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A generation of optimists staring down their challenges

16 December 20150 comments

Young Australians are facing uncertain and insecure futures after leaving school and their working lives will bear little resemblance to their parents’, according to a new book.

Monash University education academic Lucas Walsh says young Australians’ post-school lives are becoming increasingly characterised by fluidity and instability in their career paths; a situation that has become worse since the 2007 global financial crisis.

Despite uncertain futures, young Australians are generally a positive bunch

Despite uncertain futures, young Australians are generally a positive bunch

In his new book Educating Generation Next, Walsh says that globally as many as 290 million 15–24-year-olds did not participate in the labour market in 2013.

“That is almost a quarter of the world’s youth and a group almost as large as the population of the USA,” Associate Professor Walsh says.

Given this bleak outlook you might expect the next generation of Aussies to be pessimistic and even depressed about their futures.

But on the contrary, Walsh says most young Australians are optimistic about their futures even though their expectations differ from those of their parents.

He says that looking at Australian youth is interesting as a case study for policy makers and educators.

Walsh says Australia has undergone an unprecedented period of prosperity but young Aussies are increasingly exposed to workforce fluidity and precariousness that are similar to forces transforming young lives across the globe.

“Based on the evidence you would not necessarily expect them to be optimists,” he says.

“It is consistent with our vision of young people as an object of concern which predominates much of the way we think about young people and their transition to working life.

“It is generalised beyond ‘at risk’ groups to the young in general. In the globalised risky labour markets young people are at risk of failing to reach conventional markers of adulthood, such as securing full-time employment or buying a house,” he says.

However, Walsh believes there are signs of optimism among young people.

“My conclusion… is that despite the often unsettling portrayal of young people in transition that emerges from the data, young people are resilient and optimistic about their futures,” he says.

Walsh cites data from the World Values Survey which shows that, across almost all participating countries, school completers are more likely to feel that they have control over their lives than their peers who do not complete school.

Of the young Australians who took part in these surveys between 2005 and 2007, 56 per cent had a high degree of choice and control over their lives.

Another 41 per cent felt they had some degree of self-efficacy. Just two per cent said they had little control or no choice or control.

“Of course one should be aware of the differences in the strength of optimism,” he says.

“Three times as many non-completers feel that they had no choice and control within their lives as their peers who completed school.

“I think that this shows that young people from excluded groups are much less likely to feel autonomous,” he says.

Walsh says one of the reasons for optimism among the young is that they do not have the same expectations, such as having a permanent job or being able to afford to buy a house, as their parents did.

“I am not sure this generation wants the same things their parents did,” he says.

“The evidence indicates that young people see more to life than fulfilling economic need. Data from the World Values Survey indicates that three-quarters of young adults prioritised the need to protect the environment over economic growth.

“I think it is fair to say that the challenges of youth transitions should be located in a richer world of values, contexts, expectations and possibilities for young people to participate in the economies and societies of the 21st century,” Walsh says.

Despite all the optimism, he argues that there is need to prepare young people for worlds of insecure work in Australia and internationally, saying they need soft skills that form part of adversity capital, which enables young people to be more adaptive, flexible, and resilient.

“I argue that this kind of adversity capital also offers scope for resistance to the responsibilisation of young people as a basis for their regulation and provides capacity for them to critically engage and resist the domination of certain economistic, neoliberal ways of thinking and being,” Walsh says.


Gabrielle Chen
AMES Australia Staff Writer