A year and a half ago my oldest son and I were in Israel. I noticed something about the teens and 20-somethings there, in contrast to those in their early to mid-20s that I encounter here, I cannot seem to get out of my mind. My son picked up on it too. The young Israelis seemed older, more mature, more sophisticated, more worldly than Canadian kids the same age. Maybe they travelled more. Maybe it was living a country that was constantly under attack. Maybe it was that every one of them knew someone or had themselves been to the front lines of a war zone. Yet while those things may have been part of the reason why Israeli youth grow up quickly comparative to their North American peers, I suspect the real reason lay in the State of Israel’s two to three year mandatory national service requirement which for most commenced upon the completion of high school.
Logically, this would seem to make sense. By the time most Israelis start college or university, or join the workforce if higher education is not in the offing, they already have at least 2 years of real world experience under their belts. While this experience is often gained in a war zone, just as often it is gained in the military environment sans combat, but with military training, structure and command. For many, the national service requirement is not served in the military at all, but in a hospital, a school or government office. In any event, it is a 2 year stint at the age of 18 in which the teenagers can't help but develop life skills, navigate work force politics, and obtain a sense of adult responsibility. They are forced to learn self-discipline, respect for authority, as well as to work under often severe conditions. Contrast that with the average middle class Canadian teen who enters university or college at the age of 18 straight from high school and Mommy and Daddy’s house, with no real world experience. After two years, most of them remain cocooned in the amniotic sac of higher education (or the post-high school work force where they are still buffeted from real world concerns as they still live at home). Thus, at 20, most Canadian kids are still just that, kids. Israelis by contrast are already adults who understand the concepts of self-starting, hard work, goal setting and responsibility. They develop the drive and focus to succeed, or at a minimum to get the job done on time and to exacting standards. Young Israelis have, ironically given the constant state of high alert of their nation, an ability to see the long game.
In his book Start Up Nation, Dan Senor (http://www.startupnationbook.com/) wrote that Israel was at the forefront of technological innovation and entrepreneurship, noting specifically that Israel had the most new businesses per year of any first world nation. This was attributed to in large measure to the military service required of young Israelis. Specifically, he writes:
"No college experience disciplines you to think like [the military does], with high stakes and intense pressure,” one veteran notes, explaining how state service preps Israelis to communicate, to forge teams, and to improvise at work.
Fortunately in Canada it is unlikely that our children, if they were required to enter the military, would ever see action in conflict. But the mere aspect of being in an environment where your parents’ money or contacts mean nothing, where you are taken out of the creature comforts of home, out of your tightly knit cabal of friends, and put in a position where you must follow strict rules and obey a chain of command will toughen up our children. For economically disadvantaged children who might not otherwise be given the opportunities afforded to those of the middle class, or teenagers who are not academically inclined, military training will provide them a much needed avenue out of poverty as it will ensure the most marginalized of our society will be guaranteed skills training and development that will make them viable members of the workforce. In some of my earlier articles on this blog I have referred to the problems created by the cycle of poverty. Compulsory national service may mitigate some of that by reducing the numbers of uneducated and unemployable.
National service, here as in Israel, does not need to mean the military. I would propose options such as teaching, hospital work, and not for profit outreach programs, where we could harness the energy and idealism of our youth in the farthest reaches of our country. In other words, if you chose to teach for your national service, it wouldn’t be at the Montessori in an upper middle class suburb, but rather perhaps an underfunded school in an under-served northern community or disadvantaged inner city neighbourhood. We could use national service programs to assist with the very social safety net of which we are so proud but which the government can ill afford to continue funding at the same levels as we have historically. This would be a much needed supplement to the social safety net while at the same time preparing our teenagers for the challenges of adulthood.
I strongly believe Canada is the greatest nation in the world. I also believe that no matter how much every generation of parents worries about the younger generation, those kids usually turn out okay, just as we did. But comfort should not mean apathy. There is much to be done and Canada can be even better. Let us not rest on our laurels. Let us strive to make every future generation the absolute best it can be, and in the process improve the social services of our country via national service, and ultimately the economy and politics by sending forth from their national service the best prepared, most informed, most mature, compassionate and responsible generation than we have ever sent before.