A budget to end extended adolescence

It’s not just the young – older cohorts lead ‘adolescent’ lifestyles because the economy and work have changed so much.

The grown-ups may be in charge in Canberra, but in this week’s budget they are sending mixed signals to young Australians about how grown-up the nation wants them to be.

The radical overhaul of welfare and education policy asks members of Generation Y to stand on their own two feet as adults, but also risks ushering them into prolonged periods of dependency.

In essence, it’s ‘earn, learn, or sponge’, where priority has been given to preventing any of those options drawing more public money than is absolutely necessary. Why should tax payers support the young jobless, when Mum and Dad (who, err, have paid their taxes for 30 years) can do it instead?

The incentive to ‘earn’ is built into the new welfare arrangements. Those under 25 will be moved from New Start to Youth Allowance – about $100 a week less than Newstart – and all under-30s will go through cycles of receiving benefit, working for the dole, and receiving no benefits at all until they find a job.

The incentive to ‘learn’ is the addition of many non-degree courses to the list of post-secondary study for which students can borrow from the government to pay their  fees – diplomas, advanced diplomas, associate degrees and non-university-offered degrees. Those courses, most of which are vocational, will also be allowed to expand on a demand-driven basis, possibly meaning a healthier rebalancing between numbers enrolling in university and other tertiary courses.

Many believe Labor’s move to a demand-driven model of tertiary enrolments, which dramatically increased the numbers of young people in universities (and hence out of the unemployment statistics) has in many cases harmed the quality of education offered and, in the worst cases, amounts to mis-selling of a product to school-leavers. More on that another time.

The amount students can borrow is also uncapped, giving school-leavers the opportunity to take on ‘adult’ levels of debt early in their lives.

And the incentive to ‘sponge’ (not a word you’ll find in the budget papers) will be obvious to parents who’d rather hoped their little darlings would do what they themselves did – move into a share house, get a hair-cut and a job, and after a few years listening to Neil Young LPs, admit that there “comes a time when you settle down”.

But that is not the way things work these days. The expectations of both the Abbott government and disgruntled parents may be out of step with a social world that Gen-Y young-uns are navigating.

Professor Johanna Wyn, director of the Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, thinks the government (and many parents) imagine a future for their kids predicated on a very narrow period of history – the decade or so in which baby boomers became adult, took ‘permanent’ jobs, bought a home, and popped out babies of their own. Wyn’s research team recently published a major longitudinal survey (available here as a PDF file)  showing that Australia’s social patterns have changed radically since that time, whether or not politicians and parents have noticed.

The media has grown accustomed to portraying the Gen-Y group (born  approximately between 1980 and 1995) as lazy, and stuck in an ‘extended adolescence’.  

Hence the need, one supposes, to chase them into work or study – and ignore the fact that if they really are like that, they’ll take up an extended residence on Mum and Dad’s couch instead.

Wyn, based on her centre’s two-decade longitudinal research program, sees the problem completely the other way around. Rather than Gen-Ys having an unreasonably long adolescence, all age groups are behaving more like adolescents. Many workers well into their forties or fifties are still not able to find the kinds of ‘permanent’ jobs that used to underpin ‘adult’ social patterns.

Wyn’s report notes, for instance: “Generation Y anticipates a more unstable path through the job market and are cautious of planning their work or family lives too far into the future.

“While the Australian economy has retained its economic stability and avoided falling into recession with the Global Financial Crisis, the consequences for today’s youth is the alienation from the knowledge, memory and possibility of long-term stable employment.

“This is a generation socialised into a precarious work environment, where flexibility and adaptability are key individual assets and horizontal mobility more likely than vertical mobility.”

But it’s not just the young – older cohorts lead ‘adolescent’ lifestyles because the economy and work have changed so much.

Wyn’s report notes: “...members of Generation X had to learn through a painful process that a job for life is not available and that securing a stable position in the labour market might take up to ten years after leaving school.”

The times are a-changing. Earning, paying taxes, shifting horizontally in an evolving economy, and drawing on the social safety net between jobs may all go hand-in-hand.

Young people should grow up, and realise at the same time that grown-ups ain’t what they used to be.

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