The kids are OK, but they need a road map

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The Article

Goodness is up, rebellion is down. Tradition is back and teenagers generally seem to be more responsible, thoughtful about their actions and oriented to home and family.

At least that’s the buzz on Project Teen Canada, a cross-Canada survey of 5,500 teens taken every five years since 1984. Dr. Reg Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, has documented teen culture trends for the past 25 years and he recently published the 2008 survey in “The Emerging Millennials: How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice.”

The results are surprising, as they reveal a radical shift from previous teen cohorts in attitudes toward typical social behaviours and traditional societal institutions like marriage and family. The trends are hopeful, but the fine print (otherwise known as reality) suggests the optimistic hopes of this new generation may not be fully realized.

For example, it appears teens are highly motivated to marry and have a stable family life. The survey found the highest percentage ever—67 per cent—consider a good family life to be “very important,” while 90 per cent expect to stay with the same partner for life. The desire to have a “nuclear family” has increased from 33 per cent to 43 per cent since 1992.

This desire for home and stability likely stems from the fact they were raised by the most divorced generation in Canadian history, and have witnessed/been subjected to the phenomenon that is so aptly described by comedian Bill Cosby: “Parenting will eventually produce bizarre behaviour, and I’m not talking about the kids.”

But, even though teens don’t want to repeat their parents’ mistakes, reality may get in their way: 91 per cent expect to marry, yet many expect they will cohabit before doing so. The reality behind that plan is that multiple studies show couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to divorce. A 2007 U.S. Fragile Families study showed 90 per cent of people living together when they have a child expect to marry—but most never do.

Their intentions to build stable homes and families are noble, but if cohabitation is part of the plan, then even the best intentions may not be enough to overcome statistical realities.

Another concern is that most teens are quite comfortable with, or accepting of, premarital sex, common-law and same-sex partnerships—if love is at the core of the relationship.

These attitudes speak well to the influence of our rights-driven society but, once again, teen attitudes may not match reality.

The form of family may have changed, but as divorce and cohabitation statistics suggest, love isn’t always enough to keep families and marriages together.

Discrepancies between reality and teen plans are also evident in their future expectations.

Teens expect good jobs, to own their own homes and 95 per cent expect they will get where they want to be in life.

Sounds great—but only 55 per cent believe hard work is important (a 14 per cent drop since 1984). So where’s the work ethic needed to achieve all this expected success?

There is decidedly good news in terms of teen attitudes toward risky social behaviours.

The percentage of teens drinking alcohol dropped from 78 per cent in 2000 to 71 per cent in 2008. During that same time, smoking fell from 37 per cent to 22 per cent, and marijuana or hashish use decreased from 37 per cent, to 31 per cent. The proportion of teens not having sex is up from 51 per cent to 56 per cent.

These are all good signs, suggesting that inundating kids with information about the negative effects of smoking, drinking, drugs and casual sex may be having a positive impact on behaviour.

Or, maybe teens are reacting against parents who participated in these activities. But the numbers aren’t good enough if it means seven out of ten Canadian kids still drink on a regular basis, almost one-third still use drugs and half know somebody with an alcohol/ drug problem.

It’s encouraging. The numbers are certainly not what one would expect from casual encounters with teens, but unpredictability has long been a teenage character trait. Predictably, that’s the one behaviour that hasn’t changed.

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