Rational Youth was formed in 1981 in Montreal, Quebec, by synthesizer players Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn, both of whom idolized the German synthpop pioneers Kraftwerk. The band is considered to be one of Canada's first synthpop groups.

The band was formed in the summer of 1981 by Howe and Vorn, joined by keyboardist Mario Spezza. The band's second professional engagement was opening for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, in Montreal. 

The band recorded their first single "I Want To See The Light" in 1981 for YUL Records, an independent label established by Marc Demouy, a record importer and retailer, and Pat Deserio. Demouy also became the band's manager. Shortly after the single was issued, Spezza left and was replaced by Kevin Komoda (keyboards). 

The Howe/Vorn/Komoda trio then recorded the album Cold War Night Life, which was issued in early 1982 and was the first all-synth pop release in Canada. It became one of the biggest-selling Canadian independent albums at the time. 

Vorn left the band at the beginning of 1983 to resume communication studies at university. He earned a doctorate in communication studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and is a full professor in the Department of Studio Arts at Concordia University. He has been active in the field of robotic art since 1992. 

Following Vorn's departure, the group — now consisting of Howe (vocals, keyboards, guitars), Komoda (keyboards), Denis Duran (bass) and Angel Calvo (drums) -- was signed to Capitol Records. That year, Rational Youth issued an eponymous EP. Following the release of the EP and immediately before a national promotional tour, Komoda, Duran and Calvo left the band, purportedly because of the level of full-time commitment. Howe, left with the band name but no band, did not form another band to tour in support of the EP. Komoda later became a radio producer for CBC Radio's Brave New Waves. 

A subsequent album, Heredity, was released in 1985 under the Rational Youth name, although Howe was now the only permanent group member. The album was recorded with the participation of over a dozen session musicians, including Dee Long of Klaatu (guitars, keyboards). Howe and Long produced. 

The decision to release the album under the Rational Youth name was that of the record company, Capitol Records, though Howe did not oppose the decision. The record, while successful, is viewed as having created a different audience for Rational Youth, confusing older fans. 

Howe put a band together and toured in support of Heredity during 1985 and 1986. Shortly after filming a cameo in the film Crazy Moon (to which they contributed two songs), Howe placed the band on "indefinite hiatus" in February 1986. However, continued interest in the band, particularly in Europe, resulted in Cold War Night Life being reissued on compact disc in 1997. This in turn led to a 1997 reunion concert with Howe and Vorn in Lund, Sweden.

In 1999, Rational Youth, with a new lineup of original frontman Howe and new keyboard players Jean-Claude Cutz and Dave Rout, released its first album after fourteen years, To the Goddess Electricity. 

Rational Youth toured throughout Scandinavia over the next two years, playing its final concert on November 3, 2001, at the Tinitus Festival in Stockholm, Sweden. 

Original members Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn came together again in 2009, at the initiative of Marc Demouy, recording a new version of their 1982 track "Dancing On The Berlin Wall" in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. In 2010, the recording was issued by YUL Records as a CD EP. In 2011, another CD EP was released, City Of Night /Cite Phosphore, consisting of re-recordings of an early single, as well as remixed versions of the original recording.

Later that year, Howe and Kevin Komoda issued yet another re-recorded single, the CD EP Coboloid Race/I Want To See The Light 30th Anniversary Edition. The release included newly re-recorded songs and newly discovered alternative mixes from the original 1981 sessions. 

In 2013, the band issued a number of archival recordings, including live material recorded in Ottawa and Winnipeg in 1983. A rarities compilation called Magic Box was also released, which consisted of early 1980s Rational Youth demos and remixes, and solo recordings from Howe, Vorn and Komoda. 

By 2014, the band consisted of Tracy and Gaenor Howe. This duo toured as Rational Youth in Europe and Canada. In November 2014, Rational Youth paired with the band Psyche to record and issue a cover of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck", a collaborative single that credited both bands. 

In May 2016 Rational Youth released the EP "Future Past Tense" through Artoffact Records. 

In September 2016, the band appeared on the compilation, Heresy, released by Cold War Night Life. A play on the title of Heredity, Heresy also featured covers of Rational Youth tracks by eighteen artists from Canada, Norway, Britain, Australia, Sweden and Germany. Contributions included recordings by former band members, Dave Rout and Kevin Komoda, as well as collaborators Psyche.