Goody Teachman Gerner September 7 1987


Goody Teachman Gerner September 7 1987



Goody Teachman Gerner

1957: “Jimmy, what are you going to he when you grow up?"

“I'm going to be a lawyer, like my dad. ” “Mary, what are you going to be?”

“I'm going to be a mother. ”

1987: “Daniel, what are you going to be?” “I want to be a lawyer, if I can get into law school. ”

‘ Jennifer, what are you going to be?”

“I can't affoi'd law school, even though I wanted to go, but at least I hope I’ll get a good job. ”

In 1957 a Maclean's report on job opportunities for the young outlined a future of almost unlimited options. Choose carefully, the article advised

male high-school graduates, adding that there were “two things today’s careerseeker can be sure of: his services will be more in demand than ever before, and he’ll be paid more for them.” Thirty years later the outlook is radically different. So are Canada’s school-age children: they look different, they talk differently and they certainly live different lives than their parents did at the same age. But those changes are superficial compared with the decline in their expectations of the future.

The expectations of young people rose dramatically in the 20th century. As Canada moved from an agrarian to an indpstrialized society, the number of options for youth multiplied exponentially. No longer did the young expect to live the same lives as their parents. Suddenly, after the Second World War, the world opened up for them. They became aware of all the options available to them—the mass media played a primary role in increasing their awareness—and they believed wholeheartedly in their abilities to succeed at any kind of life they chose. The Horatio Alger story of success, where a poor kid makes good in the big world, was the model for the aspirations and behavior of a great many young people.

Now, although the youth of the 1980s still aspire to a variety of futures and still are willing and eager to work hard to succeed, there has been a significant shift in their perceptions of the likelihood of succeeding. They no longer believe that hard work is the one requirement to achieve happiness. Rather, they are bombarded with terrifying statistics at home, in the media and at school. Among those statistics: unemployment among job-seekers aged 15 to 24, at 14 per cent, is almost double the rate for those 25 and over. They hear that on the one hand, it is mandatory to get a good education to capture a career. On the other hand, only a minority of them have a chance of getting higher educa-

tion—fewer than one in four of the 18to-24 age group gain full-time enrollment at universities or community colleges.

Employers are requiring increasing educational qualifications and experience for starting positions. At the same time, universities and colleges are demanding increasingly higher admission standards, and tuition fees have risen. As a result, young people are constantly

being presented with the prospect of not being able to prepare themselves adequately for their future.

That dilemma is particularly acute in the context of Canadian society at a time when professional and material success receive more emphasis than ever before. Young people are assimilating the message that people are judged on what they have achieved in their careers and accumulated in the way of material

goods. At the same time, our surveys among young people show, they feel that they are blocked from attaining the brass ring of success because of their shrinking chances of finding a seat on the materialist merry-go-round. That fear of failure is also reflected, directly or indirectly, as a recurring concern among many of the young people interviewed by Maclean's (page 38).

And their feelings are justified. The social and economic projections indicate that the current generation of Canadian

children is the first in this century that cannot reasonably expect a better lifestyle than their parents. The chances of a satisfying professional career have not disappeared, but they have diminished. The likelihood of owning a home has shrunk dramatically: during the lifetime of young people who have just graduated from Canada’s high schools, the average per-capita Canadian income has grown by a factor of five, but the price of a house in some major cities has multiplied as much as tenfold. The luxury of taking one’s time and trying out a variety of career options is no longer widely available to young people squeezed between rising costs for shelter and travel and poor pay rates for casual work.

In the face of those uncertainties, children are being asked to make lifelong decisions, in terms of selecting course options at school, at 13 or

14. Choices made in the first year of high school may virtually eliminate opportunities to pursue entire categories of occupations. Although courses may always be taken at a later date, the likelihood of that happening is slight. For one thing, an English-speaking child who does not take French in high school jeopardizes the possibility of gaining admission to basic liberal arts courses in university. Our research shows that a young person who drops out of schooling in the face of barriers raised at least partly by misguided childhood decisions feels even more pessimistic about the future.

Youthful mistakes have been generated, at least in part, by dramatic social and cultural changes during the past 30 years. The pressures for material success, the assertion of equal opportunities for women and marital breakdown have contributed to growth in the prevalence of families in which both parents work, and of single-parent homes. Those developments have created a generation of children who are by necessity far more independent than in previous decades and who have developed greater self-reliance at an earlier age.

The independence of children has been reinforced by television, the primary socializing device in modern society. Young people are more aware and more sophisticated than in the past. But that window on the world has introduced young people to dreams of an infinite number of options and has raised their interest in exploring alternatives—even as those options are becoming less accessible.

Despite those developments, research indicates that children have not changed internally. They are still eager and excited about the world. Emotionally, they seem to be the way that they always have been. Peer pressure and peer ap-

proval is still the paramount influence on their behavior. They still want to have fun—and they still do. They still follow the fads—despite the rapid changes in fashion—and they are still rebellious.

The major change, survey studies show, is the attitudes of young people to their own futures. They have always been frightened of the future but at the same time essentially optimistic about their ability to control their own destinies. Now they have become less sure of themselves and more pessimistic. They no longer confidently declare what they want. Now they describe futures tentatively, fully aware of the difficulties in fulfilling aspirations. The economic forecasts for the next 10 years indicate that low-paying service-sector jobs are what will be predominantly available— indeed, already are in major cities. Meanwhile, television and the other media tell the young that to truly succeed they should become doctors or lawyers. They are aware of the contradiction between the idealized Cosby Show and Family Ties life that they watch on TV and the frightening statistics on unemployment and divorce that they hear about from their parents, relatives and friends.

That dilemma may prove to be only a phenomenon of the 1980s—a period when society is extremely conservative and places a high value on the tangible rewards that young people will probably not attain. The shifting demographics of the population will eventually overturn the gloomy employment pattern. Already the proportion of school-age young people between 6 and 18 in Canada has declined in 25 years to fewer than one in five of the population from one in four—the sign of a future labor shortage. The youngest will face a whole new set of problems as society struggles to support the aging baby boomers.

As the youngest children of the 1980s mature, there will be new and different pressures. Psychological studies indicate that if

people ultimately cannot get what they want, they learn to want what they can get. That foretells a shift away from materialism to another imperative— perhaps a return of the 1960s theme of “fulfilment and self-actualization” or perhaps something entirely new. In the meantime, today’s children are growing up scared of the future. That is not new. But because of the times they live in, they may be right to be scared. And that is new.O

Goody Teachman Gemer, an educational psychologist and the mother of four teenagers, is the president of Toronto-based Generations Research Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in analysing the attitudes of young people.