Opinions about young people and their situation today vary from the very optimistic to the deeply pessimistic. Depending on the evidence and the perspective, young people are having the time of their lives - or struggling with life in their times.
The wide range of views reflects highly fragmented and narrow disciplinary research perspectives, which are usually based on a limited evidence base; an incomplete understanding of a complex picture; and ideological, generational and other sources of bias and prejudice. Often, generational differences get mixed up with age differences and changing times.
We examined these issues in a joint project between Australia 21 Ltd, a non-profit, public-interest research company, and the Australian Youth Research Centre at Melbourne University. VicHealth funded the project, which drew on contributions from many other researchers.
The project’s aim was to identify ways to help young Australians to optimise their well-being and to realise their full potential against a background of often adverse trends in their physical and psychosocial health and well-being. Health, broadly defined to include physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being, provides a valid measure or benchmark for assessing young people’s situation. But getting a good handle on it proved far from easy.
On the one hand, health, measured by life expectancy and mortality, continues to improve, mainly as a result of declines in deaths from road accidents and other injuries and, more recently, suicide and drug-related deaths. These come on top of long-term falls in infectious disease deaths. Over 80 per cent of young people say in surveys that they are healthy, happy and satisfied with their lives.
On the other, adverse trends in young people’s health range across physical problems such as obesity and inactivity to psychological problems such as depression and drug abuse, and from relatively minor but common complaints such as chronic tiredness to rare but serious problems, such as suicide. A fifth to a third of young people are experiencing significant psychological stress and distress at any one time, with some estimates of the prevalence of a more general malaise reaching 50 per cent.
Growing numbers of young people - a third of young men and a quarter of young women (aged 12-24) - are overweight or obese and inactivity has also increased, placing young people at risk of a wide range of health problems later in life, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers; there may also be effects on mental health, including through the stigmatisation of obese people.
Some of the conflicting views and contradictory evidence on young people and their world can be explained. Responses to questions about happiness and life satisfaction reflect people’s adaptability and a tendency to take their situation as a given and assess their well-being within that context. On the other hand, what researchers consider a health “problem” or “risk” is not what many young people would regard as a problem and could even be considered as part of enjoying life. For example, binge drinking and drug use can be seen as an adaptive response to life’s pressures; they are also part of the “good life” popular culture promotes.
Such considerations help to explain the findings of a recent Australian study that found that over 80 per cent of young people said they were satisfied with their lives - including lifestyle, work or study, relationships with parents and friends, accomplishments and self-perceptions - but that 50 per cent were experiencing one or more problems associated with depression, anxiety, anti-social behaviour and alcohol use.
Declining death rates, another basis for the belief that the health of youth is improving, is also an inadequate measure of overall health and well-being for reasons that include the dominant contribution of causes of death (such as vehicle accidents) that say little about overall well-being, and the chronic nature of many of the afflictions young people experience.
Even the reversals in trends in suicide and drug-related deaths within the past decade in Australia, while obviously welcome, do not necessarily mean an improvement in well-being. Continuing adverse trends in broader measures of psychological well-being, including suicidal behaviour, suggest that more young people are getting help, not that fewer now need help.
The sources of psychological and social problems in youth commonly include: difficulties with family, friends and school, including conflict, abuse, neglect and failure; dietary changes and environmental pollution; changes in adolescent transitions, including the emergence of a youth culture that separates young people from adults; socio-economic factors, such as poverty, disadvantage, inequality and unemployment; and cultural change, such as media influences and increasing individualism and materialism. These factors are not mutually exclusive, rather they represent different layers or levels of explanation that are often interrelated.