Trend-tracking in action

You may not like their asymmetrical hairdos, nose piercings or ironic t-shirts, but today's teenagers aren't turning Canadian culture on its head, as per the prevailing stereotype. On many levels, today's youth are actually looking better than previous generations, says sociologist and trend-tracker Dr. Reginald Bibby.

The notion of teenagers as threats to the well-being of Canadian society is a prejudicial stereotype that unfairly generalizes all teens. "There seems to be such a pervasive mindset that teens are simply not that likable and lovable," says Bibby.

In reality, quite the opposite is true, according to the University of Lethbridge researcher who has been monitoring the attitudes and habits of Canadian teens and adults for three decades. Today's youth are solid citizens and are adjusting well to the new Canada, Bibby reports in his latest book, The Emerging Millennials: How Canada's Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice.

Working on Project Teen Canada, a series of national surveys that have examined Canadian teenagers' behaviour and values since 1984, Bibby and Associate Director James Penner completed the most recent installment in 2008. The survey of 5,500 teenagers across the country shows that the millennials are doing well. They're generous and polite. They report the most positive relationships with parents in three decades. The prevalence of vices like smoking, drinking and marijuana use have declined, as have depression, suicide and bullying.

Also on the decline is young people's interest in professional sports, including the beloved National Hockey League (NHL). Only about 50 per cent of young men and 20 per cent of young women follow the NHL. According to Bibby, their lack of interest demonstrates the acceleration of choices, but for an allegedly hockey-crazed country, it's a rather startling discovery that caught the attention of media outlets ranging from the National Post through Canada AM to the New York Times.

All in all, the baby boomer generation's "social experiment" of having both parents employed outside the home has known increasing success as older boomers and post-boomers have improved on how they balance careers and family life.

To quote a famous baby boomer lyric: the kids are all right.

While the large majority has been receptive to Bibby's overall good-news findings, not everyone is convinced. Bibby has found that invariably there are those who are down on teenagers, people who "don't want to be confused by the facts."

But such responses don't phase him. Dismantling tired stereotypes is important to the researcher who has explored social trends since coming to the U of L in 1975. Bibby's areas of myth-breaking have included attributing much teen-adult conflict to adults; questioning the extent to which people are abandoning religion; the importance of not only praising but tapping into our cultural diversity; documenting the limited growth of interest in the National Football League and National Basketball Association and the ongoing interest in the Canadian Football League; and making his most recent case for the elevation of the quality of teenage life in Canada.

Bibby's research philosophy has always been that it doesn't make sense to study trends abstractly; rather, it's essential to question Canadians directly.

"In my mind, if one wants to understand what people are thinking, there's no substitute for asking them," he says. "Therefore, a survey that is carried out well is simply a good conversation with people. It results in learning what Canadians are thinking – rather than telling them."

Disseminating the research is also an important aspect of Bibby's work. Over the years, he's consciously shared and explained his findings with Canadians through his books, media coverage and public presentations across the country.

His commitment to public awareness has not gone unnoticed. This fall, Bibby will receive the 2009 Distinguished Academic Award from the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA), an award that recognizes the success of academics bringing their scholarly work to the broader community.

Not surprisingly, this isn't his first accolade. Bibby holds a U of L Board of Governors Research Chair in Sociology, has an honorary doctoral degree from Laurentian University and in 2006 was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of his research contributions to the country.

In the aftermath of the 2008 survey, the prolific researcher plans to take a breather from his survey-research. "I want to sit on a rock in some beautiful place and write poetry," he jokes. Instead of focusing on data collection, Bibby plans to spend more time analyzing the data he has accumulated and turn his attention to a new book on religion in Canada – Beyond the Gods and Back.

And, of course, he'll continue to hold up that mirror to Canadians.

"I really have been fortunate not only to do research but also to teach and make presentations that allow me to see to what extent people recognize themselves in the findings. It has made the research come alive."