The University of Life – Now Open for All Young Australians
21 May 2012 at 11:10 am
A major factor that affects the mental wellbeing of our young people is the shockingly poor pathways for progressing from dependence to independence says Jan Owen, the CEO of of the Foundation for Young Australians which has just launched Young People Without Borders.
In the last year, there has been strong bipartisan and community-wide support for a very significant upgrade in mental health services for young people in this country. While this is welcome, it begs the question: why are our young people in need of such services, and why at such unprecedented scales?
One contributing factor is the impact on young people of having to increasingly stay at home and/or remain reliant on the resources of their family, often into their late twenties. New neuroscience research from Berkeley and Cornell Universities on the teenage brain is providing powerful and disturbing evidence that extended youth dependency in developed countries is causing havoc with teenage brain development, contributing to the need for increased psychological and psychiatric interventions.
Among the reasons for this extended dependency is that young people have to engage in tertiary education rather than paid work; the time when formal education ceased at the end of high school is long past for most young people. While this has resulted in a generation of young people who are intellectually more knowledgeable, they have less hands-on knowledge, narrowed life experience, fewer skills learned from taking risks and, consequently, lower levels of emotional resilience.
A further factor that affects the mental wellbeing of our young people is the shockingly poor pathways for progressing from dependence to independence. For most young Australians, the rite of passage from youth to adulthood consists of a ticket to schoolies, a slab of beer and a set of car keys. This is pathetic. The weaknesses of these rites of passage are further evidenced by the very high, extraordinarily inefficient, drop-out rates of first year university students, which can be as high as 40%. What we need are rites of passage that are meaningful, significant and respectful of young people.
While Australia is doing well economically from digging stuff from the ground and flogging it furiously, the resource sector will only ever be a minor employer. Australia’s future depends on having workers who can engage internationally, and especially in Asia. Yet we enter what is being dubbed the “Asian Century” with less than 6 per cent of all young Australians having participated in any form of Asian studies. This level of ignorance is absurd for a country that is actually located in Asia and whose economic future depends so heavily on engagement with its neighbours.
The picture that emerges is of a generation whose dependence is increasingly extended, who are given poor processes for transition to adulthood and who have troubling mental health concerns, all within a context of being unprepared for this “Asian Century”. And this through no fault of their own.
The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) has just launched Young People Without Borders, a bold and ambitious initiative that seeks to enable young people to respond to these issues in a positive and proactive way.
Young People Without Borders has been a long time coming. For decades, political leaders of all persuasions such as Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd; public intellectuals such as Professor Hugh White from ANU, Dr Martin Seligman and Justice Michael Kirby in his review of CHOGM; as well as events like the 20/20 Summit, have all advocated for the establishment of ‘youthcorps’ type programs, in which young people are encouraged to volunteer and ‘give back’. Young People
Without Borders is a ‘youthcorps’ that builds on existing initiatives, rather than reinventing wheels. It brings together a large number of existing social purpose organisations and volunteering programs, including The Smith Family, Life Without Barriers, Conservation Volunteers, the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, Lattitude Global Volunteering and many others. Young People Without Borders is a banner and a vehicle for existing organisations to achieve collaborative impact in relation to youth volunteering and engagement in social change.
Until now, some young people, most from privileged backgrounds, have taken a 'gap year’ before commencing tertiary studies – Princes William and Harry being no exceptions. Young People Without Borders builds on this momentum by transforming the notion of a ‘gap year’, extending it in several ways.
Firstly, the ‘gap year’ has been renamed a ‘Start Year’, since it’s the first year, after the structured regimen of school life, when young people can stand on their own feet and engage with the world on their own terms. It is the start of their transition from school-age dependent to contributing adult.
Secondly, rather than filling a ‘gap’, Young People Without Borders is about creating a profoundly meaningful and hugely significant year in the life of a young person, where they undertake organised and supported volunteer placements for up to 12 months. Placements include teaching English, teaching sport, assisting communities and environmental work. Placements are offered both within Australia and, as a priority, the Asian region.
Thirdly, the Young People Without Borders vision is to extend this opportunity to all young Australians. A key component is to ensure that young people from low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds are afforded the same chances as their more affluent peers. Research by Demos UK has shown that people from disadvantaged backgrounds stand to benefit enormously from the experience of volunteering.
Finally, and crucially, Young People Without Borders differs from a ‘gap year’ by engaging with young people, from when they enter high school, in a five-year volunteering and social engagement program built on the disciplines of fundraising, volunteering and saving for their Start Year. Using a currency we have called 'creds’, the young person unlocks ‘rewards’ at various stages and levels of achievement in fundraising , volunteering and contributing to their school or community. This will enable each young person to pay their own way through their Start Year, rather than relying on handouts. The Start Year is the culmination of this five-year program, not an isolated, extended holiday at the end of school.
Young People Without Borders is now underway. What began as an idea about creating a new rite of passage and embedding contribution into the DNA of a generation of young people has become so much more. An initial cohort of over 200 young people will leave Australia for placements in Asia this year, and these trailblazers will lay down pathways for tens of thousands of young people in the years and decades ahead.
It would be short-sighted to think that Young People Without Borders is just a new take on volunteering and giving back. It’s actually tapping into the zeitgeist of a generation of young people aged 12 to 30 – affectionately known as Gen Ys,'Echo Boomers' (which their parents love, and they hate of course!) or, as MTV has renamed them, "Generation Innovation" – a generation of creators, entrepreneurs and innovators who will drastically reshape the world in terms of its cultural, commercial and civic spheres.
The overarching goal of this program is to build a generation of young people who know themselves, know the world and know the contributions they are capable of making. While no single program is a panacea, by opening the doors to the University of Life and unleashing young people’s courage, imagination and will, Young People Without Borders will make a significant contribution to shaping a happier and stronger Australia, and a better world, in the years ahead.