Where did the idealists go? - Macleans.ca

Where did the idealists go?

Students care less about education and the environment than their future standard of living

Where did the idealists go?

Photograph by Cole Carside

Every election campaign season, experts suggest that the best way for political parties to rock the youth vote is to focus on “the student issues”—often defined as tuition and the environment. Omeed Asadi, a third-year communications student at York University, hears it all the time. “In Vari Hall, which you have to cross to get to pretty much every class, there’s always the York Federation of Students rallying against high tuition, or green activists against pollution,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong. I respect those issues. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it.” Asadi also cares about health care, the tenor of parliamentary discourse and fiscal responsibility.

He’s not the only young Canadian who thinks there’s more at stake in this election than tuition hikes and the health of the planet, according to an exclusive new poll from the Historica-Dominion Institute. The survey asked 831 youth between the ages of 18 to 24 what issues concerned them. Participants were given 10 statements, each capturing a different election issue, and asked to rank them from most to least concerning. Turns out the average young voter is a lot more like Asadi than the student activists making all the noise. “They’re certainly thinking of longer-term issues earlier in their lives than we would have thought,” says Jeremy Diamond, a director at Historica-Dominion.

The most common concern for youth? “That my standard of living will be lower than my parents,” which 63 per cent ranked in their top three concerns. This was consistent across party lines and from coast to coast, although it was significantly more common among young people in the economically stagnant Atlantic region (75 per cent). “We tend to think of students as idealistic,” says Diamond, “but this shows an overriding worry that they won’t be as successful as their parents.”

Splitting the vote

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Dietlind Stolle, a McGill University political scientist, cautions that the “standard of living” statement is likely capturing more than just economic concerns. That may be true, but it’s not the only evidence from the survey that shows students are worried about the country’s financial footing. “Fear of another economic recession” is a concern of 43 per cent, ranking it third. In fact, youth put the country’s bank accounts far ahead of their own; “paying for my post-secondary education” is a top-three concern of just 18 per cent.

This heavy focus on the economy doesn’t surprise Janni Aragon, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, who studies young voters. “The millennials are keenly aware of the economy,” she says. “A lot of my own students worry that after graduation they’ll have to move back in with their parents, because they won’t be able to afford an apartment, God forbid a house.” Economic worries, surprisingly, are especially prevalent among left-leaning students. Among respondents, recessions are top of mind for 63 per cent of Green supporters, 48 per cent of those who plan to vote for the NDP, 45 per cent of Liberal supporters, and just 27 per cent of young Tories.

It isn’t that they’re concerned with finding work—“getting a job or keeping my current job” was only in the top-three lists of eight per cent—so much as fear about the economic burden they may inherit. “Paying off the national debt” is a top-three concern for 24 per cent.

The second-biggest concern for youth overall is “that the health care system won’t be there for me when I need it.” In British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, 58 per cent prioritize this concern. Overall, 49 per cent listed it in their top three. Jessica Wong, a first-time voter at McGill University, says health care is the issue that has the biggest influence on her vote, though she admits it’s an issue she has never discussed with her peers, unlike tuition or the environment. The 19-year-old chemistry student has little experience with the system, “but I think health care is indicative of how a country treats each other—whether they just look after the rich people or look after everyone.”

Fourth on the list, with nearly one in three (31 per cent) ranking it in their top three, is a concern for “the erosion of democracy.” This was fairly consistent nationwide, though it’s somewhat more pressing in Quebec. The only defence-related option was “foreign threats to Canada,” which 23 per cent made a top-three concern. “I would have expected it to be lower,” says Aragon, citing the stereotype of young people as pacifists. That said, she wasn’t surprised to learn that Alberta has the highest percentage of young hawks (32 per cent).

Only near the bottom of the list do the so-called “student issues” appear. Less than one in five (18 per cent) say that “paying for my post-secondary education” is a top-three concern. But the biggest surprise is how few put the environment as a top priority. Only 13 per cent of youth agree “that the environment will be ruined without more action,” putting it second from the bottom. More shocking is that in English Canada, the students who care most about the Earth are far more likely to say they’ll vote Conservative (23 per cent) than Liberal (eight per cent), NDP (eight per cent), or even Green (seven per cent).

Even if it’s not their priority, students still do care greatly about high tuition and the environment. When presented with the statement, “the government should provide more money to help students pay for higher education,” 88 per cent either somewhat or strongly agree. And 86 per cent agree that “the government should be doing more to protect the environment.”

But that’s where the consensus ends. On every other policy position, students are more split. Large numbers “neither agree or disagree” with statements about raising corporate taxes, opening the health care system to more private money, or increasing immigration. “That may indicate,” says Aragon, “a lack of understanding or exposure.”

That’s no doubt a reality for some students, but not for Asadi. He’s read all the platforms and can quote Michael Ignatieff’s about untendered fighter jet contracts and the billion-dollar G20. “It’s so short-sighted to focus only on tuition,” he says. “I’m only in school for one more year. Then everything affects me.”

The online survey of 831 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 was conducted on Uthink’s online national research panel between April 8-13. The margin of error is 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


Where did the idealists go?

  1. Well said, In other words, policy that matters to youth, go figure!

  2. That makes sense, since cellphones are often about the only thing young people pay for themselves.

  3. Far from being self-centered, it sounds like twenty-somethings have a real grasp of the issues. The demographic time bomb is one of the most serious threats to Canada, and it will affect everyone's standard of living and access to health care.

    Also, like all wise voters, they do not appear to be tied to a single issue.

  4. Being a "youth" who has been through the post-secondary school system (or tertiary school system, depending on your preference), I would have to say that the findings of the study referenced in the article ring true with my experience. Many people of my generation are starting to come to the realization that we will likely have less than our parents in terms of material wealth, as the standard of living of developing countries increases at the expense of developed countries. Many of us are also concerned about the sustained growth of the Canadian economy, and its ability to produce high quality jobs.

    Some have even argued that the green movement is being used to acclimate the younger generations of the West to the idea that they will not enjoy the same standard of living as previous generations. Personally, I feel I have come to terms with this idea, but I'm concerned that others of my generation will not be so forgiving with their elders. As issues like health care costs and pensions come to a head, I'm scared many Western societies will start seeing a dramatic increase in inter-generational conflict.

    • The corporate media has been lying about heatlhcare costs.

  5. One is very encouraged by the headline, and one hopes it is true.

  6. "Students care less about education and the environment than their future standard of living."

    Isn't the quality of the third somewhat dependent upon the state of the first two?

  7. This comment was deleted.

    • Like your PM Layton using a subsidized housing in the past even with an income of $120,000.00? Which family with real pressing housing need did not qualify to accommodate your most praised leader? Baa, baa, and baa!

  8. Some interesting ideas, but I would have to say that this youth would be more concerned with the "big picture" items of party platforms. Regardless, I agree it would get some attention in younger circles; I'm just not sure it's enough to sustain their interest.

  9. "I'm scared many Western societies will start seeing a dramatic increase in inter-generational conflict."

    Its about damned time. The big expenses in life – kids, first house, etc. – come early in life (at least since we have universal healthcare), precisely when people's earning potential is at its lowest. To compound that problem with the great sucking sound that is social security – a program that probably won't be around for us – and 6% per annum increases in health spending (paid for by our taxes) is pure highway robbery. Try buying a house these days – Canadian house prices have skyrocketed, spurred on by the CMHC (itself an AIG in the making). That's great if you bought a house in the 80s or 90s, but it squeezes young workers out of the market, forcing them to live with parents or to lose their money forever in rent.
    It looks like we are on track to be worse off than our parents were. And we'll have to work harder to get there. Credential inflation is destroying the value of a degree, while forcing everybody to go to university.

    The problem is that my fellow millennials don't live in the real world. Large numbers still live with their parents or are still in school – and wherever they are, the main place they live is facebook (which amplifies their tendency toward conformism – social networks are like a gated community of the mind). So they tend towards the kind of fickle politics that you see on university campuses (or from Hollywood celebrities – who also reside outside reality), instead of confronting the very real bread and butter issues that will impact their wellbeing.

    The problem is not that politicians don't listen to young people. The problem is that young people aren't worth listening to, and won't be until they have a great reckoning and realize just how much the deck is stacked against them. When I hear that my co-generationists care about their standard of living, it suggests to me that we are getting there (all it took was a second Great Depression).

    Soon my revolutionists, we will rise up and throw the geezercrats out of their bubble-inflated castles.

    • "The problem is that young people aren't worth listening to"

      You can read my comment but I don't agree with this at all. I think that young people absolutely deserve to have a voice! I know that a lot of young people today aren't motivated, and live in a closed off little world… but that shouldn't take credibly away from people who DO care!

      I do agree with a lot of what you said! I'm just tired of my opinion not mattering.

  10. Welcome to the class war… thanks to free trade and mulroney selling Canada out this is the result. John Turner was right… don't blame the old geezers, the schools are just as much to blame for putting out those who don't even know how government works or why voting is important. Next is the corporate ownership of the press manipulating the pubic mind for votes.

  11. As one of these "Canadian youth" above posters talk about as if we are all handicapped and incapable of paying attention to the news, I'm pretty disappointed. Typically for the baby-boom generation to see everyone older and younger than them as the source of all their problems. Get your SHEET together. We know what's going on. We don't just care about cell phone bills. Is the environment important? Yes. It's going to be so much fun spending our lives paying for the mess that your generation has created. Can't wait to graduate from college and enter a stagnant job market full of people who are unwilling to retire even though they lack skills and fresh ideas, because they haven't bothered to save up for themselves since they were too busy spending frivolously. HA!
    You don't deserve to retire happily. I don't work two jobs to put myself through school searching endlessly for co-ops that aren't available due to the financial mess that YOU created, so that I can try to break in the job market that you are clogging up. MAYBE BABY BOOMERS SHOULD REALIZE IT'S TIME FOR THEM TO START DOING SOMETHING. YOUTH APATHY WILL NOT LAST FOREVER.

    • A little aggressive my friend, but on the nose none the less.

  12. Dumb article. Attacking students who have figured out that electing socialists or 'green' statists will not lead to a better environment or better education is easy and predictable of course. But the reality is that the students who have figured out that socialism spreads the poverty around should be applauded – because they have figured it out despite the years of brainwashing in the 'education' system.

  13. I am a girl currently in grade 12 and heading to University next year. I'm president of my school's environmental club and involved in pretty much everything. I try to stay as current and up to date as I can on all current world affairs; right now the upcoming election. My age group is NOT involved in this pole, which is okay because I know we're not of legal voting age (I wouldn't trust some of my classmates with a ballot!) But If I COULD vote… There is no question that I would vote right.

    It's tough with notoriously left leaning union teachers constantly twisting information and force feeding it to us at school, but in the people who I talk to an overwhelming number agree with me. We grab Conservative stickers and put them on our cars right beside our N's!!

    In my opinion the thing isn't that we, the "youth of today", are any different from the youth of yesterday or fifty years ago; hell! We're still idealistic and question everything! We want change, and we absolutely believe that we have the power to make it happen!! But today, in the world we live in, our ideals have changed.

    We care about truth, and we care about justice… and although some people have different political views that's pretty consistent. The thing is, as a whole youth are smarter than people give us credit for! We don't have years of bias on our shoulders so we can look at facts, and differentiate between truth and lies. And frankly it is appalling how many lies people try to feed us, and how many grown, educated, respected people believe those lies!

    It's a reflection on government. In the past little while, it is the Conservatives who, although not perfect by any means, seem the most honest. We're really just a bunch of idealists guys, but it'll be a hell of a lot easier to get a job after we graduate from post secondary if there are jobs available. It'll also help us to pay off those student loans if taxes aren't through the roof.

    I'm really happy to finally read an article on this election that isn't littered with comments from misinformed people talking about how great all of Uncle Jack's lies sound. I was getting pretty frustrated :)

    • "seem the most honest" thats a good one. Did you not watch any news leading up to the election?

    • Good for you….you've learned the first lessons of adult life in North America…that 'education' means 'teacher's salaries', and 'protecting the environment' means 'taxing the crap out of you at the pump to dump in general revenues'. Smaller government is the only thing that will save us…

    • Silly girl. Grow up a bit, move out of the house, try to get by on $8-10 an hour, and you'll change your tune pretty quick

      • Haha, seriously? I would rather go to school and earn a little more than $8.00 an hour thank you very much… but I am willing to work my ass off for it. We live in a country with equal opportunity when you're willing to work hard. It's unions and left wing bs that keep us behind.

        • and people like you WictorWictor!! Give the girl a break

    • Congradulations you have it figured out. To read a letter not flled with rhetoric but with facts is great.

      You are on the right track to a successfull life as you are not a follower but a leader, well done.

      You have seen past the bias by educators, do-gooders, politically correct crap and especially the press in this country.

  14. Interesting that a cell phone contract may be sufficient to attract a young vote. Forget the economy, reverse discirmination, the huge tax burder on those in the private sector or the fact the Canucks may win. No, can I break my cell phone contract. Personally I give todays youth more credit then that. My children are in that category and they are as fed up as I am with the rules, taxes and spending. in other words they do not like the direction this country is headed.


  15. Actually, I think the youth of today will become a lot more realistic..ie. Conservative…when they start looking at their pay stubs and begin asking, "Why the heck are they taking all this money from me!"

    Having to actually foot the bill……..tends to open one's eyes about where the money is going.

  16. Actually, I think that Kids are looking at the collapse of the financial systems, greed, and are choosing to say that they believe the NDP approach has some merit. Yes, they believe the economy is important, and they want to fix it by voting NDP.

  17. Canadians, don't buy the FEAR…

    The New Democratic Party in the year 2011 are a CENTER-LEFT party, if you want to talk political spectrum. NOT an "EXTREME-LEFT", "FAR-LEFT", "SOCIALIST", 1902 un-democratic cut off your head if you don't comply, party…

    In the year 2011? in our DEMOCRATIC country? where the politicians are accountable to the PEOPLE?, NOT the other way around…(like Harper would have) The 1902 FEAR MONGERING catchphrases are just ridicules American style babble.

    The CENTER-left NDP will do whatever it takes to stay in power, no differently then ANY other political party, & WOW?! if they make mistakes? like EVERY other party in history?!, then VOTE them out. Back in the CONTEXT that these FEAR MONGERS are trying to use them in today?, they had NO VOTE.

    All I know is JACK is a SAINT compared to Harper. BY FAR the hardest working MP in Parliament for the PEOPLE, not to mention his team. The only thing any Canadian who cares about what's LEFT of Canada should FEAR is the Harper Regime.

    Anyone tells you different?, they are just trying to SCARE you into not voting for JACK, Boo!…

    • I am not trying to scare anyone, but the NDP party of Canada is a socialist party.

      You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.

  18. Greece failed because its people wanted social services, but they didn't want to pay for them. Not unlike the Conservatives, who often chant at their rallies: "Conservatives say yes, without raising taxes"

    • Really? Which rally was that?

    • The problem is that nobody can afford that level of social services.

      'Socialism is great until you run out of other people's money'.

  19. Those are some good looking people in that picture.