The Hamilton Spectator with Jacqueline Kennelly 22 August 2019
Crippling student debt with no job security. Skyrocketing house prices. A changing climate with disastrous and fatal results. The future facing today’s youth feels bleak to many.
It’s an overwhelming feeling constantly shadowing 17-year-old Layan Rasoul as she tries to plan for tomorrow.
“It’s scary,” the Mississauga teen says. “You feel powerless because you feel like you can’t really do anything to change it.”
When she talks to older adults, they don’t seem to grasp the urgency of issues threatening her future, like climate change, Rasoul says, and instead assure her things will sort themselves out.
“We’re constantly getting news reports and headlines that we only have this much time left, we have to work harder to reverse it. And there are still people who don’t believe it and think it’s a hoax. It’s very disheartening,” she says. “Some of those people are in power, such as in the United States and they’re not doing anything to help stop climate change.”
Whether it’s about climate change or the economy, that frustration of not being heard, not having their challenges taken seriously is demoralizing for many in a generation facing enormous amounts of pressure and stress from multiple angles. Without any clear options for how to tackle these big issues, one of the first casualties of such hopelessness tends to be their mental health.
“One of the things that is happening is that youth are facing higher levels of diagnosed anxiety and depression, suicide,” says Jacqueline Kennelly, an associate professor at Carleton University who has written a book about youth culture and activism. “They’re working multiple jobs to pay for their education, they are struggling with anxiety, depression, just a kind of crippling sense that they’re not going to be able to do it all.”
It’s a feeling Rasoul is used to. She’s starting a biomedical science program this fall at the University of Ottawa, but what comes next is still a big question mark — and that’s stressful.
“Before it was like you get a university degree, you’re kind of guaranteed a job in that area,” Rasoul says. “Now that’s not the case.
“The work world is changing so much, you can’t work based off a plan anymore. It’s just a gamble on your future.”
She’s seen millennials, the generation before her, go back for more schooling after an undergraduate degree when they couldn’t find work.
“They just keep on studying and studying and it seems to be studying to no real end,” Rasoul says. It’s not a future she wants for herself.
“I already have an anxiety disorder and depression, so it’s not making things any better,” says Rasoul.
The only escape comes from distracting herself with Disney movies and just avoiding the news and its headlines about another climate change-driven disaster, another racist incident fuelled by divisive politics, another report about the high salary you need to afford housing.
“If I didn’t have these specific things to stress about, my mental health would not be completely better, but it would be a lot better than it is right now,” Rasoul says.
May Ghadban can relate. The Algonquin College student was sitting in class last fall when she suddenly felt like “the air had been pulled out of (her) lungs.” She ran out and went straight to her school’s clinic, where a nurse confirmed that it was an anxiety attack.
Ghadban can’t pinpoint what sparked the
anxiety, but guesses it has to do with the huge amount of importance she places on school and how she feels it could make or break her future job prospects.
“We live in such an unsure economy,” says Ghadban, who hopes to land a project manager job when she wraps up her education in three years.
She initially wanted to pursue a career in criminology but realized it would require years of schooling and postgrad degrees before she could be eligible for anything stable. So she switched to studying marketing with an additional year of training for project management.
“The older generations had an easier way to get into a job,” Ghadban says.
She’s not wrong, according to Kennelly.
“For all young people in Canada, trying to find decent, secure, reasonably well-paid work is more and more challenging,” she says.
Thirty to 50 years ago, there were many jobs people could do with just a high school diploma, like nursing, teaching or trades, Kennelly says. Then those shifted up to requiring an undergraduate degree or college training, and then shifted up further to needing a professional degree.
“It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Schooling has become more expensive but you need schooling to get jobs that 30 to 50 years ago you didn’t need that level of education for,” she says.
“We’re increasingly living in this gig economy where people are expected to be flexible, to be self-employed, jump from job to job or create their own opportunities, not expected to have a career that’s going to last a long time or that’s going to have any job security.”
Toronto teen Selim Topbas is trying to find ways around that by building up a roster of mentors he can rely on, including his older brother.
“In this job market you need to continually reinvent yourself, put yourself out there, do more than what the education system tells you to do,” says Topbas, who is starting university for policy-making this fall. “It’s hard, and some might even say inequitable.”
Topbas, 17, founded PowerInYouth, an organization to help under-represented and marginalized youth network and build connections that could help them find careers. He has held events that introduced youth in North York to local leaders such as MP Judy Sgro, MPP Tom Rakocevic, and Councillor Anthony Perruzza.
He hopes it’ll help youth connect to opportunities that will look good on their resumes.
“But there are some people who don’t have the time or the resources to do that,” he says, such as teens living in poverty, whose free time is dedicated to work.
In fact, for those without a stable system of support, concerns about school, jobs and housing take on an even greater urgency.
Reilly, 17, lives temporarily with her boyfriend and his family in southern Ontario. It’s the only place she has to go after a life spent moving in and out of abusive foster homes after her mother refused to shelter her. Without any responses to the resumes she’s been distributing and no luck finding a place to stay, her anxiety and depression is starting to kick in again.
“Nobody rents to people who aren’t adults. So it’s just a waiting game until I’m older,” says Reilly, whose last name the Star is choosing not to publish because of her vulnerable situation. “I want to be able to have a place to go to, where I know I’m welcome and I’m not going to be hurt.”
The lack of affordable housing is a reality homeless youth are facing more acutely, but even young people with support systems aren’t immune. In the Toronto area, house prices have more than doubled since just 10 years ago.
“I tell my parents all the time, never sell the house because I want to be able to live in it one day because I won’t be able to afford to buy one,” says Yumna Vaid, 19, who lives in Ajax.
There’s still time before she has to worry out about housing, but there’s one issue the University of Toronto environmental science student can’t ignore: Canada’s efforts to tackle climate change.
Vaid points to the recent warning from Elections Canada to some environmental charities that discussing dangers of climate change during the federal election campaign could be deemed partisan activity. It’s exactly the type of news that stresses her out.
“Climate change is a science, and it’s not something you can be partisan about,” Vaid, 19, says. “Besides being anxious, I’m just really angry because a lot of young people, they’re pushing the government to do something globally and nationally, and they just don’t want to listen to us.”
It’s not something to take lightly, she says.
“A lot of us are new voters,” Vaid says. “We’re not going to take that seriously unless they take us seriously.”
Jacqueline Kennelly is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University.