In the past century, society’s chroniclers have labelled each new generation of young people with a distinctive epigraph. In the 1890s the youth were “gay,” they were “fast” in the 1920s and apathetic in the 1950s. The page turned on the “flower children” of the 1960s and yielded to the “me” generation of the 1970s. Society’s penchant for stereotyping still has not abated, and today sociologists, educators and editorialists have no lack of adjectives to describe the generation coming of age in the mid1980s. According to the analysts, young people now are aimless, despairing and disillusioned. They are the inheritors of a bleak present and an even grimmer future. Economic uncertainty, high unemployment, the breakdown of traditional values and the turmoil facing world governments are today’s realities. Nuclear war is tomorrow’s threat. Borrowing the words of Gertrude Stein, the pundits have proclaimed a new “lost generation.”
Optimistic: But The Maclean’s/Decima Poll found that young people themselves reject such a dark vision. Not only did the majority of young Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 who participated in the poll contradict the myth of overriding disillusionment, they also indicated that they possessed a more humanitarian and optimistic bent than the population as a whole. And although their responses reflected the unique
problems of their age, many young people expressed a healthy confidence in themselves and about their future. When asked about their personal economic prospects in general, 81 per cent of people surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 stated that they were optimistic compared to 80 per cent of the overall sample population. Too, young people were less pessimistic about the future of the work ethic than the population in general. Less than 55 per cent of those polled between 18 and 24 years old agreed with the statement “The next generation will probably not be as dedicated to hard work as were previous generations,” compared to a 62 per cent national average. In general, the reaction to tough times was less one of despair over adverse circumstances than a new sense of pragmatism and a willingness to deal with life’s challenges. Said poll participant Randy Allen, 19, a student at Carleton University: “You have to set your mind on what you want and go out and get it.”
The obstacles that the young face are evident. As they reach maturity, 3.3 million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 stand as a minority group whose expectations are dimmed by the omnipresent shadow of the preceding baby boom generation. The job market they are entering is already flooded by slightly older, more experienced workers. In the future their career paths will be blocked as older members of the population continue to fill the middle job ranks. It is unlikely that today’s young
people will be able to reach their potential as wage earners until they are much older than their immediate predecessors. At the same time, financial demands upon the group will increase. By the year 2030, demographers predict that there will be one pensioner for every two workers in the country. And it is the current generation of young people that will inherit the responsibility of supporting an aging population.
Understandably, young Canadians are concerned with their prospects for financial security. Of the young people between the ages of 18 and 24 surveyed for The Maclean’s/Decima Poll, 50 per cent indicated that unemployment was the single most important issue facing Canada today. And compared with 16 per cent of the overall population, more than 20 per cent of the 18-to-24-yearolds were specifically concerned about high youth unemployment. Poll participant Léandre Williams, 21, of Dalhousie, N.B., who became a civil technologist after graduating from New Brunswick Community College in Bathurst, N.B., last June, said: “Of the 32 people who began in my class, I am the only graduate who is now employed. And I know lots of people who graduated in previous years who have still not been able to find work.”
Unease: The future is yet another cause for unease. Fully 69 per cent of young people interviewed for the poll, compared with 64 per cent of the general population, agreed with the statement “Everything is changing so fast that it is hard to imagine what life will be like in 10 years.” Les Kennedy, 33, director of the Population Research Laboratory and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, declared: “These kids are living in the midst of a technological revolution that makes predictions of the future highly unreliable. No one knows how long high unemployment is going to last. No one really knows what skills he should be acquiring today to deal with the world of tomorrow.”
For some, the concern is that there will be no tomorrow. When asked, “How likely do you feel it is that there will be a Third World War or nuclear war in your lifetime?” 45 per cent of those surveyed said it was somewhat likely or very likely; that figure rose to 49 per cent among 18-to-24-year-olds. In Winnipeg, poll participant Michael Traa, a 22year-old University of Manitoba stu-
dent, advocated preparing for the eventuality. “My parents lived through the Second World War in Holland, and their country was occupied because they had no defence,” he said. “The same thing could happen here, and we cannot afford to make the same mistake.” Added respondent Carolyn Woolmer, 23, a Calgary geophysical technician: “I try not to think about it because the thought depresses me. I believe that war is a possibility.”
Still, optimism and confidence prevail. Canadian young people seem motivated by the very fact that they are young. Energy, exuberance and time are
on their side. So are looks. Responding to the poll question “How would you rate your looks on a scale of ‘1 to 10’ with ‘1’ the lowest rating and ‘10’ the very highest rating?” the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed rated themselves 7.10, while the average Canadian in the poll classed himself as 6.59. And, like previous generations of young people, youths today show an unwillingness to compromise on what they believe to be their rightful share. When asked about job sharing as one of the means for dealing with unemployment, 54 per cent of all Canadians
surveyed favored the idea of giving up some of their hours and income to an unemployed person. But 52 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds polled opposed the concept.
Ability: Among today’s youth, selfinterest is coupled with self-reliance. More than 80 per cent of the 18-to-24year-old group surveyed by Maclean's/ Decima indicated that people should rely more on individual initiatives and ability than on government. That attitude was particularly evident on the question of employment. Said technologist Williams: “The fact is that if you let the government give you a job, you also
give them the power to take it away. You have to stand on your own feet.” Even unemployed young people agreed, though self-sufficiency is hard to achieve. In Vancouver, 24-year-old Moon Yee has been actively searching for a job since 1982, when he received his BA in business administration from Simon Fraser University. “Sometimes, especially when I get no response to job applications, I get frustrated,” said Yee. “Then I think it would be nice if the government would step in and give me work. But ultimately I know that I will
have to—and that I should—do it on my own.”
A new pragmatism lies at the root of such confidence. Across the country Canadian educators have noted a new, practical tone in young people’s attitudes toward higher learning. And nowhere is the change more manifest than in college and university enrolment statistics. Although the figures have levelled off in the past year, 104,234 more students chose to attend postsecondary schools in Canada in 1982 than in 1978. Said Edmonton researcher Kennedy: “These kids recognize that, whether the choice be liberal arts or sciences, they
have to have an education to get a decent job. They are here because they have to be here.”
Confused: That is a view readily acknowledged by young people themselves. When interviewed following the survey, respondent David Soulliere, 22, of Toronto, noted that he opted to enter the MBA program at the University of Toronto this year because of his interest in becoming a chartered accountant and because 95 per cent of the university’s MBA graduates obtain jobs. Said Soulliere: “Many of the problems people of
‘Today’s young people will not end up having the standard of living they had hoped for’
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my generation have arise because they are confused. Today you have to be aware and set realistic goals.” Similarly, Randy Allen, who was born in St. Catharines, Ont., had his future in mind when he became a first-year criminology student at Carleton University in Ottawa this year. “Since I was a boy, I wanted to be a policeman,” he said. “But in high school I realised that without an education I would probably end up walking a beat for a long time. With a degree I can start higher up the ladder.”
But reality has not turned this decade’s generation of youth into tightfisted conservatives concerned only about their own careers—another current stereotype of the young.
Realistic: Young respondents demonstrated a sense of caring in their replies to The Maclean's/Decima Poll. Fully 87 per cent of all respondents, and young people in equal numbers, agreed with the statement “The federal deficit is an unfair burden that we are passing on to our children; it has to be cut.” Yet more than 75 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds, compared with a 68 per cent survey average, agreed with the statement “We should not cut the federal deficit by eliminating economic or social programs.” Said Soulliere: “I believe the welfare system has to be revised, but it is society’s responsibility to care for people in need. We have to be realistic and deal with it.”
Young people, marginally more than other groups, were also more inclined to express great concern about the economic independence of their country. While 51 per cent of Canadians polled stated that Canada should invite much more foreign investment to get the economy growing, 54 per cent of 18-to-24year-olds insisted that the cost of more foreign investment is just too great. Said St. Catharines’ Allen: “At home, I
live 20 minutes from the United States border and I see how powerful their influence is over Canada. We should be less tied to them, not more.”
In terms of society’s traditional values, young people are moving in new directions. As today’s young people enter adult life, they appear to exhibit more open and liberal attitudes toward sex than their parents did. Although only 28 per cent of Canadians surveyed between the ages of 18 and 24 are married, 79 per cent described themselves as sexually active. When asked, “Compared to the average Canadian do you think you are much more sexually active, somewhat more sexually active, somewhat less sexually active or much less sexually active?” 41 per cent maintained that they were more sexually active than the average Canadian. Said Woolmer: “My values are different than my parents’. . . . today sexual permissiveness is an everyday thing.”
But the poll found little indication
‘Everything is changing so fast, it is hard for me to imagine what life will be like in 10 years'
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that permissiveness has become promiscuity: the claim by older people that younger people are embarked on a moral decline may be unfounded. Compared to a national poll average of 38 per cent, 41 per cent of all 18-to-24-year-olds agreed with the statement, “There are so many divorces today, in 10 or 15 years time the whole idea of marriage as we know it may be forgotten.” Yet almost 70 per cent of the youth group agreed with the statement “In the years ahead the family will become more important than ever.” And while younger people slightly outnumbered the general population in agreeing with the statement “These days you can have a happy and rewarding life without children”—by 44 per cent to 40 per cent—the fact remains that the majority was committed to having children. Said Winnipeg participant Traa: “To me, my work and my family will be the most important things. My fiancée and myself agreed that our lives would not be complete without kids. We want a big family.” Smarter: Equipped with a pragmatic outlook, self-confidence and optimism, today’s youth is clearly anticipating a prosperous future. And, in spite of the all too evident obstacles, they may achieve it. Said Malcolm Shookner, children’s services co-ordinator for the North York Inter-Agency Council in Toronto, an organization that represents 75 social service agencies: “These kids have been exposed to more information and diversity than any other group in history. By Grade 7, they are discussing war, sex and the hazards of smoking. They are more aware and they are probably smarter than their parents were at that age.” In light of such sophistication, young people of the ’80s, pragmatists in search of useful answers to their problems, are perhaps deserving of a better label than “lost.”lt;£>
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