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Poll: Canadian millennials more pragmatic, less value-driven when considering engagement with Asia

Asia Pacific Foundation report finds that, while the 18-24 demographic knew the least about Asia, they are also the most positive - with 61% holding a favourable view of the region

Canadian millennials - those between the ages of 18 and 34 - appear to be more pragmatic than older Canadians about engaging Asian countries based on economic opportunities and co-operation on issues like climate change, rather than a strict focus on upholding Canada’s values.

That is part of the key findings of a new national opinion poll, conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, released Tuesday. The poll, which polled 1,527 Canadians between September 18 and October 1, focuses on Canadian millennials due to the fact that information on the demographic’s opinions is scarce.

Asia Pacific Foundation president/CEO Stewart Beck said the report’s findings - specifically the results that showed Millennials are generally more engaged with Asian languages and culture than older Canadians, as well as been more positive about these engagements - are encouraging, given Canada’s need to pivot its economic attention of growth markets such as China, Southeast Asia and India in the coming years.

“A lot of our attention at the foundation has been directed to that 18-34 demographic, and the reason for that is that they are more likely to be influenced by new information,” Beck said. “After 35, most attitudes have been formed… It’s about an education process of exposing people more to what the new reality of the global environment is about.” 

Among the key findings of the report include a “significant” split in opinions among millennials themselves, which poll results divided into two groups: Those between ages 18-24 (or “the learning generation,” as the report coined), and those between ages 25-34 (“the engaged generation). 

The report found that, while the 18-24 group knew the least about Asia, they are also the most positive - with 61% holding a favourable view of the region. That percentage falls dramatically to 47% among the 25-34 group and 48% among the 35-plus. 

And while the percentage of respondents saying that upholding Canadian values is what Ottawa should prioritize in foreign relations is steady across demographics (41% for 18-24 and 44% for 25-34), 25% of the younger group would prioritize engaging “large and rapidly growing economies” that could bring economic opportunities to Canada. Only 17% of the older group agreed.

One area where the two demographics converged versus older Canadians is the interest to learn more about Asia, where 25% of the 18-24 group said they are “very interested” in learning more, while 34% of the 25-34 group agreed. Only 19% of the 35-plus demographic shared that opinion.

But the two millennial groups again split on their areas of interest: The younger group showed significantly less interest in learning about Asian politics (48%) versus the older group’s interest level (73%). But ironically, the younger millennial group also showed a vastly higher Asian-language competency level - 23% of respondents said they can speak an Asian language - over the older millennial group (8%).

Eva Busza, the foundation’s vice president of research and programs, said the figures are curious and may require further exploration, but the overall theme - 64% of those polled admitted not being familiar with Asia but also expressed an interest to learn more, versus 24% of those who are neither familiar nor interested in further familiarization - is that Canadians appear to be willing to understand more about the countries on the other side of the Pacific.

“We have all these preconceptions of what millennials are, and we’ve seen those words in the press that they are disengaged and apathetic,” Busza said. “What we’ve found is that, when it comes to Asia, they are actually quite engaged. What’s heartening is that they are more positive, have more interactions, and want to learn more about Asia.”

The report also showed some of the challenges in Canadians’ knowledge of Asia; almost 70% of respondents associated the word “Asia” directly with “China,” with second-place Japan (10%) and third-place India (5%) far behind in the poll. The China-centric mental image of Asia that Canadians have, Busza said, may create blindspots for major engagement opportunities in places like the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“That’s an area where Asia-competency and education is important,” she said. “Because I think, as Canada develops its strategy, we need to understand that Asia is not a monolith, and that we need a diversified strategy. So that’s why it’s important to not only consider an FTA with China, but also look at progress with opening trade with ASEAN and looking at options with the remaining 11 TPP members… That’s an area we need to work on.”