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One of the challenges to tacking the ongoing labour crunch is that young people don’t want to do less glamorous work, writes Todd Hirsch.Ben Margot/The Associated Press

Todd Hirsch is a former Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and the author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

Five hundred years ago, there was no such thing as a “career choice.” A young man did what his father did: farmer, carpenter, barrel maker, etc. And if you were a young woman, your only hope was to find one of those young men to marry.

One hundred years ago, life presented a few more career choices, at least in wealthy countries. But you still left home at 15 and started doing whatever you could to keep yourself alive: push a broom, work in a factory, clean stables, learn a trade. None of it was glamorous or fun. All of it was hard and miserable.

But something happened toward the end of the 20th century: We started telling our millennial and Generation Z children that they could be anything they wanted. We told them to follow their passions. We promised them that if they dreamed hard enough, they could do anything in the world.

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It was a lie. And our ongoing labour crunch can be directly traced back to that lie.

To be fair, we may have meant that our kids could be doctors, lawyers or accountants – attainable and laudable goals for many people. And I’m not saying young people are lazy – at least not the ones I know. Plenty of young people are working hard in entry-level, low-paying jobs.

But the issue is that when we told them they could be anything, some of them heard “NHL hockey star,” “superstar video gamer” or “the next Beyoncé.” And clearly they cannot. Or at least 99.9999 per cent of them cannot.

We meant to inspire our young people, promising them that if they tried hard enough and worked hard enough, they could be anything! But rather than inspire them, we created a false notion that superstardom and unimaginable paycheques were attainable.

The result is that many struggle to find a job they want. They’re not too lazy to work, but the lies we’ve told them have given them permission to say, “Well, being a glass fitter isn’t my passion,” or “I don’t see myself working in a kitchen dish pit.”

This is why so many vital jobs are currently going unfilled. Young people don’t want to do less glamorous work in trades such as welding, truck driving, pipefitting or construction. Many of these jobs pay very well, but young people aren’t attracted to them because we told them to follow their dreams. And no one grows up dreaming about being an HVAC technician.

A few years ago on American Idol, there was a fun tension between two of the three judges – Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. She would always speak just before him, telling the contestant on stage something like “You’re amazing! Keep going! Never give up on your dreams! Shoot for the stars!”

Then Simon would give his assessment of the performance and say something like “Well, you’re probably good at some things, but you clearly can’t sing. You’ve embarrassed yourself and everyone here tonight.”

Paula was kind. But Simon was truthful (although he could have tweaked his words a bit).

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Never mind that artificial intelligence and robotics will probably make a lot of jobs obsolete. The bigger challenge today is motivating a generation (or two) of Canadians who were told that, if they wanted it badly enough, they could become a social media influencer.

Rather than tell kids they can do anything they want, we’d be wise to tell them the truth: They have gifts and talents, and if they work hard and stay humble, they can achieve incredible things. We’ve told them to follow their passions. What we should tell them is to follow opportunity – and bring their passions with them.