Growing up used to be straightforward. First you graduated from high school, then you got a job and started a family. For young people today, the path to adulthood is no longer linear; there are many more stops, starts and bumps along the road then there used to be. The Liberal government has acknowledged this new reality, and has made engaging and supporting young people a priority. And yet, without a coordinated and thoughtful national youth policy, Ottawa is likely to miss the mark.

As I have written about before, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a track record on youth engagement. Add to this the fact that he named himself Minister of Youth, a position that has generally been held by a junior minister in previous governments (and didn’t exist at all under Stephen Harper), and it appears the political will is there.

What is missing? Most youth-engagement experts would agree that Canada needs a national youth policy.

A national youth policy, according to the Council of Europe, is a document or a series of documents that are holistic and outline “a government’s commitment and practice towards ensuring good living conditions and opportunities for the young population of a country”.

When it comes to supporting and empowering a country’s young population, having a national youth policy is the international gold standard. According to a 2014 report 122, or 62 percent, of the world’s countries have a national youth policy. In Europe, it is now assumed that countries in the European Union will adopt one, and at the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Youth’s mandate includes “to promote and support the Global Initiative on National Youth Policies.”

The fact that Canada has never had a national youth policy puts us far behind the pack when it comes to ensuring this key demographic cohort has the highest likelihood of success. So why is a youth policy necessary in the first place? Why should it be prioritized over, say, a seniors’ policy?

To start with, the years between 15 and 24 are a period of many transitions. Leaving home, deciding whether to pursue post-secondary education, finding a job, and a myriad of other life choices make this a particularly challenging and vulnerable period of life that either sets a young person up for success or creates a domino effect likely to result in challenges down the road. In addition, according to the federal government’s 2010 Policy Research Initiative Report, “the passage to adulthood is no longer associated with the transition to stability.” For today’s young people the lack of a clear pathway from childhood to adulthood, the fact that it is hard to tell exactly when you’ve reached adulthood, and the reality that adulthood no longer equals stability, has increased the risk of getting lost along the way.

On top of this, the latest from the field of neuroscience tells us that the ages 10 to 25 are a time of heightened brain plasticity similar to when we are 0-2 years old. In his book Age of Opportunity, developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg explains, “getting kids younger isn’t necessarily better – 10-25 is height of plasticity as is 0-2. It is about interventions as these key times.” He goes on to lament the lack of resources and support aimed young people in their late teen years and early 20s, a period when positive interventions can have a significant life long impact.

Supporting young people at this important time in their development is crucial, but this isn’t the only reason why a national youth policy is critical. My colleagues and I at the Youth & Innovation Research Project at the University of Waterloo argue that young people also possess a unique set of abilities that are often overlooked. Our research shows that this same heightened neuroplasticity gives young people advantages when it comes to the capacity to take risks, be creative and collaborative — untapped potential that is crucial to Canada’s success in the knowledge economy.

A national youth policy is needed to ensure that young Canadians have the support they need during this critical life stage, but also that as a country we are effectively tapping into the unique contributions that young people can make to tackling economic and social challenges.

In order to develop an effective national youth policy, experts agree that having “a shared vision for determining action” is crucial. Clearly defining the role of young people in Canadian society is an essential first step.

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Globally, there has been a move to go beyond viewing young people in a negative light as a problem to solve, and instead recognizing the positive attributes of young people, as well as the benefits for young people when they become active partners in decision-making on issues that affect their lives. But often this narrative gets stuck in viewing youth as unfinished adults, whose only value while they are young is what they will learn.

If Canada wants to be a leader on the international stage, our vision for a national youth policy should recognize the kind of support young people need not just for their future success but also so they can meaningfully contribute while they are young.

An effective national youth policy would also bring together all federal departments and municipal and provincial governments whose work touches young people. The responsibility for programs and services that affect young people are scattered throughout the three levels of government and across many federal departments. Coordination to ensure that youth-focused programming and services are consistent and have a common vision is essential. A 2008 United Way of Toronto report on youth policy in Canada put it this way; “young people’s success in our society will depend on the government’s ability to improve the breadth, coordination, and cohesion of services for youth.”

The good news is we don’t have to start from scratch. At the provincial level, Quebec, and more recently Ontario, have youth strategies, and other jurisdictions in Canada have youth policies or strategies of one kind or another that could offer a valuable starting point. Federally, A Canada Fit for Children, a national plan released in 2004 in response to Canada’s commitments made at the 2002 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children, as well as the government’s work on early childhood services, may provide the beginning of a roadmap about what a federal-provincial collaboration with regards to youth might look like.

Canada also has a strong civil society sector, including many youth-led and youth-serving organizations that have a depth of knowledge surrounding youth engagement and the realities of young Canadians that must be actively engaged in developing a national youth policy. Engaging young people themselves in the development, implementation and evaluation of a policy would be central to ensuring that it is relevant to those who would be affected by it. The young people who become members of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council could most certainly play a key role in this regard.

The Liberal government has made a clear commitment to young people in words and actions since it was elected a year ago. Its thinking about youth engagement, as evidenced by the #leaderstoday hashtag, is on the right track. It is time to translate that inspiring philosophy into a holistic and bold national youth policy.

This article is part of the Public Policy and Young Canadians special feature.


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Ilona Dougherty
Ilona Dougherty is the co-creator and managing director of the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo. She is an award-winning social innovator and a regular voice in the Canadian media advising business, civil society and government on how they can tap into the value and unique abilities of young people.

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