Image credit Meave Noonan

In previous posts on this blog, we introduced the stories of Madeline and Marisa, two of the young people participating in our project COVID-19 and Disadvantaged Young People’s Education and Employment Aspirations: A Longitudinal Study of Young People’s Transitions in Geelong. In 2021, Madeline and Marisa were both 17 years old, and entering the final years of their secondary schooling.

In this post I will develop a discussion around some of the important themes that emerge from Madeline and Marisa’s stories. As Madeline highlighted when we spoke with her, the question of how young people will obtain skills for the ‘real-life world’ when ‘there’s just not enough employment’ is a very real dilemma. And as Marisa indicates, schools continue to emphasise the ATAR score as the key barometer of educational success in the senior secondary years, and this is problematic for a number of reasons. As she says, schools ‘usually act like VCE and getting an ATAR score is the be-all and end-all, and it honestly doesn’t seem that way’. Marisa speaks to the pressure placed on young people to pursue the high school certificate, the ATAR and university studies when it might not be the right fit for them, when they are aware that the academic path does not necessarily confer skills for the ‘real-life world’. It is something of a contradiction that in the 21st century, young people are exhorted to be and become ‘lifelong learners’ and yet education systems continue to place pressure on young people in the senior secondary years to make definitive decisions about their education and employment futures.

In a previous post on this blog, Aspiration and Young People’s Sense of their Futures in the Time of COVID, Peter Kelly argues that 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 ‘jobs of the future’ (OECD 2020).

In Australia, ‘disadvantaged’ young people are more likely to aspire to pursue job and career choices that are of a higher risk of automation than young people of high socio-economic status, and around 27% of high-performing, disadvantaged students surveyed did not expect to complete tertiary education (OECD 2020, p.32).

The OECD (2020, p.6) understands these young people as being ‘negatively misaligned. That is to say, the level of education and qualification to which they aspire is lower than that typically required of their occupational goal’.

In The Capacity to Aspire Arjun Appadurai argues that in order to understand the continuation of poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation, we need to shift focus from the individual and their ‘failings’, and to think about the ways in which a person or community’s social, cultural and economic circumstances can produce particular ‘orientations to the future’. Indeed, ‘place’ – the particular place in which the young person is embedded – is a significant factor shaping the young person’s capacity to aspire. Since the 1980s, the impacts of deindustrialisation, industry restructuring policies and economic recessions have hit places like Geelong particularly hard.

The early- to mid-20th century were boom times for Geelong. This regional city boasted an array of industrial manufacturing operations, including oil refining, aluminium smelting, car manufacturing and glass making, as well as a significant textile and clothing industry – a strong industrial economic base that afforded high rates of labour market participation across the age ranges. Such was the mood of optimism surrounding Geelong’s manufacturing sector in the mid-20th century that it was thought that employees of companies such as International Harvester and the Ford Motor Company could be assured of a ‘job for life’.

However, the closure of International Harvester in 1982 signalled the beginning of challenging times for Geelong, as the Ford Motor Company, another major employer in Geelong, began its long wind-down. At the Australian Federal government level, the Hawke Labor Government, with Paul Keating as Treasurer, floated the Australian dollar in 1983, reduced tariff protection of domestic industries, and instituted a range of other reforms – changes which, for better or worse, opened Australia up to global forces.

In Geelong, as the local economy was buffeted by a recession precipitated by the collapse of the Pyramid Building Society, opportunities for young people wishing to pursue vocational training pathways after leaving school were growing increasingly scarce. While the Ford Motor Company remained the major employer of skilled trades persons in the Geelong region, a 1991 report in the Geelong Advertiser noted that the number of first-year apprenticeship positions in the region had effectively halved between 1990 and 1991, in large part as a result of Ford’s downsizing (Busfield 1991, p.1). This precipitous decline reflected a broader trend that had been underway for some time. At the 1983 National Economic Summit convened by the newly elected Hawke Labor Government, Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Susan Ryan, had noted with alarm that the forecast for the number of new apprentices in 1982-83 was 25 per cent lower than previous projections (Ryan 1983, cited in Watkins 1984, p.5). She expressed concern about the risk of economic marginalisation of Australia’s young people in the context of a contracting youth labour market.


With youth unemployment peaking at levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, Australia confronted the problem of what to do with the surplus of potentially ‘idle’ young people. It was in this context that ‘warehousing’ emerged as a solution to the growing problem of young people not engaged in education, training or employment (a category that in more recent times has come to be known by the abbreviation ‘NEETs’- and maligned by policymakers and some commentators). A variety of youth transition and youth training programs proliferated at this time, and official targets for the increase in rates of post-compulsory education participation were established – measures that were intended to facilitate the ‘warehousing’, in education and training programs, of young people who would otherwise be classified as unemployed, though this intention was never explicitly stated by policymakers (Watkins 1984, pp.25-26).

Significantly, a series of important discursive shifts also occurred at this time. The new labour market and education discourses gave much greater prominence to the concepts of ‘employability skills’ and ‘human capital’. Employability skills, defined as that set of competencies, skills and dispositions understood as essential for successful participation in the world of work (ILO 2000), was articulated in Australia through three key programmatic documents published in the 1990s: the Finn, Mayer and Carmichael Reports. Forming a comprehensive agenda for reform of Australian post-compulsory education and training policy, these reports advocated for a greater convergence of general and vocational education, and established a set of national performance targets for rates of young people’s educational attainment and participation, boosting the numbers of 15- to 19-year-olds completing post-compulsory education and training. Importantly, the Finn, Mayer and Carmichael Reports argued that the content of education and training programs should be oriented towards the development of ‘key competencies’ that would foster young people’s ‘employability’ (Finn 1991; Mayer Committee 1992; ESFC 1992).

‘Human capital’ had emerged as significant in the context of the Accord politics advocated by the Hawke Labor Government in the 1980s. The Accord was a distinctive approach to economic policymaking that was forged in response to two key imperatives: first, the need to lift Australia out of the economic recession in which it had been mired for roughly a decade; and second, the need to establish the international competitiveness of Australia’s economy as protectionist industry policies were abandoned. Policymakers sought a greater role for ‘human capital’ in these processes of ‘nation building’. As Prime Minister Bob Hawke stated in 1984, ‘as a nation we must be prepared to invest heavily in human skills. The more efficient use of our human resources will enhance prospects for achieving economic recovery’ (Hawke 1984, cited in Bessant 1988, p.25).

The discourses of ‘employability skills’ and ‘human capital’ ensured that, against the background of a youth labour market that was changing, even ‘collapsing’, young people were to be understood as the architects of their own opportunity structures. In the 21st century, processes of economic restructuring have continued to transform the social fabric of Australia’s industrial towns and cities, and their counterparts across the OECD and EU. Entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity have increasingly been understood as critical factors in the economic recovery of these ‘Rust Belt’ places, and in the employment futures of the young people who live in them. Many of the concerns of ‘employability skills’ have been carried over into the concept of ‘enterprise skills’ – an agenda concerned with promoting the ‘transferable skills’ that it is suggested young people will need to navigate 21st century labour markets transformed by the dynamics of globalisation and digital disruption (FYA 2016).

In recent decades, school retention rates to Year 12 have risen exponentially, and more young people are obtaining tertiary-level qualifications than ever before. In this sense, today’s young people are some of the most educated in history. Yet, this does not necessarily translate into better labour market outcomes for young people.

What does, and should, ‘general’ and ‘vocational’ education and training look like in the 21st century? Should education systems continue to default to the official markers of educational success such as the ATAR, and remain focused on preparing young people’s human capital and skills for the market economy? Even when young people’s participation in these markets is increasingly precarious and uncertain? And when the logic underpinning these markets, that of profit maximisation, continues to take precedence over meaningful action towards protecting the wellbeing of humans, other species, and the planet?

Or should education systems move away from a narrow focus on young people’s ‘employability’, and instead support young people to develop broader life skills and capacities for wellbeing and resilience, as well as their collective capabilities to navigate the economic, environmental and societal ‘disruptions’ they will face into the future? These are just some of the questions, ambiguities and contradictions that emerge in relation to young people and education in the 21st century, at the convergence of the 6th Mass Extinction and the 4th Industrial Revolution.


Bessant, J 1988, ‘Meeting the demands of the corporate sector—unemployment, education and training ‘, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 12, no. 22, pp. 19-29.

Busfield, W 1991, ‘Apprentice numbers are halved’, Geelong Advertiser, 23 April, p.1.

ESFC (Employment and Skills Formation Council) 1992, The Australian Vocational Certificate Training System, National Board of Employment, Education and Training & Employment and Skills Formation Council, Canberra.

Finn, B (Chair) 1991, Young people’s participation in post-compulsory education and training: report of the Australian Education Council Review Committee, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

FYA 2016, The New Basics: Big data reveals the skills young people need for the New Work Order, FYA, Melbourne.

ILO (International Labour Organisation) 2000, Report V: Training for employment: social inclusion, productivity and youth employment: Human resources training and development: Vocational guidance and vocational training, ILO, Geneva.

MacDonald, R 2011, ‘Youth transitions, unemployment and underemployment: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?’, Journal of Sociology, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 427-444.

Mayer Committee 1992, Key competencies: report of the Committee to advise the Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training on employment-related key competencies for postcompulsory education and training, Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training, Canberra.

Watkins, PE 1984, Youth, schooling and work: policy and transition, Deakin University, Victoria.