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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

What skill deficits exist for teens in 2023 - Jay Gosselin and Michelle Dittmer's Observations

In today’s episode we invite the fabulous Jay Gosselin from Discover Year, a certified Canadian post-secondary program that fosters confidence, resilience and equips students with the skills they need to succeed in their transition from adolescence into adulthood through their one-year life skills program.

We all know the pandemic was a rocky time for everyone, but Michelle and Jay unpack the many areas where youth were impacted and ultimately the skills deficits resulting from this. They also dive deeper into how gap years are the perfect way to build on these skills to help young people get back on track!

Take a listen!

Topics Discussed

  • The major setbacks and obstacles faced by youth including social and mental health issues.

  • How such issues have become barriers for youth to make an effective transitions from adolescence to young adulthood

  • The challenges with having difficult conversations with your young person and CanGap resources that you can tap into.

  • How discover year through experiential learning and exceptional mentor support helps the development of critical soft skills that students are missing

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year Podcast my name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year Expert and today I have the fabulous Jay Gosselin coming to join me, Jay is a kindred spirit in all things related to youth development and supporting their transition from adolescence into early adulthood.

Jay is the founder of a fabulous program called Discover Year, we're gonna talk a little bit about that, but today we really wanna jump into some of the things that we've been noticing with young people in 2023. Every year we get a different cohort of people coming through. Each generation has its own challenges of the youth and what they're experiencing and what they're bringing to the table.

And in the last couple of years, each cohort each year is bringing their own unique experiences and challenges as their lives have been interrupted by COVID at very different points.

And in those teenage years, the difference between what a 16 year old experience and what an 18 year old experience with COVID has shaped them in different ways.

So Jay and I are just gonna chat a little bit, share what we see for all of the parents out there or for young people who are listening, maybe you can relate with some of these things and we'll give you some tips and tricks on how to move yourself forward and address some of these challenges to set yourself up for success or set your young person up for success in life.

So Jay, thanks for joining me on the podcast today.

Jay Gosselin - 01:38

Thank you for having me!

Michelle Dittmer - 01:42

Awesome, so why don't we jump in?

So you talk to a lot of young people and their parents through the work that you do and year after year, you have cohorts of young people coming through the Discover Your program.

And so this isn't just a small sample of four or five people that we're talking about, we're talking about hundreds and thousands of conversations with young people.

So what are some of the things that you have noticed through your work that are really kind of relevant for young people as they navigate this transition into early adulthood?

Jay Gosselin - 02:19

So one thing that I will say is that the way I characterize what's happening like today for the past, let's say a couple of years since the onset of the pandemic, for me, what the difference is between this period and let's say 2017, 2018, in the first couple of years, we had been running Discover Year.

We found it in 2016. And the reason we found it is because we saw, I personally observed in thousands of conversations, like you said, this dearth in skills for young people to make an effective transition from adolescence to young adulthood that largely related, generally speaking to social skills and a good strong sense of wellbeing, good mental health, good emotional health, I found I was just so disappointed and shocked and heartbroken by the conversations I had. So social skills and wellbeing are the two main facets that we focus on at Discover Year

And what I've noticed in the last two years is not that much has changed in terms of the struggles of students, it's just kind of doubled.

It's been like a doubling down of the difficulties things are much more difficult for students to do. So as an example, students have difficulty engaging in conversation.

And when we tend to aim to have them hold good positive proactive professional conversations, a lot of times what we hear from them is, okay, that's great, I'd like to get there someday, but I just wanna know how to talk to a friend or a person in my class, I don't know how to do that.

So that's one thing that we've observed is they really missed out on many opportunities to have good in person social interactions where they learn a lot just by trying stuff out, trying stuff out less because they don't have the confidence anymore.

In my opinion, and what we hear a lot of is, they feel that they don't wanna say the wrong thing. I hear that much, much more than I did when I started the program.

Michelle Dittmer - 04:17

Yeah, and I think parents recognize that too. I hear a lot of parents saying, my kid just stays in their room. They don't hang out with their friends like they used to.

And a lot of us tap into our lived experience when we were teenagers and we were hanging out at the park or the mall. I don't know about you, but we always went to the mall for some reason. Nobody had any money, but we just hung out there. And I guess the term loitering is probably what it's called.

But through those points of communication and connection and forming a sense of belonging, there was this safety in taking small risks and like microscopic risks, like opening your mouth and saying hello to a stranger or being able to talk to your friend about something that's happening in your life or their life, the fully developed brain, somebody who has a lifetime of experience where a fraction of it was COVID compared to somebody who went through this huge developmental phase of their brain and their life without those little micro experiences now has this deficit in social ability and being able to take those things into communicate and sometimes we're reaching for the stars, like you said, like let's talk about an interview, like this is a big deal. Let's get you equipped with these skills and we need to scale it back.

And we need to bring it to a level, we need to meet them where they're at. And I totally see that too, especially I work with a lot of people who are looking for jobs. And they're like, oh man, I can't find a job anywhere. And I'm like, really? And they say, well, I looked online and I submitted a bunch of things. I said, well, did you talk to anybody?

And that is so far out of their comfort zone because it is too big of a risk, too big of an ask because they haven't had those micro pieces along the way.

So what are some recommendations you have or what are some things that you do in Discover Year that help them to develop that skill a little bit?

Jay Gosselin - 06:37

So it's funny you bring back a lot of memories just in describing this opportunity for young people to go out into the world and express themselves to others and sell themselves as it were.

So one thing that we do that's always painful to begin with and exuberance by the end of it is towards the end of our orientation period at Discover Year, we go to the mall. We all go to the mall.

So at this point, we've helped the students understand what to expect in an interview, how to give their elevator speech and these are all things that they scaffold through at the year, but we help them understand how to present themselves, what to bring with them, how to dress generally.

And then we go to the mall and they bring a dozen resumes each and they are sweating and panicked and shaking. Of course, not all of them.

Some of them have had jobs, some of them have a little bit more ease in social settings, but most of them are literally terrified, there's no other word for it. And so we walk through that with them.

We go there and we set up shop in the food court and we say, go and they go with each other, they work through it and some of them go and talk to five or six employers and they say, well, that was really good.

Some of them talk to one by the time it's over and they're really proud of themselves and that's the step that they need.

But what we focus on is really meeting them where they are and finding out what the next step beyond their comfort zone is and helping them take that, which is really the hard emotional and strategic work that's hard to do with a group of almost 200 people.

It's hard to understand what each person needs but also to have the courage to push them just a little bit farther, which I think there's a lot of permissiveness in the world right now.

I think from an educational and a parental standpoint, that's my observation is that we're saying, let's meet them where they are and I agree, but then we're just meeting them there and we're hanging out and we're not pushing and when we do push in a delicate way with our students but in an important way.

Michelle Dittmer - 08:28

Yeah, I would agree with that. I think they're not just delicate little snowflakes as you hear sometimes on Instagram or whatever.

They've had a rough go, but we need to help take them to that next level.

And as parents, that can be a really frustrating spot because you're often butting heads or you're coming up or you have so many other layers to your relationship with your young person that asking them to go and talk to somebody about a job can be really difficult from a parent to child relationship and having a coach or having a support system or somebody that's not mum or dad that is also equally invested in the development of that young person can relieve so much stress on that child parent relationship and everybody can feel a little bit better and the young person's developing those skills and mum and dad can work on other parts of their relationship with their young person as well and see that growth over the course of time which is just a beautiful thing.

Jay Gosselin - 09:34

Yeah, one of the things that we hear most often, so as you and I have chat about, we run a parent program in parallel with our student program at Discovery Year and it's been about, I think these are 50 years, very useful for people who sign up for it and it's very interesting for us to navigate this process with the parents of the young people.

And one of the things that we hear very often is, ah, thank you because I've been telling them to do this, I've been asking them to do this for 15 years or however, 10 years and they didn't wanna hear it from you but they'll do it for all of you because you have this different relationship with them.

So that's very reinforcing and helpful to our parents and I have a lot of empathy for parents of teens and adolescents and young adults today because there's a lot of new information to navigate, it's a very different way of being, although not a lot of people, it's a very different experience that this generation has had and perhaps we could say that's true of every generation but the speed at which things are changing and then plus the pandemic, it's very different but it's hard to describe just how different it is and what those impacts are on young people and that research is obviously unfolding.

So what I find is a lot of parents don't know or find it difficult to both support their young person and also maintain really important boundaries and parameters and expectations in their family. That's something that comes up a lot, things like cleaning up their room or putting their clothes in the hamper that parents are like, ah, it feels so, I wanna give them autonomy at the same time. I can't have this going on in my house and it creates this tension.

So people are really struggling, I think to understand what's appropriate now for an 18 year old to be able to do and how they should contribute around the home but also how to give them freedom, it's different.

Michelle Dittmer - 11:21

It is and it's so challenging and I think again, young people feel the pressure from social media but parents do too because again, you're getting all these messaging from parenting experts left, right and centre and there's all of these different solutions or examples of how you should or should not parent and again, our young people have this fear of doing it wrong but parents are also being bombarded with these messages and if you do it this way or don't do it this way, you're gonna emotionally scar your young person for life and I think that that's stressful.

And so I think if parents can recognize that they can also use that as a tool in empathy to see what their young person might be experiencing some of that stress about doing things wrong for sure.

Okay, so what are some of the other things that you're seeing? What are some of those skill sets that might be needing a little bit of support more so than others?

Jay Gosselin - 12:22

So one thing that we see repeatedly and again, we saw a pre-pandemic but not to the same degree is what would fall into the category psychologically speaking of a characteristic of perfectionism.

There's a few, so I'm sure I'm familiar with something called cognitive distortions or irrational beliefs. This is something that we all carry with us. We all have, there's kind of a set of about 15 disphoned cognitive distortions that are often called things like catastrophicization.

So if we see something, we see it unravel in front of our eyes even though we never, that will never probably happen things like believing it's either gonna be good or bad.

When in fact, there's probably a lot of things in between and one of the things that we see a lot with our students repeatedly is this idea of a quest for perfection and the barrier that places in front of them.

So as an example, our students are matched with a coach and every year, there's a subset of students who for what a reason because they're not very organised and we're helping them build those skills and they don't email much and they have 8,000 emails in the earning box because no one's really taught them how to do that.

So they'll fall a few weeks behind. They would have supposed to have reached out to their coach and they haven't yet and then we check in with them because the coach says, they haven't, I wanna talk to me and almost every time they say, it's too late. I miss my chance, I messed up. I can't reach out to them now. They're gonna judge me. They're gonna think about bad person. And this is just a person desperate to help. They so desperately just, they're volunteering. They have huge hearts and they have a lot of skills and they don't care at all.

But the students in their minds believe that they're gonna somehow be cancelled or judged because they didn't meet this goal that they had set in their minds and that we had kind of set for them.

So that happens time and again, they won't reach out. They won't do something because of the fear of it not being good enough. It's not one or two students. It's like a pervasive thing that we see in almost all of them in some way, shape or form, which I think is pretty new.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:21

Yeah, and that can be a very paralysing feeling. Like if I'm not gonna get 100% on this, why would I even start?

And so we see, we can see that manifesting in action. Just not making a start because of that fear of failure or not attaining an expectation that comes from who knows where.

And I know a lot of the young people that I talk to, they have these internal expectations of themselves. But they also sometimes have assumed expectations from their parents.

So they will say, oh, I have to go to university because my parents would never let me take a gap year. Or I have to go into engineering because even though I love art, my parents would never accept if I went into an arts program.

And so they invent these expectations without, or they assume these expectations without actually having a conversation with their parents. And when we get the parents sitting down, they're saying, no, I would never say that to you. I want what's best for you.

Go into the arts program, but they have this pressure and this desire to meet or exceed those expectations, which I think is such a new phenomenon that they don't know where their parents stand. So they make up assumptions.

So if parents can have conversations with their young people and be vocal and open in that dialogue around expectations, that can really help the young person find a little bit more ground and find that confidence, I guess, to take a step forward.

Jay Gosselin - 16:09

Yeah, and I think it's so, it's a compounding effect, especially again, those who know me or those who work with me know that I personally believe that there's a net loss in social media and many of the technologies we used to do.

That's my stance. I've thought about it a lot. I've researched it, I've experienced it with many young people. And I think that there are many great things that have come from information technology.

But I think that as it stands right now, it's in that loss because of the psychological impact that it has on all of us.

Let's be clear, it's on all of us, but in particular on young people who don't know any different.

They've never experienced a world where you had to dial your phone, the rotary phone, or you had to go to your friend's house and knock on the door. They've only just been given access to millions of people who are supposedly just killing it in life and on Easy Street and making millions of dollars when they're 21 and living in an infinity pool and all their friends who are seemingly so happy.

We've all talked about this before. And the truth is that people I think are just exhausted by this idea, they think this is not going away. And we just end up kind of ignoring it.

But we do spend a good amount of time in our program talking about social media because the expectations like you said are coming from the parents and even when they're explicit about that, sometimes a student internalizes it in a different way that was unintended.

And then there's the expectations that they're taking in from everywhere around them, largely online and then those are kind of processed in a way that becomes internalized and it's really fascinating to hear how they describe it. But the experience that they have online is a huge challenge, a huge challenge.

Michelle Dittmer - 17:53

Definitely. Yeah, I agree.

And I think the more that we can get people to start talking to each other and talking to different people and asking questions, I think there's so much value in that and I know Discover Year brings in tons of coaches and mentors and people from various career pathways and they talk about the realities of their life and not only the shiny social media, forward facing rainbow sunshine, unicorn stuff, but the challenging stuff too.

Can you talk a little bit about how that impacts young people when they get exposure to those stories?

Jay Gosselin - 18:32

Yeah, it has a huge impact on them and what is really interesting about it is that we particularly emphasise asking our mentors and coaches to share their failures and we all have many of them. We have a lot of mentors and coaches who have poor mental health, especially right now. We have people who have ended their marriages right before they began. We have people who broke their back and their knees at the same time. We have people who had all kinds of experiences and messed up many times.

But the thing that we're looking for in our mentors is people who appreciate those experiences in retrospect and name them as growth moments and now bring with them this idea that failure is actually very useful.

So our students hear that. It's interesting when you hear it from one person, a keynote speaker, oh, that's interesting.

Michelle thinks failure is good. That's cool.

But they hear it every week from a few different people who are literally very, very different careers, different backgrounds, different personalities, different nationalities.

And then they hear it every week for a year and that has an impact because they see that it's real. They see that it's real and they feel it.

And then they go out on the travel period and they experience it themselves and they go, I lost my wallet and I had to figure it out. And it was OK. It was not nearly as bad as I thought.

So I built a ton of resilience and an understanding that it's OK not to know where you're going when you're 18 because, truthfully, no one in the history of the world knew if they had the option to choose. Since we've had the option to choose, nobody has known with any degree of clarity, almost nobody, at the age of 18, especially now.

Michelle Dittmer - 20:06


And that ties so nicely into some of the other challenges that we were talking about perfectionism and communicating and that ability to connect with other people with lived experience and the fact that this is a narrative of life that we don't hear in many places from real people and we don't share those challenges in the same way.

OK, if you had to pick one more thing, one more skill that young people need to work on a little bit in 2023. What would be that last one today?

Jay Gosselin - 20:43

I would say proactivity. Taking chances, taking risks, as you alluded to earlier, and sometimes those are emotional, interpersonal risks.

Usually, they are that in some way, shape or form. But we need to start getting young people to try stuff more consistently because once they do, and we observe that in our program, they're really terrified to try something new, whether it's handing out resumes or trying a new skill or reaching out to one of our mentors. It's really hard right away.

But when they do it once in a supportive environment and then they think it went OK, and then we encourage them to do it again and again.

So just having the sense that they do have control over their lives, which largely doesn't feel like they believe in this age demographic a lot.

So getting them to just get out there and try stuff, that idea of going on just trying and see what happens, that's the skill that I think would be, that's the kind of the meta skill that would help with everything else.

Michelle Dittmer - 21:46

I love that. And I always, when I'm talking to people, I say your gap year is an opportunity for you to get into the driver's seat of your life.

Because so often, young people are feeling like they're in the passenger seat, that they're just along for the ride and they're being shepherded from one classroom to another, one grade to another, into post-secondary.

And they don't have much agency in what's happening in their lives. And that ability to move from the passenger seat to driver's seat, once they understand, hey, you've got the power, you've got the agency in your life to decide if you want to turn left or right or go straight. You've got the agency to decide how fast or slow you want to go. You've got the agency to decide, hey, I need a pit stop right now I need to take a break. That sense of control is a mental health tool, it is a career development tool. It is going to set young people up for so much success in their life.

And if on your gap year you get that practice of shifting over into the driver's seat, taking those chances, making those decisions, because decision making for a lot of the folks I work with is a really challenging one for all of the other skills we talked about, making those decisions and exploring them and making U-turns if you have to.

I think gap years just allow the time and space to build these really foundational skills. So instead of jumping in and throwing more textbooks and more knowledge and more information onto it, we need to have that solid foundation.

And the gap year really gives the time and space for young people to be able to do that and with guidance from folks like the team at Discover Year, it's really, really helpful for them to do that so that they can have the confidence and skills to move forward when they're ready to whatever that next phase in life is.

Jay Gosselin - 23:54

Yes, we, I'm often selective in how we decide to articulate our program because I think that what you just described is the ultimate goal for us is building agency confidence, intrinsic motivation really is what we're after and it is gruelling.

It is honestly gruelling for many months every year in our program, we say here's some parameters, what we invite you to do. We want you to do something that's interesting to you. We want you to learn something, do something hard. Ah, we have students and parents, I don't know what that means.

What do you expect from me? Tell me what to do.They've been told for 13 years and the parents have been told what the kids need to do for 13 years.

So it's really hard but people, it's hard to recognize that is a thing, that that's even a thing that's changed that a young people have, I would argue, I don't know what the research says specifically but certainly less agency and volition, a sense of a belief that they have control, that's very visible to me that is diminished but it's hard to sometimes articulate that to somebody because it's hard to know what that looks like.

Michelle Dittmer - 24:56

You got it, you got it. So Jay, if folks wanted to learn a little bit more about the Discover Your Program, where could they find that?

Jay Gosselin - 25:06

The website's the best place to start, And in fact, we have today, the day of recording, we have an info session tonight but we'll have others coming in March and then an open house in May.

The best way by far for people to really understand what we do is to come meet our team, meet our students and some of our former parents.

They do the best job of articulating the benefits of the program so that's highly encouraged but starting on the website is always a good thing.

Michelle Dittmer - 25:35

Awesome. And I will link in the show notes, we do have some of your alum talking about their experience in a previous podcast episode.

So if you want to hear directly from them on the spot on demand, we'll link to that so you can check it out. But definitely head to to learn a little bit more about that program.

And Jay, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today.

Jay Gosselin - 25:58

Thank you, Michelle, it's great to be here as always.

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