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.

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