Young people and their families


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Content type
Family Matters article

December 1992


The author examines the impact of sustained high levels of unemployment on young people's pathways to adulthood and on their families. Discussion includes leaving home and forming relationships; being unemployed and living at home with parents; lack of parental support; government initiatives.

Any society owes its young people the best possible opportunities to assume healthy and positive adult roles, both because the wellbeing of each individual is important in itself, and because of the potential contribution of individuals to the collective wellbeing.

The period between age 15 and 24 is a crucial developmental life phase, during which some major life tasks are expected to be accomplished, or at least begun. Psychological development, social transitions and changes in status are closely related. Young people are expected to establish a sense of personal identity and become progressively more independent of parents. They move from school into the workforce, either directly or via further education or training. The majority of young people leave home during these years to establish households of their own, with or without others. Most form intimate relationships with non-family members. And they assume what Anna Yeatman refers to as political and civil citizenship (South Australian Youth Incomes Task Force 1988). In broad terms, this is the process of constructing an adult life.

In the past, working for wages has played a major part in this process for most young people. And conversely, unemployment, particularly for long periods, is likely to have a profound effect on individual and social outcomes. Studies of attitudes to employment show that while paid work is seen as crucial in a practical sense because it provides essential income, it also has psychological benefits, provides a recognised role in society and contributes to a sense of personal and social identity.

People have different orientations to work (Lokan 1992) and the primacy of the work ethic is sometimes questioned (and no doubt always has been by the not-so-young as well as the young). We know that many jobs are repetitive, boring, difficult, tedious, and some are of questionable social use. Every effort should be made to minimise these negative aspects. Nevertheless, paid work remains of central importance in people's lives, and most employment offers to varying degrees some benefits beyond a wage which contribute to the construction of an adult self. In the Institute's Becoming Adult study, 23-year-olds said work was an area in which they 'felt like an adult', because of the opportunities it provided for the exercise of skills, responsibility, decision making, being treated like an adult by workmates and, not least, social interaction with a mixed age group.

It is possible to develop skills, have a reasonably positive sense of identity, act responsibly and make a contribution to society without paid work. Many women have in the past, and many still do. However, in general, there is a tendency in our society to equate usefulness with productivity, and productivity with paid work, and those who are not seen as productive in these terms are less valued.

Independence is an important value in modern Western society. Young people place a great deal of value on it; so too do many parents in bringing up their children (Alwin 1988). Most parents encourage independence and look forward to the time when their children are autonomous. Earning a wage is part of becoming independent, as it allows a greater range of choices and decisions about one's life.

On the other hand, unemployment and lack of an adequate income generally means being dependent on others - family, relatives, friends, a partner or the State - so the growing sense of autonomy, independence and responsibility for self, the right of every young person, is less able to develop. Again, women's experience illustrates this; greater opportunities for some economic independence have been crucial in changes to women's roles and status in society.

While the growth of autonomy and independence is an integral part of becoming adult, so too is interdependence and responsibility for others. Indeed, they are core values in a humane and caring society. Access to employment and a living wage contributes to feelings of self-esteem and a sense of being socially useful. If young people do not have the right of any citizen to be valued and treated with respect, we can hardly be surprised if they fail to value interdependence and responsibility for others, or surprised if they regard others as uncaring. It is in fact a tribute to the faith, resilience and optimism of young people that so many of them do not seem to have lost these values.


Leaving home to live independently of parents and family has been an important aspect of assuming adult status in Australia. Even in times of war, economic depression and housing shortage, when young married couples lived with parents or in-laws because they could not afford to set up house themselves, the expectation was that they would move out if and when they could.

Young (1988) found that those who had ever been unemployed were more likely than those never unemployed to have ever left home, but they were also more likely to have returned home for a period (particularly sons.) The proportion of 20-24-year-olds living with parents has increased since 1983, and possibly several years earlier for females. This trend is related to a rising age of first marriage, and to longer periods spent in education (Young 1988). However, anecdotal evidence suggests that since the economic recession of 1990, more of this age group are not able to leave home, or have left and returned, because they are unemployed and cannot afford to shift out.

Forming an ongoing sexual relationship, marrying or cohabiting and living physically separate from parents, has historically been one of the clearest markers of adulthood and the most significant statement of independence from parents. It signifies the shift from family of origin to forming a household of one's own. As yet, it is not clear how unemployment is affecting young people's marriage and relationship intentions in Australia. Although research indicates that the majority will continue to choose to marry, the effect of continued high unemployment rates amongst young people is one of the big 'unknowns' of young people's marriage patterns in the future (Hartley 1992).

Blakers (1992) found that unemployment made marriage and having children more a dream than a reality for some young people. Her conclusions are drawn from a study carried out in 1983 when youth unemployment figures were not so high and young people might have had more of a sense of hope about their future prospects. Her report contains a poignant illustration of the effect of unemployment on one young man's relationship. A retrenched 22- year-old wrote of the 'the despair at having no money and moving home with a girlfriend who was to be my fiance ... friends that are working took her out and showed her what it was like to have money and not to have to live in the environment of my father's house. She has now left me because I couldn't give her the privacy and security she needed.'

The disorder in time and place which unemployment brings is described by Allatt and Yeandle (1992). They relate young people's sense of uncertainty and feelings of being in 'limbo' to the fact that there is the sense of a 'proper' time for each stage of the family or domestic career, including marriage, underpinned by an expectation that it will coincide with an appropriate stage in the employment career. Unemployment upsets these temporal patterns in life and can ultimately deny people the option of 'settling down', thus 'potentially marginalising individuals from the progression of their generation through historical time' (p.107).

However, it is wrong to assume that 'youth unemployment' refers only to people who are not yet married or partnered. The age range 15-24 years includes young people in very different circumstances and some have dependents - a partner, or children, or both.

In February 1992, 62 per cent of the 17,875 21-24-year- olds, almost 30 per cent of the 8,727 18-20-year-olds and 11 per cent of the 1,583 under-18-year-olds receiving the married or half married rate of benefit had at least one child. In addition, there were much smaller percentages of those receiving the single rate who had children (Survey of Job Search and Newstart Allowance recipients, February 1992). The economic implications for these young families are likely to be very severe and we also know that unemployment puts great stress on couple relationships. At this age, many partnerships would be relatively new and possibly less able to survive the pressures caused by unemployment.


The level of income support for young unemployed people in Australia and regulations surrounding its provision, clearly indicate that families are expected to contribute to the support of their offspring if they live at home and they are under 21 years. According to their circumstances, families are under more or less financial stress if they are supporting one or more older children. Some families are already living in poverty, or are pushed into it when older children can't find jobs. The Institute's Australian Living Standards Study has documented the stress and depression families experience when parents as well as their older children are unemployed (McDonald and Brownlee 1992).

The February 1992 Survey of Job Search and Newstart Allowance Recipients indicated that 77 per cent of the 25,500 16-17-year-old recipients and almost 60 per cent of the 109,500 18-20-year-old recipients lived with their parents. These figures refer only to young people who are single and without children. There are also likely to be a small proportion of the partnered under-21-year-olds living with parents.

In June 1991, an estimated 498,600 20-24-year-olds who were not full-time students, were living with their parents; just under one- fifth of them (18 per cent) were not categorised as employed (ABS 1991). This gives us some estimate of the percentage of this age group who are likely to be dependent on their parents for at least some financial support.

However, in addition to financial difficulties, young people's unemployment permeates relationships on a day-to-day basis, or as Allatt and Yeandle (1992) put it, 'the minutiae of individual and family lives' are coloured by unemployment. Expectations which both parents and children have about the future are called into question. Many parents of 15-24-year-olds grew up in an era when jobs were relatively easy to get and some find it difficult to accept the difficulties which young people face. Parents may feel anxious or even guilty if they can't help their children in some way. Young people become frustrated, depressed, discouraged and lose confidence. They are often unwilling to ask for and accept support even if it is available. Most want to be independent and don't like being placed in a child-like position by being too reliant on parents. Many parents will be aware that a brash, apparently selfish and aggressive attitude on the part of their older children may cover feelings of anger and humiliation at being so dependent.

However parents react to their unemployed older children - with understanding, concern, frustration, acceptance, support, anger or even rejection - there will almost inevitably be a realignment and re-negotiation of relationships. In the best of times, as parents and their older children negotiate greater freedoms and a more adult-to- adult relationship, maintaining constant understanding of each other's position can be demanding. Unemployment may increase the difficulties. Parents who have expected reduced financial responsibility for their older children, and gradual separation from them, find they have to adjust to a different reality. Young people have to face being dependent for longer. Both parents and children try to make sense of a situation which they did not expect and which challenges many of their values about fairness (Allatt and Yeandle 1992).


The choice for young people is often poverty if they remain at home and poverty if they go. We now have a number of reports, including the joint AIFS/YACVIC study of young people's incomes and living costs (Hartley 1989), the Burdekin Report (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1989) and a report from the Youth Research Centre in Melbourne (Dwyer et al 1989) which describe the struggle that young people have living away from home on unemployment benefits. We also have very clear evidence of the close relationship between unemployment and youth homelessness.

Some young people have no way of relieving their poverty, no fall- back position at all. A minority literally, and others for all practical purposes, have no family, either through the death, imprisonment or institutionalisation of parents, abandonment and/or abuse by parents, or other family disruption which has left them with no support.


The 1992 Federal Budget contained some important initiatives aimed at tackling youth unemployment, many of which were originally announced as part of the July 1992 Youth Package. The emphasis was on job creation and education and training, with some minor adjustments to income support regulations. Measures included the offer of a six-month vocational training course to long-term unemployed young people and wage subsidies for employers of such young people; the creation of a new Career Start Traineeship targeted at early school leavers; a Landcare and Environment Action Program; expansion of Skillshare and Jobtrain; a further 12,000 pre- vocational TAFE places in 1993, and increased subsidies for additional current traineeships and extra support for apprentices.

A special program aimed at assisting young homeless people into open employment has also been funded for a two-year period. The program outline for the Job Placement and Employment Training Program (JPET) acknowledges a concern which has long been expressed by workers in the field - that some young people require long-term planning and support, as well as training, in order to obtain employment. JPET will fund around 30 projects in order to trial different strategies and approaches to assist young homeless people into open employment, with an emphasis on linking personal support, accommodation support and training support.

The Youth Package measures are important and will certainly increase training opportunities; the extent to which new jobs will be created is less clear. However, no one is predicting that the problem of youth unemployment will be 'solved' by the proposals; nor will all those who want jobs be able to find employment. In the restructuring of the labour market which has taken place over recent years, job losses for young people have been particularly severe.

The present unacceptably high rates of youth unemployment are the result of a society in transition - basic changes in pathways for young people, the nature of jobs available to them, and perhaps ultimately in the organisation and meaning of work itself. The economic 'packages' of both major political parties do not anticipate a return to the almost full employment of 20 or 30 years ago (Wettenhall 1992), and we are likely to see high levels of youth unemployment for some time.


Unemployment has profound effects at all ages, but the implications are particularly significant for young people, because they are at a point in their lives where issues of identity, differentiation from parents, sense of self and autonomy are paramount.

The long-term consequences of unemployment on pathways to adulthood are not easy to predict. But it is clear that a significant proportion of young people are not in a position to make a positive transition to adulthood. For some, it will be very difficult to 'catch up', even if circumstances do improve. At a crucial period of life, they are missing out on acquiring and exercising skills, on developing a sense of their competence, on getting the positive feelings about self which come from having a sense of control over their own lives, on being given opportunities to contribute to society, and to feel that they are valued.

The education, training and job creation measures which have been proposed will improve the situation for some young people. However, in order to ensure that there is no further polarisation between those who get jobs and those who don't, and that all young people have a viable future, it will almost certainly be necessary to adopt more fundamental approaches which look to ways in which work in the future may be more fairly distributed.


  • ABS (1991) Labour force status and other characteristics of families, June 1991, Catalogue No. 6224.0.
  • Allatt, P. and Yeandle, S. (1992), Youth Unemployment and the Family: Voices of Disordered Times, Routledge, London.
  • Alwin, D. (1988), 'From obedience to autonomy: changes in traits desired in children, 1924-1978', Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol.52.
  • Blakers, C. (1992), Is Anyone Listening? Young People Speak About Work and Unemployment, Research Monograph No.42, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
  • Dwyer, P., Wilson, B., Wyn, J. and Stewart, F. (1989), Transients or Citizens?, Research Report No.2, Youth Research Centre, Melbourne.
  • Hartley, R. (1989), What Price Independence? A Report of a Study of Young People's Incomes and Living Costs, Youth Affairs Council of Victoria and Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Hartley, R. (1992), 'Young people in Australia: values and beliefs concerning marriage and family: a review of the research', Paper prepared for RUSHSAP, UNESCO.
  • Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1989), Our Homeless Children: Report of the National Enquiry into Homeless Children, AGPS, Canberra.
  • Lokan, J. (1992), 'The work importance study: Australia's young people's values in international perspective', in Poole, M. (ed.) Education and Work, Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.
  • McDonald, P. and Brownlee, H. (1992), 'Living day to day: families in the recession', Family Matters, No.31, April.
  • South Australian Youth Incomes Task Force (1988), Report, (Chairperson: Anna Yeatman).
  • Wettenhall, G. (1992), 'The great divide', 21C, Commission for the Future, Melbourne.
  • Young, C. (1988), 'Independence, leaving home and the transition to adulthood of young people in Australia', Paper prepared for the 4th national conference of the Australian Population Association, Brisbane.