On Campus

Census: Young Canadians are better educated than parents

But are they more successful?

When Melinda Richter began her post-secondary education in religious studies nearly seven years ago, she didn’t expect the journey through higher learning would ultimately leave her wracked with indecision. But that’s exactly what happened when, after four years at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., she found her learning experience didn’t conclude with a career path revelation.

“I was really lost,” the 25-year-old student said. “I thought ‘Maybe I should go get a business degree, so I can open up a shop or have a store and sell religious artifacts.'”

So she hit the academic snooze button, taking a year off from school to regroup before enrolling at the University of Toronto for a master’s degree in religious studies — another decision she later decided wasn’t fulfilling all of her goals.

The latest census figures released Tuesday show that Richter is part of a growing number of young Canadians who are better educated than their parents. Statistics Canada says the number of university graduates has jumped 24 per cent since 2001, according to the latest results. About 29 per cent of young adults between 25 and 34 years old had a university degree in 2006 — far ahead of the 18 per cent of adults aged 55 to 64. College graduates were also higher with 23 per cent of young adults holding a college diploma, compared to 16 per cent of the older age group.

What’s unclear is whether accumulating more degrees, putting off full-time employment and delaying marriage, children and mortgages is making this generation any happier, let alone more successful. Sociologists and some parents wonder whether the dogged pursuit of education by Canada’s young people is taking its toll on traditional maturation.

“People put off family formation, live at home longer and the question becomes ‘Does that mean that they’re not yet adults?’,” said Penny Milton, chief executive officer of the Canadian Education Association. “There is a new phase of development going on that we might call pre-adulthood.”

Milton says this doesn’t necessarily mean young Canadians aren’t as happy or successful as their parents. But it does signal a change in what young people value. For many, the brass ring is no longer a high paying job that will catapult them into the corner office as they begin to accumulate wealth and stability. “There’s a quality of life aspect which is gaining much more prominence,” said Milton.

Young people are also opting against pursuing the trade degrees that defined their parent’s generation. Only 10 per cent of people between 25 and 34 years old had trade certificates, compared with 13 per cent of 55 to 64 year olds, Statistics Canada reported.

The education shift became glaringly apparent for John Baxter, 59, after his two sons enrolled in university. Born shortly after the end of the Second World War, Baxter started his career after spending two-and-a-half years at a technical training school. He was hired as a telecom technician even before he graduated, in the early 1970s, and still works in the field as a senior project manager. “In my case, only my mom was working so I needed to get out and start working,” Baxter said.

His sons had quite a different experience. One of them took a four-year environmental studies program and followed it with a masters degree. The other graduated with a bachelor of science before heading into the workforce. A few years later he returned to school after the softwood lumber dispute shuttered his agronomics job in British Columbia, and left him unhappy with his career choice. Now he’s pursuing a career as a teacher.

“In my day you kinda got a job and stayed there for life,” he said. “I’ve had three or four employers over my lifetime. They will probably have more.” Baxter said that although his sons paid for school themselves he was their “safety net” if they ever needed financial help.

For Richter, most university bills and living expenses were covered by mom and dad. “My parents have always been really supportive. They’ve had that attitude of ‘If you want to do something then go pursue it,'” she said, noting that she expects that’ll change in a few years. “I really haven’t had the restrictions that some other people have because they’ve been able to support me.”

Even some students who are forced to foot their own bills or take out a loan don’t necessarily believe they’re being squashed by heavy debt loads. “Those people who have loans, by-and-large, are glad to have them and say they couldn’t have gone to post-education without them,” said Ross Finnie, an economist at the University of Ottawa who focuses on the effects of student loans. “The clear majority of post-secondary students finish their studies without any loans at all. People sometimes lose sight of that.”

Finnie is troubled by what he said is a widespread assumption by Canadian parents that college or university will drive their children deep into debt. He said the misconception is most prevalent among families whose parents don’t have post-secondary degrees.

In July 2007, an Edward Jones-Decima Research survey found that Canadians under 35 are well ahead of past generations in setting up retirement savings. According to the poll about 70 per cent of Canadians between 25 and 34 had started a savings plan. Only a quarter of the 50-plus crowd said they began saving before they were 35 years old.

Young people might’ve been inspired to save money and carefully budget expenses because of the financial difficulties their elders have weathered throughout life, said Mary Chan, a mutual fund manager at Edward Jones. “They’ve seen through their personal eyes family or friends who struggle financially. I think some of those life-visual experiences leave an impression and cause them to think ‘Is that where I want to be?”‘

Richter said the search for a satisfying lifestyle, and some security, is an approach she has been trying to take since starting university in 2001. “Happiness is more important than money. I’d like to find a job that can support me but I’d also like to do something I can enjoy,” she said.

This fall she applied to Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont., for the fall, with hopes of getting a degree in museum and curator studies. “I thought it would be a way to take my research interests and still be able to do research and apply them in a way where I’m interacting with the public and teaching people,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean that further schooling is out of the question. “There is a possibility that I will go back and do my PhD one day and maybe enter back into academia,” she said. “If there’s something else I find interesting I don’t see why I couldn’t go and do more school.”

– with a report from CP

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