I want Canada to be lit, bad (in the good sense), rad, hip, dope, with it, have mojo, and be cool. It's not.
But it can be.
Way back in 2016, Canada showed some promise. It ranked second on the World Economic Forum Country Ranking. It had a young (by world standards) prime minister. It even hit the style pages of the New York Times. Only a year earlier, according to us at Youthful Cities, Canada had three cities ranking in the top 20 most youthful cities in the world — Toronto at No. 6, Vancouver at No. 17 and Montreal at No. 18. A new global ranking is planned for 2023 and I fear Canada’s cities will not fare well.
What makes a city youthful, you ask? It's a hybrid. Cities need to have a youthful infrastructure that includes affordability, good jobs, safety, mobility, a net-zero focus, health (especially mental health) and fun with entertainment, music and green space based on metrics young people devise.
Cities also need to have a youthful attitude. In the dictionary sense, youthful simply means attributes of youth. In reality, it's far more fascinating. Since the launch of Youthful Cities, we have been doing presentations that include two slides. The first has the word YOUTH. The question we posed: What are the first words you associate with the word youth? Crime, unemployment, gangs, disillusioned and entitled feature prominently. The next slide adds three letters. YOUTHFUL. Same word association game, but this time we get exuberance, vitality and energy popping out. And smiles. Everyone is smiling. Youthful is positive, attractive, dare I say … cool.
We dove deeper. We started asking young people around the world to help us define the attributes of youthfulness. Six central values came up that we then tested with 15,000 young people around the world. Here they are.
Opinion: Cities need a youthful infrastructure, such as affordability, good jobs, safety, mobility, a net-zero focus, and green space, writes Robert Barnard @youthfulcities. #RealAffordability #YouthfulCities #CostOfLiving #canada
So, would you want to live in a youthful, connected, dynamic, curious, open, inventive and playful city? Hell, yeah. According to young people, the benefits are more events, more economic and social growth and a happier population. Youthful cities are attractive and full of vitality, exuberance and energy.
Some of you are undoubtedly saying, “That seems so 2019.” You’d be right. COVID killed youthfulness. Everywhere. For two-plus years we were isolated, stuck, bored, closed, inept and lifeless. That’s what cities felt like. Cities moved from magnets to misfortune and malaise.
Worse, we forgot all about our young people. We sacrificed them to save others. After the Second World War, when the median age in Canada was 27, we gave young people free homes for their sacrifice. Now, at a median age closing in on 42, we seem satisfied by offering them free Wi-Fi, as long as they buy a coffee. Yes, it was a different type of sacrifice, but youth’s loss of “life” as a result of COVID may last a lifetime. In 1982 (median age 29.2), we invested almost six per cent of GDP into education in Canada. Now it's closer to 4.5 per cent. Are our national priorities shifting as our population ages? Does Canada have a seniors’ housing policy? Yes. Should it? Yes. Does Canada have a youth housing policy? Not anymore. Should it? Yes
People age. Each day, every day, we get older. No matter who we are, at a certain point we all start to feel the effects. We may even get grey hair. But, what about attitudes, beliefs and actions? Are these inextricably connected to age? No. We absolutely have a choice. If our national attitude is getting old, how do we act collectively? We begin to react, conform and stagnate. We manage risks versus taking progressive steps forward. We focus on the short term instead of the long term, repeating instead of renewing, and passively reminiscing versus actively creating. This is not wise.
Youthfulness is not exclusively the realm of youth. On the contrary, anyone can be connected, dynamic, curious, open, inventive and playful. The more, the merrier. Literally. But we build our capacity to be youthful in the youth stage of life — our formative years of independence. COVID stalled that development. If youth can’t be youthful, we are all in trouble. How are we going to solve the big problems facing us? We need to nurture and harness these superpowers of youth to inject some momentum into Canada’s future.
We are starting in a tough place. Twenty per cent of the formative years of Canada’s Generation Z (teens and twenties) have been within a simultaneous global health, economic and social crisis on top of the climate crisis they already felt. Of course, we all went through that — but not in our formative years. Those years set up what’s normal, potentially for the rest of your life.
If young people stall at the gates of independent life, the societal ripple effects will be ominous. The economic signs are not good. Recently, with the help of RBC, Youthful Cities ranked 27 Canadian cities on affordability — the simple calculation of income minus cost of living. The results are downright scary. Not one city, big or small, was affordable for young people. Not one city offered a monthly surplus for youth. Pretty tough to be playful and inventive if you can’t afford to leave the home you share with five roommates. Cities are supposed to be where the jobs are and the promise is. We desperately need to get our cool back.
“Old” cities and countries hesitate and atrophy. With the COVID accelerant coupled with an aging population, Canada is risking an old attitude. If it sinks in, it will lead to a lack of national initiative, willpower and imagination. The antidote is a youthful revolution that revamps our attitudes, ideals and actions. Led by youthful leaders, regardless of age, who combine dynamism, connectedness, curiosity, openness, inventiveness and playfulness. And what could they do? Let's invent the world's best youth housing policy to allow youthfulness to flourish earlier in life.
Let's inspire connectedness with increased investment in public and net-zero transportation. Let's galvanize curiosity with a dramatic reduction in tuition costs. Let's open immigration to as many young people as we can. Fast-track international students as a thank you for funding our post-secondary education system. Prioritize young singles and couples from around the world to make our labour force and youthful organizations far more dynamic. Become a magnet for the best young environmentalists, inventors and playful artists and comedians on the planet — with incentives to match.
Getting old is easy. Risk being youthful, Canada. Be cool.
Robert Barnard is co-founder of Youthful Cities. It creates data-driven solutions to make cities more youthful — connected, open, dynamic, inventive, curious and playful — places. Robert has three decades of experience in youth engagement and innovation as the founder of the Canadian youth charity Generation 2000 and co-founder of the global youth insight and innovation firm Decode Inc. He is currently a fellow at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and co-author of the bestselling book on Generation X — Chips and Pop: Decoding the Nexus Generation. Barnard is a champion of youth and youthfulness.