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Why Do We Expect So Little of Young People?

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Today, on my 30th birthday, I'm thinking back to the first time I felt old -- when I turned 18.

No, really; let me explain.

My friends and I had started Free The Children when we were 12 years old, a charity of children helping children. We wanted to free child slaves around the world but lacked the necessary influence at home. We fought Revenue Canada, in vain, to allow members under the age of 18 to sit and vote on Free The Children's Board of Directors. In lieu of this, we formed a Youth Advisory Committee, which remains a moral compass on our board to this day. At 18, I could no longer sit on the committee. Doors were closing. I felt old.

My friends gave me a cheap plastic watch, spray-painted gold to signify my "retirement."

Turning 30 doesn't seem all that significant, comparatively speaking. I've been asked, in jest, what I'm going to do when I grow up. And I'm pretty sure now that I'm 30, I can no longer trust myself.

Now that I've hit this milestone, I can say with more certainty that we underestimate the value of our young people to society's detriment. Idealism is often mistaken for naive ignorance in anyone under the age of 18. As a result, kids aren't taken seriously, society expects almost nothing from them and so their sense of social responsibility is delayed.

I will never forget being 12 years old, wanting desperately to contribute in some meaningful way, calling up charities and being asked in response: "Do you know where your parents keep the credit cards?" I was crushed.

It's difficult to become a socially conscious, civically-minded person when you feel like a helpless child. I worry about a generation giving up on their idealism, and the dent it will leave in social capital.

In our early days, Free The Children advocated lowering the voting age and increasing civic education in schools. We felt that youth members should be critical hearts and minds on the boards of non-profits. We called for the appointment of a youth Ombudsman to be an enduring voice for children's rights in Ottawa.

I'm told that 30 is a big step in the long march from an idealistic youth to a staunchly conservative mid-life. I'm pretty sure I won't become any less idealistic in my approaching dotage. I will still advocate for these same policies; the only difference being that as an adult my opinions are taken seriously.

Why do we have such low expectations for young people?

All over the world, kids in factories and in fields rise up to extraordinary challenges, leading child soldier brigades, toiling in cocoa fields and over carpet looms. I've met rehabilitated child soldiers in the midst of a gruelling healing process; freed child labourers juggling household chores and schoolwork; older sisters raising younger ones in the absence of their dead or missing parents.

No child should suffer these extremes. But they serve as a stark contrast to Western expectations of youth, which are pretty much non-existent. Denting the family car shouldn't be the seminal event in the life of a 16-year old. Trivial milestones for youth are the norm, with few exceptions.

Since 1993, the United States has invested in volunteerism through a national service program called AmeriCorps. A Canadian equivalent could harness the potential of unemployed youth and prepare them to lead our future job markets. Volunteers commit to 10 months of domestic service and gain on-the-job training in sectors like health care and education while working in under-served communities.

I would advocate for both domestic and international service opportunities to sharpen skill sets and instill a sense of urgency, compassion and global awareness in Canada's next generation of leaders.

A service milestone makes sense, given that the economic milestones of my parents' generation have all but disappeared. For boomers it was marriage, 2.3 kids and a mortgage that marked 30. Millennials turning 30 face student loan debts but few job prospects and a real estate market that puts property ownership just out of reach. Marriage and children are often delayed for more schooling.

Granted, my own milestones don't exactly serve as mainstream examples. Starting a charity at age 12, I was viewed as an anomaly. Not everyone knows what they want to do with their lives before they hit puberty. I'd found my passion, and as every kid imagines, I thought I'd grow up and "have all the answers." I'm still waiting for that wisdom.

At 30, I hold onto the same values I had as a teenager, and I will always have great respect for the contributions of young people.

I guess you could say I'm 13 going on 30.

I hope to one day walk into Free The Children's offices to meet a perplexed teenager who'll ask, "Can I help you?" I'm looking forward to meeting the next generation of shameless idealists.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger