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Adult stereotypes on youth; how can we overcome them? My takeaways from Ilona Dougherty's insights!

Hey everyone! For those who don't (virtually) know me, my name is Freya Shah, and I will be a sophomore at Woburn CI in September 2021! Recently, we had a guest speaker talk to our summer cohort at Illuminate Universe about the youth stereotypes, and why adults see youth the way they do! Ilona Dougherty had some amazing thoughts, and I can wait to put them into writing for everyone!

Before we get started, here's a little background on Ilona! Ilona is the co-creator and managing director of the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo. She is an award winning social innovator and a regular voice in the Canadian media advising business, civil society and government on how they can tap into the value and unique abilities of young people. She has extensive leadership and governance experience having co-founded several successful organizations. In 2004, she co-founded Apathy is Boring, a non-partisan social enterprise that educates Canadian youth about democracy and encourages them to vote. Ilona was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2009, was a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 and one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network in 2015.

Source/Picture Credit: here

Is your opinion heard?

At the beginning of our workshop, we were asked this question. Surprisingly, I found a similarity in all of our answers. Most of the students answered something along the lines with: "I think my opinion is heard, but not necessarily implemented." As someone part of the youth world, I can say that this is a true statement in MANY cases. In my eyes, the reasoning behind this is that youth and adults see the world through different lenses. But why is this the case? Why are youth seen as "immature" and "not old enough"? Well, the beginning of this "generation gap" dates way back to the Industrial Revolution.

The history behind generation gaps.

Where did the generation gaps start? Before the industrial revolution, children were put to work on farms at early ages. They helped the economy by doing constant work with their families, and were considered helpful and were needed in order to be successful. Families grew, and having multiple kids was considered an economic advantage, because the more children they had, the more hands were working on the family farm. At this time, there was no stereotypes about youth, because they provided similar contributions to the economy as the adults did. Picture Credit: here

Once the industrial revolution hit, families started moving to bigger cities, and the need for young people to constantly work was becoming smaller. Slowly, most youth weren't required on farms, and had nothing to do throughout the day. Without education, there was no way for them to contribute to society. Since the youth had nothing productive to do, they started to form friendships and gangs with one another. The advantage of having kids slowly turned into a disadvantage, because now, the adults were seeing the youth as disruptive and dangerous. Adults didn't see any contributions being made, and therefore the negative light on youth was shone.

The schooling system was now made public so that more and more youth could do something productive rather than disrupting the economy. Negative stereotypes started to form, and youth were constantly viewed as a liability. The age range for schooling started to expand to accommodate for more, and so, the adults were working while the students were learning. Sound familiar? That's because this system continues in today's society. As more and more time passed, the generation gaps began to expand, and there were numerous stereotypes put on youth, some of which continue to this day.

What are our goals?

Ilona asked us a simple question. What are our goals for the future? We all came up with big things, such as getting a job, getting into a good university, having a successful career, and so on. Every single one of us said something big, whereas Ilona knew this was coming. She told us that this proved her point. Most adults don't think that youth have big goals. They associate youth with drugs, alcohol, partying, and anything mischievous. (Not all adults, but many!)

Picture Credit: here

Becoming vs. Being

Another interesting thing Ilona talked about was the difference between becoming versus being. Many of us see youth as the stage of becoming. "I am becoming a doctor, I am becoming an engineer." In the adult stage, we think it is all about being. Well, this is not exactly the case. Ilona talked about how everyone is constantly becoming something. Even as an adult, there is so much we can learn. So why do adults think we "aren't old enough to understand"? Reality is, its hard for adults to accept that our views on society may be different, but they surely aren't incompetent.

Neuroplasticity and the Importance of the Youth Mind

Did you know that some components of our brain peak from the ages of 15-25? There are 9 skills mentioned in this infographic that really show just how important the youth mind is to our economy. These parts of our brain peak and achieve high neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is "the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization."

Source: here

In essence, this goes to show that today's youth surely have bigger, more innovative ideas then the adults, and therefore implementing their points of views will bring more economic benefits around the globe. I find that three of the most important points on the infographic are:

  1. Creativity

  2. Risk Taking

  3. Experimentation

These three skills can really help solve existing world issues in a way that most people may not have thought of. It was really surprising when Ilona mentioned that she believes with the help of today's youth society, even problems such as global warming could be combatted.

Apathy is Boring

Ilona started her own organization in order to bring change in the youth society. Apathy is boring is an organization that was started as an online campaign to increase the number of youth taking part in democracy and voting. The main takeaway from her story was that, once Apathy is Boring combined with some adults, their campaign and voter turnout drastically grew. This went to show that the combination of youth and adult is extremely powerful in today's society.


Our challenge is to “Share this infographic and insights about how you can apply these lessons in your own work and life with your community." Each one of the separate points on this infographic are extremely important and unique.

1. Work within the System and use it to your advantage.

One of the ways that I applied this point in my life was by submitting an application to the University of Waterloo Youth x Innovation Project Council. If my application is successful, I plan on utilizing my learnings from my session with Ilona to work hand-in-hand with other driven youth, as well as adult leaders in order to make a change in society.

2. Seek out decision-makers in your community as well as nationally and internationally.

I find this point connects right back to mentorship. I plan on utilizing this sometime in the future, by finding mentors that can really help build on my foundation. During my Civics course this month, we talked a lot about civic role models, and I find that these role models are extremely inspirational and can motivate you to take action in the community.

3. Find allies and work together.

I've constantly heard that there is power in numbers. I find myself always utilizing this point in my life by gathering insights from multiple people, as well as implementing different point-of-views into my projects and work. Working together with other driven individuals can really bring out the best in you, and I know that I will be applying this point in my life by learning how too analyze strengths and weaknesses, as well as learning how to determine who will bring out the best in me.

4. Focus on figuring out the right strategy needed to arrive at the impact you are hoping to achieve.

At the beginning, I saw "impact" as a HUGE social change, however, I started to realize that "impact" could have millions of interpretations. I think this tip is the one I resonate with the most, because creating action plans and goal-setting is something I do extremely often. No matter what you are trying to achieve, whether it be a short-term goal or a long-term one, I feel that it is always necessary for one to think about how they will achieve the goal first.


So, that's all from me today! Before I end things off, I'd like to thank Ilona Dougherty for her wonderful workshop. I learned so much and had lots of fun! Thank you for taking the time to read this post, and if you want to reach out, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or shoot me a message on Instagram! I hope you have a great day😁!

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