Latchkey kids grow up and get serious

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By Stephen Wicary

We are the sons and daughters of the materialistic baby boomers. We are the little brothers and sisters of the slacker gen-Xers. We’ve been called generation Y, the echo generation and the millennium generation. There have been books written about us and magazines published for us.

Marketers are constantly trying to describe a new generation of consumers, but it seems like defining our generation — those born in the late 1970s and beyond — is a near-impossible task. Ask the next three people you run into what binds our generation and you’ll get three different answers. But dig deeper and you’ll find a common thread.

You might find someone who’s worried about the environment. You might find someone who’s losing sleep over the unequal distribution of wealth in the world. You might find someone who can’t understand why so many people are resisting the idea of same-sex marriages. And you might find someone like Jonathan Spicer.

“I’m concerned about everything,” says the 20-year-old first-year journalism student. “The more I learn about what’s going on the more I worry. It seems like we’re involved in a huge juggernaut and there’s no end in sight.”

Spicer’s concern for the state of the world and declining interest in traditional notions of authority are traits that are becoming common among university students.

They are more interested in leading happy lives than lives rich in material comfort. They are interested in social justice and take environmental issues seriously, and there’s plenty of academic evidence to prove their commitment.

Neil Nevitte, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, tracked values in Canada, the United States and Europe over 15 years for his book, the Decline of Deference.

The young people Nevitte studied were more interested in having jobs that fulfill their abilities and satisfy their creative instincts rather than merely providing security and enough money to retire early. And they were more tolerant of other lifestyles than their parents.

Nevitte says our generation is better educated than generations past. We are products of more egalitarian family structures. Instead of instilling values such as hard work and obedience, parents have encouraged imagination and independence. The result: we’re more likely to scream and shout when we realize the system isn’t working.

This explains why students were among the thousands of people who took to the streets of Seattle in 1999 to protest meeting of the World Trade Organization and showed up in Windsor last spring to disrupt the general assembly of the Organization of American States. Closer to home, it explains why enraged students marched on Queen’s Park last February to demand more funding for postsecondary education.

At Ryerson, exemplars of Nevite’s theory are two vocal student leaders. Both RyeSAC president-elect Odelia Bay and v.p. education-elect Alex Lisman were in the crowd at Queen’s Park. Since then, they’ve continued to fight for the ideals of equality and a system that’s fair and free from corporate rule.

Lisman, who completed a sociology degree at the University of victoria before coming to Ryerson two years ago to study film production, defines our generation as having constant skepticism.

“It’s an interesting mix of living in relatively high prosperity but questioning how we got it, who doesn’t have it and what the consequences of that are,” he says.

Lisman grew up comfortably in Victoria, B.C. His parents are educated and lead upper-middle-class lives, so it wasn’t until he began taking sociology courses at UVic that he realized everything wasn’t perfect.

Before Lisman moved to Toronto, the City of Victoria decided to use an aerial spray pesticide that was harmful to humans to deal with a gypsy moth problem. Lisman joined a group of environmental activists.

“I saw medical and government officials lie outright,” he says. “I saw that things don’t just work out, that interests are at play in almost any issue.”

Now he thinks authority needs to be challenged constantly.

“That’s the essential part of democracy. If you don’t challenge authority you’ve given up.”

Bay, who has one semester left to complete her journalism degree, agrees that continually second-guessing values and ideas is a key characteristic of young people today.

“We’re in between the work world and the family world,” she says. “We’re not stable yet, and since we’re struggling to make our own way through we can very much look around and try to change the world so that it’s closer to the one we want.”

But Bay also worries about what will happen to people like her and Lisman when they’re through being students. She wonders if being an activist will make it hard for her to get a job, and if questioning authority will affect the type of jobs she’s willing to accept.

That uncertainty is another part of the definition of our generation, says Jason Hughes, the 26-year-old editor of Fresh Magazine.

Launched late last year, the magazine includes stories on music, sex, fitness, trends and business; it’s geared toward the attitudes and interests of what he labels “the fresh generation” — the people who grew up in the 1980s.

“We were latchkey kids, so we’re very independent,” says Hughes. “And unlike our parents, we know we’re going to have more than one job in our lifetimes. It’s accepted and expected. Most of us won’t even end up working in a field related to what we’re studying.”

Hughes is adamant that, unlike Generation X — people aged 25 to 35 — we’re not slackers. He believes the majority of us are motivated and politically engaged, not to mention smart and full of social promise.

It’s a view he shares with a journalist more than 30 years his senior.

Michael Valpy, who returned to his job as religion and ethics reporter for The Globe and Mail after a failed campaign in last year’s federal election, is fascinated by young people such as Lisman and Bay.

His interest came from watching the protest in Seattle, and escalated when he covered the Windsor protests for Elm Street magazine.

While Marcus Gee, Valpy’s colleague at The Globe, called the student protestors in Windsor “the young and the writless,” Valpy got a different impression.

“What I saw were highly politicized people, people who were rejecting traditional political institutions because the traditional political institutions don’t work.”

Valpy says our generation is distinguishing ourselves from the typically apathetic generation X.

He’s currently writing a five-part series for The Globe on how democracy is changing in Canada, and is using a 22-year-old activist he met in Windsor as the subject of the lead piece.

Valpy doesn’t think young people are as interested in fitting in as they used to be.

“They don’t want to be Bay Street lawyers,” he says. “They may work, they may not work. They may go in and out of university for the rest of their lives. Basically, they’ll acquire sufficient skills to make a living and pay the rent.”

And that’s enough for Jonathan Spicer.

“I don’t want to be confined or constricted,” he says. “Right now I’m into writing and reporting. Maybe in 10 years I’ll be doing something completely different.”

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