Generation Y are molly-coddled: expensively educated, insulated from responsibility, our ipods glued to our apathetic ears. Or so many would have you believe.
According to Youth Minister Kate Ellis, however, the Federal Government will debunk such myths - through an $8 million “Australian Youth Forum”.
During Youth Week last month, Ellis noted that Generation Y faces unique challenges, such as skyrocketing educational debt, exorbitant housing prices and escalating rates of depression and anxiety. Ellis is correct that our disengagement from public debate comes not from apathy but cynicism: a consequence of the “failure of governments to provide a compelling enough invitation”.
I would go further: like the proverbial steaming kettle, or the rioting youth in Europe, we are ready to boil over.
Recently, young Europeans took the streets, livid at being forced to pay for the greed and short-term focus of earlier generations. While the recession is alarming to everyone, young people feel seriously threatened. Education Minister Julia Gillard recently warned that the recession could create a “lost generation”, stuck on dole queues until they are unemployable.
Australia’s young people will also face the effects of climate change - an issue on which young Australians have mobilised. When I addressed the UN General Assembly in October, I made the views of the 3.5 million young Australians I represented clear when I said that “many of the decisions that determine the fate of today’s youth must be made in the next few short years. We could be left without any opportunity to manage our own future.”
But involving young people in decision-making is not just a matter of democratic nicety. To escape from the sticky puddle of collapsed ideologies in which we presently flounder, we desperately need fresh, youthful thought. As US President Barack Obama puts it, “If you're headed for a cliff, you have to change direction”.
Enter the Australian Youth Forum (AYF). This is Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s re-incarnation of John Howard’s “Youth Roundtable” - a forum that combined the diversity of a Young Liberals caucus with the atmosphere of a Country Women’s Association meeting. The AYF, with a more diverse youth steering committee (but still mostly Arts/Law students from elite universities) and stated commitment to “connecting with disengaged youth” is thus a hefty step up from its predecessor.
In recent weeks, Ellis has launched an interactive website and held a satellite-linked national forum with young people. An “outreach” component will feature ministerial visits to handful of rural communities. The Government claims the forum will herald a “new era” of youth engagement.
Can we really expect this?
The path to engaging youth is complex and varied. When I conducted a five-month consultation tour last year, speaking with more than 5,000 young Australians, it was blindingly clear that school curriculums do not equip young people with the tools to participate meaningfully in decision-making.
This issue was recently discussed in the British Parliament. Subsequently, a 12-week citizenship course will be compulsory in all British high schools. The course encourages students to think about local, national and international challenges, and to join public debate; ringing talkback radio and writing to local newspapers. Pilot projects have met with enormous success, improving student behaviour and enriching relationships between young people and society.
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