On Campus

Where did the idealists go?

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

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.”

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.

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