COVID-19 and Disadvantaged Young People’s Education and Employment Aspirations: A Longitudinal Study of Young People’s Transitions in Geelong.
The Young People’s Sustainable Futures Lab is delivering a 3 year project which provides Geelong region stakeholders with an evidence base to foster the education and employment aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the wake of a COVID-19 youth labour market crisis. This evidence is contributing to regional, state, national and international debates about the challenges and opportunities that emerge for young people’s education, training and employment pathways at the convergence of the 6th Mass Extinction and the 4th Industrial Revolution – the convergence ‘between an advanced knowledge economy, which perpetuates patterns of discrimination and exclusion, and the threat of climate change devastation for both human and non-human entities’ (Braidotti 2019).
One of the ways in which we are doing this is by conducting video interviews with a diverse group of young people in Geelong, including many young people who can be identified as marginalised, disengaged or living with historical disadvantage – although what this means, or what the consequences of this might be, cannot be assumed to be either uniform or known in advance.
In a series of three blogs we want to first tell a version of Madeline’s story, then Marisa’s (these stories have been co-produced with Madeline and Marisa). In the final blog, we will develop an analysis of what these stories provoke us to think about, and how the stories can make a productive contribution about young people’s hopes and aspirations in post-pandemic Geelong.
During 2021, when we first met her, and in the midst of the public health lockdowns of that time, Madeline was 17 years old and completing VCE whilst working a casual job at a local supermarket. She was also a member of the City of Greater Geelong’s Youth Council. For Madeline the challenge of living in COVID times was that the normal patterns of daily life had been disrupted:
Life at the moment’s in and out of lockdowns, not going to school, not being able to see friends, not being able to communicate [with] others, not being able to be in real life, in our real life.
Madeline recognised that young people were under immense pressure to transition to remote learning arrangements in a more or less seamless fashion:
I feel that I’m behind in school as well because of the remote learning. It’s really hard to get used to and, you know, I feel that people expect all of us to be able to transition well to remote learning. But it just doesn’t work like that. They don’t understand how hard it is to focus on schoolwork when there’s so much around you, when you’re not in a proper classroom, when you don’t have communication between people your age. You’re in your bedroom, doing school work at home. And there’s a teacher talking to you through a screen. And they can’t see you either.
Perhaps because of her role as a member of the Geelong Youth Council Madeline was able to situate her individual experience in the context of broader currents of change, and to observe the ripple effects of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns on the wider Geelong community:
I don’t know if I’m going to be at school next year… my life at the moment I see as pretty good, pretty well off, compared to others. But it is challenging and everyone is challenging at the moment, in Geelong especially. Like we’ve seen everybody’s lives be changed because of all the lockdowns we’ve been in and out of.
While Madeline recognises the increasing uncertainty that characterises life in the pandemic, making it difficult to develop goals for the future, in five years time she sees herself working as a teacher, and striving to provide the kinds of support that she sees as lacking for young people today:
I see myself doing teaching because I want to be able to support children that experience something that’s tough in their life. And I want to be able to help them through that.
And going through online learning myself, I know how things can be really difficult and I think everybody needs some support some time.
Madeline reflected that her casual job working in a supermarket allowed her to develop skills for the ‘real-life world’, such as ‘working with customers and how to talk appropriately to others’, that would benefit her future career prospects. However, she recognised that other young people in Geelong were perhaps not so fortunate as to have the kinds of opportunities she did:
I feel that the employment in Geelong really needs to become better. And there’s just not enough employment…
So I work in a supermarket and I guess you would say that they do employ a lot of young people. But what about those that are between 20 and 30? They always say no, because of their age…
I guess you’d say – two 15 year olds are the price of one twenty year old. And, you know, when you think about it, you’d employ two 15 year olds because, twice the work, same price as a 20 year old. Whereas these 20 year olds have finished school, but now want to develop the skills for their future, after they’ve had their education. And this is what needs to be focused on.
Madeline was troubled by what she saw as the absence of young people’s voices in processes of local decision-making. Furthermore, she recognised that the work of rebuilding society in the aftermath of COVID-19 requires a collective effort, meaning that the voices and opinions of young people need to be taken into account:
See, the future of Geelong, I see it being really good and everything, but I feel that it’s up to us to make change. But we can’t make the change, because I feel that adults don’t want to hear young people’s voices because they believe that our voices and our opinions don’t really count, I guess you can say, even though they do.
And I think we all need to work together to be able to, you know, see a good future for Geelong. Especially after COVID, and to rebuild it and to make it stronger. But how can we do that when not everybody’s working together?
An issue that Madeline is particularly passionate about is mental health, in particular, the stigma around mental health issues and the lack of appropriate support services for young people. This is an issue that she sees has become especially acute during the pandemic:
Mental health in Geelong, at the moment, especially during COVID-19, isn’t great. Throughout my high school life, especially during these past two years, I’ve seen so many people lose their lives.
She suggests that young people are often afraid to speak up and admit they are struggling because of the stigma around mental health issues:
A friend said to me, you can’t go to the school counsellor – You’ll get judged, and it will go around the school like fire. That should not be happening. It should be normal to go get help and to go ask for help. But this is what is happening in Geelong schools and probably schools all around Australia.
Even when young people did make contact with support services, wait times to access these services often proved to be a barrier to young people getting the support they needed in a timely fashion. Madeline reflected that if this state of affairs did not change, the consequences would continue to be dire:
There should be so many more services out there to help young people in Geelong. Or this is going to get worse and worse. And by not focusing on it I think so many lives are going to be lost. And this is going to make Geelong a place known for this, because there won’t be enough services open. And who wants to lose family and friends? COVID’s been enough for us – mental health needs to get focused on as well.