In my role, I spend much of my time with high school students, young social entrepreneurs and change agents, young community leaders, and everyday young people. Thousands of them, the length and breadth of this country - it's an endless privilege and a joy.
A couple of weekends ago I spent time with a group of young changemakers from around Australia, brought together by YLab – a global design and learning organisation led by young people. The focus of their intense discussions was not so much about their individual challenges and achievements, but rather about this question: How do we change systems?
In their view, the systems that shape our world are outdated, under-performing and do not reflect their values, the diversity of their networks and the hyper-connected world in which they live. The education system, workforce system, environmental protection system, justice system, democratic system, health system, transport system, child protection system – all systems, separately and collectively – are up for grabs and need to change.
Change is being driven by technology and globalisation, but also by systems failure, lived out in young people’s lives. The Foundation for Young Australians’ (FYA) research, Renewing Australia’s Promise highlights the challenges facing young people in this changing world. 31.5% – that’s a whopping 650,000 – young people aged 15-24 are unemployed or underemployed, taking them an average of 4.7 years once they finish full time education to find a full-time job.
In a world driven by automation, 40% of existing jobs will be transformed or disrupted in the next decade. Globalisation increasingly means jobs being undertaken remotely and the increasingly flexible nature of the modern workforce will likely see a 15-year-old today navigating a portfolio of 17 jobs in 5 different industries. Sometimes self-employed, at other times working with and for, others.
With rising debt, soaring house prices, stagnant wages and recent cuts to weekend penalty rates on top of all this it’s no wonder many young people are feeling enormous mental stress and apprehension about their future.
YLab Associates are facing into these realities – as facilitators, co-design experts and project managers. They work across government, community and business sectors to help shape the future of systems. To cite some examples, last year the Victorian Parliament engaged local young people to help make politics relevant to the next generation; the federal Department of Employment engaged regional young people to design their entrepreneurship programs; YLab Associates in Australia are working with the Rockefeller Foundation in New York on the future of cities, worldwide.
Beyond YLab, young people are building new movements in Australia and around the world: in social enterprise, entrepreneurship, ethical and sustainable business, local community activism. Young people are bringing multiple disciplines, collaboration and design thinking to shaping the way they want to live, work and learn in the world.
This is heartening and inspiring. It is also challenging. Our existing systems and institutions are facing their ‘Kodak moment’. Yet, how are they keeping pace with this next generation? How are they driving systems change internally, in ways that improve modes of operation and outcomes? How are they engaging young people directly in this process, as collaborators and co-designers?
Reflect on Government. Wales has appointed a Commissioner for Future Generations. Its mandate is to highlight the big issues, challenges and opportunities facing future generations. To support and challenge institutions and systems to think about the long-term, and shape the future. Yet we don’t even have a Australian Government Youth Minister.
I propose a 25-year Youth Investment Plan, co-designed and implemented with young people, addressing three areas:
- A ‘nation building’ focused education strategy to redesign the learning system from pre-school through higher education (and beyond);
- A new skills, training, careers education and real jobs commitment to young Australians;
- A promise and plan for the equitable inter-generational transfer of knowledge, resources and power in the new economy.
We can either bend the curve of change so that Australia is in charge of its future, or fall victim to it. Doing the former must involve optimising the talents of our young people, in intensive and extensive ways.
This is National Youth Week – a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge our young people. During this, leaders of our systems and institutions should commit, now and concretely, to creating pathways for involving young people in the journey of change that every system and institutions is, or should be, embarked upon. Everything is possible.
Jan Owen, AM
CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians