For Canadian youth, the future isn't what it used to be

Elizabeth May

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

- Hannah Arendt

Under the category “youth,” the issues pop to mind immediately. This special issue on youth concerns is bound to focus on access to affordable post-secondary education, student debt and the burden of interest bearing student loans, and persistently high unemployment among youth.

The statistics speak for themselves:

  • Number of Canadians ages 20-34: 7,291,100;
  • Total student debt in Canada, including private loans: $28.3-billion;
  • Average debt load for Canadian students upon graduation: $28,000;
  • Canada’s 2012 unemployment rate of persons age 15 to 24: 14.3 per cent;
  • Canada’s overall unemployment rate: seven per cent.

There is no question that Canada’s youth is concerned about where they will find a job in the field for which they have trained.

But we do our young people a disservice in assuming these are their only concerns. They care about the climate crisis. They care about social justice.

I travel Canada holding town hall meetings, open question and answer sessions on university campuses and speaking to high schools. And, even accounting for the self-selection that goes into the youth likely to attend Green Party events, I do not believe my impression of the concerns of young people is skewed. There are enough “captive audience” events that my anecdotal view of youth concerns is more than a reflection of a minority.

To get a sense of how young people, or at least one young person, would approach this topic, I emailed my daughter. Cate is now 22, a 2013 graduate of King’s University in Halifax, about to start her masters’s program, juggling several part-time jobs in the service industry while working as a teacher’s assistant at Dalhousie. I asked her how she sees the topic of “youth issues.”

I think that youth are mobilizing effectively around two huge threats: climate change and damning levels of debt. There is a real connection between the two insofar as having a corporatized education model not only devalues the learning we receive, but also subsumes a possible source of resistance (critical thinking about politics) and incapacitates students unless they adhere to the structure, thereby depending on the societal parasite: corporate control.

On a more essential note, youth fight for their two futures: the ecological one and the economic one. This is a struggle to protect what gives youth their very homes.

For those youth who are outside post-secondary institutions, the market for their skills skews toward expensive accreditation. The cost of this accreditation can be prohibitive. Even though students fight tooth and nail just to keep tuition from rising, many also understand that the game is rigged, the system broken.

This brings us to the unproductive idea that youth are cynical and apathetic. It is good to be skeptical when the received ideas you’ve lived with are motivated by the same projects that give rise to outright global climatic instability–seriously. Youth issues, then, are issues for all of society, if other people will hear the urgent claim. We seek to make the world radically different than how it now is because the world is still new to us.

The notion that youth have a particular right to demand that their elders not wreck their future chances has never had to be enunciated by previous generations. No cohort of elders has ever been so cavalier about whether their children have anything like the opportunities, the life chances, of the previous generation.

Our life chances, the success of our economies, has been built on the largely predictable, stable climate coupled with a post-war boom.

The boomers have had the best of many worlds-economically and ecologically. Just as now former finance minister Jim Flaherty says, essentially, the rules of the game have changed: ‘Next generation, take your lumps on pensions,” so too are we saying, “tough luck kids. Sorry about screwing up the world.’ Increasing extreme weather events, crop losses, not-so-natural disasters, are the new normal.

We still have time in our generation (I say speaking to those of us over 50) to prevent much of what could be the worst outcomes for the next generation. We have time to provide affordable education on a healthy planet. A well-educated citizenry is key to our economic success, just as a healthy biosphere is a precondition to civilization. But as my daughter says, none of that will happen without some radical reorienting of our priorities. Ultimately, the question isn’t whether our kids are apathetic and disengaged; it’s how did the boomers get so apathetic that we do not fight for our children.

Originally posted in the Hill Times