Insights into youth social futures

Insights into youth social futures

The Social Futures and Life Pathways (“Our Lives”) Project is one of the largest and longest-running longitudinal studies of young people underway in Australia. It is also one of the most comprehensive, with its broad focus on young people’s changing experiences of educational, workforce, partnering, family and housing transitions in early adulthood. It is led by Monash University (Prof. Zlatko Skrbis) in collaboration with The University of Tasmania (Prof. Bruce Tranter) and The University of Queensland (Dr. Cameron Parsell).

Our Lives began tracking a cohort of over 7,000 young people from Queensland, Australia in 2006 when they began high school and were aged 12/13 years. It combines large scale survey research with in-depth qualitative interviewing to assess how global uncertainty and social traditions, institutions and inequalities structure the life pathways of young people in Australia. Surveys are conducted every two years, with the most recent Wave 6 survey completed in 2017 when respondents were aged 23/24 years old.

While it can be difficult to retain research participants over such a long and often highly mobile period in young people’s lives, the Our Lives team have worked hard to keep sample members engaged and interested in the research. These efforts appear to have gradually paid off, as 12 years since the project began, over one third of the original sample still remain active participants in the study. As one respondent notes: 

While I didn’t grasp the significance of the project while I was in high school, I now see the value in the data and the shifts in patterns from my cohort and how they could impact on society as a whole.

In 2016, 28 of the Our Lives participants took part in a special qualitative study undertaken by Monash University’s Professor Zlatko Skrbis and Dr Jacqueline Laughland-Booy, in partnership with The University of Queensland psychologist Peter Newcombe. They explored the participants' experiences of identity development in romantic relationship formation, and found that some were choosing an “identity hiatus” due to external pressures. If love makes the world go around, what does this mean?

Dr Jacqueline Laughland-Booy explains:

Psychological theory suggests young people undergo a process of identity exploration and commitment in different life domains. We suggest some young people who have commenced this process are then choosing to put it ‘on hold’ (hiatus) rather than find themselves in a position where they are forced to make an identity commitment before they have fully explored their options. For instance, when it came to their romantic relationships, we found that those who had entered this hiatus did so because they didn’t want their explorations to upset or disappoint people close to them, such as their parents.

In recent news, the first same-sex marriage weddings have been taking place around Australia since marriage equality passed into law in late 2017. While younger people overwhelmingly supported this change, are young men and women equally accepting of diversity in this area? A recent Our Lives report showed that whilst there has been a rapid increase in support for marriage equality and egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles in recent times, males have displayed lower support than females. Why is this?  

Dr Jonathan Smith explains:

Young men are often more rigidly socialised into dominant gender norms than young women. Male homophobia may be one consequence of greater pressure on men to establish their ‘masculinity’ and differentiate themselves from ‘feminine’ traits/behaviours. For example, research has found that heterosexual men tend to hold more negative views of gay men than heterosexual women do of lesbian women.

Nonetheless, Dr Smith noted that young men and women tend overall to be more pragmatic and egalitarian about the meaning of marriage and gender roles – hence their higher levels of support for non-traditional arrangements such as cohabitation and same-sex marriage when compared against all other birth cohorts.

With the younger generations key to our future, what about their career prospects? Outcomes from interviews in 2009 and 2010 by Jacqueline Laughland-Booy, Margery Mayall and Zlatko Skrbis found that privileged young people might follow career pathways based on social norms rather than ability whereas young people from less privileged backgrounds showed greater flexibility and forethought when creating their future plans.

Dr Jacqueline Laughland-Booy states,

The most common example is young people from more privileged backgrounds being expected to go to university even if they have skills and interests in other areas, or are not academically strong. Young people from less privileged backgrounds tend to consider a much broader range of options relevant to their skills and interests. They also tended to have more contingency plans in place if their plan was to fail.

The 2016 Census reminded us that Australia, more than ever before, is an immigrant nation with around 1 in every 4 Australians now born overseas. Running parallel with Australia’s latest social cohesion report, findings from Our Lives on attitudes towards multiculturalism are consistent.  Survey results from the former show that strong agreement that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia” has increased from 32% in 2013 to 41%-43% in 2015-2017, while the latter found an increasing percentage of youth, from 63% in 2010 to 80% in 2017, who agree that “immigrants make Australia more open to new ideas and culture.”

Commenting on younger Australians’ openness towards multiculturalism, Professor Zlatko Skrbis states:

Universities increasingly serve as a context in which young people learn about and mix with people from different cultures, and this is having an enduring impact on the attitudes and orientations of an entire generation.”

The most recent survey (Wave 6) was conducted in 2017 when the cohort was aged 23/24 years (see a snapshot of the 2017 findings), and the next survey wave is scheduled to be conducted in 2019. More details can also be found in the report, Our Lives: The First Ten Years (2006-2016).

Study at Monash