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Australia21 Director Deborah Rice asks the question of our times: do today’s young people have the ability the manage the mess they are about to inherit?

What is going on? US high school students staging a mass walkout to protest against the country’s lethal gun laws. Two thirds of the UK’s 18 to 24 year olds voting in the Brexit poll. Almost 80 percent of Australian 18 to 19 year olds navigating an unfamiliar postal system to lodge their Same Sex Marriage survey — yes, the youngest eligible voters turning out more strongly than any other age group below 45.

Children like my own, born along with the new millennium, are coming of age — that’s what’s happening.

We feared our digital natives’ minds would be sucked into the blackhole of high resolution screens; instead, the technology that many of us struggle to understand has given younger generations access to a phenomenal amount of information and the tools to make their (often very well-informed) opinions heard. Of course, a lack of wise filtering can be dangerous and opinions can be easily manipulated in an era of fake news, but who knows that better than the tech savvy? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many young people are now demanding to be part of national conversations and that they are actually contributing valuable insights.

Isn’t it time to applaud the intelligence and strength of young people, instead of undermining their confidence and resilience with a constant negative narrative?

Next time you think young people don’t care enough, take a look around you. If you don’t like what you see, ask yourself what sort of modelling you’ve provided.

When was the last time you volunteered for a worthy cause, went to a protest rally, signed a petition, stood for election, took action instead of whingeing about something that annoyed you? When did you last do a good deed for a stranger without expecting praise? Apathy is not the exclusive domain of any one age group.

As one of our readers, psychologist Camille Gray commented recently, young people have developmental tasks to achieve: navigating independence, relationships and workplaces takes a lot of time and energy. Even more so, if they’re worried about being able to afford to study in a system that no longer has free tertiary education, to find work in a digitally disrupted labour market and to find a place to call their own in a time of skyrocketing rents and house prices. Young people are trying to put down foundations in some very shaky ground, through no fault of their own.

Fostering inclusive conversations

At Australia21 we understand that young people have plenty of opinions and insight and should be mentored to develop and express them, and be given actual power. So we foster youth interest and involvement in research and debate about issues of national importance. Our Honorary Youth Advisers are accorded as much respect in our Board meetings and their opinions are as welcome as those of any of our directors. Our YoungA21 members and volunteers are trusted with significant responsibility: they are encouraged to join our steering committees and to propose and lead projects — take for example the Smarter About Drugs education initiative and Making Our Future Work labour market analysis. We value young voices, acknowledging that the research we undertake and the recommendations we make are meaningless if we exclude from the process the very people who will live with the consequences of today’s public policy decisions in tomorrow’s world.

So take heart. We can tell you from first hand encounters that there are many bright, talented, passionate, inspiring young Australians eager to learn and lead. Our YoungA21 Network, for people 30 and under, is a diverse group with a broad range of interests and skills.  Many are studying, working and volunteering in their chosen fields – from business and marketing to criminology and psychology.

We recently shared Australia21’s hopes and expectations for 2018, now we’ve asked some of our YoungA21 members to share their thoughts on what issues matter to them, what ‘progress’ would look like to them, and what challenges they see to be addressed.

Here’s what they had to say…

Emmelin Teng

Emmelin is a senior psychologist working in the South Australian youth justice system, and a current Honorary Youth Adviser for YoungA21. Last year she completed a combined PhD/Master of Psychology (Clinical), with a thesis on youth mental health promotion.  

“Young people experience a high prevalence of mental disorders, and are particularly resistant to seeking help. This is a complex issue that is not yet well understood. In 2018, I would like to see greater focus on collaborating with young people to hear their perspectives and ideas for improving current approaches to youth mental health programs and policies. ‘Nothing about us without us’. I would also like to see greater adoption of socio-ecological models in shaping mental health promotion and policy, with consideration of the ways that we can promote wellbeing by improving the environment surrounding young people (by increasing protective factors and reducing risk factors), rather than an exclusive focus on individual behaviour (such as help-seeking). I believe that to improve the mental health of our current generation of young people, we must be attentive to broader economic, political, cultural and social discourses, due to the enormous influence they have in shaping individual belief systems about mental health.

“Our young people have plenty to offer as the future leaders of our country. Across the world we are witnessing young people using their drive and creativity to find new solutions to complex global problems.

“YoungA21 has a strong focus on youth engagement and empowering young people to engage in discussions and have their voices heard about issues that matter to them. We achieve this by fostering mutually beneficial relationships between YoungA21 members and Australia21 directors, providing opportunities for two-way mentoring between young people and experienced Australia21 directors, encouraging and supporting young people to take on projects which will contribute to addressing the challenges facing Australia’s future, and promoting collaboration between generations across various research projects. It is great that Australia 21 is committed to engaging with future generations of citizens and leaders, and that it appoints Honorary Youth Advisers to give the Board insights into public policy from the perspective of young people.”

Ethan Chambers

Ethan is currently in Year 12, and has plans to continue study in marketing and communications in digital mediums. Ethan highly values the importance of evidenced-based policies and research in shaping the future of Australia in this technologically-dependent century.

“It is my hope that in 2018 the country can demonstrate leadership to the international community. Australia can be and should be a world champion in advocating for equal rights in places notorious for discrimination, for strategies to combat the ever-present risks of climate change, and for communities that provide support and encouragement to first responders dealing with stress and anxiety. I value those who put their lives on the line in pursuit of safety for their communities, and strongly believe in the importance of these issues.”

Loi Lam

Loi is currently studying a Bachelor of Criminology and Justice and is passionate about human rights, social equity and criminal justice policy. Loi works with organisations such as the Office of the Public Advocate and Just Reinvest NSW.

“In 2018, I would like to see a referendum take place to bring about Constitutional reform. The Australian Constitution was drafted at a time when Australia was considered a land that belonged to no one before European settlement and when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were considered a ‘dying race’ not worthy of citizenship or humanity.

“For these reasons, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not mentioned in the Constitution. The preamble of the Constitution needs to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were the original inhabitants of Australia.

“Furthermore, Australia is still the only country with a Constitution which allows for the discrimination of its people based on their race – not just against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but against anyone. Section 51(xxvi), which contains references allowing the Australian Parliament to create ‘special laws’ for people of any race, needs to be amended or repealed. Similarly, section 25, which allows states to ban people from voting based on their race, needs to be repealed in its entirety.

“Constitutional change should not be seen as burden that needs to be addressed. It should be seen as an opportunity to further advance a reconciled Australia and improve Australia’s democracy by increasing the protection of the rights of all Australians.”

Aqeel Camal

Aqeel is a designer, problem solver and community builder, who is passionate about education and innovation. A first year law and international security student at the ANU, Aqeel has already worked closely with organisations like TEDxCanberra and Law Squared.”

“I hope that education in Australia can transform in some capacity towards being more of a catalyst for human creativity, intelligence and empathy — while also being a foundation to an ecosystem of youth-led social change.

“The world is innovating at unprecedented rates, and there is so much opportunity in this change, but unfortunately young people do not have access to an education that empowers them to look towards embracing those opportunities in a positive way. I would love to see a more human-centred education that empowers us to be agents of change, and more kind, compassionate and accepting humans.”

Aah-Young Choi

Aah-Young completed Year 12 last year, and became involved in YoungA21 through her interest and passion for human rights. She is due to commence aviation school this year, and then plans to continue studies in business and law.

“2018 is technically the first year that I have welcomed in as an Australia21 member. Though this may seem minor, it significantly frames the year with a new sentiment. Joining this organisation early in 2017 as a High School student wearing a uniform visibly categorised me as a child; now, stepping onto the threshold of becoming a young adult, I feel the need to develop my perspective on social issues. But I cannot reiterate enough that the involvement of young people is consequential — I myself would not have been driven to do such a thing in the first place if I was held back by my young age. Before anything, I would like to encourage and advocate the need for more young members to join YoungA21.

“A think-tank should have fish of all kinds, but ones that are learning how to swim (young adults) are crucial to the understanding of the nature of the tank (society).”

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