Alberta's pandemic paradox: we're stressed out, losing income, yet feeling better about finances

A CBC News Road Ahead poll finds people in this province are earning less due to COVID-19, yet feeling better about their financial situations, especially young people.

Poll finds younger people feeling especially optimistic, despite earning less

A grocery store clerk brings groceries to a waiting vehicle in Calgary in this file photo, amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC News and The Road Ahead commissioned this public opinion research in May as the lockdown in Alberta was eased. It follows similar research conducted in March, just as the social and economic shock of COVID-19 was becoming apparent. As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. 

This is the second in a series of articles to come out of this research. You can find the first story here. More are to follow.

We wanted to know what it's been like for Albertans living through these strange times.

So we asked them.

CBC News, in partnership with Janet Brown Opinion Research, conducted a poll in late May, as a followup to similar research in March. What we heard was both predictable and surprising.

No one will be shocked to learn that living through the COVID-19 pandemic has put most of us through the wringer. But, at the same time, many of those who have been hardest hit by the effects of the economic shutdown believe they'll come out stronger on the other side.

Still, the poll reveals a profound anxiety in our province. Overall, 70 per cent of Albertans said the pandemic has been stressful, with 54 per cent describing it as "somewhat stressful" and 16 per cent as "very stressful."

The anxiety has been especially acute for young people, women, parents with children at home, and Albertans who have lost work or are fearful of losing work. A full third of Albertans are worried that they or their spouse could lose their job.

Roughly half of Albertans (49 per cent) said their household financial situation is worse now than it was at this time last year. Another 38 per cent said it's about the same, and only 12 per cent said it's improved.

What's striking, though, is that these numbers are virtually unchanged from the responses we collected in March, just prior to the public-health orders that started shutting down the economy. This suggests many Albertans were already facing economic hardship even before the pandemic threw hundreds of thousands of us out of work.

That's not to say the economic upheaval hasn't changed individuals' personal financial situations. And it continues to cause deep anxiety around the future of job security.

Less cash coming in

The CBC News Road Ahead 2020 poll was conducted in late May. At that time, 47 per cent of Albertans said they were earning less money, as a household, as a result of the pandemic.

The effect was more pronounced among younger people, with 58 per cent of those under the age of 25 saying they were earning less, and exactly half of those aged 25 to 44.

Compare that to just 31 per cent of Albertans aged 65-plus.

Paradoxically, even with less money coming in, younger people were more likely to say they were in a better financial position than they were a year ago. They were also more optimistic about being in a better position a year into the future.

This apparent contradiction starts to make sense when you probe a little deeper into the data, and listen to the personal stories of Albertans doing their best to cope with our strange new world.

Changes in income — and expenses

Trish Butler just turned 40, but her birthday celebrations didn't go as planned.

Her trip to Las Vegas with a group of friends who were all due to hit the milestone age was cancelled. It was a disappointment, but not something she could dwell on. There were more pressing concerns.

Amid the pandemic, the Okotoks resident had been laid off from her job. She also had to figure out how to home-school three kids while trying to help sustain a small, family business. She and her husband run an occupational health and safety company, and many of their clients were forced to shut down due to the public-health orders.

"We were just starting to see some really great growth, when the rug was pulled out underneath us," Butler said.

In March, as the cascading effects of COVID-19 came crashing down, the situation seemed overwhelming. Into April, though, the new reality started to feel more manageable. And by May, with new family routines — and government supports — firmly in place, she said things seemed to be looking up.

"We are actually in a better condition than we were two to three months ago," Butler said of her household finances.

And the polling data suggests this is more common than you might think.

While 39 per cent of Albertans said in May that they're finding it difficult to meet their monthly expenses, that's actually an improvement from March, when 48 per cent said the same thing.

This sounds surprising at first, but may be explained by the fact that while Albertans are earning less, they're also spending less. Without the costs of commuting to work, going out for dinner, or travelling abroad, it may be easier for people to meet their expenses.

Ben Rutgers says reduced spending has eased the financial stress of pandemic life for his household.

Ben Rutgers says the pandemic has been stressful as a parent trying to raise a young child, but the financial stress has been eased because of reduced household expenses. (Contributed)

"It was great filling up at 50 cents [per litre] in March," said the 33-year-old father, who works as a scheduler at a Calgary hospital, where they've also stopped charging for parking.

"And you're also not going out as much. You're not going out to a restaurant to sit down for $100. There was some forced cost savings that way, so your finances haven't really changed."

Back in Trish Butler's home, the improvement in her household finances was the result of federal income support, reduced spending on things like restaurant meals, and mortgage payments that have been deferred until the fall. Add it all up, and the situation that seemed so daunting at first has transformed into one that's cash-flow positive.

"We have an actual, healthy savings account right now, which is the first time we've really ever had that," Butler said.

The data illustrates that her experience of losing work, but finding herself in a better financial position in spite of it, is far from unique. But such experiences are contingent on circumstances like qualifying for federal income support and being able to defer housing costs, which isn't always available to people who rent.

There are as many different situations as there are Albertans. And, as public-health restrictions are lifted, the economic implications will continue to alter those situations.

One of the largest is around employment.

Job concerns

In terms of the various ways that people have been affected by the pandemic, 23 per cent said they or their spouse has been temporarily laid off, while 11 per cent said they or their spouse has been permanently laid off.

According to the poll, a full third of Albertans, 33 per cent, said they or their spouse are concerned about losing a job in the near future.

Kimberly Ortiz, 31, is balancing studies at Mount Royal University with work as a server at a once-lively restaurant in downtown Calgary. Both aspects of her life have been affected, but it's her job that she's most concerned about right now.

"Our whole business model has officially changed, because we were one of those restaurants that would have a band on the weekend, and that's now out the window for the foreseeable future," she said.

Kimberly Ortiz says the pandemic has drastically altered her work, her studies and her life. (Contributed)

The restaurant has only recently reopened, with reduced capacity and increased expenses. Ortiz said managers are optimitistic the business remains viable, and she does too, but the future is far from certain.

"It's still scary," she said. "We are really relying on the support of people coming out to eat locally."

Service industries have been disproportionately affected by the public-health orders and the people who work in these industries are disproportionately younger and female.

Roughly 34,000 women under the age of 25 lost work in March alone, according to Statistics Canada's employment estimates for Alberta, making them by far the hardest-hit group as the economic shutdown began. As it expanded into April, young women in the province watched their employment rate cut nearly in half from pre-pandemic levels.

"It's been extremely stressful,"  Hope Sheridan, 25, told CBC News in early May, after being laid off in mid-March from her job as a recruiter with GoodLife Fitness.

Those disparities were also reflected in the poll, with 18-to-24-year-old respondents being the most likely to say they were temporarily laid off, working fewer hours, or making less money. 

People aged 25 to 44, meanwhile, were the most worried about a layoff or loss of income in the future.

Different people, different concerns

Pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 poll, says it shows different segments of Albertans are being harder hit than others.

Still, she says, the results suggest many Albertans are actually holding up pretty well, despite the difficult times.

While 70 per cent of Albertans say the pandemic has been stressful, she noted that only 16 per cent as described it as "very stressful."

"What that says to me is that this is having an impact on Albertans, but most Albertans are doing a pretty remarkable job coping with the stress caused COVID."

But it's worth looking at where the different stresses are. You can explore those differences, in detail, in the interactive chart below.

As you'll see in the chart, female respondents were nearly twice as likely as men to describe the pandemic as "very stressful." Men, meanwhile, were more than twice as likely to say it hasn't been stressful at all.

People under the age of 45 were also more likely to say life has been "very stressful" than those over the age of 45. And some of the highest levels of stress were, unsurprisingly, among those who had been laid off or were afraid of losing their jobs.

"These effects are really bigger for younger people than they are for any other age group," Brown said.

For Ortiz, the weeks-long shutdown of her restaurant meant more than a loss of income.

Amid generalized stay-at-home instructions, it also meant going from hundreds of human interactions each day to virtually none. That was a hard adjustment, she said, for herself and many colleagues in the industry, who tend to be extroverts and thrive on social connection.

Layer on top of that the cancellation of in-person university classes and the nagging worry about finances and future employment, and Ortiz says it has all added up to a heavy emotional weight.

"To be honest, I've suffered from depression and the stress, for me, is when I start feeling that way again," she said.

"At least once a week I would have a good breakdown about everything and just allow myself to have that moment to just freak out and cry about it and get really sad and then do the best I could for the next few days and, hopefully, get back into a more positive mindset."

And the poll suggests younger people do have a more positive mindset about the future.

Youthful optimism

Back in March, 40 per cent of all Albertans who were polled said they expected their financial situation to be worse in a year's time. That improved to 32 per cent in the late May poll.

Another 41 per cent expect their situation to remain the same over the coming year, while 22 per cent expect it to get better.

And younger people were the most optimistic. 

Among 18-to-24-year-olds, more than a third (35 per cent) said they expect their financial situation next year will be "better than it is now." Just 12 per cent of Albertans aged 65 and over said the same, something that's perhaps related to the recent plunge in stock prices and retirement portfolios.

Of course, "better" is a relative term.

For some who find themselves at what seems like rock bottom, the only way to go may look like up. But in general, optimism about future finances declined with age, in spite of the fact that older people reported the least impact from COVID-19 on their employment or income.

And this, perhaps, ties back to the changes in not just what people have been spending while gas was cheap and restaurants were closed, but also what they expect to be spending — and how they expect to be living — in the future.

What comes next?

Rev. Christine Conkin has seen a shift in mindset among her congregation at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Calgary. She believes the pandemic has allowed many people, especially families, to "just have a slower pace of life" for a while.

And many have found that refreshing.

Rev. Christine Conkin says she's seen a lot of stress among her congregation at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Calgary, but she's also seen many people use the pandemic as an opportunity to re-evaluate their relationships and their lives. (St. Andrews Anglican Church)

"I've heard people rethinking their relationships to work and to family," she said.

"I think our world had been kind of crazy and so, to just kind of slow down, I think is something we can hold on to."

For Butler, as she looks forward to life in her 40s, she wonders if the pandemic may actually be an opportunity to live differently for good. She hopes to focus on her family for now, invest in her business for the future, and perhaps never return to the type of 9-to-6 job she was laid off from.

The changes to Alberta's economy and Albertans' lives, both temporary and permanent, will continue for some time. This pandemic is far from over, and no doubt the stress will continue, as well, especially for people employed in industries that have relied on how things worked, pre-COVID.

If the fundamental shifts we've seen in consumer behaviour turn permanent, it creates a complicated macroeconomic picture of what our future might look like, for better or for worse. 

And that, in itself, is stressful.

The latest CBC News Road Ahead survey was conducted between May 25 and June 1, 2020, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The survey sampled 900 respondents, randomly selected from Trend Research's online panel of more than 30,000 Albertans. The sample is representative of regional, age and gender proportions in Alberta. A comparable margin of error for a study with a probabilistic sample of this size would be plus or minus 3.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

With files from Brooks DeCillia


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