Politicians can say the craziest things, especially during election campaigns. Recently, François Legault, the Leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, set off some fireworks in his home province with a zinger about the work ethic of young people. Paraphrased, he said Quebec is in danger of falling behind economically because young Quebeckers do not work as hard as Asian youth. His somewhat racist tones aside, he basically implied young people are lazy, and as a result economic productivity is falling behind.
Economists aren't comfortable calling young people lazy, but they're quick to comment on productivity. For years they have lamented Canada's low productivity rates. Our output per hour worked has not grown at the same rate as it has in our competitor nations, particularly the United States, and Canada's future standard of living hangs in the balance.
Mr. Legault is right to raise the issue of productivity during an election campaign. But he's dead wrong with respect to the laziness of young people. It's perfectly reasonable to disagree with the pot-banging student strikers in Quebec, but marching in protest against rising tuition is not an act of laziness. Sitting passively in front of a TV is lazy. Given the choice between hiring a striking student and one whose body outline is permanently imprinted on the sofa, I'd take the former in a minute (although I would insist he stop banging on that pot). Passion can be channelled into productive things. Laziness is useless.
These days it's fashionable to call young people lazy and entitled. But every generation looks at its youth in the same way. Certainly some young people are lazy, but you can easily find lazy and entitled 50-year-olds, too. By and large, the young people I know are energetic, enthusiastic, willing to contribute and eager to be involved. So if laziness isn't the problem, why has Canada's economic productivity stalled?
The answer has to do with where we are channelling our energies – and sadly many Canadians are still directing their efforts toward old industries and outdated ideas. Simply working longer hours may satisfy Mr. Legault and others who complain about young people's work ethic. But longer hours won't do a lick of good in boosting productivity until we embrace new innovations and fresh ways of taking on our global competitors.
The first thing a young person should do is get an education. Not coincidentally, postsecondary education has been a huge issue burning a hole in Quebec politics this summer. But rising tuition fees or not, there is no single factor more effective in boosting creativity and productivity than an educated work force.
Travelling or living abroad is also important. The human mind needs to see different patterns and systems in order to tap its full creative potential, and seeing how people and economies work in other parts of the world is enormously helpful for this.
Finally, working in the community offers tremendous benefits. By getting involved in an arts group, a not-for-profit charity, a neighbourhood sports league – it almost doesn't matter what as long as the interests of others are at the forefront – self-awareness and empathy are enhanced. And from this flows innovation and creativity.
Economic productivity isn't about working longer hours, nor is it about finding a warm body to fill a dead-end job. It's about tapping human potential. It's about spawning new industries – ones that perhaps need some risk-taker champions along the way. And it's about inspiring a new generation of young Canadians to say "this is our economy." Calling them lazy and shaming them into working harder in their dads' economy is not helpful.
Todd Hirsch is a Calgary economist and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.