COVID-19 and Young People’s Recovery Scenarios: An Exercise in Hope

‘So looking into the future, I would say I am scared, anxious and hopeful all at the same time, I think.’ 

Rosie, Year 12 student, Northcote

Hope is a way of dreaming up possible futures: an anticipatory virtue that permeates our lives and activates them. It is a powerful motivating force grounded not only in projects that aim at reconstructing the social imaginary, but also in the political economy of desires, affects and creativity that underscore it.

Braidotti (2013, p.192)

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

In many of the discussions in our project with the Inner Northern Local Learning and Employment Network (LLEN) in Melbourne about COVID-19 and young people’s well-being, education, training and employment futures, some people want to frame the conversations through questions such as “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?” (in this podcast this was a question that I was asked – in relation to whether there would be a vaccine soon, and what impact that would have on young people!)

In this post we want to suggest that this is the wrong question to ask if we are looking at developing COVID-19 recovery scenarios for young people – in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, or elsewhere.

Scenario planning (see our earlier 4 part series about Future Back Thinking and Scenario Planning) is neither optimistic or pessimistic. 

Instead, at a fundamental level, scenario planning is an exercise in HOPE. And that is a very different, and inherently positive and productive, thing.

Young People and the Politics of Outrage and Hope

This thinking emerges from an edited collection that colleagues and I published out of a 2 day conference that we convened in December 2015. That edited collection –  Young People and the Politics of Outrage and Hope – was framed by a sense that fifteen years into the 21st century millions of young people around the globe were marginalised in educational, cultural, social, economic and political contexts that are local and global; that are characterised by increasing wealth and poverty, and a widening gap between them; by the remaking of the markers of marginalisation in which some forms appear to wane while new forms seem to emerge; and by global ruptures that are marked by austerity, recession and the remaking of the welfare state in the aftermath of the GFC.

During the so called Year of the Protester (Time 2011) we witnessed many young people around the world – the Spanish Indignados, the global Occupy movement, the young people of the various and different revolutions in the Arab Spring, and those participating in, and caught up by, the riots in many cities in the UK during August 2011 – voice their anxiety, uncertainty and anger, their outrage and hope, about their experience of these diverse and emerging circumstances.

As we have written in a number of earlier posts, many of our concerns in the projects that we are developing about the multiple crises that COVID-19 produces are shaped by a sense that young people carry a heavy, and particular, burden in the downstream of crises such as the GFC – in terms of health and well-being, education and training, and employment. COVID-19 amplifies these concerns, and requires that we think and plan and act in terms beyond the simplicity of being either optimistic or pessimistic!

Hope without Optimism

In the edited collection I wrote about the need to move beyond ideas of optimism or pessimism, to a focus on hope.

At the end of my chapter, I pointed out how Terry Eagleton’s (2015) Hope Without Optimism takes elegant aim at the shallowness and naiveté that, he suggests, characterises an optimistic disposition: a Pollyanna-erish orientation to the ambivalence and irony of the human condition that glosses the evidence of human history, as it invests heavily in the promise of human progress. In his opening chapter – The Banality of Optimism – a sometimes withering critique of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist provides the means for Eagleton to open up the spaces in which to make explicit distinctions between human capacities for optimism and hope. For Eagleton (2015, 24):

If the past cannot simply be deleted…it is not least because it is a vital constituent of the present. We can progress beyond it, to be sure, but only by means of the capabilities which it has bequeathed us. The habits bred by generations of supremacy and subservience, arrogance and inertia, are not to be unlearned overnight. Instead they constitute an Ibsenesque legacy of guilt and debt which contaminates the roots of human creativity, infiltrating the bones and bloodstream of contemporary history and entwining itself with our more enlightened impulses.

Some would argue that a lack of faith in a human capacity for progress, a focus on the history of human irrationality, violence, illusion and myth making, a sense that what is ‘unique about the human animal’ is our capacity to ‘grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience’ (Gray 2014, 75), appears to leave little room for the human capacity for hope, for love, for kindness, for struggle, for ‘redemption’, for some sort of meaning to human existence, that often emerges so powerfully in the moments and spaces of most despair. But, that is, possibly, a misreading of what Gray and others should provoke us to imagine. As Eagleton (2015, 5) argues:

Only if you view your situation as critical do you recognise the need to transform it. Dissatisfaction can be a goad to reform. The sanguine, by contrast, are likely to come up with sheerly cosmetic solutions. True hope is needed most when the situation is at its starkest, a state of extremity that optimism is generally loath to acknowledge.

The challenge, in terms of young people and a politics of outrage and hope, is to imagine what such a politics would look like if we trouble and unsettle the myth of human progress, the illusion of choice, and the ambivalence of freedom. And do the difficult, never-ending work of imagining and enacting a politics of outrage and hope that might be shaped by such things as Michel Foucault’s self-description of his hyper- but pessimistic activism; or Zygmunt Bauman’s critical sociological mission that is framed by an embrace of the ambivalence and irony that characterises human experience; or Lauren Berlant’s (2011) sense that ‘cruel optimism’ – the ‘condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object’ – is ‘cruel’ precisely because it is so fundamental to a ‘sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world’ (Berlant 2011, 24); or Sarah Ahmed’s (2010) claim that to be a ‘killjoy’ – to trouble the ‘promise of happiness’ that shapes so much of what we are told our lives ‘should’ be – is to ‘open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance’ (Ahmed 201, 20); or Rosi Braidotti’s (2013) framing of hope as an ‘anticipatory virtue’ that enables humans to imagine ‘possible futures’; or…

And this is what we, our partners at the Inner Northern LLEN,  and the many stakeholders from Melbourne’s inner north, youth advocacy organisations, and State government departments are doing in co-designing COVID-19 recovery scenarios for young people in Melbourne’s inner north. See here for the ways that Katherine Ellis, the CEO of Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVIC), talks about these issues.


Ahmed S. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press. Durham and London

Bauman, Z. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. 1991. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. 2001. The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bauman, Z. 2004. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Berlant, L. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press. Durham and London.

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge. Polity Press.

Eagleton, T. 2015. Hope Without Optimism. Yale University Press. New haven and London.

Foucault, M. 1983. The Subject and Power. In H.L. Dreyfus & P.Robinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.208-226.

Gray, J. 2014. The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. London. Penguin.

Feature Image: Image credit


By Peter Kelly

I am a Professor of Education at Deakin University.

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