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History Table of Contents
1991 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1991
Growing up on the Edge: The Emerging Generation and Canada's Future

Keynote Address

Vice-President, Decima Research

Public disenchantment with our adult political leaders in 1991 is at the highest we have ever seen in over a decade of tracking the public mood at Decima. And criticism of the vacuum of current leadership is not just restricted to politicians. We know Canadians are also critical about the leaders of business for their short-term time horizons and their seeming incapacity to balance the public interest with profit goals.

And I think teens themselves, from what we have been able to determine in our survey, Street Beat, mirror this disenchantment with the current political leadership in Canada.

About one in two, indeed, say they agree with the view that older generations have screwed up the world so much it's probably up to teens to save it.

We know that against this backdrop of mass dissatisfaction with political leadership that it's probably no surprise that there is unprecedented attention to youth in Canada today.

The Spicer Commission found one of the most heartening refrains in the debate over the future of Canada was apparently the teen tolerance and willingness to negotiate in good faith, to recreate Canadian federalism, including native peoples and Quebec, in a partnership that is very different from that which our adult counterparts have forged.

I think its also interesting that at the local community level, where leaders are struggling with creating new models of development, new models of social service, new ways to protect the quality of our air and water, and other problems that we are creating, that these planners are also developing proposals to set up councils of teen to advise police, social workers, city planners how to better meet the needs of teens and, of course, street youth today.

I think another reason that there's a lot of attention on teens today is, in fact, because quite simply the Baby Boomer culture which has driven popular culture is probably pretty bankrupt. It's in a trough; it's between acts.

We have found in our survey of adults over the past decade that teens have been the victims of some pretty bad rap and widespread misunderstanding on the part of adults and the Baby Boomer generation.

We found, for example, as recently as 1978 that two in three Canadians agreed that teen behaviour today was much worse than in their generation. And we found, furthermore, that three in four Canadian seniors – 65 years of age and over – actually said that if they were walking down the street of their local community that they would cross the street if they saw teens approaching them on the sidewalk.

An astonishing perspective out there and we started to ask ourselves, why, what is going on? What are teens themselves thinking about how they are seen in the media and by adults?

So, we decided to ask teens themselves.

We talked to about 1,500 teens, aged 12 to 19, nationwide. We did a follow up interview, a little more extensive, a little more qualitative amongst some 800 of them.

We did our best to offer every teen an equal opportunity to be heard. There were some restrictions. We couldn't possibly reach each and every teen who didn't live in a household with access to a phone. We under represented some of the runaways and some of the street kids and we hope to remedy that in the future.

Street Beat's goal was pretty simple. We wanted to look at more of the broad range of interests in teen lives today; to integrate some understanding of values, attitudes and insight into lifestyles with certain public policy issues and selected consumer behaviour. So we tried to look at the whole prism; to understand the whole person.

I think the central finding was a disappointment to the media in Canada.

We said that teens today share many of the values of the Canadian dream at a time when adults seem to have lost them. Canadian teens are optimistic, confident, solidly rooted in family and friends. They're goal oriented, hard-working; something almost small "c" conservative in their outlook. And in many ways they share the hopes and values of their parents generation.

We found more than four in five, about 82 percent of all teens we talked to said that they were optimistic about the future. Almost as many, 72 percent, said that the bright future probably meant they would end up married and with children, pretty much as their parents had done.

Most felt the road to the future lies in the ways of good grades. Seventy-eight percent of all teens say that they really care a lot about what's happening to them in school.

Furthermore, 91 percent agreed with the statement: "If you work hard and put your mind to it, you can be anything you want." And this commitment to the goal of possessive individualism appeared even stronger amongst young women, than young males.

Their optimism was tempered when it came to prospect of finding a job. Forty-four percent felt that their chances of finding work was better than earlier generations, while 37 percent said probably their chances were going to be worse.

Another barometer that seemed to endorse the largely conservative outlook we seemed to find was that teens said they had an excellent relationship with their parents.

Eighty-five percent said their relationship was pretty positive; 50 percent – one in two – said the relationship was excellent or good.

A closer look at the parental and family relationship seemed to indicate that all was not completely rosy. There was still a pretty persistent communications gap. If teens encounter a serious problem, most said that they would turn for guidance to a friend, or a teen of the same age. amongst the percent who would turn to their parents first in a real personal crisis, the hands down winner still turned out to be Mom, eight to one.

When you ask teens what are the important issues on the public policy agenda, despite the impact of the recession, despite the incredibly depressing figures that one in four children today are dwelling in absolute poverty in Canada, despite this very pessimistic economic outlook, teens were not prepared to sacrifice important goals.

And on issues of the environment, on issues of other areas of public interest, teens were quite adamant that the long-term global ecosystem should outweigh the profit motive and economic goals.

So, in some respects, we think Street Beat helped to shatter the myth that the Baby Bust generation was a lost generation. I think that there had been some suspicion on the part of some neo-conservative adults and some of the media Mafia that teens had even been alienated from the work ethic.

What is the impact of this largely conservative, somewhat surprisingly traditional picture?

We identified just 23 percent of teens in Canada who would fit what we call the perfect conformist, or follower, psychographic profile; those who were prepared to leave the initiative up to anyone else.

We can't deny that there are those who share the goals of their parents; generation mainstreamers, and those probably number some 50 percent, but they're certainly not outright conformists. These teens are confident, assertive. They feel that they can make a difference in society.

In general, we found a surprising level of assertiveness today.

If you ask: "Do you get farther ahead in life by agreeing with people than by standing up and fighting for what you believe in?" an astounding two in three – 64 percent of teens today – say, no way. And 32 percent are really, really energetic in rejecting that kind of view, particularly females 17 to 19; perhaps that group which needs it the most.

We didn't find anything necessarily which suggests a widespread social rebellion brewing. The number one social issue is the environment and over two in five, 42 percent, actually believe the environment is going to get much, much worse in the coming years before there will be any kind of a turn around.

We find about one in 20 of teens today across Canada could be construed as the political activists closest to the 1960s, but the motivator is not war protests, or protests against capitalism. It is the environment and it is highly motivated as well by feminists and equality values.

We've got an equivalent proportion – again of about five percent – of teens who fit the profile of what we call the outright rebel. They reject social responsibility, don't see why they have to try anything; are trying to run away if not already on the street and are completely rejecting, if not contemptuous of some of the dreams shared by their colleagues.

The surprise of Street Beat is that the Rebel Without a Cause – the teen with the black leather jacket, the tendency to challenge authority is more likely to be Jane Dean, between the ages of 15 and 16, who is much more likely to say, yea, I'm going to stand up and fight for what I believe in.

One kind of expression that we found that's pretty strong is the expression of teen gangs. Twenty- seven percent of teens have a friend who is in a gang; 20 percent of teens say they've been approached by a gang member and have feared for their personal safety, and 52 percent of teen women said that they feared gangs.

What was interesting was the degree to which teens regarded certain authority figures, care givers as helpful to runaways or street kids; helpful to front lines of teen gangs. A large majority saw the police as either a great deal of help, 26 percent, or some help, 42 percent. Religious leaders also got a pretty high score, but the least helpful ratings amongst dozens of professional groups rated in the survey went to politicians and businessmen and social policy makers.
Street Beat found out a few other things.

We disputed some of the myths; the myth that teen years are narcissistic to the exclusion of all else; that teens are spiritually bankrupt, superficial, materialistically seeking instant gratification.

All of these things you've heard are just not true.
We found that teens are worried about their bodies. They do lots of physical activates, they're taking care of nutrition, are aware of the aging process and not prepared to take crazy chances with their health.

They are not prepared to use hard drugs, soft drugs or practice unsafe sex to any high degree. An overwhelming 84 percent supported condom use and other education programs for teens and safe sex, motivated out of a very real fear of sexually transmitted diseases.

We were pressed again and again, what is different about teens today than other generations.

And we came back with some pretty simple truths. Probably not a great deal, except a new assertiveness, a pragmatic tolerance of teen reality, multi-cultural reality and adult reality.

Teens are apparently exhibiting an ingrained tolerance of racial differences; a refreshing change from the adult world.

So what do we conclude?

Basically, teens share many of the aspirations of the Canadian dream. There is a generation bond on many of the goals of possessive individualism in our society today. They share a conservative mainstream culture to some degree.

The generation is not lost, teens are not narcissistic; there's no backlash against the 60s and teens are not air-heads.

They reject a society which has not placed enough value on the environment. They accept one which is more reflective of Canada's changing racial composition. They are choosing not to following all of their parents footsteps and it's up to us all to find out why.


I find it great that there's an increasing level of acceptance by young people of differences in other people. As a gay man, I find it very disheartening that a lot of young people are still suspicious of gay people. Did anything more come up in your survey about the reasons for that?

I want to caution everybody that this was a flagship study. It's by no means got all the answers. My impression of a lot of what drives fear of gays today is a messy kind of communication on the whole issue of AIDs and sexually transmitted diseases. It's true to say that particularly amongst young teens and men that there are poor channels of communication on sexual education. Unfortunately, it's apparent there's a lot of misconception on the whole issue of AIDs and unless we tackle some of that we are not going to be able to get to the dialogue stage.

To what extent did you take the survey into suburban areas, because if you took a school of 2,500 in Toronto and asked them this survey and you took a school of 200 in a really small town I think the answer would be really different. I got the impression from the results that these were all city kids who were involved in school regularly and that's why you were getting the answer you were getting?

We would represent a little more than 60 percent of teen population in city or suburban areas. I think rural is about 30 percent. But, we were careful to control for that because we always wanted to know, for instance, on the issue of teen gangs or fear about sexual violence or date rape, what's really happening in small towns. There were fewer differences than we would expect between small town teens and big city teens. There was a remarkable similarity in concerns and values and goals. There were slight differences in encounters with street violence, but absolutely no differences with respect attitudes towards drinking or sex. In fact, support for the provision of condoms in high schools, which is a hotly-debated issue in different provinces, was higher in rural areas where access to sex education and a couple of other things is more difficult. By and large there is a remarkable sharing, partly possible due to the mass media.

Canada has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the world, yet your survey paints teenagers in Canada as being healthy, adjusted individuals. This is somewhat contradictory to the statistics.

Certainly, Street Beat doesn't deny that there's a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, a lot of dark side to the picture. But I think what was important to right the balance of some of the media stereotypes and misconceptions on the part of a lot of adults. I hope it's not read as totally a good news piece, because it definitely isn't. There were some very scary things to do with sexual violence, street violence, and so on. There is some pretty serious unhappiness out there. This time around we didn't get into the issue of suicide at all. Certainly, we going to try and do this.

What affect is the impact of single parent families having on kids today?

It's too soon to tell. I think what we know so far is that the goals and expressed values – what some people call naive idealism – appears to be shared among kids from whatever family background. Even kids from broken homes still espoused to the goal of working hard, getting ahead, having a family and getting married and still have ideals of a long-term monogamous relationship with that individual. We found that kids from broken homes were much more aware of problems in the family driven by economic background and tended to be more concerned; more likely to be working part time. We don't know enough. We'll try to find out.

There are a lot isms we use to describe things. Did you deal with the issue of empowering youth?

We can say there is a general lack of confidence in political institutions and a perception that teens are not being consulted by public policy makers. It's quite unusual to have teens even present on dialogues over teen's own perceptions of what they want from Canada. The initiative of this conference and of the Spicer Commission to involve teens is kind of new and refreshing.