Youth Service Program for Canada

By Mayes, Brian | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Youth Service Program for Canada


Mayes, Brian, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


In April 1995, the then-Ontario NDP government unveiled its new youth strategy. Called "JUMPstart," it reminded me of the "jumpstop," a basketball move I'd learned in high school. Given that JUMPstart was basically a warmed over program left from the previous Peterson government, with a minor increase in funding, "jumpstop" might have been a more appropriate name. Nonetheless, JUMPstart was among the first programs cut by the incoming Conservative government. All this illustrates the lack of attention given to youth strategy by recent Ontario governments.

Clearly, youth strategy is a low priority for political decision makers of all stripes. Yet, in an era of rapidly increasing tuition fees, decreasing student grants, and higher youth unemployment, it might be wise to seriously reconsider youth strategy. Perhaps the time has finally come for a national youth service program for Canada.

Why a Youth Strategy

Over the past few years, Canadians have been waking up to new demographic realities. Articles with headlines like "Intergenerational fight predicted as boomers retire" (Toronto Star, June 9, 1995) and "Older people should expect flak from young taxpayers" (Montreal Gazette, August 12, 1995) question the financial viability of the Canada Pension Plan (CPP).

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions projects that the CPP will be exhausted by 2015 unless the current contribution rate (5.4 percent of pensionable earnings shared equally by employer and employee) is raised until "long-term rates... stabilize at 14.2 percent of earnings" (The Globe and Mail, February 25, 1995).

At the same time, economic opportunities for youth have constricted. Statistics Canada figures show that, as of December 1995, youth unemployment (ages 15-24) stood at 16.1 percent, and that families headed by those under age 25 earned 20 percent less in 1990 than in 1980.

A recent poll in the United States showed that only one of four young people aged 18-34, the so-called Generation X, expected to receive any benefits from the Social Security system when they retire (Vancouver Sun, September 27, 1994). (1) Similarly, a Canadian poll suggests that fewer than 30 percent of Canadians under age 50 expect any payments from the CPP (Toronto Star, August 12, 1995). It would not be surprising, then, to find that a disproportionate number of young people support the dismantling of social programs. This belief, that they are paying for social programs from which they will not benefit, undermines their sense of being part of a community. New Zealander David Thomson's concerns about the implications of a similar situation in his country apply equally to Canada:

Generational inequities have advanced to such an extent that I am no longer convinced that a vital sense of trust now bonds the young to the old, sufficient to carry existing exchange arrangements far into the future. Despair at ever being able to make the exchanges work fairly may tempt us to put an end to all collective welfare actions. (2)

Those concerned about this country's future must ask themselves how they can promote a sense of community among youth. We must take a serious look at existing policy on such intergenerational issues as pensions, access to higher education, and long-term employment prospects. We must ask what responsibilities Canadian society should ask of its citizens, particularly its youth. If we are to emphasize a sense of interdependence and co-operation, we must acknowledge that government cannot be simply a vehicle for entitlement programs. In this context, a national youth service program merits a place on the public agenda.

Canada, the U.S., Japan, and Britain are the only major industrial countries without some form of mandatory youth service. Typically, young people are paid a relatively small amount by the state to perform public works or military service. Duties include such things as working at food banks, assisting the elderly at senior centres, or helping with environmental clean-up. …

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