From Green Army to national service

Australia scrapped conscription in 1972 but with a new generation of young under-employed with few prospects for work, perhaps it’s time to revisit the merits of national service.

A report released yesterday by the Foundation for Young Australians paints a pretty bleak time ahead for Australians aged under 24.

They will, it says, enter a jobs market where 30 per cent of youngsters are unemployed or underemployed -- part-time work is the new full-time.

If they are uni gradates they’ll have $24,000 more in debt than their parents’ generation, and will receive less in the way of benefits from the government while job hunting as spending is redirected to older Australians.

If youngsters do find a job, the prospect of saving for a deposit on a house is overwhelming -- they’ll need to borrow three times the amount their parents did.

And all of that is before the Australian dollar falls, pushing up the cost-of-living in the tradables sector of the economy, plus a likely fall in real wages, as Alan Kohler explained yesterday.

None of this is good for the development of the entrepreneurial, independent Australians we need to increase the nation’s productivity and global competitiveness in the years ahead.

Nor is it good for their mental health. Children are living with parents longer, and experiencing more depression and anxiety about leaving the family home and making it on their own.

The psychological gravity of the situation should not be underestimated. In his 2013 book ‘Teen voices’, renowned Italian family therapist Maurizio Andolfi describes a generation characterised by ‘individualism’, but notes that “today’s individualism is a weak one, where egotistical interests, uncertainty and fear of the future prevail”.

Well fear of the future is hardly unjustified, given the list of nasties published by the Foundation for Young Australians. The question, is whether the next generation will be able to overcome those fears.

This can come down to cultural factors as much as anything. Professor Andolfi makes this point by contrasting family patterns in his native Italy with those seen in northern Europe.

He writes: “In northern Europe, young people actually move out at 18 or 20. This is unthinkable in our [Italy’s] context. Ours can be considered as a social problem: there are no rites to celebrate the exit from the family and the latter tends to keep its children longer due to its caring, controlling and enmeshing characteristics.”

This can lead to the real ‘end of adolescence’ being between 35 and 45 -- not, as commonly thought, at 18.

Economic circumstances in Australia -- particularly the cost of housing -- have begun to entrench similar patterns here.

If Australia was heading into more prosperous times, this would not be an issue for public policy -- people, families, should be free to live howsoever they choose.

But then we are not heading into more prosperous times. The pressure on young Australians will only increase, and there is a genuine risk that a generation of fearful, anxious youngsters will fail to take up economic opportunities.

The Abbott Government has not overlooked these trends, but nor has it gone far enough in finding an appropriate public policy response.

Its welfare cutbacks, though softened by senate amendments, do more to force young people back on the mercy of their families.

The government’s ‘earn or learn’ mantra, though constructive at face value, is a continuation of Labor’s push to churn hundreds of thousands of students through higher education, with scant regard to their employability at the other end -- the so-called ‘demand driven’ system.

There are also fears of the vocational education and training sector being rorted by unscrupulous firms seeking to capture government funds (see Earn or learn while our tax dollars burn, August 15).

Then there’s the Green Army, which launched in August and hopes to recruit 15,000 unemployed Australians by 2018 -- paying them less than the minimum wage, but giving them life experience and some certificate-IV level qualifications.

And finally, there is a small but renewed venture into 12-month ‘gap year’ stints in the military. The gap-year program was first set up under the Howard government as a way to boost ADF recruitment, but it was dismantled under Labor for cost reasons.

The Abbott Government’s version was easily filled this year as it only offered 260 places, compared with 500 in the Howard years. “Those chosen for the program,” says its marketing blurb, “learn practical and leadership skills, enjoy a healthy and varied lifestyle, and make friends for life -- while getting paid.”

Well that is exactly what some parents will be thinking their 25-year-old needs -- to get out, meet people, get real skills and, in psychological terms, start moving away from economic and emotional dependence.

That’s a point of view that will upset some, but in the Australian context the problem will become more pronounced if not addressed.

Australian students do not, en masse, move away from home as American or British students do to attend college or university. And afterwards, in an economy of part-time jobs and expensive housing, it’s harder than ever to fly the nest.

That has led some to suggest reintroducing ‘national service’, be it for military or civil projects, as a way of giving young Australians more life experience, and a greater propensity to move around to find work.

Well that won’t fly politically -- the dismantling of national service by the first Whitlam government has left many Australians hostile to such schemes.

Moreover, Germany, which set up such a program in 1955 to prevent the military getting out of kilter with the civilian population, as happened during the Nazi era, finally dismantled it again in 2010.

It now runs a voluntary scheme, but has found a 90,000-strong shortfall in its military workforce as a result.

Yet, with a bit of imagination, the Abbott Government could find a voluntary scheme that mobilised under-employed Australians and sent them home later with not only skills, but with a fire in their bellies to move onward and upward.

As Professor Andolfi puts it: “Military service, which hasn’t been compulsory for the past few years in Italy, despite its negative characteristics had some merit: young people had to abandon their security to enter a different world from their own, in which they were forced to coexist with people coming from different places and cultures.”

Timor L’Este anyone? The camps of northern Thailand? PNG? Cape York? The Northern Territory?

Given that Prime Minister Abbott himself sets aside a week a year to work on community projects in indigenous communities, perhaps he can find a way to incentivise young Australians to do similar.

Such a scheme would be hugely expensive, of course. Germany’s cost €8 billion a year.

Yet with a growing number of frustrated, under-employed young Australians depending on their parents or government benefits, the cost of doing nothing could soon make an incentivised, voluntary kind of national service look like a real option.

Who knows, we might even convince them to help build a few more houses.