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Youth dissatisfaction up as uncertainty on rise

Many young Australians are dissatisfied with structures that they feel do not prepare them for the 21st century.

Archbishop Philip Freier in conversation with Fatima Measham and Benson Saulo.

Archbishop Philip Freier in conversation with Fatima Measham and Benson Saulo on the challenges facing young Australians.

By Chris Shearer

Many young Australians are dissatisfied with structures that they feel don’t serve them or prepare them for the 21st century as they face increasing uncertainty around housing, employment, and identity, say two influential commentators.

The comments were made by Eureka Street columnist Fatima Measham and former Australian youth representative to the UN, Benson Saulo. The two were speaking with Archbishop Freier on the theme ‘The challenges facing young Australians’ – as part of his ‘Conversations with the Archbishop’ public talk series – on 2 September.

According to Dr Freier’s two guests, at the core of young Australians’ uncertainty were lagging policy changes needed to adapt education to the realities of the modern Australian workforce.

“Is the workforce reflective of the skills that they’re learning in the schools? No, not at all,” said Mr Saulo. “[S]uccessive governments over the last few years have not been responsive enough to the needs of young people that are moving into the workforce to earn… their [mortgage] deposit, to be able to move into worthwhile work that is not only fulfilling for themselves but is contributing to society, that is also enabling them to have some kind of financial security.”

Ms Measham said that while high schools’ staples like maths and English were necessary, the education system had become a “factory model” that produced “an assembly line of students that we spit out in the end and hope for the best”. What was needed was an earlier focus on developing curiosity and fostering entrepreneurship so that young Australians were prepared to deal with the consequences of the three factors changing the nature of work: globalisation, automation and collaboration.

Dr Freier called for the creation of new pathways to get young school leavers into the modern workforce, as Australian and international research had found welfare dependency between the ages of 15-18 was a very high predictor of long-term welfare dependency. “I think, as a society, we could achieve a lot by having some very targeted intervention to help people participate in those critical years,” he said.

Yet even those who pursued tertiary qualifications were at risk of being left behind as the economy changed. Ms Measham noted that a recent survey found a third of university graduates were still unemployed six months after graduating, and that the rise in temporary contracts rather than full-time work meant a tertiary qualification was no longer a measure of success. “So if you’ve got workforce conditions, for example, that are casual and that are contract-driven, from an employment point of view that’s not a very stable way to go, but at the same time it also keeps you from accessing things like mortgages,” she said.

“We’re channelling young people into a workforce that’s not really reflective of young people’s drivers or passions or the way they want to work, and so we’re seeing young people that are just going ‘well, what am I really doing?’,” said Mr Saulo.

Both Mr Saulo and Ms Measham agreed that the resulting dissatisfaction had manifested itself in sometimes paradoxical ways. Some 400,000 young people between 18-25 didn’t vote in the 2013 election, but many were keen to contribute to online campaigns and street protests. Ms Measham said the reasons political allegiance were so low among young people was that they didn’t believe governments on either side of politics were committed to their future. “So I can completely understand that young people are making their own choices and putting their energy and commitment to something that they feel reflects their values more,” she said.

Similarly, this focus on values was having an impact on young people’s experience of faith. “I think there’s a broader conversation around separating faith from religion,” said Mr Saulo. “They’re not necessarily subscribing to the institution of religion, but at the same time, they feel that they’re not losing the strong part of their faith.”

“They think more and reflect more about what faith means and what it means to live faith,” said Ms Measham, “and I think some of that search for authenticity finds expression in some of the things that young people are involved in today.”

Dr Freier agreed that authenticity was of considerable importance to young people, saying it was the driving factor that brought young people to faith. “People will say well, the attractive thing about joining this church community or this Christian community is that people perceive that we’re living Christian faith authentically,” he said.

Ms Measham said this search for authenticity was partly because young people’s sense of identity was no longer shaped by institutional religion in the same way that their parents were. “I’m seeing that young people are making their own choices and they don’t have to make the same choices that their parents have made,” she said.

These choices allowed for the possibility of richer identities, but in order to make the most of that issues of communication needed to be overcome, said Mr Saulo. He said that despite the world being connected more than ever before there was still a tendency to pigeonhole rather than engage on a meaningful level.

“Unfortunately when we start pigeonholing and start thinking about people in terms of advantaged or disadvantaged or engaged or disengaged, we actually miss out on the nuances of what makes us all human and so the one way that we try to cut through that is actually focusing on people’s values,” he said. “[V]alues are not tied to educational outcomes or academic outcomes or anything else; they’re tied to the way that we act and the way that we engage.”

For details of the next Conversation with the Archbishop, visit http://www.melbourneanglican.org.au/Conversations