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Young Australia mostly agree on their hopes and fears for the future. Are leaders ready to listen?

New data from the Productivity Commission showing a decline in incomes for younger Australians over the past decade compared to older generations will come as no surprise to those whose lives it describes. But it is what is happening to young people now, in the midst of pandemic, that is even more alarming.

The annual wage growth data shows that younger workers were already living the consequences of rising casualisation, gig work and lower starting wages.

New opinion research looking at the worldview of 18-24 year-olds, commissioned by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), shows how the lockdown has eroded any semblance of economic security.

One-quarter of the 1,020 participants who completed the online survey say they have lost employment through the lockdown, with another 22% concerned about their long-term employment future. Of those out of the workforce, one-third expect it to be a long time until they find a job. One in nine doubt they will ever find a way out of debt.

This economic shock has seen two-thirds of young Australians cut down on spending, one-quarter avoid going to a doctor and one in five draw down on their super, an act of short-term financial desperation that has real-term consequences for their long-term savings.

It’s also been notable that many cohorts of young people affected have been almost completely ignored by the federal government’s response to date, such as those working job-to-job in events or the arts sector where an estimated 75% of people could be unemployed, or the 400,000 international students enrolled in higher education, or students in remote and rural communities who cannot easily participate in remote learning.

The cost of this interruption is not just in the current challenge to make ends meet. It’s also in the flow-on effects of interrupted education, lost life experience and delayed careers that will change the course of their lives.

Young people don’t begrudge the community response to the pandemic. In the research they identify the health of their family as a priority. It’s just that for many it seems like another chapter in a recurring story of generational inequity.

Look at the generational transfer of risk inherent in inaction on climate change. Look at the housing market where the nest eggs of older Australians mean home ownership will only ever be a dream for many young Australians. Look at the network of tax concessions designed to protect the wealth of older Australians. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the playing field is tilted against the young.

In a world where young people are not afforded a seat at the table for decisions about a future they will inhabit for longer than any else, is this any surprise?

The other striking point in the FYA research is the extent to which young people agree on the broader issues the nation is confronting, regardless of the political party they vote for. Where you would typically look in a poll like this to find disagreement and divergence, there is consensus and convergence.

The research found Australians under 25 overwhelmingly support keeping jobkeeper and jobseeker regardless of whether they are Labor, Coalition or Greens voters. Likewise, on immigration, there was virtually no difference between young Labor and Coalition voters, who agree that offshore detention facilities for asylum seekers and refugees should be closed.

And there is almost no difference between the number of Labor and Coalition voters under 25 who want greater protection to environments such as the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of climate change. Even where the solutions proposed were more provocative, the consensus was unshaken: young Labor and Coalition voters both want the federal government to close all coal-fired power plants.

So here’s the challenge for leaders: if young people are talking with a unified voice about their hopes and fears for the future, are you ready to listen to them? Not just as an interest group or a voting segment, but as the custodians of our future.

How do you offer something better than expecting young people to just pick up the pieces and live a life that is harder than the one their parents had?

A good start would be to create structures that give young Australians a real way into the decision-making process. In the past two weeks, FYA has supported young people across Australia to meet (virtually) with their MPs in more than 30 electorates and share their ideas for what the Covid-19 recovery should look like.

But direct engagement between young Australians and their elected representatives is the exception, not the norm. Rather than relying on the initiative of young people to seek out opportunities to express themselves, MPs could, for example, be required to actively seek the views of younger constituents.

If we are going to grow something back from this pandemic, let it be designed for – and by – the young people who, by all objective measures, have the most invested in the outcome.

• Nick Moraitis is CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians

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