This project aims to provide Geelong stakeholders with a strong evidence base over 3 years to co-design innovative interventions to foster the education and employment aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Geelong in the wake of a COVID-19 youth labour market crisis. Read more

I – Aspiration and Young People’s Sense of their Futures in the Time of COVID

I am not saying that the poor cannot wish, want, need, plan, or aspire. But part of poverty is a diminishing of the circumstances in which these practices occur. If the map of aspirations (continuing the navigational metaphor) is seen to consist of a dense combination of nodes and pathways, relative poverty means a smaller number of aspirational nodes and a thinner, weaker sense of the pathways from concrete wants to intermediate contexts to general norms and back again.

(Appadurai 2004, p.69)

Arjun Appadurai is a prominent Indian-American anthropologist and sociologist. One of his most significant essays is titled The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition.

In the essay Appadurai develops an argument that in order to understand the continuation of extreme poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation, and why people who live in these conditions appear – to some commentators, politicians and communities – not to ‘aspire’ for a ‘better life’, then we need to shift focus from the individual and their ‘failings’.

In this theme we examine in greater detail how Appadurai’s ideas about the capacity to aspire suggest to us that we need to shift our focus from the ‘aspirations’ of individual young people who might be marginalised, disengaged or from an area of historical disadvantage – and how we might ‘fix’ their misaligned sense of the future.

In addition, we want to suggest that to be ‘aspirational’ can be understood as a ‘moral disposition’ that young people should develop to relationships between their pasts, presents and futures.

A moral disposition that is accompanied by an obligation to imagine these futures in large part through the framework and ideas of significant ‘others’ – families, adults, teachers, schools, governments, businesses, communities.

In this sense, young people’s aspirations, their ability to be ‘aspirational’, is largely understood in terms of education, training and employment pathways – which are imagined as being more or less ‘linear’, and with some ‘end point’ in mind, where they have become ‘aligned’ with the ‘ dream jobs of the future’ (OECD 2020).

Given some of the aspirations that young people have expressed here, what might be some things that are ‘absent’ in this imagining of ‘aspiration’, and how might they be useful in different programs, projects, and contexts in Greater Geelong?

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II – Young People’s Mental Health and Well-being

COVID-19 (45.7%), the environment (38.0%) and equity and discrimination (35.4%) topped the key issues in 2021 that young people feel Australia must address.

“These responses are given in the context of a crescendo of public dialogue accompanying national and international events such as COVID-19 lockdowns and outbreak responses, climate change campaigns, extreme weather events such as bushfires, drought and floods, and the Black Lives Matter movement,” Mr Toomey said.

For the first time, COVID-19 is most important national issue according to young people, rising from second place in 2020 (38.8%) to the top spot in 2021 (45.7%) – an increase of 18%. Survey responses reveal the pandemic and associated public health responses had a negative effect on young people’s health, wellbeing and education in 2021.

Young people said COVID-19 and the related lockdowns had adversely impacted their ability to participate in activities (68.3%), their education(62.3%) and mental health (50.3%). Female and gender diverse respondents reported feeling much more impacted by COVID-19 across almost all areas when compared with male respondents. (Mission Australia REVEALED: Young people’s top issues and concerns in 2021)


Throughout the different waves and stages and responses to the pandemic there has been much commentary about the impacts of the crisis on the health and well-being of young people, including from agencies such as the National Youth Commission, YACVic and Mission Australia.

Much of that commentary has focussed on the mental health and well-being of young people as public health responses such as lockdowns, the shutting of schools, the move to online learning, and the cancellation of ‘social’ activities have meant that many young people have experienced isolation, increased anxieties and uncertainties, and more severe mental health challenges.

In this theme we are interested in thinking about how and why the term ‘mental health’ doesn’t seem to capture much of what young people are talking about – sometimes explicitly, sometimes in a ‘round-about’ sort of way – when they use terms such as: uncertainty, anxiety, angst, stress, disappointment, FOMO, ‘belonging’ (I don’t ‘fit’ at schools that are too inflexible to deal with me…), the judgement of others, being in a crisis, your troubles ‘go around the school like fire’, the difficulty of being able to ‘switch off’, wanting (hoping) to be listened to, looking for people who genuinely care inside and outside of school, being able to ‘just breathe’,…

All of these things shape the way that young people imagine themselves, their pasts, their presents, their futures. How they belong…or not. What they ‘aspire’ to do, to be, to become.

COVID-19 is the example par excellence of the need to view health and well-being in alternative modes/models.

In this context we want to introduce the idea of socio-ecological understandings of young people’s lives, their health and well-being, their ‘aspirations’.


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III – Young People’s Voices and Participation and the Beginnings of ‘Co-Design’

In a recent book – Youth rising?: The politics of youth in the global economy – Mayssoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock (2014, p. 143) reflect on the problematic character of young people’s voices and participation in movements against such things as the climate crisis, war and racism, and their encounters with the institutionalised promise of ‘youth participation’:

In many of these movements…young participants are quite likely to find themselves not embraced by the youth voice, youth participation and youth empowerment forums and frameworks that are now being promoted by global elites and their representative organizations, but rather to be standing on the outside, having to fight hard and shout loud for a hearing for the alternative futures that they are struggling collectively to win.

(2014, p. 143)

Almost universally – in ‘youth’ education, training and employment, health, housing, gender and sexuality, CALD, rural and regional policy and service delivery – the very idea of youth voice, participation and ‘agency’ is an uncontested ‘good’ (thing). At the same time, what this ‘good idea’ looks like in everyday practice – as Sukarieh and Tannock are suggesting, and as many of the young people in this project (and other projects we have undertaken) are suggesting –  seems to be a more contested thing.

In this theme we are interested in taking up the challenge that comes from listening to and trying to understand the concerns that many young people have about ‘having a voice’, and having that voice ‘listened to’ and ‘acted upon’ in spaces and by people who can have impacts on the circumstances that shape their lives.

At the same time we are interested in taking up another challenge, one that relates to which young people have a voice.

Why do some young people appear not to have the capability or the opportunity on an ongoing basis to have a say on the circumstances that shape their lives?

Why do many young people appear not to be ‘active stakeholders’ in their own futures?

What practices and interventions might be possible to change these dynamics? What might the idea, principles and practice of ‘co-design’ offer to these practices and interventions?

Principles of Co-design. (Source: Ingrid Burkett <a href="">An Introduction to Co-design</a>, p.5)

Principles of Co-design. (Source: Ingrid Burkett An Introduction to Co-design, p.5)

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Your Contribution..

Before you respond, please read the Participant Information Consent Form (Stakeholders) to give your consent to participate in the research.

Please address the following during your video responses:

  1. Who are you? Tell us about your organisation / role / background in youth services, schools, or policy in the Geelong region.
  2. Given the sorts of challenges that we have seen over the past few years – What do you see as some of the biggest issues that young people in Geelong currently face?
  3. Given the themes introduced in this project – What sort of things to do you want to say to the young people involved in this project? These may be used in the 2nd round of interviews with these young people.
  4. Is there anything else that you would like to say – or that has been missed or overlooked in this project? You may have some ideas about future directions for this project.


Respond here