The world of work has become an increasingly difficult environment for young people. Youth unemployment in Australia is persistently higher than for other age groups.
In response, our governments have delivered one-size-fits-all policies that focus on national targets encouraging education programs to make unemployed young people more “work ready”.
These approaches assume that, with the right education or training, a young person will be able to get a job. However, this is not the case, especially for young people who live in areas of high youth unemployment.
To reduce youth unemployment, education and labour market policies must go beyond a focus on individual young people to offer solutions at a community level.
Rural and regional areas hit hardest
Youth unemployment has been a feature of developed economies since the 1980s. As the Australian economy continues to open to global competitive pressures, the decline in the availability of manufacturing work and the growth of the services sector have changed the nature of work.
However, as recent research has highlighted, youth unemployment rates vary in different places and local communities.
Rural and regional areas are among the hardest hit by these changes. Places such as outback Queensland and the New South Wales Hunter Valley have youth unemployment rates of 28% and 22% respectively.
These levels of youth unemployment reflect these regions’ reliance on industries that are changing rapidly and may no longer provide reliable local employment.
These powerful shifts are not adequately recognised at a policy level.
Policies targeted at youth currently encourage the development of individual human capital. This takes place through a one-size-fits-all approach focused on increasing levels of educational qualification, with the promise that young people will find professional work.
This kind of future is not available to all young people, no matter how “work ready” they may be, especially for those in areas with high youth unemployment.
Again, these policies ignore the reality of the forms of work available in different local communities.
Does this matter in a world where young people are encouraged to be as mobile as possible in search of work and a fulfilling future?
The answer to this question is a resounding yes, for reasons connected with the role of local communities in shaping young people’s identities and pathways through work.
The critical role of local communities
Australian and international research has shown the critical role that processes of identity construction play both in young people’s engagement with work and in the strategies they use to survive unemployment.
Rural and regional young people are key examples of this process. Research has demonstrated the importance of local community connections for young people’s orientation towards their future in work. This applies even to those whose imagined futures take them beyond the boundaries of their local communities.
In one example from this research, a young man who imagines a future as a teacher described his plans in terms of existing family connections to the profession and the availability of accommodation with family members who lived close to the nearest regional university.
This process, in which young people imagine futures around established community connections and ways of life, is common in regional areas. While schools encourage young people to plan their own individual futures, the lives of relatives and other community members continue to shape their desires and perceptions of what is possible for them.
Community support in tough times
These communities may also be zones of high youth unemployment. Research conducted in former manufacturing centres of the UK with high unemployment shows that local community relationships provide critical support when times are tough. These local networks may also provide access to casual employment.
However, these communities operate as both resources and limits to young people’s biographies. The resources they offer may not provide opportunities beyond their local place, and young people may be personally invested in forms of work that reflect the history of their community. For example, young men may aspire to futures in manufacturing that are no longer locally available.
Similar results have been found in rural Australia, where established expectations about suitable work may not reflect actually existing opportunities available to local youth.
As a consequence, people must re-evaluate who they are and who they can become. This re-negotiation of personal identity is a key aspect of navigating changing labour markets in areas of high youth unemployment.
A complex policy issue
Youth unemployment is a complex policy issue with no silver-bullet solutions. Simple approaches based on individual employability are destined to fail.
Local communities and young people themselves are grappling with rapid economic change.
To be successful, education and training programs must work with local communities alongside investment in regional economies aimed at creating new employment opportunities when established industries leave.
Only in this way can education and employment policies support young people to navigate regional Australia’s changing labour markets.