What is Meaningful Youth Engagement?

The majority of the frameworks we surveyed see youth engagement as a process which includes youth in decision-making (Audi et. al., 2021, p.10), and recognizes their meaningful participation in decisions that impact them as a right and a necessity (City of Airdrie, 2019, p.6; Students Commission, 2011, p.13; Anthony et. al., 2013, p.7). They also point to the importance of acknowledging the skills, strengths, ideas, and experiences that youth bring to the table (Audi et al., 2021, p.9; City of Airdrie, 2019, p.6; Students Commission, 2011, p.14), while emphasizing a “reciprocal” or “equal” relationship of learning and shared decision making between adults and youth (Students Commission, 2011, p.14; Anthony et. Al., 2013, p.7). Further, “engagement should be sustained over time so they can take action on their ideas and see the results of their contributions” (Students Commission, 2011, p.14).

The CEI’s Youth Advisory Group, presented with the task of defining meaningful youth engagement for themselves, echoed a great deal of the points above; interviews and surveys conducted with youth did the same. Combining their thoughts with academic research and a series of youth interviews, this framework takes the following points as representative of meaningful youth engagement:

  1. Hearing and valuing youth experiences and perspectives, and giving them equal weight to those of adults or more senior employees/members;
  2. Recognizing the diversity of experience that exists among young people, and making an intentional effort to engage with a diverse group;
  3. Ensuring that a variety of resources and supports are available and easily accessible;
  4. Creating reciprocal relationships between adults and youth that prioritize two-way learning;
  5. Actively working towards overcoming barriers to engagement; and
  6. Creating experiences that are meaningful for the youth involved.

Levels of Engagement

Hart’s 1992 ladder of participation is one well-known and well-regarded way of understanding youth participation. The ladder denotes various ‘levels’ of youth engagement, ranging from not engaged, to highly engaged and taking on leadership roles. It is important to note that the ‘best’ level of youth engagement is always dependent upon the needs and intentions of the respective initiative, project, or request, as well as upon the youth involved. Therefore, there is no one ‘ideal’ level of youth participation. The levels depicted in the ladder are, however, a helpful tool for youth, organizations, employers, and service providers to clarify expectations and understand what different types of engagement look like in practice. This way of understanding prescribes value to the differing levels, but leaves room for the specific forms and types of participation that are context-specific and dependent upon the youth being engaged and the projects they’re engaged with (Cahill & Dadvand, 2018)

The table below is an adaptation of the upper half of Hart’s ladder (Hart, 1992 & Funk et al., 2012), modified by CEI Impact and Innovation Coordinator Joel Murphy and CEI Summer Research Intern Caroline MacIsaac. We’ve started the table at level four as levels one through three (manipulation, decoration, and tokenism, in Hart’s version) are considered “non-participation” and thus are not relevant to a framework that holds engagement and participation as the ultimate goal.

Ladder Level Description of Participation Organizational Action Engagement Style
4. Youth are assigned and informed Youth understand the intention of the project, are informed, and are given their role.


Organization, employers, or service providers offer clarity and specific training for the youth’s role within the program or initiative.


5. Youth are consulted and informed


Youth are invited to consult, critique, and give advice on projects. Youth are aware of their role and the impact of their input.


Youth are invited to participate in advisory groups, questionnaires, or other means of collecting youth feedback. Consult / Involve
6. Adult initiated and shared decision making with youth


Youth are invited into decision making and support the adult-initiated project.


Youth are invited to be more hands-on and directly influence project development. Involve / Collaborate
7. Youth leading projects and initiating action


Youth initiate and execute a project on their own terms, with advice and support from adults.


Organizations, employers, or service providers create spaces and supports for specific youth-led initiatives. Collaborate / Empower
8. Youth and adult sharing decision making Youth and adults are equitable decision-making partners, but the project is led by youth. Youth are empowered and are also able to learn through actively leading and engaging in the project development and implementation. Collaborate / Empower

What is Meaningful Work?

Within the context of career and employment development, we were also curious about youths’ opinions on meaningful work, and what similarities or differences existed between their definitions of meaningful work and meaningful engagement. 

When applying the concept of meaning to work, the youth who took part in CEI surveys, interviews, and focus groups identified three key factors. To them, meaningful work means:

Being able to see the impact of their work on real people or the world.

Impact was by far the most popular answer among youth interview and survey participants when asked to give their definition of meaningful work. Youth don’t just want to engage in impactful work—they want to see the impact firsthand, out in the world or in their own communities, and affecting real people. Often, young people are the first to be tasked with so-called ‘busy work,’ and don’t get a chance to see or be part of that direct impact, but bringing them in and ensuring they have a role where impact is visible can be rewarding for youth; employers will also reap the reward of a more engaged employee.

“I think being able to impact change is something that feels meaningful to me, even if it’s just little bits of change, or just seeing someone change their perspective … seeing some of that change feels meaningful to me.” (Youth Interview Participant)

“Being connected to the fruits of your labour really helps, and is really rewarding in just getting to see your work in action and understand what you’re accomplishing. … I was in retail for awhile through high school, for example, and like, I’d sell people shoes … they’d be like oh yeah, I’m an athlete, I need these shoes for this upcoming event – but I never got to go see the event, and I think it would have made me feel better if I did. That’s something that I really like about some of the positions I’ve had, is getting to see people interact with the things you’re doing and seeing how it can make a difference to people.” (Youth Interview Participant)

One common thread within this category of answers is collaboration—working with other people or organizations to “improve something or create something for the greater good” (Y005). There’s a general sense among young people that interdependency and connected communities are extremely valuable tools for creating a better world, and that working in this manner is “nourishing” in comparison to more siloed work (Y007).

Something they like doing or are interested in.

This point is fairly self-explanatory—youth want to work jobs that are related to their interests and passions. Youth interviewees are looking for work that “lights a fire” under them (Y003), and that they can “be proud of doing” (Y006). Jobs that don’t meet this simple criteria can leave young people feeling burnt out and unmotivated, and are unlikely to retain youth.

For many interviewees and survey participants, their interests also align with impact—if you care about climate change, for example (an interest shared by many youth), you also care about being able to take action towards a better future. When these two things align, it can work out really well—however, one youth pointed out that when a person’s work has impact, but lacks interest, it may be doing a disservice to recipients. For example, one youth posed the question “if you are working with a vulnerable population and your heart is not in it, should you really be doing that?” (Y006). While not every job will perfectly align with a young person’s passions and interests, it is possible to work within a job description and find something—whether it’s a particular project, or a skill to be practiced—that supports the young person’s continued interest and investment. This will support their success, and therefore also the the success of the projects they’re involved with. 

“I think to me it means that I enjoy the work that I am doing, and I look forward to going to work, and I look forward to working on whatever I am doing … that I don’t despise the idea of going to work or get to work and then all I want to do is go home. Because just thinking about jobs that I have had where I felt like that, it was a lot more taxing on my personal life and on my mental wellbeing.” (Youth Interview Participant)

Youth are also aware of the influence work can have on their interests—namely, that if they choose a job based on something they love, they might “end up hating it” once it’s no longer just something they do for fun, or to relax (Y009). There’s a happy medium to be struck, then, between something that leans into a young person’s interests, yet is separate enough from what they do in their time off that the two don’t meld together. One interviewee had personal experience with this struggle, but has found a job they think strikes that balance well. They are passionate about student experience and making the lives of students better, and though their current job is in the field of higher education, some of what they do isn’t directly related to their passion; however, they’ve found that “even if you are not working directly on the things you care about most, you can still influence [them]” (Y009). The indirect impact of their work on their passions is enough separation to keep the passion alive, and the work engaging.

Something that provides space for them to learn and grow.

A number of youth also identified that having room to learn and to accumulate knowledge and skills that will serve them well in the future were particularly meaningful. They appreciate jobs that prioritize their learning, and that offer them personal benefits beyond a paycheck. 

“When I chose to return to work and I chose to return to school it was because I recognized the benefit I receive as a human to do that … being able to recognize that work provides this area for me to learn and expand and to grow as a human is really important.” (Youth Interview Participant)

The two key themes here were opportunity and support; being offered opportunities to learn new things, while receiving enough support to fully engage with those opportunities without fear of judgment. Opportunities might look like workshops or other more traditional professional development activities, but a number of the opportunities youth pointed to more specifically were when they had a chance to take the lead and dive into project planning. One interviewee noted that they’d learned a lot more at their current job, where they were asked to take the lead on a project from beginning to end, than they had at previous jobs—they felt that being supported to complete every step of a project from beginning to end offered learnings that they could apply elsewhere in their life, and would use again later in their career (Y004). Of course, they weren’t given a project to run with and sent on their way—rather, they received support from others in the organization, which brings us to theme number two. 

For some, support looked as simple as employers recognizing that they would have a learning curve, and that that curve was “understood and expected” (ES008). Having someone they could debrief with or ask questions to was also helpful, and some also talked about how they appreciated smaller learning opportunities to support big ones—for example, receiving advice or pointers on how to send professional emails before diving into bigger projects involving those skills (Y008). Others also identified peer support as a crucial element for learning and engaging in meaningful work, sharing that connections with others who were in the same boat and learning the same things was helpful in that they could learn together, and not feel so alone. 

Why Engage Youth?

For those of you who may need some convincing about the benefits of hiring or engaging young people in your work, there are a few key reasons we’d like to share… 

In our youth survey, we asked youth why they thought employers should hire young people, and heard back that youth are excited to bring innovative ideas, fresh perspectives, and a diversity of opinions to their workplaces. They also shared that they believe their flexible skillsets and willingness to learn could be great assets to any company, and that they could support connections to younger audiences. Our Youth Advisory Group made sure to emphasize, as well, that adults can learn skills from youth that they might not have prior to engagement—whether that’s related to the latest trends, or maybe how to use newer technology.  

“Myself and many of the young people I know bring new ways of thinking, adept and flexible skillsets, and a willingness to create a better future for Nova Scotia to their roles. Many of us are deeply dedicated to doing high quality work using our training and are very enthusiastic about contributing to our companies.” (Youth Survey Participant)

The work of Dougherty and Clarke (2017) further supports the answers our youth gave, arguing that the heightened neuroplasticity that comes with youth results in “significant potential and extraordinary accomplishment.” The fact that young people have been raised with exposure to new technologies is also a great benefit, they say, in that it has allowed youth to become experts on the subjects they care about, and in that it has supported their ability to “engage in high-level contemplation, critical thinking, and problem solving” by decreasing their need to rely on memorization and recall. (We think the article is pretty interesting, and suggest reading it in its entirety if this subject is of interest to you!)

We also asked employers, organizations, and service providers what they’d gained from working with youth, and their answers mirrored those given above. Almost across the board, this group of survey participants shared that bringing youth into their work sparked learning on both sides and brought a fresh perspective. Other answers pointed to the fact that having younger people on staff helped them engage younger clients, as the youth they brought on board knew how best to reach their peers. 

“We were able to significantly increase the productivity and creativity of the organization through hiring co-op students, and it also resulted in full time hires. … I am currently learning from the youth I work with in terms of how to advocate, how to adopt new technology, how to find fulfilling work…” (OES Survey Participant)

And of course, hiring or engaging with young people also benefits them! By bringing young people into your work, you can know that you’re helping support the newest generation of workers in gaining the skills, experience, confidence, and connections they need to succeed in the future.

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