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 neighbourhood 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 food restaurants, 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, 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 taken 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 mopeds 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’ SUVs 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 emphases 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 frowned upon. I think Canadian teens tend to party and “go wild” in private, at home, rather than go to bars or hang out outside as 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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  1. Brad June 17, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Super interesting post. Actually, I think so many of us who grew up in Canada (now in our 30s and 40s) are now asking the same question. I can’t tell you how many times this comes up as a topic of conversation.

    In the last month alone, perhaps I have heard this question asked five or six times in informal settings (family gatherings, over beers with friends, and in general chit-chat with acquaintances or business relations).

    Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s were accustomed to being outside playing street hockey in the suburbs or in smaller communities, playing hockey, baseball or soccer in municipal facilities, holding part time jobs at places like Canadian Tire, gas stations, restaurants, riding our bikes everywhere, camping with families on weekends, you name it… In the 1990s, youth were going everywhere, and were seen everywhere.

    Since then, there have been many more newcomers to the country who rely, as adults on part-time employment – and thus we see new immigrant faces in the jobs the teenagers used to occupy (back then it was rare to see immigrants hold jobs at Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire or McDonalds in the 1990s).

    Steady full time jobs are not as available as in the past, so many adults now have two or three part time jobs (occupying jobs previously held by teens/youth).

    Kids today would rather stay indoors, surf the net, play video games, or “avoid the hassles of weather or exercise” compared to the 1980s/90s. Thus we no longer see them outside.

    This has made teens more solitary and less inclined to engage in group activities.

    Also, our cities are much larger and more spread out, with much more traffic… Which discourages outdoor activities (and certainly not street hockey like in the past – which requires closing the entire street).

    Suffice to say, we are all noticing this change in Canada. And where it has really been noticed is (1) in social skills (as an employer, I see apparent youth tendencies towards being “solitary” and an “internet addict”), and (2) youth obesity levels…

    And even asking a young person what their interest are garners you a blank stare (with the Internet, YouTube and video games being the #1 answer).

    We’re certainly not in the 1990s or earlier. Just my thoughts. Great post !!

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you!

      It’s funny you mention playing hockey in the street. In our residential neighborhood, when I first came to Canada, around 2002, I remember many kids and teens playing outside. These days, only toddlers go to the playground after school, and I rarely see teens outside even though many houses have a basketball hoops outside, in front of the garage. You’re right, maybe everybody is online these days…

      You’re also right regarding people working in minimum-wage jobs. I used to see teens working at Subway or at Pizza Pizza, these days there are more young adults, many of them seem to be newcomers. One place where teens still work, though: movie theaters!

      Now I’m wondering how teens changed in France… maybe things aren’t the same anymore, I’m ten years late!

  2. Bee Ean June 17, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    You just confirmed my observations, teens in France do not work et they don’t have much extra-curiculum activities.
    I started working part time jobs legally at 16, and we had to join at least one extra-curiculum activities. I would say that I gained more from these experiences than what I learnt at school.
    I see French teens everywhere in Nantes, especially in the public transports. They hung out a lot in groups, smoking, drinking.

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 4:30 pm

      We used to hang out in front of the FNAC, at Commerce or Bouffay 🙂

      None of my friends worked back then, except those whose parents had a business (i.e. a restaurant). Then they were expected to help out a bit… interestingly, these friends were Asian, and I think it fit the culture as well, kids help their parents.

  3. Cynthia June 17, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    I’m always surprised how French teens are basically treated like children ! In Québec, once you turn 16 you’re almost an adult: you can drive, you have your own health card and the right to consent to medical treatment, you usually work and even if you study the CEGEP (lycée) will never ever communicate with your parents about grades or attendance.

    People I work with won’t even let their 16 years old go to the doctor alone, they still go to parents-teacher meetings at their kids school … When I was doing my Masters in a French university, I was still surprised at how my fellow students were not quite mature yet!

    Though, I guess it’s more fun to be a French teen without any responsibilities 🙂 !

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      I don’t know… it’s funny, I think French teens are expected to behave like adults in some ways (i.e. their political opinion matter, for instance, they can drink, smoke, have sex, etc.) But on the other side, they are rarely offered the chance to see the “real” world and build life skills such as writing a resume, working, driving, etc.

  4. Isa June 17, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Just let kids be kids, let teens be teens… I’ve never been in favor of teens working (well, except for summer jobs, of course!)
    Hanging out, talking about life, talking about how to change the world are the best thing in life. I remember doing that as a teen, I don’t do it very often now. And I miss it! Adulthood already comes too fast…

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 4:33 pm

      It’s true. I just don’t see how teens can find the time to work, especially those going to a regular lycée. We had classes all day long! In Canada, school is out at 3 p.m.!

  5. Jeruen June 17, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    I would guess teens are at the mall, no? Well, they’re in school, and after school they’d go to the mall to hangout. At least that was how we did it when I was a teen.

    I don’t remember my teens fondly. The first half of it was spent in Japan, where I struggled with the language and therefore was pretty much an outsider all the time. And then the years that followed that were in Guam, where all the teens in school had cars, but I didn’t, so I was pretty much tied home. I just immersed myself in studying the piano, as at that time I thought I’d study music in university afterwards. It didn’t happen, obviously.

    And I didn’t realize the Tanguy generation is a thing! I saw that French movie called Tanguy, but I didn’t know that’s how that phenomenon is actually called!

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 4:35 pm

      Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be a teen again either. Before turning 16, I rebelled and did all the stuff teens do (a mild case of teenagehood). After 16, I just couldn’t wait to graduate from high school and leave my hometown, I was sick of it.

      Tanguy was huge in France 🙂

  6. N June 17, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    I moved from France to Canada when I was a teenager (a couple months shy of 16). My experience was very different from yours because unlike most teens I was already seriously into music and even decided to go to boarding school for it when I started the lycée. So my freedom started at 14 🙂 when I lived out of my parents house on week days. Then we all moved to Montreal and that was big shock because I (unfortunately for me) was living with my parents again! Oh, dang, I so loved my independence! However living in Montreal also meant a city full of concert and fre music festivals in summer, plus the freedom of the transit system. And the amazing-ness of suddenly having friends from all around the world. I must admit, I had a blast!

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 4:36 pm

      Being a teen in Montreal must have been kind of fun. I agree, it seems to be a fun place to be when you’re young! Did you have a good relationship with your parents? Did you like boarding school?

      1. N June 19, 2015 at 3:22 pm

        I loved my short lived experience of boarding school! My parents not so much because I would come on weekends to have my laundry done and often wanted to go to sleepover parties with friends. I think that was one of the reasons they thought living in a big city like Montreal would force me to stray “home” a bit longer… I finally did sleep under the family roof for some years more (until 21), but between study, practices, concerts, parties and travelling, I was out of the house more often than in 🙂 (my dad is a control freak, so I preferred not being around).

        1. Zhu June 19, 2015 at 7:11 pm

          It’s funny because in France, boarding school was often seen as a threat. In fact, most people who went to boarding school I talked to loved it (as long as it wasn’t some kind of jail!).

  7. petite yaye June 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    vraiment intéressant ! Pas évident de comparer entre les jeunes d’aujourd’hui et notre génération d’ado (et oui, on est des vieilles !! une génération en terme d’adolescence c’est tous les 5 ans). J’ai quitté mes parents à 18 ans pour “voler de mes propres ailes” sans avoir quitter leur région pour autant et j’ai eu l’impression que dans mes nombreuses connaissances canadiennes il y avait beaucoup plus de tanguys ! Donc pour moi à 18-19 ans c’était déjà une vie “adulte”, et ça m’a fait bien bizarre de me retrouver à NY à 20 ans conidérée comme une “mineure” !!!

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Pareil, je suis partie (concours de circonstances, pas forcée!) à 18 ans. Autour de moi, beaucoup de mes amis français ont quitté le nid plus tard, et sont souvent encore en colocation aujourd’hui… à la trentaine!

  8. I Say Oui June 17, 2015 at 7:35 pm

    I spent a lot of time with my family when I was a teen.

    When I see kids and teens in big cities, I think about how different their childhoods must be from mine. Taking the metro at a younger age, for example (although apparently not where you live).

    1. Zhu June 17, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      We didn’t have a subway system in Nantes. I can’t remember how old I was when I was taking the bus alone… around 10, I think, to go to music lessons.

      1. I Say Oui June 18, 2015 at 8:49 am

        And for me it was 18, to go from NJ to NY for an internship!

        1. Zhu June 18, 2015 at 7:58 pm

          Wow, lucky you, NY!

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