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Young people will lead the way

Young people will lead the way

Youth sociologist Prof Anita Harris writes about the effects of COVID-19 on the world’s young people.

Familiar tropes of hope and risk shape our perceptions and expectations of young people in this global health crisis. On the one hand, young people are viewed as risky actors in the context of the pandemic, sometimes blamed for irresponsible and selfish behaviour such as persisting in social gathering (for example, backpackers and other youth congregating on Bondi Beach) and failing to take seriously the health risks to others, if not themselves (time sensitive snapshots indicate that young women aged 20­–29 are the most affected coronavirus cohort in Australia).

Anxieties are also raised by health professionals, schools and parents that young people are spending too much time on screens, and their mental and physical health is deteriorating as remote learning and other conditions of lockdown take a toll.

On the other hand, even while they are often stereotyped and blamed, economies and societies worldwide are relying on young people to get back to study, work and travel in order to kick start growth, and depend on them to maintain social bonds and innovate digital and creative solutions to pre-empt anomy and disconnection. Young people themselves are keen to do so.

Young people have been hit hardest by COVID-related job losses. Many industries are highly dependent on youth labour or participation, not least the higher education sector; in Australia it is often noted that education is our third largest export, with international education worth $37.6 billion to the Australian economy in 2018­–19. Research we are currently undertaking with 2000 transnationally mobile youth moving into and out of Australia shows that mobility aspirations remain high, and young people continue to see a global future for themselves to enhance their economic, educational and civic opportunities. Although frustrations emerge from living lives ‘on hold’, hope and workarounds enable them to keep a sense of forward motion and purpose in their efforts for transition to adulthood.

Young people are also at the forefront of our new online civic and social environment engendered by social distancing, given their everyday competencies with digital technology and their comfort with mediated communication. In many aspects youth are leading the way in establishing terms and modes of digital social networks and civil social bonds online, creating new ways to be together, bringing generations into communication and social engagement, and helping us make light and find humour (note the trend via platforms such as Tik Tok away from celebrity culture and towards “everyday influencers”), and take local and transnational social and political action on this health crisis through digital means.

Preliminary research and photojournalism show youth taking an unpanicked, reflective and sensible approach to lockdown, wherever they can. Migrant background, disaporic and mobile youth, who often have well-established transnational digital networks, are exemplars in building community and maintaining social bonds across distance. Indigenous young people are innovators owing to longstanding social media adoption and creation across remote and other communities. And given that youth is the cohort leading indicators of social cohesion in Australia, there is much to be hopeful about in regard to their capacity to translate their tendencies towards tolerance, togetherness, respect and inclusion to both digital life and to post-COVID society. This is something we in ADI are investigating through our research in CRIS and projects such as “Diaspora Youth and Global Digital Citizenship”, “Strengthening intercultural relationships among Australia’s rural youth”, “Navigating difference: Children’s experiences in Australia and South Korea” and “Australia’s Generation Z Study”.

The current generation of youth, who has only known life in times of economic, environmental and social precarity, is also adaptable, resilient, and perhaps more at ease with the change and unpredictability that is so unsettling for many. And yet we need to be vigilant regarding young people’s social inclusion, economic futures, and mental and social health, and be cautious of overestimating their capacity to be change leaders and drivers of social cohesion when resources and opportunities are unevenly distributed.

Newly arrived young migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have far less digital access than others, and recently arrived adults are often heavily dependent on their children for assistance with technologies. Discrimination, racism, hate and polarisation that spike in times of social and economic upheaval and fear disproportionately affect youth. Mobile young people, such as international students, temporary visa holders, backpackers and the like are in precarious and unsupported situations. Many young people are now locked down in households that are unsafe and are even more vulnerable to family violence, while others have no shelter at all.

Most young Australians are optimistic and yet hold deep fears and concerns about the future. Their highest rated concerns are both personal and global: economic security (including employment, education, and housing affordability); the environment; and discrimination and health. A post-COVID world may be an opportunity for change, or see an amplification of these concerns and the realities that drive them.

Anita Harris is a Research Professor in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. She is a youth sociologist undertaking a series of projects on youth and citizenship, including the completion of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. Prior to joining the Institute, she was a Future Fellow in the Sociology program at Monash University (2011-2015), and a Mid-Career Research Fellow and Deputy Director at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland (2007-2011).

This article is part of a series of COVID-19-related analysis and opinion articles from ADI researchers.


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