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Can Public Service Kickstart Canada's Young and Jobless?

First in a new series on solutions for a nation's generational failure-to-launch.

Pieta Woolley 9 Sep 2013Tyee Solutions Society

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for The Tyee Solutions Society.

This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

[Editor’s note: The Tyee Solutions Society's Pieta Woolley has been writing about the reasons why many graduates of the provincial foster care and child protection system become homeless as young adults. As 620,000 B.C. children and teens return to school, she looks at why the "launch" from adolescence to financially-independent adulthood is proving so hard for so many -- not just the most vulnerable -- and some ideas about how to help. Today, she examines national service programs, which in many other countries are charged, for better or worse, with transforming dependant youth into productive citizens. This is the first of a five-part series running this week on The Tyee.]

Wearing a sparkling blue satin dress that could have been made for Teen Dream Barbie, Santana Huetzelmann, 15, lifts her arms like Evita Perón. It's her quinceañera -- a traditional Latina 15th birthday celebration. Her brother and three male friends, all lean legs and arms, boost her in the air and slowly rotate her around so the guests can applaud her transformation. Goodbye childhood: her mom gives her a last doll, in a replica dress. Hello, womanhood: she dances with her step-dad, and then boys -- ostensibly, for the first time.

This is her moment. She's crossed the divide.

"We don't really expect her to be that different," her mom, Mayra Funes, says the next day. "I hope she'll start keeping her room cleaner!"

The form remains, but in 21st century Canada the function of such traditional rites of passage into adulthood, marking that moment when kid and community agree that it's time to step up -- 'Today, you are a man. Today, you are a woman' -- in many cultures has largely been lost. Instead, like a Mortal Combat player reclining on a basement sofa, adolescence stretches out ad infinitum.

Nearly half of young adults 20 to 29 live at home.

In Greater Vancouver, the average young adult age 20 to 24 earns just $983 per month -- not even close to the cost of living, let alone tuition. Even slightly older young adults 25 to 34 earn on average just $2,775 per month here, a number driven up by this age group's minority of young professionals.

Why? At 19, one in five B.C. kids hasn't finished high school. By 25, nearly half of Canadians have failed to earn a post-secondary credential -- the basic foundation of adult earning in the knowledge economy.

The trend is well documented in pop culture, from Generation X (1991), to Reality Bites (1994) to Bridesmaids (2011), and the current film festival darling, Mistaken for Strangers (2013). Magazine articles bemoan the plight of the jobless university grad. Underlying the pop-cult meme is a strong backbone of statistical analysis exposing the systemic roots of the phenomenon.

This is nothing new. Fictional failures to grow up go at least as far back as J.M. Barrie's 1904 Peter Pan. Even modern-day extended adolescence was pioneered by Gen Xers back in the 20th century, and perfected by Gen Y. But after 20 years of increasingly serious debt, delayed careers, lagging incomes and zero savings, it's no longer just quirky film fodder. It's a genuine social issue.

The question is, who's responsible for helping these stalled lives launch?

Some say government. South of the border, a powerful group of intellectuals is promoting an old-school solution: a new, national, youth service organization designed to transform befuddled adolescents into genuine citizens in just one year.

It's an ambitious but refreshing call for a national-scale solution to a society-wide problem. Other thinkers until now have been better at identifying scapegoats -- including parents, schools and the economy -- than answers.

In her book Slouching Towards Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest (2012 Penguin), former McCall's magazine editor Sally Koslow admits her frustration with her live-at-home "adultescent" kids, and those of her peers.

"Adultescents have taken egoism and not infrequent narcissism to the next level, a broad savannah of entitlement..." she writes. "Our young adult children now exist in a perfect storm of overconfidence, a sense of never-ending time, and a grim reaper of a job market."

While Koslow spends much of her book documenting the lingering recession that crushes even privileged American youth, at the end of the day she lets the economic system off the hook. Instead, she pushes parents towards a more foster care-like approach to parenting young adults with a dose of tough love: "We've raised you. Now get out."

Another author, Christian Smith, suggests that today's young adults flounder because they live in a moral vacuum. His book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, sees high rates of alcohol and drug use, promiscuity, debt and personal drift as symptoms of a generation that has not asked itself a basic question: what is the good life?

Unsurprisingly, Smith is the director of Notre Dame University's Centre for the Study of Religion and Society. Based on interviews with 230 youth aged 18 to 23, he concludes not that most youth make bad moral decisions, but that they make no moral decisions at all.

Most, he found, simply had no internal compass for negotiating the complex, all-you-can-eat buffet of sex, narcotics, financial credit, technology, and consumer goods available to them -- unravelling their capacity for personal discipline just when they should be stepping up. He doesn't blame young adults for their moral morass. Instead, he blames America's parents for failing to pass on a moral framework.

The answer he suggests is for his countrymen, especially its transitioning youth, to do some "cultural soul searching" about central questions like: "What really is a good life? What does it consist of? What more than anything else makes life worth living? What has real value? Why do we feel so compelled... to consume and dispose of so much stuff?"

Yet for all their diagnostic precision, Koslow and Smith are rather light on how to redirect today's spoiled, amoral 20-somethings. Smith does advance one idea though: that voluntary organizations recruit young adults into public service.

It's an idea that's beginning to resonate.

A needed 'national rite-of-passage'

Colorado's Aspen Institute, in fact, is taking the notion of organized youth service to a much larger scale.

In June, the Institute hosted a gathering of 100 U.S. politicians, academics, editors and business leaders to promote the idea of a new national service organization for American youth. Called the Franklin Project, the initiative is chaired by General Stanley McChrystal, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and currently a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

"To help stem the high-school dropout crisis, to conserve rivers and parks, to prepare for and respond to disasters, to fight poverty and perhaps most important, to instill in all Americans a sense of civic duty, the nation needs all its young people to serve," he argued recently in the Wall Street Journal.

In many countries compulsory national service -- especially military service -- is the defining moment between childhood and adulthood. Mexico, Iran, Israel and Russia all require a year or more, as do Brazil, Singapore, Turkey and more (some require just men to serve; others, both men and women). In the U.S., the Peace Corps, Civilian Conservation Corps, and more recently the AmeriCorps, are all national voluntary service organizations with the underlying aim of motivating and leading youth into adult, citizen-like behaviour.

In Canada though, the country's premier national youth service organization is on the rocks.

Katimavik was never the coercive, immersive experience that mandatory military service is, but it did offer a basic introduction to adulthood. Katimavik offered a nine-month program to about 6,000 17 to 21-year-olds per year, living with a small group of diverse youth in three parts of Canada, volunteering on local service projects and learning self-care: cooking, cleaning, and conflict-resolution. With a sexy ambassador for a time in Justin Trudeau, and a popular memoir by humour writer Will Ferguson, I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim: A Canadian Odyssey, the program even had some swagger.

Some participants needed to learn such basic living skills as doing their own laundry. Others "discovered themselves" once away from their families. Several found career inspiration. All of them, Katimavik's interim CEO Diane Trahan asserts, became more motivated, community-oriented and independent -- psychological antidotes to the apathy so characteristic of failure-to-launch syndrome.

"One of the founders of Katimavik thought it should be mandatory," Trahan says. "That all young people need to discover their country, to discover other Canadians." But far from expanding the Trudeau-era program -- let alone making it a national right-of-passage -- the federal government's 2012 budget eliminated Katimavik's $14-million annual funding.

Trahan is lobbying to have her program refunded, gleaning support from more than 700 alumni.

Meanwhile, she has refocused its remaining bare-bones program on former foster kids. Last year, Katimavik ran a pilot program for six foster kids in B.C., and Trahan hopes to launch a targeted program for former foster kids in Peterborough, Ontario, in partnership with Trent University. It would adopt some of Katimavik's signature components -- like collective living and public service -- with additional encouragement to audit classes at the small, progressive liberal arts school, and perhaps later to enroll.

The goal remains the same as in Katimavik classic: a short program aimed at transforming feckless youth into competent adults with a sense of direction and responsibility. In that, the refocused Katimavik joins dozens of charity-model agencies helping vulnerable teens and young adults find stability, school and employment. In B.C. they include Aunt Leah's Place, Urban Native Youth Association, Directions Youth Services Centre, Covenant House, SOS Children's Village and many others.

Not baby boomer redux

But while former foster kids may need extra help transitioning to adulthood, they're hardly alone. With fully half of Canadians in their 20s living at home, this is a broadly based problem. Should it have a broadly based national solution?

At the SOS Children's Village in Surrey, executive director Douglas Dunn knows that kids trying to master adulthood after a childhood spent in public care aren't the only ones struggling. Sixteen vulnerable youth live in his facility's family-like environment; some are from the foster-care system, but many aren't.

"They're coming from 'the home next door,'" Dunn says. "There's split parents, step-parents. There's been school cut backs in counseling and support. And these youth seem to have no outlet other than peers with bad information. They try to take things into their own hands, and they're left adrift."

Still, after 30 years in non-profit administration with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Fraser Valley and the BC Council for Families, Dunn's not among those pressing for national service. Not only would that leave fewer government dollars for specialized services such as his, he argues, but Dunn doubts whether the youth he knows would respond

"I feel for those who see a large, World War Two-style AmeriCorps work program, with massive mobilization of labour, as the [solution]," Dunn says. But "look at the kids themselves," he cautions. "You can't even get three of them to agree on what to call themselves -- hipsters, or bikers, or whatever. They have cell phones that can instantaneously call Cairo and ask a guy what's happening on the streets there. You cannot class these individuals as a massive group, put them in uniforms and expect to churn out an army of new baby boomers."

Recent UBC graduate Irina Sedunova, 30, has witnessed the dark side of both a laissez-faire attitude to youth "launch," and its polar alternative of national military service.

As a graduate student in journalism, she produced a report on a young woman named Violet-Rose Pharoah. Pharoah had a relatively good experience in Ontario's foster care system, but "graduated" at 21 with little, only to land on Vancouver's streets, addicted to heroin and eventually, selling her body for crystal methamphetamine. She's witnessed what a lack of government attention to transition looks like.

Child-care workers in Ontario removed Violet-Rose Pharoah from her home at age eight. She transitioned out of foster care between 18 and 21, then wound up on Vancouver's streets.

But as a teenager herself in her native Russia, aspiring journalist Sedunova also saw male friends forced into military service. "It was a terrible experience," she says. "Twelve months of crying and wanting to go home."

Making her video report, she says, "made me appreciate the experience I had" -- some family and state support, but no mandatory national service.

A moment, not a decade, in between

At her quinceañera, Santana Huetzelmann glowed. She'd chosen the music for her important first dance carefully. It would be Britney Spears' "I'm not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman."

I'm not a girl
(I'm not a girl don't tell me what to believe).
Not yet a woman
(I'm just trying to find the woman in me, yeah).
All I need is time (All I need),
A moment that is mine (That is mine),
While I'm in between.

The tabloid queen of adolescent behaviour stretching into her mothering years was a curious, perhaps revealing choice for a moment that symbolized blossoming womanhood.

For Huetzelmann's mom, as long as that "moment in between" is a moment and not a decade, the quinceañera, will have done its work.

Tomorrow: How seven sectors that used to offer Canada's young plenty of work have withered, making it hard for today's cohort to 'lift off.'  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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