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Young people - our greatest asset

By Glenn Dawes - posted Monday, 5 December 2005

Thirty thousand adolescents descended on the Gold Coast recently to celebrate Schoolies’ Week, which for many marks the end of formal education and the start of a new phase of life. It also reignites the annual debate about whether this event should be banned due to increased accounts of violence and drug and alcohol abuse.

A scan across the beaches streets and nightclubs of the Gold Coast provides a snapshot of Australian youth culture, differentiating young people from members of other generations through an embracement of alternative forms of music, fashion, dance and attitudes.

An analysis of youth culture reveals it is also effectively incorporated by the media, and marketed by multinational companies, in an attempt to produce an homogenised world culture, based on our unbridled immersement with American cultural values. In effect, mass media in the form of MTV, youth radio stations and the Internet has successfully targeted the lucrative youth market due to the greater prosperity of young people compared to their parents from the Baby Boomer generation (1946-1964).


However, a unified youth culture does not exist due to the diverse, lived experiences of young people. In effect, the concept of youth should be seen as relational when considering variables such as social class (working class, middle or upper class), race and ethnicity (Anglo, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, ethnic minorities), gender (males, females) and geographic location (urban, rural, remote) which indicate that the young are a heterogeneous social category.

While on the surface youth cultures are distinct from other forms of mainstream culture, young people, who belong to what has been conveniently labelled as Generation X (1965-1976) and Generation Y, (1979-1994), encounter different challenges and have had to respond in different ways compared to their parents and grandparents. A sociological analysis of young people in contemporary Australian society reveals youth differ from their parents due to the way they have had to respond to rapid social, economic and technological changes brought about by globalisation. This has impacted on the kinds of interactions they encounter at institutions, such as education and employment. However, many youth still share similar values to their parents and find themselves more dependent on their families than in past generations.

The landscape of Australian society has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. Our dependence on manufacturing and primary industry as the main sources of economic growth have been replaced by the belief that we now need to be the “knowledge society”, working “smarter”, driven by the dictates of a neo-Liberalist user pays ideology. Australians are now one of the most educated nations in the world and young people are spending more time than ever gaining educational credentials in order to obtain employment in a shrinking full-time employment market.

The massive restructuring of the job market has meant there are now fewer full-time jobs and more part-time employment than in the past. Young people in particular, are the victims of the new forms of precarious employment, which tends to be casual with minimum pay and conditions and limited prospects for further advancement in the field. More important, these forms of employment keep young people off the unemployment statistics making them more vulnerable to exploitation from employers while preventing them access to long-term career oriented jobs.

For tertiary trained graduates in the 19-22 age bracket, the former smooth transition from university to employment in professions previously enjoyed by earlier generations has also changed. While many graduates find jobs, a significant proportion suffers from periods of unemployment after gaining tertiary qualifications. Since 1996 over 82 per cent of a sample of students in a research study in Victoria had changed jobs while one fifth had changed jobs at least five times.

Despite the uncertainty about educational outcomes and their involvement in employment, young people possess a greater deal of flexibility and more resilience than members of past generations when it comes to responding to their exclusion from traditional forms of employment. It has been argued by some demographers that young people now base their aspirations on obtaining “horizontal mobility” based on their ability to obtain independence and on their flexibility to move from one job to another. This compares to their parents goal of “upward mobility” which was determined by obtaining a stable job held over a long period of time.


The effect of these changes is that traditional forms of identity construction, which were tied to the kind of occupation an individual possessed, have now been replaced by other values. For example, in a national survey of 8,500 young people (aged 11-24) the respondents were asked to rank what they valued in their lives. It is interesting to note that out of eight categories obtaining a job was ranked fifth (33 per cent), while financial security ranked seventh (19.3 per cent). It appears that young people do not follow in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to loyalty to the company or the obtainment of the Australian dream with a house in the suburbs and a mortgage. These traditional values have been surpassed by values around achieving friendships and relationships, feeling needed and valued and gaining peer acceptance (National Youth Survey, 2004).

Despite the differences between generations, young people and their parents still share a great deal in common. In a recent national survey 71 per cent of young people stated that they would turn to their parents when they required advice and support. Of those surveyed, males were more likely to turn to their parents than females (National Youth Survey, 2004). Furthermore, the combination of poor employment opportunities for teenagers and greater restrictions on claiming government financial assistance means that more young people are now dependent on their parents up to the age of 25. As a result a new phenomena has emerged titled the “stay at home” or “boomerang” youth, meaning greater numbers of young people are now living at home for greater periods of time than in any other post World War II period.

While the lack of economic independence of young people may produce financial strains on family budgets, there are also positive outcomes for young people staying at home longer. Young people are autonomous and also interdependent and are exposed to a variety of other people, such as peers, technological expertise, sports and other leisure pursuits. These experiences inevitably come back into the home and may have a positive effect in enhancing family solidarity and mutual support. As Rob White and Johanna Wyn (2004:114) observe, “Games, music, dance, sports, fads, fashions, videos and movies provide opportunities for pleasure, change and growth for all concerned. In some instances particular influences may revitalise a household …”

In conclusion, the terms “youth” and “youth culture” are convenient labels, but they fail to address the diverse lived experiences of young people. Adolescence is a time when issues such as “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in this world?” are of paramount importance to young people. These questions relating to identity construction are played out through experimentation in terms of drug use, dress and risk-taking behaviours allowing the young to push boundaries which may, at times, be at odds with the norms of society.

Calls by authorities to ban Schoolies’ Week due to perceptions of increased violence and alcohol and drug use are an example of the perception that young people require more regulation and surveillance compared to other sectors of the community. A more productive response might be to ensure that we provide adequate forms of welfare, educational and employment provisions to support young people and their families in coping with the rapid social and economic changes that are occurring in contemporary Australian society. With our ageing population, young people are, and will continue to be, our greatest asset.

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About the Author

Glenn Dawes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at James Cook University, Townsville.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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