Nearing graduation from the University of Waterloo’s health studies program, Rachel Thompson, 24, didn’t know what to do next. She was a strong student with an interest in public and global health, but she qualified for few entry-level jobs related to her field. Her classmates, also unable to find work, were almost exclusively continuing their education. “Everyone in my program was applying to graduate school,” Ms. Thompson recalls. “It was the norm, like going to university after high school is just the expected next step.”
But then she received an unexpected e-mail that transformed her view entirely.
Ms. Thompson had been thinking a lot about her grandmother, who 10 years earlier was diagnosed with vascular dementia. She was no longer able to recognize her family members or string together sentences. One day Ms. Thompson noticed her reading newspaper headlines. It seemed inconceivable that she could still read.
So Ms. Thompson started researching, and learned that procedural memory, which is related to the act of reading, was among the last brain functions to decline. Encouraged by this knowledge, she began searching for books. But all she could find that would work were children’s books, and giving those to her grandmother seemed like a violation of her dignity.
When the e-mail from St. Paul’s University College (an independent college affiliated with UWaterloo) arrived calling for entrepreneurial ideas from health students as part of a contest called the Big Ideas Challenge, Ms. Thompson threw the idea of books for people with dementia into the ring. She couldn’t believe it when she won. “When people talk about entrepreneurship, it’s always about technology or engineering, and my idea was the furthest thing from that,” she says.
The prize for winning was a semester-long stay at St. Paul’s GreenHouse, the first residential entrepreneurship program for social innovation on a Canadian campus. Ms. Thompson learned how to run a business and pitch to investors, further developed her idea in consultation with UWaterloo researchers studying aging and received seed funding. Her venture, Marlena Books (a portmanteau of Helena and Marilyn, her grandmothers’ names), is now prototyping its first books and she plans to go to market in early 2016. “A year ago, I never imagined that this would be the path I would be on when I graduated.”
St. Paul’s GreenHouse is among a small but growing movement of higher education programs expanding the practice of incubating innovative ventures beyond the realm of engineering or business schools to focus on initiatives with a social purpose. Another case in point: In November, 2014, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation launched RECODE, a $10-million initiative to support campuses helping students develop ventures that address social problems.
These initiatives come at a time when many are reconsidering the purpose of higher education. This generation is spending more time in postsecondary institutions than any before them. The number of students enrolled full-time in university has more than doubled since 1980, even though there are 3 per cent fewer Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Statistics Canada. But despite being the most educated generation of all time, they face poor job prospects when they graduate. Many are delaying the start of “real life” until their late twenties or mid-thirties. Is our society missing out on the contributions of our best and brightest while they toil away in universities rehearsing to be ready for the real world during their most creative and energetic years? And what are the implications for them and for us?
This was the challenge St. Paul’s GreenHouse was founded to address, says director Tania Del Matto. Today’s students enter university having been very engaged in their communities during high school, she explains. “But after second or third year we saw the light in their eyes dying. They were in the churn of academics – learning about the problems facing us – without an outlet to do anything. How do you keep the passion alive while in university?”
What makes GreenHouse and similar approaches different than programs that encourage students to volunteer is that they aren’t just about making an impact but also about opening new career opportunities through being entrepreneurial.
That message resonates with Jon Farmer, a recent graduate of Quest University now living in his hometown of Owen Sound, Ont. At Quest – where all students are required to do several months of real-world experiential learning and pursue a major project to graduate – Mr. Farmer researched, wrote and produced a series of theatrical pieces about how men’s perceptions of masculinity are connected to violence against women, which he uploaded to YouTube. The videos got him a contract with Small World Generation, an organization that provides education to schools about issues such as social media etiquette. He is also volunteering with a community organization dedicated to violence prevention to apply his research, and seeking grant funding to be paid for this work and to develop his theatrical works into educational programming appropriate for high-school students.
Piecing together his career in this way seems natural to him. “I am in the position of trying to create my own job in the field I want to be working in,” he says. “I looked around my hometown to see what and who is here, and am figuring out how I can use that to do work that matters.” And he says that his experience at Quest, where he was expected to direct his own learning, was a factor in his create-it-yourself attitude. “I didn’t go into university thinking of it as a means to employment. I wanted knowledge.”
“Universities are starting to get the message that they need to rethink their role in the service of students,” says Shawn Smith, director of the Radius program at Simon Fraser University. “How do we add value to this incredibly formative period in their lives?” He thinks that young people such as Mr. Farmer represent the shift in what that cohort believes drives positive change. “Two generations ago people thought that big institutions and government were the best way to propel society forward,” he explains. “Then we looked to the private sector, corporations and the market as the main driver. Now everyone is looking to entrepreneurialism, but there are limitations to that, too.”
This reckoning at universities is also related to the transition from the industrial to the information-based economy. A hundred years ago, factory jobs dominated the labour market; now knowledge is the ticket to employment, and so the need for education has increased. By the time young people leave school, they need to have learned more information in order to compete in the knowledge economy. Not only that, they need to know how to apply this information effectively. As Benjamin F. Jones, faculty director of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, put it in an article in the Review of Economics and Statistics, “Learning a subset of the skills, theories, and facts developed by prior generations seems a necessary ingredient to innovative activity.”
In the knowledge economy, business leaders and government alike agree that innovation is the key to continued economic growth. And as outsourcing and automation require fewer and fewer blue-collar workers, there is an expectation that everyone in the knowledge economy will be an innovator, increasing the need for a variety of complex skills that wouldn’t have been necessary on the factory floor.
Staying in school longer has also corresponded with other rites of passage being delayed. According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of 20- to 29-year-olds living at home rose from about 27 per cent to about 42 per cent from 1981 to 2011. The age at which couples typically marry has increased, and they are waiting longer to have their first child.
These numbers reveal a society-wide arrested development. Young people, stuck in this perpetual preparation for adulthood, don’t become full contributing members of society until they reach what would have been considered middle age in the past. This new reality prompted Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor in the department of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., to coin the term “emerging adulthood” to describe how 18- to 25-year-olds in the Western world experience a period of “identity explorations, feeling ‘in-between’, instability, self-focus.” In the past, those in their mid-twenties were typically actively participating in the economy; they may not have had a great job, but one with a real future.
The harsh reality for today’s young people is that, in part due to the significant delay in entering the job market, they will become the first generation to be less financially prosperous than their parents.
In a survey conducted by the Broadbent Institute, almost half of parents polled said their children were facing worse economic opportunities than they did at their age. This has dramatically altered young people’s expectations and motivations for their education and careers, putting pressure on universities to respond.
Much has been made of the dire prospects facing millennials, but the implications of these circumstances on innovation and, as a result, Canada’s economic growth, have been overlooked.
In fact, it appears that the last 100 years have seen a substantial decline in the average innovative output of a career. According to Kellogg’s Dr. Jones, our “life-cycle innovation potential” has dropped 30 per cent while “overall individual research productivity” is down by half over the past century. A key factor? The “emerging adulthood” young people are experiencing. Dr. Jones argues that the exceptional innovators of our past tended to be especially productive in their younger years. “The opportunity cost of the time spent in education may be significant,” he writes. He even coined the term “knowledge burden” to describe how knowing too much about a particular field may lessen the likelihood of having new breakout ideas. Economists at the University of London, Bank of Spain and Birkbeck College in Britain jointly published a paper in April raising concerns about lagging innovation and productivity in OECD countries as baby boomers age.
This correlation between youth and innovation doesn’t appear to be an anomaly. New brain research suggests that we take more risks, challenge the status quo and have fresher perspectives between the ages of 18 and 25 than at any other time during our lives. Researchers at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania found that firms with younger CEOs pursue innovation more aggressively. And others still have concluded that younger minds have a higher capacity to develop significantly transformative or disruptive innovations. The tech industry is open to the potential value of a 14-year-old’s idea, so why not other sectors?
It is a delicate balance, ensuring that young people have the knowledge they need to succeed, while not cloistering them in educational institutions during the period of their life when they have the most to contribute. This is not a new argument; public intellectuals argued that education shouldn’t get in the way of a young person’s ability to actively contribute to society all the way back to the 1960s. What is new is mounting pressure on universities, as a result of young people spending so much time in postsecondary education, to create environments in which students are doing work that has real impact in the real world. And entrepreneurship is at the heart of this; almost half of postsecondary students said they wanted to become an entrepreneur in a 2013 Pollara survey, and they aren’t all enrolled in business school.
What this looks like on campus can be subtle. The University of Waterloo, for example, stands out for its intellectual property rights policy that gives ownership of ideas developed at the university to the creator, whether they are faculty or students, recognizing that students may produce intellectual property with substantial value.
Contrast the philosophy behind UWaterloo’s IP policy with the more conventional approach at the University of Ottawa, which was reflected in this year’s $400-million fundraising campaign positioned around the impact the university makes in producing solutions to major challenges, including brain injury, green energy and bullying. In a release announcing the campaign, campaign chair Perry Dellelce said, “By supporting education, you are helping to address the root causes of social injustice, disease and homelessness.” Notably, students are referred to as promising “future leaders” and the “next generation” that will make an impact after getting the preparation they need from UOttawa. “After graduation, our students can go forward and solve these fundamental challenges,” Mr. Dellelce concludes.
According to SFU’s Mr. Smith, the distinguishing factor in the shift occurring at his university is empowering students. “We have this generation of students who expect to move out into the world and have agency and make impact,” he explains, adding that the students he works with in SFU’s various social innovation programs already have the brains and energy they need. “We too often waste that away on theory. But there will be no jobs in a generation. They will need to have agency. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they all have to start businesses.” SFU is doubling down on its social entrepreneurship focus and will announce a series of initiatives this fall aimed at moving these programs out from under the umbrella of the business school across the whole campus.
As Concordia University president Alan Shepard put it in an address at the Canadian Club of Montreal: “Once upon a time, a student retreated into university to prepare for the world. Today, students study and work, prepare and engage, all at once.” Concordia’s approach is threefold: enhancing co-ops by combining them with business incubators, promoting volunteering and aiming to double the number of students who get international experience during their education by 2020.
These moves by universities to make the barriers between education and real life more permeable are not only in reaction to labour market needs. This generation of students is also demanding that their education and work be linked to impact. Studies consistently show that millennials are more likely than previous generations to seek work with meaning and prioritize that over income. Of the generation that follows – those now 19 years of age and younger, coined Gen Z – 60 per cent want to have an impact on the world, and they are willing to do the hard work to make it happen, according to an oft-quoted study from advertising agency Sparks & Honey.
In the meantime, students motivated to make an impact aren’t waiting for their universities to change in order to get started. “So many students are starting ventures or getting involved in mission-driven work in some way while still in school. You basically have to get that experience now because going to a reputable school is not enough,” says third-year University of British Columbia student Priyanka Vasudev, who organizes the UBC Student Social Enterprise Conference, which attracted hundreds of students from across the university in its first year. “This isn’t all under the banner of doing good. We’re just dealing with reality.”
More stories from the Canadian University Report