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Where Does It Smell Like Teen Spirit?

Young Employee at McDonalds, Ottawa
Young Employee at McDonalds, Ottawa

I see white-collar workers in the business district and when I meet with my clients; I see blue-collar workers when I’m stuck behind construction trucks; and I see folks out of the workforce when I hang out at the park with Mark. I see toddlers and pre-schoolers at Mark’s daycare and I see babies in their strollers being pushed around the neighborhood by tired-looking mothers. I see seniors walking their pets or soaking up the sun on their balcony because there is an assisted living retirement community a block from where we live.

But there is one demographic I rarely interact with: the 12-to-18 age group, aka teenagers.

I have no clue where teens are in Ottawa. Working in fast foods, maybe? Yes, I’m pretty sure the girl who handed out Mark’s Happy Meal the other day wasn’t old enough to drink anything but apple juice. Are they at school the rest of the time? Presumably, but I don’t know where schools are in suburbia, and teens don’t seem to take public transit—OCTranspo buses are full of seniors, mothers with strollers and university students. Do they hang out at the mall? Maybe. But the crowd in stores like Forever 21 and Victoria Secret seems closer to twenty-something young adults.

Technically, I was a teen myself when I first came in 2002—I was a few weeks short of 19 years old. But confident after backpacking through Central and South America, and somewhat naive too, I no longer felt I was this angsty rebellious girl who listened to Nirvana on her Walkman and locked herself in the bathroom to dye her hair red with henna paste (hint: don’t try this at home—it stains skin, clothes and bathroom fixtures). I felt like an adult, even though it would take me years to get rid of my baby fat and the stereotypical assumptions only those with little experience of life and the world can defend vehemently.

Even though I don’t interact much with this age group in Ottawa, I have the feeling that being a Canadian teen is very different from being a French teen.

I can only speak of my experience, growing up in a liberal family in a big French city. No doubt teenagehood depends on the environment.

In France, teens have one main task: succeed in the academic world and pass the “Bac”, the national high-school graduation exam. Education is paramount, French kids are book smart, not street smart. Teenagers attend classes at the lycée from roughly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with breaks). They are not expected to work; the unemployment rate is already very high and there is so much competition for even hourly-wage fast food jobs that few employers will bother cutting through the red tape to hire a goofy sixteen year old who can only work after school.

French teens’ opinion matters at the national level, and many of them are involved in politics, if not formally, at least informally, demonstrating against reforms or rallying for a specific cause. In the 1990s, it was common enough for high school students to go on strike and storm out of the building following the footsteps of teachers, also on strike, carrying placards and shouting out slogans. And guess what: the government actually did listen. When teens take the street, you don’t really have a choice—things get messy.

Alcohol and “soft” drugs were readily available and the legal drinking age is almost never enforced in France. Drinking is “part of the culture”, everybody claims (drunkenly). We were allowed to smoke cigarettes in the schoolyard (I think this was banned in 2007). We spent entire afternoons at local alternative cafés drinking espresso and cheap beer, smoking and discussing politics. Extracurricular activities? Nope, not really, unless demonstrating counts. Most of us had attended music classes or took dance lessons as tweens but unless we had a special talent, we were not encouraged to pursue frivolous activities. French take everything seriously. You don’t learn to play an instrument for fun, you do it to make a career out of it. If you don’t show a special talent early on, well, it’s up to you but keeping on practising isn’t encouraged.

We didn’t go places because the legal age to drive is 18. Driver education is very expensive anyway and the test is surprisingly difficult, not to mention that getting wheels is not a priority. Things may be different for those who grew up in the countryside, I’ve heard that moped and scooters were popular. In Nantes, if we had to stray away from the city centre—but why?—we just rode the tramway. Without a valid ticket, goes without saying.

Across the Atlantic, Canadian teens seem to be given more practical responsibilities and be better armed with life skills. Many of them can drive (the legal age is 16) and borrow their parents’ SUV or even have their own second-hand car. They often have a part-time job as well, in retail or in food service. There is a lot of emphasis put on work experience, paid or unpaid. In theory, the legal drinking age is 18 or 19 (depending on the province) and smoking is strongly frown upon. I think Canadian teens tend to party and “go wild” in private, at home, rather than go to bars or hang out outside like we did.

The challenges are different from one side of the Atlantic to another: French teens worry about passing the Bac while Canadian kids worry about being admitted to their preferred university; French worry about unemployment and Canadians worry about student debt.

If they attend college or university, Canadian teens can move across the country and live on campus or share a place with roommates. French don’t usually move that far (France isn’t that big in the first place…) and there is a trend called the “Tanguy generation” where young adult delay home-leaving at length, mostly because of high unemployment rates and unaffordable housing in large cities.

As for popular brands, bands, hangouts and trends… I’m clueless.

Oh well. I’ll guess I will see for myself in about ten years or so.

How were your teenage years? Do you know anything about Canadian teens?

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