In Their Own Hands
By Lucas Walsh and Rosalyn Black, authors of In their Own Hands
2011 was a year of enormous historical release of energy ignited by economic instability and political frustration of people across the world. Waves of upheaval swept across the northern hemisphere, through Spain, Greece and other parts of Europe, the Arab Spring, across North America via the Occupy movements and in the riots that swept across England in August. Aside from protesting economic deprivation and dissatisfaction with political leadership, another thread runs throughout these upheavals. 2011 was the year of the young.
By the end of the 2011, youth unemployment in Britain had risen to 22 per cent. In Spain it was nearly a staggering 50 per cent. In the UK, the riots seem to have arisen as a result of a complex nexus of social, economic, political and cultural factors culminating in an explosion of anger amongst young people in response to social injustice and frustration.
In the case of the youth uprisings of the Arab Spring, the response was a somewhat more clear-cut case of responding to outright political oppression and centralisation of power – one that has far from subsided throughout countries such as Egypt.
Young people have been closely identified with the revolutionary uprisings throughout the Arab world, as well as the Occupy movements that have emerged in the wake of the global financial crisis. What becomes clear is that, as the UK think-tank Demos has pointed out, “young people are not simply the passive subjects of social and political change”.
At that time of the riots in England, Australian talk radio was alive with descriptions of these riots as “an epidemic of violence” that spread like a disease throughout Britain and which could somehow spread to Australia. While there were some elements of riots that were viral, such as the use of social media to document events, to describe it in terms of some sort of contagion fails to recognize the complex causes of event, on the one hand, and at a deeper level how we talk about young people, on the other.
A key question here is: where are young Australians at?
Young people represent a significant proportion of the Australian population: 1 in 5 Australians are aged between 12 and 24 years. Their significance as a group goes beyond their numeric size, however. Young people are also understood to represent the future of Australian society. The experiences that they have while they are young, and the role that they play in Australian democracy, will shape the nature of that democracy going forward.
There is a growing recognition of the importance of young people’s involvement in democratic processes. There is also a growing recognition of the value of democratic participation to their wellbeing and social membership. Participation is understood to be instrumental in addressing the challenges faced by young people experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation. At the same time, persistent challenges remain in relation to the nature and role of young people’s participation, and more broadly, in relation to how young people are characterised and located within society.
Young people are often treated as an homogenous group, as though simply being young defines their identity, but there are enormous differences in access and quality of participation amongst specific groups of young people. Geographic location, socioeconomic background and migrant or Indigenous status can play a determining role in the degree to which young people are heard, respected and positioned as active citizens who are able not only to contribute to Australian society but to influence the nature of that society for the better.
They also play a determining role in the economic participation that is available to young people. More than one quarter of the long-term unemployed in Australia are 15 to 24 year-olds. These young people are fundamentally excluded from the structures and workings of public life. Educated young people are more likely to participate in civic life and those who are in paid work exhibit a greater propensity to volunteering and other forms of civic participation. They are also far less likely to feel that they have full social membership.
In Their Own Hands: Can young people change Australia? explores the highly contentious terrain of barriers and opportunities for young people’s active participation in social, political and civic life. It gives authentic and innovative examples of the many ways in which they are leading vital social change. At the same time, it sets out the challenges that face young people, challenges that arise from racism and cultural exclusion, demographic change and economic marinalisation and insecurity, and disengagement from conventional ways that we understand “political participation”. In doing so, it explores new ways of thinking about participation in a rapidly changing landscape. It also interrogates the idea of what it means to be a citizen and describes the challenges that face our outdated educational, political and civic institutions, many of which have proven unable to recognise the changing nature of young people’s experience and to address the deep divides that exclude many young people from full citizenship.
Its authors, Lucas Walsh and Rosalyn Black, draw on the Foundation for Young Australians extensive youth research and cutting-edge youth initiatives to describe the complexity of young people’s experience of citizenship, transitions, belonging, education and participation. They look at the innovative use of technology by young people as a key tool to influence and shape change. They also invite the international perspectives and expertise of such public leaders as Associate Professor Cheryl Kernot, and draw directly on the stories of young people such as Thom Woodroofe, former Young Victorian of the Year and founder of Left Right Think-Tank, Australia’s first non-partisan policy body run for and by young people. It also includes ground-breaking insights and athentic case-studies of young people themselves seeking to make change.
In Their Own Hands provides a timely snapshot of where young Australians are at, and serves as a reminder that while Australia is faring well in many ways, the same cannot be said for many of its young people. It calls for further thought and action in relation to the way in which Australia’s core social institutions and processes engage with young people and enable them to contribute actively to social change in their community, their school, their work and their world.