, while chronic pain was the most commonly reported affliction among those with higher levels of education.

Chart 2 Proportion of individuals aged 25 to 34 with at least one type of chronic disability, by level of education, 2012

Data table for Chart 2
Data Table for Chart 2
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 2 Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
percent
Men 11.3 5.1 4.0 2.5
Women 11.2 6.1 5.0 3.7

Of note, among those with a disability, 56% of those with less than a high school diploma had more than one disability. This was also the case for 66% of those with a high school diploma, 67% of those with a trade certificate or college diploma, and 50% of those with a university degree.

In the sections that follow, the labour market participation and income levels of young adults with less than a high school diploma are compared with those who achieved higher levels of educational attainment.

The employment rates of young adults without a high school diploma are at their lowest point in more than 20 years

There has always been a difference between the employment rate of those who did not finish high school and that of individuals with higher levels of education. In 1990, the employment rate of men with less than a high school diploma was 75% (Chart 3). This compared with 87% for those who had a high school diploma, 89% for those who had a trade certificate or college diploma, and 91% for those who had a university degree.

Chart 3 Employment rates, men and women aged 25 to 34, by level of education, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 3
Data Table for Chart 3
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 3 Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
percent
Men  
1990 74.9 86.5 89.0 90.7
1991 68.5 82.4 86.3 89.0
1992 65.9 79.9 83.6 87.5
1993 66.4 79.4 84.4 87.7
1994 66.1 80.7 85.2 87.1
1995 67.7 80.9 86.0 88.4
1996 68.2 81.4 86.1 87.9
1997 67.4 82.3 86.9 87.7
1998 70.4 84.0 87.6 89.4
1999 70.1 83.3 89.2 89.3
2000 71.2 84.6 90.0 89.3
2001 72.3 84.4 88.6 87.4
2002 70.3 82.9 88.6 87.2
2003 73.5 83.9 89.2 86.9
2004 72.0 83.8 89.5 86.8
2005 72.4 84.6 89.6 86.7
2006 72.9 83.5 89.7 87.9
2007 70.6 83.8 90.3 88.2
2008 68.8 84.2 90.7 88.3
2009 68.9 78.6 86.3 85.5
2010 67.5 78.6 87.8 86.2
2011 70.4 80.4 88.1 85.7
2012 70.1 82.2 87.8 86.6
2013 67.8 80.1 88.6 86.2
2014 67.4 78.7 88.8 85.6
2015 67.0 79.4 88.4 88.4
2016 67.0 78.1 87.6 88.5
Women  
1990 50.1 69.7 79.0 83.5
1991 48.0 68.7 77.3 82.1
1992 44.8 67.1 76.3 81.2
1993 42.1 64.5 75.6 81.6
1994 43.0 65.5 75.3 81.7
1995 42.5 65.4 76.2 82.3
1996 41.0 66.2 77.0 81.8
1997 44.1 66.2 77.6 82.8
1998 45.7 66.2 79.4 83.6
1999 46.2 67.7 79.6 84.1
2000 45.9 70.0 79.7 83.4
2001 48.6 69.3 80.1 81.8
2002 46.2 68.8 81.0 81.8
2003 46.1 69.6 81.7 80.9
2004 49.8 70.4 81.5 82.3
2005 47.9 69.7 81.5 82.2
2006 43.7 70.1 81.8 82.5
2007 50.2 71.1 82.8 82.5
2008 48.3 69.5 82.8 81.0
2009 44.6 67.6 81.8 82.6
2010 44.8 67.6 81.4 81.4
2011 43.9 67.2 81.3 81.3
2012 43.0 66.6 81.0 82.8
2013 42.8 67.3 81.5 82.4
2014 41.5 66.0 81.8 82.9
2015 42.3 63.6 81.4 81.8
2016 41.3 64.5 81.8 83.7

The gap between the least-educated and the most-educated increased over the period, mainly because the employment rate of the least-educated declined. In 2016, the employment rate was 67% among young males with less than a high school diploma—the lowest rate since 1994. This compared with a rate of 89% for young males with a university education.Note 17

In 2016, the employment rate of women without a high school diploma was 41%—the lowest level seen during the period.Note 18This compared with 65% for those with a high school diploma, 82% for those with a trade certificate or college diploma, and 84% for those with a university degree.Note 19 As was the case for men, the gap in the employment rate between the least-educated and those with a postsecondary education increased between 1990 and 2016.

From 1990 to 2016, the employment rates of the least-educated varied more than they varied among those with higher levels of education,Note 20 partly due to the fact that economic downturns and subsequent recoveries can impact the employment of different educational groups differently.Note 21

During the 1990/1992 downturn, for instance, the employment rate fell the most for those without a high school diploma (by 9 percentage points for men and 5 percentage points for women). By comparison, employment declined by 3 percentage points for university-educated men and 2 percentage points for university-educated women. The employment rates of the least-educated recovered in subsequent years, but not enough to compensate for the losses of the early 1990s.

During the most recent downturn (2008/2009) and in subsequent years, the employment rate again declined among women with less than a high school diploma, but remained stable among their male counterparts.Note 22 Men with a high school diploma bore most of the brunt of the decline in the years following the downturn.Note 23Note 24Note 25

Another important indicator of labour market participation is the work intensity of those who are employed. According to pooled data from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 cycles of the Canadian Income Survey (CIS), the proportion of working men who worked full year, full time did not vary much across educational categories (between 66% and 72%).Note 26 However, working women with less than a high school diploma (50%) were less likely to work full year, full time than those with a college diploma (65%) or a university degree (63%). This shows that women with lower levels of education are not only less likely to work, but when they do work, they work fewer hours.

Young adults with lower levels of education are more likely not to be in the labour force

Another important labour market indicator is the unemployment rate (Chart 4). The unemployment rate for men and women with lower levels of education has historically been higher than that of individuals with higher levels of education. Among men, for example, the unemployment rate of those without a high school diploma never reached single digits over the years 1990 to 2016, hovering between 12% and 22%. In comparison, the highest unemployment rate ever for those with a high school diploma was 13% (in 1993), and never went over 7% for those with a university degree (in 1992). In 2016, the unemployment rate for men with less than a high school diploma was three times higher than that of men with a university degree (15% versus 5%).

Chart 4 Unemployment rate, men and women aged 25 to 34, by level of education, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 4
Data Table for Chart 4
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 4 Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
percent
Men  
1990 15.1 8.1 7.5 4.5
1991 20.5 11.7 9.6 5.6
1992 21.8 12.7 11.7 7.3
1993 21.0 13.2 11.1 6.8
1994 20.1 11.7 10.2 6.4
1995 18.6 11.0 8.3 5.4
1996 17.9 11.2 8.8 5.1
1997 17.9 9.8 8.0 5.6
1998 16.4 8.6 7.2 4.6
1999 15.2 8.5 6.0 4.3
2000 13.6 6.8 5.2 4.4
2001 13.9 7.4 6.3 5.4
2002 14.6 9.1 7.2 5.9
2003 14.2 7.9 6.4 5.7
2004 14.0 7.9 6.2 5.5
2005 12.3 7.0 5.6 5.5
2006 11.6 6.8 5.4 4.3
2007 14.8 7.3 5.2 4.0
2008 13.7 6.4 5.2 4.1
2009 16.0 11.5 8.5 5.6
2010 17.6 10.9 6.8 5.7
2011 14.3 9.0 6.2 5.5
2012 14.7 8.2 6.6 5.6
2013 14.3 8.6 6.3 5.6
2014 13.9 9.2 6.3 6.1
2015 14.6 9.0 6.5 4.6
2016 14.5 10.2 6.8 5.0
Women  
1990 17.0 8.1 6.9 4.6
1991 18.4 10.4 8.3 6.4
1992 19.4 10.7 8.7 5.8
1993 21.2 12.3 9.5 6.3
1994 19.7 10.9 8.5 5.9
1995 19.9 10.6 7.8 5.6
1996 21.6 10.4 7.6 6.4
1997 17.9 9.9 7.4 5.3
1998 18.0 9.8 6.3 4.6
1999 16.0 8.2 5.9 4.6
2000 17.5 7.2 5.6 3.9
2001 13.5 7.6 5.5 4.9
2002 14.2 8.3 5.7 5.3
2003 16.7 8.3 5.7 5.5
2004 13.5 7.7 5.5 5.3
2005 15.4 7.0 5.4 4.8
2006 15.0 7.2 4.9 4.5
2007 12.6 6.2 4.5 3.5
2008 11.3 6.3 4.4 4.4
2009 17.0 8.7 5.7 5.1
2010 17.9 9.1 6.0 5.7
2011 17.5 8.2 5.7 5.4
2012 17.3 8.4 5.5 5.2
2013 15.9 8.4 5.5 5.0
2014 16.0 8.0 4.9 4.7
2015 15.1 8.7 4.8 5.0
2016 16.3 8.1 5.2 5.0

Similar trends were seen for women. Among those with less than a high school diploma, unemployment rose during the early 1990s then progressively declined until 2008, and rose again by 6 percentage points during the recent downturn (compared with only marginal increases for women in other educational attainment categories).

Over the past two and a half decades, however, one of the most fundamental labour market changes that affected young adults with lower levels of education has been the steady increase in the number of those who are not in the labour force—that is to say, neither employed nor unemployed (Chart 5).

Chart 5 Proportion of men and women aged 25 to 34 not in the labour force, by level of education, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 5
Data Table for Chart 5
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 5 Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
percent
Men  
1990 11.8 5.8 3.8 5.0
1991 13.9 6.7 4.6 5.7
1992 15.7 8.5 5.3 5.6
1993 16.0 8.5 5.1 5.9
1994 17.3 8.6 5.1 7.0
1995 16.8 9.1 6.2 6.5
1996 16.9 8.3 5.6 7.4
1997 17.8 8.7 5.5 7.1
1998 15.9 8.2 5.5 6.3
1999 17.4 9.0 5.2 6.6
2000 17.6 9.2 5.1 6.6
2001 16.0 8.8 5.4 7.6
2002 17.7 8.8 4.6 7.3
2003 14.3 8.9 4.7 7.8
2004 16.2 9.0 4.6 8.2
2005 17.4 9.0 5.1 8.3
2006 17.6 10.3 5.2 8.1
2007 17.2 9.6 4.8 8.1
2008 20.2 10.0 4.3 7.9
2009 17.9 11.2 5.6 9.4
2010 18.1 11.7 5.8 8.5
2011 17.8 11.6 6.1 9.3
2012 17.9 10.4 5.9 8.3
2013 20.9 12.3 5.5 8.7
2014 21.7 13.3 5.2 8.8
2015 21.6 12.7 5.5 7.3
2016 21.7 13.0 6.0 6.9
Women  
1990 39.7 24.2 15.2 12.4
1991 41.2 23.4 15.7 12.3
1992 44.5 24.9 16.4 13.8
1993 46.6 26.4 16.4 12.9
1994 46.4 26.4 17.8 13.2
1995 47.0 26.8 17.4 12.8
1996 47.7 26.1 16.7 12.6
1997 46.3 26.5 16.2 12.5
1998 44.2 26.7 15.2 12.4
1999 45.0 26.2 15.4 11.9
2000 44.4 24.5 15.5 13.3
2001 43.7 25.0 15.2 14.0
2002 46.2 25.0 14.1 13.6
2003 44.7 24.2 13.3 14.4
2004 42.5 23.8 13.7 13.0
2005 43.4 25.1 13.8 13.6
2006 48.6 24.4 14.0 13.7
2007 42.5 24.1 13.2 14.5
2008 45.6 25.8 13.4 15.3
2009 46.2 25.9 13.2 12.9
2010 45.5 25.7 13.4 13.6
2011 46.8 26.8 13.9 14.0
2012 48.0 27.3 14.2 12.7
2013 49.1 26.6 13.8 13.2
2014 50.6 28.3 13.9 13.0
2015 50.1 30.4 14.5 13.9
2016 50.6 29.8 13.8 11.9

In 1990, for example, 12% of men aged 25 to 34 with less than a high school diploma were not in the labour force. That proportion increased during the downturns of the 1990s and again during the downturn of the late 2000s, reaching 22% in 2016—the highest proportion registered during the period.Note 27

Women without a high school diploma were particularly more likely to be out of the labour force. In 2016, more than one-half of those who did not have a high school diploma were not in the labour force. That proportion also rose over the period, from 40% in 1990 to 51% in 2016—the highest proportion registered over the past two and a half decades.Note 28

The proportion of individuals not in the labour force usually increases during recessions, and the 2008/2009 downturn was no exception. This time, however, the proportion of the least-educated who were not in the labour force continued to increase even after the downturn.

One implication of the lack of labour market participation of young adults is that they may not be able to acquire the work experience they need to fully integrate into the labour market. In 2016, nearly one-quarter of young men and one-third of young women without a high school diploma who were not in the labour force had never held a job. This compares with approximately 1 in 5 university graduates and 1 in 10 trades/college graduates who were not in the labour force.

One-half of young women and more than one-third of young men with less than a high school diploma were not in education, employment, or training (NEET)

The unemployed and those who are not in the labour force and not enrolled in school can be regrouped together in order to get a sense of those who are not in employment, education or training—a situation commonly referred to as “NEET” in the literature.Note 29 Even if the proportion of students is relatively low among those aged 25 to 34,Note 30 the NEET population can provide a sense of the population that is most at risk of becoming disengaged and socially excluded.

Because they are more likely to be unemployed and not in the labour force, it is not surprising that the proportion of those who were neither employed nor enrolled was higher among young adults without a high school diploma in 2016 (Chart 6).

Chart 6 Proportion of men and women aged 25 to 34 not in the labour force, by level of education, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 6
Data Table for Chart 6
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 6 Level of education and percent (appearing as column headers).
  Level of education percent
Men Less than a high school diploma 36.3
High school diploma/some postsecondary 19.7
Trade certificate or college diploma 11.7
University degree 7.0
Women Less than a high school diploma 50.3
High school diploma/some postsecondary 27.6
Trade certificate or college diploma 16.1
University degree 12.2

However, women without a high school diploma are far more likely to be out of the labour force than men and less likely to be employed—the NEET rates of less-educated females were found to be significantly higher than those of their male counterparts. In 2016, more than one-half of young women without a high school diploma were neither employed nor enrolled. This compares with more than one-third of young men with a similar level of education.

What are the top occupations of young men and women without a high school diploma?

In 2016, construction trade helpers and labourers and transport truck drivers were the two occupations employing the most male workers with less than a high school diploma (Table 3),Note 31 with approximately 5% of them employed in each of these two occupations. These two were the most common occupations in both 1990 and 2016, although the order was different. In 1990, transport truck driver was the most common occupation at 7%.

Table 3
The 10 occupations employing the most male and female workers aged 25 to 34 with less than a high school diploma, 1990 and 2016
Table summary
This table displays the results of The 10 occupations employing the most male and female workers aged 25 to 34 with less than a high school diploma 1990 and 2016, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  1990 2016
percent
Men  
Construction trade helpers and labourers 5.3 5.4
Transport truck drivers 6.6 4.7
Material handlers 2.9 4.5
Janitors, caretakers and building superintendents 2.4 2.8
Cooks Note ...: not applicable 2.8
Carpenters 2.6 2.7
Automotive service technicians, truck and bus mechanics and mechanical repairers 2.2 2.3
General farm workers Note ...: not applicable 2.2
Landscaping and grounds maintenance labourers Note ...: not applicable 2.2
Heavy equipment operators (except crane) 2.4 2.1
Managers in agriculture 2.7 Note ...: not applicable
Delivery and courier service drivers 2.3 Note ...: not applicable
Other labourers in processing, manufacturing and utilities 2.1 Note ...: not applicable
Women  
Light duty cleaners 4.4 9.2
Cashiers 4.4 8.4
Food and beverage servers 4.6 4.8
Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations 4.3 4.7
Retail salespersons 5.7 4.1
Retail sales supervisors Note ...: not applicable 3.7
Early childhood educators and assistants 2.8 3.1
Nurse aides, orderlies and patient service associates Note ...: not applicable 2.9
Cooks 3.0 2.4
Estheticians, electrologists and related occupations Note ...: not applicable 2.2
Industrial sewing machine operators 3.0 Note ...: not applicable
Other labourers in processing, manufacturing and utilities 3.0 Note ...: not applicable
General office support workers 2.8 Note ...: not applicable

Among the 10 most common occupations, three of them were different in 1990 and 2016, implying a change in occupational profile over time. Although there were some differences in the list of the 10 most common occupations in both years, together they employed a similar proportion in the two years (31% in 1990 and 32% in 2016), which means that occupational concentration at the top 10 level remained unchanged.

Unlike male workers, occupational concentration changed between the two years for female workers. In 1990, the top 10 occupations accounted for 38% of employed women without a high school diploma. In 2016, this proportion increased to 45%. Again, unlike male workers, the two most common occupations among female workers without a high school diploma were different in the two years. In 1990, retail salespersons (6%) and food and beverage servers (5%) were the top two occupations. In 2016, light duty cleaners (9%) and cashiers (8%) were the two most common occupations.

There is a notable similarity in the 10 most common occupations between men and women with a level of education equal to less than a high school diploma and their counterparts with a high school diploma (see Table A1 in the "Supplementary information" section for a list of most common occupations for men and women with a high school diploma). In fact, among female workers in these two educational groups, seven occupations that appeared in the top 10 were the same for both. Among male workers, six were the same. Although there was an overlap in the list of the 10 most common occupations, there was less occupational concentration among those with a high school diploma compared with their less educated counterparts.

Lastly, self-employment rates were slightly higher among those with lower levels of education. Among working men, the proportions of self-employment were 15%, 12%, 11% and 10% from the lowest to the highest level of education. Among working women, 11% of those without a high school diploma were self-employed, while 7% of those with university degree were self-employed.

Government transfers accounted for more than 60% of the income of young women without a high school diploma

Based on pooled data from the Canadian Income Survey, earnings accounted for 66% of the individual income of men aged 25 to 34 with less than a high school diploma, while government transfers accounted for 31% on average (Chart 7).Note 32 In comparison, more than 80% of the individual income of men with higher levels of education came from earnings.

Chart 7 Proportion of men and women aged 25 to 34 not in the labour force, by level of education, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 7
Data Table for Chart 7
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 7 Less than high school, High school diploma/some postsecondary, Trade certificate or college diploma and University degree, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  Less than high school High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
percent
Men  
Earnings 66.0 81.6 87.4 87.1
Other market income 2.8 2.5 2.2 4.4
Government transfers 31.2 15.8 10.4 8.5
Women  
Earnings 36.2 58.5 73.2 77.7
Other market income 2.5 2.8 2.2 2.2
Government transfers 61.4 38.7 24.6 20.0

Among women, the reliance on government transfers was significantly more pronounced. On average, government transfers accounted for 61% of the individual income of women without a high school diploma. This compared with 39% among high school graduates, and less than 25% among those with a postsecondary degree (trades/college or university).

The earnings gap between individuals with less than a high school diploma and other educational categories was larger among women (Table 4). Among women working full year and full time, the median employment income of high school graduates surpassed that of the non-completers by 43% ($30,200 versus $21,100). Among men, the difference was smaller, at 19% ($43,200 versus $36,300).

Table 4
Median employment income, median individual income and median family income for men and women aged 25 to 34, by level of education, pooled data from 2012 to 2014 (in constant 2014 dollars)
Table summary
This table displays the results of Median employment income Level of education (appearing as column headers).
Level of education
Less than a high school diploma High school diploma/some postsecondary Trade certificate or college diploma University degree
Men 2014 dollars
Median employment incomeTable 4 Note 1
Employed some time in reference year 30,400 34,500 43,700 47,100
Employed all year 36,200 41,200 49,800 56,200
Employed full year, full time in reference year 36,300 43,200 51,200 58,400
Median individual incomeTable 4 Note 2
Total individual income before taxes 26,600 34,400 44,700 46,300
Total individual income after taxes 24,700 30,400 38,500 40,500
Median family incomeTable 4 Note 2
Total economic family income before taxes 35,200 45,200 52,200 54,000
Total economic family income after taxes 31,700 39,500 44,900 47,200
Women
Employment incomeTable 4 Note 1
Employed some time in reference year 13,000 20,600 28,900 37,800
Employed all year 18,400 26,400 33,700 46,300
Employed full year, full time in reference year 21,100 30,200 36,000 50,000
Median individual incomeTable 4 Note 2
Total individual income before taxes 19,100 21,700 31,400 37,600
Total individual income after taxes 18,800 20,800 28,900 34,200
Median family incomeTable 4 Note 2
Total economic family income before taxes 25,400 36,600 46,300 56,100
Total economic family income after taxes 24,400 32,800 40,300 48,400

The lower gap for men is reflective of the fact that a notable proportion of men with less than a high school diploma are employed in occupations where wages are relatively higher, such as construction workers, truck drivers and heavy equipment operators, to name a few. On the other hand, women with a similar level of education are more likely to be employed in occupations including light duty cleaners and cashiers, which are likely to pay relatively lower wages.Note 33

Not only were earnings and individual income lower for those with less than a high school diploma, so was family income. The before-tax family income of men with a high school diploma (adjusted for household size) was higher than that of non-completers—by 28%. Among females, the difference was even larger, at 44%.

Conclusion

In 2016, 8.5% of young men and 5.4% of young women had not completed high school, representing 340,000 individuals aged 25 to 34. Although the number of people with less than a high school diploma became smaller over time, that group faces labour market integration challenges, including higher rates of single parenthood (for women) and higher disability rates. It is therefore important to examine the extent to which this population participates in the labour market.

Recently, the employment rate gap between young men and women without a high school diploma and those in higher categories of educational attainment increased—a result of the decline in the employment rate of the least-educated over the past two and a half decades. Women who did not finish high school were particularly less likely to work than men who were in the same situation.

Another important development in recent decades has been the increase in the proportion of young men and women without a high school diploma who were out of the labour force. As a result, in 2016, one-half of young women and more than one-third of men without a high school diploma were “not in employment, education, or training” (NEET). This population may be particularly more at risk of being socially excluded, and may find labour market integration even more difficult as they age.

Among those who did work, men and women with less than a high school diploma were working in different occupations. About 9% of working women in this educational category worked as light duty cleaners, and another 8% worked as cashiers. Among male workers, construction trade helpers and labourers (5%) and transport truck drivers (5%) were the top two occupations among those who did not finish high school.

Lastly, this paper also showed that dependency on government transfers was higher for women than men, which concurs with the lower labour market participation of women who did not finish high school. Government transfers accounted for more than 60% of the income of women with less than a high school diploma. This compared with 31% for men in the same educational category.

Sharanjit Uppal is a senior researcher with Insights on Canadian Society.

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Data sources, methods and definitions

Data sources

The article uses data from three sources: the Labour Force Survey (LFS), the Canadian Income Survey (CIS) and the Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD). The LFS is a mandatory monthly survey that collects labour market information for all household members aged 15 and over, as well as demographic and family relationship information for all household members. Excluded from the survey's coverage are people living on reserves and other Aboriginal settlements in the provinces, full-time members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and the institutionalized population. These groups together represent an exclusion of less than 2% of the Canadian population aged 15 and over.

LFS data on individuals aged 25 to 34 from 1990 to 2016 were used to look at educational attainment, labour force status and other characteristics. Data prior to 1990 could not be used because, prior to 1990, educational attainment was measured as the number of years of schooling completed, whereas, 1990 onwards, it was measured as the highest level of schooling ever completed.

The CIS is a cross-sectional survey developed to assess the economic well-being of individuals and families in Canada. It is an annual supplement to the LFS; the first collection was undertaken in 2013 for the 2012 reference year. For four consecutive months, LFS respondents in their last month of LFS collection were selected for the CIS. The CIS is a live LFS supplement, meaning it consists of a brief interview conducted shortly after the LFS interview. This interview information is combined with information from the LFS, as well as information obtained from the respondent’s income tax records to produce estimates of income for the individual and family.

CIS data on individuals aged 25 to 34 from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 cycles were used to derive estimates of income and work intensity. Data for the three years were pooled together to increase the sample size.

The CSD is a survey of Canadian adults whose daily activities are limited because of a long-term condition or health-related problem. The CSD is based on a social model of disability rather than a medical model. The social model is based on the premise that disability is the result of the interaction between an individual’s functional limitations and barriers in the environment, such as social and physical barriers, that make it harder to function on a daily basis.

Data on individuals aged 25 to 34 from the 2012 CSD were used to derive estimates of disability prevalence. The 2012 CSD was based on a sample of people who reported an activity limitation on the 2011 National Household Survey.

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Provincial differences in the proportion of young adults with less than a high school diploma

In 1990, the highest level of education for 1 in 5 Canadians aged 25 to 34 was less than a high school diploma (Chart 8). Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador topped the list with the highest proportions for men at 35% and 31% respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, British Columbia (18%) and Alberta (20%) had the lowest proportions. By 2016, the rankings had changed. British Columbia still had the lowest proportion at 6%, but was joined by Prince Edward Island, also at 6%. Quebec now had the highest proportion (12%) followed by Manitoba and Saskatchewan (9% each).

Chart 8 Proportion of men and women aged 25 to 34 not in the labour force, by level of education, 1990 to 2016

Data table for Chart 8
Data Table for Chart 8
Table summary
This table displays the results of Data Table for Chart 8 1990 and 2016, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
  1990 2016
percent
Men  
Que. 24.8 11.5
Man. 25.2 9.4
Sask. 24.1 8.9
N.L. 30.5 8.2
Alta. 19.6 8.2
Ont. 21.2 7.6
N.B. 28.3 7.4
N.S. 26.3 7.3
P.E.I. 34.8 6.2
B.C. 17.7 6.2
Women  
Sask. 18.6 6.7
Man. 23.2 6.3
Que. 21.0 6.2
Alta. 17.0 5.9
Ont. 18.7 5.1
N.S. 21.4 4.5
B.C. 16.3 4.5
P.E.I. 25.9 4.1
N.B. 21.7 3.8
N.L. 28.5 3.5

Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest proportion of women with less than a high school diploma in 1990 (29%), followed by Prince Edward Island (26%). British Columbia (16%) and Alberta (17%) had the lowest proportions. In 2016, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick had the lowest proportions (4% each) while Saskatchewan had the highest proportion (7%).

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Related information

Supplementary information

Related articles

Data sources

Bibliographic references

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