I find it extremely interesting the number of people willing to pronounce on the student protests in Quebec based on a gut sense of how young people today are and some reminiscences of how they were when they were young.
I don’t agree with everything that the students in Quebec are asking for, and I certainly don’t support the isolated violence that has marked their protests and captivated the press, but the framing of this issue as a binary one where students are a bunch of whiny, entitled, spoilt brats is troubling and diminishes us all.
As a person who teaches classes of various sizes and levels at a major Canadian university and spends a fair amount of time around the students of today, but who like many of the pontificating pundits has also worked hard and been moderately successful, I’d like to make a few points here.
1. Young people are not a homogeneous group. People go to university and work jobs for myriad reasons, all of which defy simple stereotyping.
2. Students today graduate from post secondary education with more debt (inflation adjusted) than the generations before did. This is a fact and is not debatable. This debt is exempt from all bankruptcy laws. I could borrow 50 thousand dollars to start a business bedazzling jean jackets tomorrow and if it didn’t work out be free and clear of that debt in seven years, but if I wanted to be a scientist and things didn’t work out I’d be stuck with that liability for the rest of my life. This makes education literally the riskiest investment a person can make, which strikes me as counterproductive to the formation of a country comprised of people who will make it vibrant and viable in the future.
3. Students have had to study a lot harder to get into a good university that their parents ever did, or even those 15 years older than they did. As example, when I went to UBC in 1993 I needed a 74 per cent average to get into first year Arts. Now you need about an 85 per cent average. Why? Because government funding hasn’t increased, so overall enrolment hasn’t increased. Population, however, has. So these students have already proven themselves to be hard workers, for the most part. Some of them are just really smart. The often cited red-herring of the 22-year old who wants a six figure job straight out of university is something I’ve never myself observed. I did once overhear a group of graduate degree candidates speaking wistfully about a colleague who landed a job grossing 40 thousand. That sounded almost unobtainable to these students, and I’d bet that not one of them had under 30 thousand dollars of debt. It would take an idiot to imagine that they would make the kind of money I’m hearing people say students expect to make. And these young adults are not stupid. They got better grades than most of us ever did.
4. The job market today views workers as disposable in a way that was not the case 15, 30 or 45 years ago. Entry level positions do not progress the way they used to. Often the worker, instead of advancing, is replaced by another entry level worker, or two part-time workers, or a computer program, or a subcontractor, or the job is eliminated entirely. This generation has been told that education was the key to their future since they were old enough to listen. They are simultaneously being told that their education is worthless and there is no place for them in the job market that allows them to make a contribution they find meaningful. It is not surprising this is creating some cognitive dissonance.
5. The current student generation has no dominion over entitlement. If you think it does, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’ve become the person you used to hate, complaining about the damn kids these days. Do you shout at them to get off your lawn? Because you’re kind of doing that right now. How do you think people were acting in the 20s? They were roaring for a reason. The 80s wasn’t a decade of altruistic utopia, and the 60s generation was about as entitled as it gets — free love? Remember that? It wasn’t hard work, putting in your dues, saving up and then free love. It was free. Like the world owes you love. Talk about entitled.
6. Students all over the world question and defy authority, attempting to change how the world works. I’d be a lot more concerned if we were producing sheep than if students ask for something I find either unfeasible or undesirable. If you are a person over the age of 40 who pays taxes in the upper tax bracket, you’re not supposed to agree with the student movement. Because they are in opposition to you, my friend. They want what you have, and sooner or later they’re going to get it, because we’ll be dead or pushed out before they are. Remember how you got what your parents’ generation had?
7. If #6 describes you, you have become the Man. Congratulations. It takes a lot of hard work and a little luck to become the Man. If you’re happy with this in a Mitt Romney sort of way, if you think Conrad Black is a much maligned hero, then carry on. If you’d like society to evolve, the Man needs to remember what it was like not to be the Man. The burden to do this does not rest on the students, it rests on you.
8. Where, one might ask, did these students come from? Were they born in a lab, or imported from Mars? I think they probably had parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and other adult role models throughout their lives. They’re our young adults, not some other society’s. If they have flaws it’s our fault. We made them in our image. So buck up and accept responsibility, hard working ask-for-nothing boot-strappers of today. This means participating in this conversation in a productive way. If you disagree with them, do so using rational argument, the odd fact, and in a way that is empathetic to the challenges their generation faces, and do not simply dismiss them as cranky children. Because they’re not anymore than we are some geriatric fart in too-high pants yelling at them to get the hell off our lawn.
Steven Galloway is the author of three novels: Finnie Walsh, Ascension, and The Cellist of Sarajevo. His work has been translated into over twenty languages and optioned for film. He teaches creative writing at UBC, and he lives with his wife and two daughters in New Westminster, BC.
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