COVID-19 and the Problem of Young People’s Futures

Authors: James Goring & Peter Kelly

Barbara Adams, ‘Four meditations on time and future relations’, (2018, p.385)

In this post – which will be the first in a series of three – we want to provide some context to the problems that we hope to confront in our research initiative, COVID-19 Recovery Scenarios for Young People in Melbourne’s Inner North with the Northern Local learning and Employment Network (IN-LLEN), and the Young People’s Sustainable Futures Lab (YPSFL). 

Where in COVID-19, Young People, Mega-Trends, Uncertainties and ‘Future Back’ Scenarios’ (Parts 1 and 2) we will explore the concepts of Megatrends and Future Back thinking/scenario planning and what it can do for our work in re-thinking young people’s futures, this post maps some of the dominant ways in which young people, and the futures that they face, have been framed by youth advocacy organisations such as the Foundation for Young Australians, and international agencies such as the OECD, UNESCO, and the World Economic Forum. 

The aim here is to pause, in the context of a global COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, and consider how we move on from/with/back/toward these ways of dealing with the problem of the ‘future’ – and of young people’s futures.

The problem of an ‘uncertain future’ has been imagined, increasingly, as a problem for education and for young people over the last 40 or so years. These are some of the futures that we have been ‘dealing with’ up to the point at which COVID-19 changes everything.

The Foundation for Young Australians: Automated, Globalised Futures and Skills

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) are a 3rd sector youth advocacy organisation that have produced a number of documents, and a range of distinct and often reproduced iconography, graphs, images that aim to represent young Australians – their skills, futures, opportunities, risks and rewards in the face of changing labour markets.

In a nutshell, FYA have (particularly through the evolution of their New Work Order research and report series from 2015-2018) become increasingly concerned with ‘enabling’ young people to thrive in what are, and will be, the uncertain labour markets of the 21st century (due to automation and globalisation), and with the promotion of a ‘transferable’ ‘enterprise skills’ agenda. FYA (About Us) claim to be about: 

‘backing the next generation of young people who are going to rethink the world and create a better future’

‘young changemakers – the innovators, the makers, the dreamers, the thinkers, the doers and the creators’

FYA is interested in identifying the barriers impacting young people’s transitions from education to work, and with the aim of speeding-up these transitions they propose what appear to be universally applicable models of ‘enterprise skills’, ‘job clusters’ (rather than traditional occupations), and most recently ‘job smarts’ (a state of constant self-formation and lifelong learning). 

Much of FYA’s research methodologies are concerned with finding out what employers want, through ‘big data’ analysis of job advertisements, in deciding what skills young people need. These projects are largely concerned with the ‘supply-side’ of labour markets – where young people, their skills, and teacher capability in developing those skills – has become a powerful discourse in shaping the relations between education and work. 

FYA have been seriously redefining the purposes of education.

In recent months, FYA have pivoted from a focus on enterprise models, to rethink young people and the future in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emerging recession and the consequences of this for young people, their education, work and life trajectories. 

In ‘Young People Re-Imagining Their Future’, an online forum on June 10, the question was posed to breakout groups – ‘Solutions – What should our societal response to the impact of COVID look like?’, and among those groups the question was raised – ‘What is the purpose of education?’. 

The assumption that if only young people become ‘optimistic’ and enterprising they will secure employment, transition through education, to work, is thrown into question in the current pandemic. The questions raised in these forums begin to touch on some of the problems that are central to the work that we are doing here.

The United Nations and the OECD: Sustainable Development and the Future of Education

‘Society should be a seen as a ‘partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’

(Edmund Burke 1790, cited in John Urry’s What is the Future? 2016, p.3)

UNESCO’s Future of Education and Skills 2030 agenda seeks to ‘reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the futures of humanity in a context of increasing complexity, uncertainty and precarity’. While a related document from the OECD, ‘Education 2030: A Shared Vision’ (OECD 2018, p.4) echoes these present and future conditions of uncertainty and the role of education:

In the face of an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, education can make the difference as to whether people embrace the challenges they are confronted with or whether they are defeated by them. And in an era characterised by a new explosion of scientific knowledge and a growing array of complex societal problems, it is appropriate that curricula should continue to evolve, perhaps in radical ways.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, Goal 4 ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ are a global framework, and a time horizon, which frame the ‘future’ in a sense of the work that needs to be done in the ‘present’ – to have a sustainable future. 

But the ways of imagining the future that appear in the SDGs have also been contested since the UN Brundtland Commission first mobilised the concept, and the often cited definition found in Our Common Future (1987):

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

There have been a number of critiques of the ways in which the future is modelled in the SDG agenda. In Kelly, Goring and Noonan (in press) we have sought to question the ways in which the concept of ‘sustainable development’ might be considered an ‘oxymoron’ in the context of a globalising, neo-liberal capitalism: 

despite progress in a number of areas over the past four years, on some of the Goals, progress has been slow or even reversed. The most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer the most and the global response has not been ambitious enough (UNDESA 2019).

There is a concern for the ways in which an ‘intergenerational ethic’ has ‘fallen away’ from the sustainable development agenda since its earlier conception, and this is a big part of the work that we want to do in re-thinking the problem of young people and the future in these projects. In ‘Intergenerational Equity and the Sustainable Development Goals’ Otto Spijkers (2018) expands on the problem of the future in the SDG agenda:

In international law scholarship and in the SDGs and previous declarations, the earth is generally seen as a resource, to be used by present and future people, and not as something warranting respect regardless of its worth to human beings. Second, the main challenge is to find a proper balance between intergenerational equity—present and future people—and intragenerational equity—the rich and the poor of the present generation.

The World Economic Forum (WEF): The 4th Industrial Revolution

Klaus Schwab was Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF and published The Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2017These ways of imagining the future – in terms of digital disruption, automation – have framed a great deal of FYA’s work, and education and skills interventions aimed at young people. Schwab describes the 4th Industrial Revolution as:

not only about smart and connected machines and systems. Its scope is much wider. Occurring simultaneously are waves of further breakthroughs in areas ranging from gene sequencing to nanotechnology, from renewables to quantum computing. It is the fusion of these technologies and their interaction across the physical, digital and biological domains that make the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally different from previous revolutions. 

The WEF’s The Future of Jobs (WEF 2018) report emphasises that we are experiencing a shift in the tasks performed by humans, those performed by machines and algorithms, and the impact that these changes will have on global labour markets. The Australian Industry Group echoes these ideas, and reports that 75% of the fastest growing occupations in Australia will require STEM related skills while Victoria’s Department of Education and Training, in its STEM in the Education State (2016) notes that Victoria’s priority sectors will require up to 400,000 STEM related jobs by 2025. This emphasis on a future characterised by digital disruption, and a focus on producing young people with the STEM skills required to navigate this future, have already been amplified in the recently proposed overhaul of Australian tertiary education for the ‘jobs of the future’ (we have begun to describe this in a previous post, ‘Job Ready Graduates and 21st Century Skills’).

‘Generation COVID’ and the Problem of the Future

With no end to the COVID-19 pandemic, recession, and related crisis (see earlier posts on ‘Young People and the Convergence of the 6th Mass Extinction and 4th Industrial Revolution’), Australia’s unemployment rate currently cited at 7.4% (climbing, and no doubt MUCH higher across populations of young people), it is timely to re-think the ways in which we think about these problems.

Shane Duggan (2019, p.115), in his book, Education Policy, Digital Disruption and the Future of Work: Framing Young People’s Futures in the Present, describes how:

young people’s positioning in relation to the future by policy makers and industry has manifest in a climate which promises an expanded universe of opportunities to the most willing, yet also individualises processes of scrutiny and blame on those who fail to successfully mobilise in response to challenges.

And the ‘uncertain futures’ that have increasingly become a problem for young people, and for education over the past 40 or more years, are captured, in the context of the pandemic, in a number of spaces, including the ABC’s ‘Generation COVID’ Project, that has spoken to young people and youth support services about the impacts of an ‘uncertain future’:

The youth mental health service Headspace hasn’t seen increases in suicidal ideation among its clients since March, but CEO Jason Trethowan says that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening in the broader community…

Headspace has, however, seen a massive jump in demand for online and telephone counselling from young people of between 30 and 40 per cent during the pandemic.

It also analysed the words that came up in those conversations. Mentions of ‘coping skills’ rose 86 per cent, while mentions of being ‘overwhelmed’ were up 63 per cent.

“This is a perfect storm for youth mental health,” Jason Trethowan says.

“We do expect an increase in service demand. The demand was already there prior to COVID.

“We know that that system is not fit for purpose for today. What we need is improved coordination of services in the community. We want young people who have an experience to tell their story once.”

The kind of ‘uncertainty’ captured here appears at odds with, possibly, the kind of ‘manufactured uncertainty’ that some education and skills policy documents speak to. These are just some of the ways in which the problem of young people’s futures has, and continues to be imagined amidst the current COVID-19 crisis. There are tensions among these models, concepts, the kind of ethics and needs that they serve, when there are so many other ways of imagining the future that are left out, silenced in these stories.

Alternative, More Imaginative Futures

Some of these other stories include the following – and suggest that many of the planet’s key agencies, actors, and institutions have not been imaginative enough in how they think about futures, our futures.

In a report on her Earth Day 2020 address in the middle of Europe’s first encounter with COVID-19 young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has:

‘urged people around the world to take a new path after the coronavirus pandemic, which she said proved “our society is not sustainable”’.

Greta said that:

‘the strong global response to Covid-19 demonstrated how quickly change could happen when humanity came together and acted on the advice of scientists.’

She said the same principles should be applied to the climate crisis.

“Whether we like it or not, the world has changed. It looks completely different now from how it did a few months ago. It may never look the same again. We have to choose a new way forward,”

…she told a YouTube audience in a virtual meeting to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

“If the coronavirus crisis has shown us one thing, it is that our society is not sustainable. If one single virus can destroy economies in a couple of weeks, it shows we are not thinking long-term and taking risks into account.”

Image: Jay Wennington (Unsplash)

In the same article the UN Secretary General António Guterres is quoted as saying that:

post-pandemic recovery should focus on six goals: the creation of clean, green jobs; taxpayer support for sustainable growth; an economic shift from grey concrete to green nature; investment in the future rather than the past with an end to fossil fuel subsidies; the incorporation of climate risk into the financial system, and international cooperation.

A more critical imagination of our futures might suggest that, with tremendous challenges come significant opportunities, as UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education alerts us to:

The current crisis is reminding us how crucial public education is in societies, communities, and in individual lives. We have been reminded that education is a bulwark against inequality—and of the importance of schooling in enabling lives of dignity and purpose. As we embrace this exceptional opportunity to transform the world, and as we reimagine the organization of our educational institutions and learning environments, we will need to think about what we want to become. We have arrived at a moment—however unexpectedly—where collectively revisiting the purposes of education and organization of learning has become imperative.

UNESCO (2020, p.9)
Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action

The biggest challenge, as we see it at this time, is to imagine what we are up for? What do we want to imagine? What do we want our futures to be? What are we prepared to do in that ongoing struggle to become something that we are not?

Barbara Adams, ‘Four meditations on time and future relations’, (2018, p.388)

By James Goring

I am a Research Fellow in the School of Education at Deakin University, and the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University

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