Monday’s Globe and Mail ran a story that officially confirmed something that we and most young people have known for ages: fewer and fewer of us are finishing off at the academic institution where we first enroll, graduating before the five year mark, or avoiding time off from school to get some thinking done.

Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Project has been tracking a group of young canadians since 2000 (the year the three of us entered university). That research has been brought together in a paper by StatsCan’s Theresa Qiu and University of Ottawa economist Ross Finnie which will be officially released later in the month.

It’s findings:

– Roughly one quarter of college students take time off, take more than five years to graduate, or change their minds about their school or area of study.

– About 10% leave school without graduating.

– 2.8% are moving from university to college (not shocking at all – in fact, we assumed this might be higher)

– 1.4% do the opposite and switch from college to university.

Before anyone starts freaking out and pointing at today’s commitment-phobic, chronically ADD “Twixters” who have been spoiled to the point that they’ll never know what they want, let’s slow down a second.

Young people have always been restless. That’s what they do. And though their parents weren’t necessarily as prone to bounce and stop and ponder and bounce again, there’s a good reason why. Not to sound whiny, but we’ve grown up watching our parents and friend’s parents divorce, suffer mid-life breakdowns, and look back on past mistakes with great regret. As we approach an uncertain future, the way of life that so many have taken for granted for so long suddenly seems in dire need of an overhaul (remember that boomers?), but few have put forward viable new paradigms for living in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the education system we’ve emerged from subscribes to an antiquated 19th model that has refused to adapt to the rate and nature of societal change. One of the most pressing but least discussed issues facing Canadian society today is how to adapt our education system to new ways of working and living. We need to abandon the industrial model and develop something more participatory that encourages free-thinking and innovation. This new model must help the students passing through it test their interests and desires against the realities of the world into which they’ll soon be living.

The Bachelors degree has become today’s high school. That needs to be reversed.

And yes, of course, the phenomenon noted in the research has to do with the students themselves as well. We are a bit coddled (in general). We are hyper-programmed, to the point where few high school students Paul has taught are really capable of discussing what it is that theylike or think.

Further, our consumer society has had a huge spill-over effect on the educational sphere, making it yet another mall, where we can shop for a future. “Do I like environmental science? Hmm. I’ll try it on. Do I look fat in this? Maybe. Yeah, I think my butt looked better in business.”

In the end though, all this shopping isn’t such a bad thing. As we discovered while putting together Kickstart, some of the most successful people in the country did their share of shopping too.

Margot Franssen, the head of Accessorize Canada and former head of Body Shop Canada, tried out business at university, got bored, switched to philosophy, graduated with a “worthless” degree, and still managed to set up a hugely successful company.

Syndicated cartoonist Lynn Johnston, designer Bruce Mau, and artist Christopher Pratt all dropped out of art school or switched schools.

Jim Pattison left university to sell cars. His boss let him finish up his courses at night, but that meant he took longer than necessary.

Edward Burtynsky took a year off from Ryerson in order to get work experience and earn extra money.

Shopping around and taking time to think about what you want and need from a career is not a bad thing, provided that your shopping is active rather than idle.

Dignitas International’s James Orbinski bounced around quite a bit as a young man. Her left CEGEP twice, took time to figure out his university major, thought he might want to be a psychologist, and then changed his mind. Throughout, though, he says he was “searching with intent,” actively looking for what sparked his particular passion.

In tough economic times, there is no doubt more pressure on young people to pick a career path and power through post-secondary education. Fair enough. It costs a lot of money to hang around into your fifth or sixth year of a university program or take time off to clear your head.

That said, parents, educators, and politicians should be aware that, for many, the search is essential. If they’re not able to engage in it in high school, then they’ll need to do it at university. And if not there, then at some time thereafter.

If we’re going to freak out. Let’s at least freak out in the right direction – a constructive one.


We went to a good school, the type of place that encourages its students to be well-rounded, globally-aware, and socially responsible. We were lucky. The instruction in everything from the sciences to computers and history and languages was pretty high. The one thing that they never seemed to talk much about, though, was what we were going to do when we left.

They hinted at it. Teachers would say things like ‘one day you should make a real effort to give back to your community’ and ‘to those much is given, much is expected.’ We absorbed messages like that the way teenagers respond to pretty much everything the world directs their way – with a disdainful shrug of the shoulders. What-ever. That was our failing, because the message was a good one.

What the school didn’t do, though, was get us thinking about precisely what we wanted to do in the future. They let us know what types of careers existed, but the goal was always university or college. The aim was to get into one, hopefully one with a name that made other people’s parents jealous. To what aim beyond acceptance itself, we were largely unsure. Life seemed very far away at that point.

In many ways, keeping life far away from young people is a good thing: it ensures that they develop their interests in a safe vacuum. But, at the same time, it prevents young people from being forced to ask larger questions. The end result of that is the long line of BA and BScs emerging from our university system wholly unsure of what to do next. Like us, they have gone through the post-secondary education process without a handle what awaited them.

As more people go into university programs to get bachelors degrees, those same degrees lose their value. BAs line up to take Masters degrees or specialized college programs just so they can get jobs. No one regrets their BA in philosophy (just ask Kickstart participants Margot Franssen and David Pecault, who actually got a Phd in the Philosophy of Music) or their BSc in Math, but why do we feel the academic realm needs to remain wholly uncorrupted by the practical concerns that life demands?

Really, this conversation should be occurring in high schools. Teenagers (ever existential anyway as a result of all the insane hormones pulsing through them) should be forced to take a real look at how people piece together their own personal definitions of success and work towards life goals. They should be presented with inspiring stories from both their local, national, and international communities – the kinds of stories that make them think about the types of people they want to be, and precisely what is involved in achieving their goals.

Obviously, this isn’t easy. Not every class can have Peter Munk or Roberta Bondar or Deepa Mehta or Bruce Poon-Tip come into their classrooms. But students should be encouraged to look around for the stories closest to them, the stories that speak to them.

That’s why we want to push forward the Kickstart project. We want teachers to encourage their students to collect stories from those in their neighbourhoods – to find out how you do it and what’s involved.

Careers courses need to invest questions of the future with personal meaning. If they don’t, they’ll end up being just another class to sleep through.

The Kickstart Project was never just about writing a book. While it’s lovely to hold the finished product (which we received from the printers just the other day!) in our hot, little hands, it was never about just this (though the thrill is an appreciated balm in this frigidest of frigid winters).

No, Kickstart was always about trying to inspire people. We know that everyone always says that (it makes for great marketing gaga), but we mean it. We not only want people to walk away from our book inspired to go out and kickstart something of their own; we also want them to go out and interview people in their own communities.

We’re hoping to eventually make our website – – a huge repository of kickstart stories. So, with only a few weeks before the book hits stores, we thought we’d officially invite you (whoever you are) to contribute to The Kickstart Project.

Why settle for the people we picked to interview? Our choices reflect who we are, who we could find, and who responded to our entreaties. Kickstart is just the beginning. We’re still out, setting up interviews and compiling them, so why not join us? Go out into your community, find someone who’s made a serious mark on the world, and ask them how they got started.

Did they always dream of doing what they are doing? Or did they fall ass backwards into it? Did they bum around Europe and write poems about flowers before starting their own company at 28? Did they do corporate litigation before ditching the tie and taking up the cause of debt relief or community renewal? Did they once want to be a tuba player in the Regina Philharmonic, or a roadie on the Anne Murray tour?

Go out, ask, and then send us the stories you collect. We’ll post them for all to read. If you don’t want to write, send video.

Teachers, why not get your classes to participate? Add Kickstart to you Careers course curriculum and then send your students off to collect stories.

And if you have a story of your own, we’d like to hear that too! Why wait for some smelly teenager to come and ask you questions? Scrawl us something. We’d love to hear it.

For more info regarding The Kickstart Project, check out the Resources page on our website.