Brain Trust: The second generation
By MICHAEL VALPY
Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 16, 2003
The secret to the success of children of immigrants lies, in large part, in the stern words they hear at the dinner table: I gave up everything for you. You will graduate from university.
They listen. What's more, said University of Toronto sociologist Monica Boyd, at university they outpace young Canadians who by the most obvious measures -- income, parents' education, language and race -- grow up with the advantage.
The gap is even wider, Prof. Boyd observed, for immigrant offspring who belong to a visible minority; according to data collected by the 2001 census, people in their 20s who fall into this group are almost twice as likely to have a university degree as those whose parents were both born in Canada.
It is the same for school attendance: More than half (54 per cent) of those in their 20s with two foreign-born parents belonging to a visible minority were in school in 2001, compared with 31 per cent of their white and aboriginal peers with Canadian-born parents. Restricting the comparison to urban populations narrows the gap, but does not eliminate it.
In fact, young people with one immigrant parent and one Canadian-born parent get educated at a lower rate than those with two foreign-born parents. "People move huge distances, change cultures because they are prone to succeed," Prof. Boyd said. "Their kids come into the classroom knowing they have to succeed. They are told, 'This is your chance.' "
But there are also other factors. Immigrant families tend be more tightly knit because they arrived here knowing no one else, and often come from cultures where parents hold strict authority. Their children often benefit also from being part of a close ethnic community that tends to take a broader responsibility for the raising of families, and offsets some of the difficulties of single parents.
But not all groups are equally successful. Chinese Canadians, for instance, tend to perform better on paper than Caribbean Canadians. There is also some difference between families that arrive as selected, skilled immigrants and those who come as refugees. Refugee parents, hampered by language and suffering, may have a harder time negotiating their new society, including the school system.
One in five Canadians 20 to 29 years old are second-generation, amounting to 730,000 people, the largest count in any age group. A poll conducted by the Globe and Mail and Centre for Research and Information on Canada found their attitudes to be remarkably similar to people in their 20s with Canadian-born parents. Their age group universally ranked multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as high sources of Canadian pride, but second-generation 20s ranked them the highest.
They were slightly more likely to say that people were judged on their ethnicity not hard work, and that who you know counts in the workplace. And although 67 per cent said ethnicity was important to their identity, the number of immigrant offspring who ranked a shared ethnicity as important when looking for a spouse was only 17 per cent -- and the longer they had been in Canada, the less important they considered it.
It's not yet known whether their credentials will help them overcome some of the traditional barriers that have confronted visible-minority groups, but these young Canadians have already defined themselves as hard workers: Children of immigrants are the most likely to be holding down a full-time job even while attending university full-time.
When they graduate, according the census, immigrant offspring in their 20s have a higher concentration in highly skilled occupations. About 26 per cent work in the business or financial sector, compared with 15 per cent of 20-to-29-year-olds with Canadian-born parents, and they are also slightly more likely to be in the natural or applied sciences, and equally present in health care. (They are underrepresented in primary industries such as agriculture and forestry, in part because immigrant communities are more likely to be urban.)
"They're coming out of the starting blocks with what we have always told people they need to get ahead," Prof. Boyd said. "Can they maintain it? That is the question to be answered in the future."