Youth today are characterized by new conditions and realities to the extent that the very definition of youth is evolving. Their transitions to adulthood are much more complex and diversified, given the wide variety of choices and lifestyle possibilities that are open to them. However, the potential consequences of those choices are much harder to anticipate and pose new challenges to youth who are increasingly called upon to build their own safety nets (Settersten, 2008). The resulting implications for public policy are important, especially in a context of rapid changes in knowledge and new technologies, growing ethnic diversity and an aging population.

All around the world, governments and organizations are showing increased interest in youth-related issues. Not only are youth directly and profoundly affected by these tremendous changes, but they also carry society's aspirations and vision of the future. "Youth are a litmus test for social change (…) they show us what tomorrow is going to look like" says the preface to a major report on French youth submitted to the French Planning Office as part of a commission on youth and public policy (our translation, Collectif, 2001:27). In that sense, youth is a key window of opportunity for social investment policy.

Whereas many countries (in Europe, Oceania and the United States in particular) have revised and modernized their youth policies in recent years, Canada as a whole has never carried out an in-depth review of the situation of its youth. And yet, despite its aging population, Canada remains one of the youngest countries in the G8. By transferring responsibility for training to the provinces in the 1990s, the federal government chose to concentrate its social investment efforts on early childhood and, more recently, on children in the "intermediate phase" (children aged 7-11). Nonetheless, youth remain a significant concern in Canada: not only do federal and provincial governments continue to prioritize access to post-secondary education and workplace integration, but many areas of federal policy are directly concerned with the well-being of youth. Given the context and changing realities for youth in Canada today, the time is right to take stock of all the emerging challenges facing this important segment of the population.

With this in mind, the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) launched its project "Investing in Youth: Evidence from Policy, Practice and Research" in 2006. The product of collaboration among several federal departments and university researchers, this project was intended to be not so much a systematic diagnosis of the situation for youth in Canada as the start of a broader reflection about Canadian youth. Several questions guided the project's launch:

  • What are the public policy implications of an extended period of youth?
  • How does the overlap or the redefinition of the ages of life affect youth-related policy? Does the category "youth" still have a meaning? What are the parameters that define the passage to adulthood?
  • How have the ways in which youth are represented evolved in different spheres of Canadian society?
  • In terms of Canadian policy, how can one refine the categorization of the diverse situations covered by the concept of "youth" by factoring in individual biographies?
  • What role can policy play in improving the well-being of youth?

A certain number of research studies and consultations with experts on the conditions, challenges and changing realities of youth in Canada were carried out during the project's first phase, between 2006 and 2007, and provide the backdrop for this paper. An initial seminar of experts, followed by an interdepartmental roundtable, took place in December 2006 to review perspectives and recent developments in youth policy across Canada and around the world. Particular attention was paid to issues affecting at-risk youth. In partnership with several departments, a series of studies followed that exercise, seeking to clarify the broader dimensions of Canadian youth. An initial study produced a more refined definition of youth by examining how the parameters used to establish different categories of youth in Canada have evolved (Gaudet, 2007). A second study looked at the new conditions of risks and opportunities created by recent changes in the pattern of youth transitions to adulthood, based on a review of Canadian data (Beaujot and Kerr, 2007). A third study highlighted the main emerging challenges and issues facing certain Canadian youth subgroups, more specifically with respect to social exclusion (Côté, 2008). Lastly, a fourth study examined four particularly worrying developments among teenage boys: delinquency, dropping out of school, drugs and suicide (Lacourse & Gendreau, 2007). Readers are invited to consult those studies for a more detailed picture of the realities, issues and challenges facing Canadian youth.

Building on these studies and recent international literature, this paper is intended to be a key component of the youth project. It proposes a framework for analyzing Canadian youth from a public policy perspective. The framework is a tool for reflection and its main goal is to help guide youth policy discussions in various sectors of government activity. It is intended to facilitate defining or revising government objectives in relation to policy research, and the development and evaluation of policies and programs. It provides a detailed description of the different elements to be considered in order to comprehend the issues clearly, and proposes a way of articulating them coherently, from an integrated multidisciplinary perspective.