Australian youth must be the focus and we need action

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

In recent months there’s suddenly been chatter in politics and the media about the flagging fortunes of young Australians. While this rare attention is welcomed by most young people, you can also forgive them for being sceptical.

The statistics being bandied about are certainly worrying. Youth unemployment, difficulty finding work in their field of study, financial fragility and mental health concerns are pervasive.

Still, they’re largely being talked about as momentary scrapes that we can put band-aids on and quickly heal once the pandemic is over.

There’s no doubt young people have faced unique challenges this year. Losing work, adjusting to changes in the delivery of education, and missing important rites of passage in their formative years.

Think about how much you grew during a few crucial months of your younger years and how much harder it would have been to become who you are now if your confidence and motivation had been knocked, your social and dating life was disrupted and your formal, graduation or milestone birthday celebration was cancelled.

The fact is this generation of young Australians harboured growing unease about their future well before COVID. They have sensed the opportunities for success that previous generations enjoyed have become out of reach for them. It’s a shame it took this crisis for many politicians to take notice.

The fact is even in “normal times” youth unemployment is more than double the rate for all ages and of those who are employed, half are in precarious casual jobs and one in five needs more hours. This is why despite only representing 15 per cent of the employed workforce prior to the pandemic, young workers accounted for 40 per cent of the job losses in March, and one in three young Australians is looking for work or more work.

Not being able to land a stable job that utilises their qualifications is unfortunately not new for young people. A recent Productivity Commission report found that young workers have seen a decline in time worked and real wages per hour since the GFC, even though Australia didn’t go into recession back then. This doesn’t bode well for their futures now that we are actually in one.

Unsurprisingly, these challenges have meant the wealth of 15 to 35-year-olds has barely shifted over the past 12 years, while all other age groups have increased.

Had the Federal Government paid attention before this crisis they could have intervened before it got to this point.

The great tragedy is that even now there is some action by Federal Government — like youth wage subsidies and mental health support — it’s all being done without the input of young people. Even the Minister for Youth admitted he did not have any input on those measures. So what confidence can young Australians have that they will even work?

A common thread has run through the dozens of virtual youth forums I’ve held across the country this year. Whether about acute impacts of the pandemic or longer term trends, the point is always that the concerns are complex and interrelated. Young people are our best resource to get to grips with these interconnected problems and achieve effective policy responses. They are, after all, the ones living them.

This also demands ongoing resources and youth expertise in government. Yet there is currently no dedicated and permanent body within the Federal Government to build relationships with young people and coordinate on youth issues across government.

That is why I’m calling on the Federal Government to deliver a youth recovery strategy — a plan for what must be done across government to help young people get through this crisis and secure their futures for the long term. Young people must be sincerely part of its creation and it should include a comprehensive analysis of how various policy areas interact to impact young people.

It also needs clear goals that the Government can be held to account on.

Young Australians didn’t enter this crisis on firm ground and they have carried a heavy burden during the pandemic. The least they deserve is a real plan that they have a genuine voice in. A plan for secure jobs, accessible education, affordable housing, mental wellbeing and a healthy environment.

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