Why pessimism has taken hold of our youth
By Lucas Walsh, Monash University.
New data about the mental health of young people raises red flags about cost-of-living pressures – and offers a glimpse at a better approach.
Struggles around personal finances and access to food, employment and housing are all taking a toll on 18- to 24-year-olds.
Two results are an increase in mental health issues and pessimism about the future. Such pessimism is anchored in, and inflamed by, the conditions under which many young people are living now, as well as how they think about the future.
Each year, we [Monash University] ask young Australians aged 18 to 24 about the kinds of pressures they are experiencing across areas such as employment, education, relationships, and health and well-being.
Unsurprisingly, the rising cost of living has been a common thread running through their responses every year. What was surprising and unsettling in 2023 was the severity in which they are experiencing these pressures.
The Australian Youth Barometer has been run for the last three years in collaboration with market research company Roy Morgan. The Barometer involves a survey of over 500 young Australians and interviews with 30 more. Here are some examples of what we found in 2023.
Nine in 10 respondents experienced difficulties with personal finances in the past year.
Only 52 percent of young Australians who responded to the survey thought it was likely or extremely likely that they would achieve financial security in the future, while 43 percent were often or very often able to save part of their income. Some respondents highlighted financial instability.
Just over one in five (21 percent) experienced food insecurity – that is, they could not access culturally appropriate and/or nutritious food. They are some of the 3.7 million Australian households that have experienced food insecurity in the past 12 months.
Just over six in 10 (61 percent) thought they would be financially worse off than their parents.
Housing and work
Turning to housing and rental affordability, only 35 percent felt confident about affording a place to live in the next year. Only 41 percent thought they would purchase a property in the future.
On employment, high proportions of young people typically work in short-term, casual work. Half reported participating in the gig economy at some point in the last 12 months. Only 59 percent thought it was likely or extremely likely they would work in a job they like in the future.
Perhaps this is why 83 percent were doing something extra, with the goal of improving their chances of getting desirable work.
Most had a clear vision for their future employment. The three most important factors young people considered when thinking about the type of work they want to undertake were location (70 percent of respondents), high salary (68 percent) and long-term security (67 percent).
Some are going without food and questioning the purposes of post-school education and training.
There is an implicit promise that education and training will lead to desirable work. But that promise is eroding. Only 52 percent felt that their education prepared them for the future.
Cost-of-living pressures might in part explain the poor mental health of young Australians. This year (2023), nearly all (97 percent) survey respondents reported feeling anxiety or pessimism.
At a recent roundtable in Old Parliament House in Canberra, a colleague from the University of Newcastle, Dr Julia Cook, rightly observed that we need to change the way we think about housing and accommodation.
Dr Cook argued that we need to stop thinking about houses as assets, but as places to live.
There is also an argument that in other parts of the world, such as Europe, home ownership is not necessarily the norm and people expect to rent throughout their lives (particularly those living in cities). But important in this regard is the fact that there are protections and safeguards for renters in other countries that are arguably less available in Australia.
Young people, like most of us, seek security, so we need to find better ways of providing the necessities of life (such as food and shelter), as well as the appropriate education and training to build a better one.
In the study, 26 percent rated their mental health as poor or very poor, in contrast to the 36 percent who rated it as good or excellent. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) sought mental health care in the past year.
Many worried about their ability to live a happy and healthy life (41 percent) or even to cope with everyday tasks in the future (41 percent).
The top three pressing challenges nominated by young Australians for immediate action included housing (70 percent of respondents), employment opportunities for young people (51 percent) and climate change (42 percent).
In the survey and interviews, young Australians’ understanding of health is expansive and holistic, including lesser-recognised aspects, such as financial security and access to secure housing. It is time for policy to adopt a similar, more holistic approach.
Professor Lucas Walsh is lead author of The Australian Youth Barometer: Understanding Young People in Australia, which is produced by the Monash Centre for Youth Policy and Education Practice. It can be downloaded here.