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The University of Life - now open for all young Australians

By Jan Owen - posted Thursday, 10 May 2012

In the last year, there has been strong bipartisan and community-wide support for a very significant upgrade in mental health services for young people in this country. While this is welcome, it begs the question: why are our young people in need of such services, and why at such unprecedented scales?

One contributing factor is the impact on young people of having to increasingly stay at home and/or remain reliant on the resources of their family, often into their late twenties. New neuroscience research from Berkeley and Cornell Universities on the teenage brain is providing powerful and disturbing evidence that extended youth dependency in developed countries is causing havoc with teenage brain development, contributing to the need for increased psychological and psychiatric interventions.

Among the reasons for this extended dependency is that young people have to engage in tertiary education rather than paid work; the time when formal education ceased at the end of high school is long past for most young people. While this has resulted in a generation of young people who are intellectually more knowledgeable, they have less hands-on knowledge, narrowed life experience, fewer skills learned from taking risks and, consequently, lower levels of emotional resilience.


A further factor that affects the mental wellbeing of our young people is the shockingly poor pathways for progressing from dependence to independence. For most young Australians, the rite of passage from youth to adulthood consists of a ticket to schoolies, a slab of beer and a set of car keys. This is pathetic. The weaknesses of these rites of passage are further evidenced by the very high, extraordinarily inefficient, drop-out rates of first year university students, which can be as high as 40%. What we need are rites of passage that are meaningful, significant and respectful of young people.

While Australia is doing well economically from digging stuff from the ground and flogging it furiously, the resource sector will only ever be a minor employer. Australia's future depends on having workers who can engage internationally, and especially in Asia. Yet we enter what is being dubbed the "Asian Century" with less than 6 per cent of all young Australians having participated in any form of Asian studies. This level of ignorance is absurd for a country that is actually located in Asia and whose economic future depends so heavily on engagement with its neighbours.

The picture that emerges is of a generation whose dependence is increasingly extended, who are given poor processes for transition to adulthood and who have troubling mental health concerns, all within a context of being unprepared for this "Asian Century". And this through no fault of their own.

The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) has just launched Young People Without Borders, a bold and ambitious initiative that seeks to enable young people to respond to these issues in a positive and proactive way.

Young People Without Borders has been a long time coming. For decades, political leaders of all persuasions such as Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd; public intellectuals such as Professor Hugh White from ANU, Dr Martin Seligman and Justice Michael Kirby in his review of CHOGM; as well as events like the 20/20 Summit, have all advocated for the establishment of 'youthcorps' type programs, in which young people are encouraged to volunteer and 'give back'.

Young People Without Borders is a 'youthcorps' that builds on existing initiatives, rather than reinventing wheels. It brings together a large number of existing social purpose organisations and volunteering programs, including The Smith Family, Life Without Barriers, Conservation Volunteers, the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy, Lattitude Global Volunteering and many others. Young People Without Borders is a banner and a vehicle for existing organisations to achieve collaborative impact in relation to youth volunteering and engagement in social change.


Until now, some young people, most from privileged backgrounds, have taken a 'gap year' before commencing tertiary studies - Princes William and Harry being no exceptions. Young People Without Borders builds on this momentum by transforming the notion of a 'gap year', extending it in several ways.

Firstly, the 'gap year' has been renamed a 'Start Year', since it's the first year, after the structured regimen of school life, when young people can stand on their own feet and engage with the world on their own terms. It is the start of their transition from school-age dependent to contributing adult.

Secondly, rather than filling a 'gap', Young People Without Borders is about creating a profoundly meaningful and hugely significant year in the life of a young person, where they undertake organised and supported volunteer placements for up to 12 months. Placements include teaching English, teaching sport, assisting communities and environmental work. Placements are offered both within Australia and, as a priority, the Asian region.

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About the Author

Jan Owen AM is CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians

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All articles by Jan Owen

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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