Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

A lost generation?

Robyn Hartley

Abstract

The author looks at a new report published by the Australian Youth Foundation titled 'A Lost Generation?'. It is based on discussions with disadvantaged young people aged between 13 and 28 years. The report found that young people's hopes focused on securing good jobs, education and training, and a satisfactory way of life and family.

Concerns about the poverty and alienation of some young people's existence, and the bleak future they face, are not new. There are some precedents for consulting with young people about many of the issues which confront them but, in general, their views are not often sought in any consistent way.

The Australian Youth Foundation's report A Lost Generation? is therefore important, because it is based on discussions with disadvantaged young people aged between 13 and 28 years (average age 18 years).

The Australian Youth Foundation, established in 1989 using the budget surplus of the Australian Bicentennial Authority, was set up to assist those young people who are socially, financially, physically or intellectually disadvantaged.

The views of 725 such young people from major cities, country towns and remote rural areas, contributed to the findings of the report. A project group held 40 focus group meetings with 13-28-year-olds and 16 regional meetings with youth workers and others over the four months of consultation.

The title of the report reflects the concern that poverty and unemployment may well be responsible for a significant proportion of the present youth generation losing out on opportunities to secure education, training and a reasonable job, and ultimately to live satisfying adult lives.

Key Findings

The following are key findings from the discussions.

  • Optimism, energy and wit prevailed but they were often overshadowed by cynicism, anger and fatalism.
  • Young people's hopes focused on securing good jobs, the education or training needed for these, and, eventually, a satisfactory way of life and family. A job, preferably a good job, was the most important aim for most; a minority of young women said their aim was a home and children rather than paid employment. Full-time paid employment remained a fundamental pre-requisite to achieve self worth, identity and security. Work was clearly viewed as the entry into adult life and financial security.
  • Barriers to hopes and dreams were inadequate education and training, no money for support, lack of employment opportunities and occasional failure of motivation on their part.
  • Access to part-time work or even voluntary work was restricted by Department of Social Security regulations which acted as financial disincentives. This closed an avenue to work experience, references, and credibility with employers.
  • Inadequacy and insecurity of income support was a continuing problem often exacerbated by what they saw as the incompetence and lack of sympathy of staff in the administration of income support and Austudy.
  • The majority considered their schooling to have been unhappy and unproductive. TAFE was praised by those who had experience of the system, partly because they were treated as adults and with understanding.
  • Violence was a part of these young people's lives - at home, on the street, in school. It is experienced by both women and men and is a problem in public places, between racial groups, and with the police. Experience of police violence was raised in every focus group. Violence was linked to the media, to adult behaviour and to young people's own levels of anger and frustration.
  • Participants linked poverty and crime and argued that poverty excused dealing, stealing, scams and rip-offs. But they were very unhappy about it. Virtually all stealing and dealing, they believed, stemmed from poverty and the instinct to survive.
  • Racism, often linked to physical violence, brought further discrimination to some. Some felt themselves to be the butt of racist prejudice but many were themselves deeply racist. Their level of disadvantage and deprivation was closely linked to their racial antagonism, particularly towards Asians, immigrants and Aborigines - those who they believed were securing a better deal for themselves.
  • Living was much harsher for those who had been thrown out of home or felt unable to live at home, and physical, sexual and psychological abuse were often reasons for leaving.
  • In the majority of groups, young people expressed their alienation from their local communities. The exceptions were several fairly remote areas.
  • Many had from time to time been homeless. High rents in most cities and the lack of access to public housing brought intermittent dependence on crisis youth accommodation. Housing invariably posed a problem for young Aborigines, and forced overcrowding was common.
  • Health services rarely sparked any interest until specific health problems were identified in the group. Drug and alcohol abuse were familiar problems but they had little knowledge of treatment and rehabilitation programs. Chronic depression was a common mental health problem and suicide was believed to be more common than generally acknowledged.
  • Most claimed to be well informed about AIDS, but were less knowledgable about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception.
  • As youth entertainment was predominantly in venues which sold alcohol, adolescents could not enter them and young adults could not afford them. The respondents said they knew of very few recreational facilities and not many youth centres which stayed open late.
  • Inadequate public transport caused particular difficulties for young people unable to afford other means of travel outside the normal commuting hours.
  • Additional problems for refugee young people were insufficient money to fund further education, loneliness, lack of resources taken for granted by Australians, difficulties in studying in crowded housing, not having Australian residency and related problems with the Immigration Department.
  • The young people resented the antagonism towards them apparent in some areas and argued against the poor image generated by the media.

The report includes the words of young people themselves. Many voiced the belief that their world could, in fact must, get better and that they would eventually secure a respected place in the world. However, some had already dropped out as the business of survival living overwhelmed them. The authors conclude that, without far-reaching systemic change, the great majority were dealing with a level of frustration that could result in them too giving up and resigning themselves to the welfare-supported subsistence which was all they were being offered.

A Lost Generation?, by Ann Daniel and John Cornwall, is available from the Australian Youth Foundation, Suite 302, 134 Williams Street, East Sydney 2011. Phone (02) 357 2344.