What Matters? Analysing and recognising the voices of young Australians

At a time where Australian democracy is under significant pressure, it is more important than ever to understand young people’s views on social and political issues – and consider what they mean for governance and public policy. Enhancing research that can inform policies to enable youth participation will strengthen the relationship young people have with public life, their citizenship, and encourage institutional engagement with youth perspectives on the global challenges we face in the next few decades.

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that young people should be involved in decisions that affect them and research shows that despite common perceptions young people are interested and engaged in contemporary politics (Collin & McCormack, 2020). They express this interest in various ways, and the complexity of young people’s views on pressing challenges we face as communities and societies needs acknowledgement and further investigation.

Since 2004, the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University has run a writing competition for Australian students posing the question What Matters? Since it began, more than 30,000 entries have been received. In 2019/2020 we were commissioned to develop a methodology and conduct an analysis of these essays to investigate what young people write about, how they conceptualise different issues of concern and what their perspectives tell us about the nature of contemporary ‘youthful politics’.

Using a combination of text mining, content and discourse analysis, we have found that when given opportunities to speak, young people express opinions on the social and political issues that affect them, their communities, Australia and the world. They engage carefully with the subjects of their writing and have views on what could be done to address the problems and concerns they identify. They are invested in the politics of care and social change and want dialogues with the diverse political actors they believe are part of that change.

What are young Australians writing about?

Young people are engaging with ideas about what makes for a good society and the kinds of civic and political actions, communities and institutions they believe should support this. Young people are aware of their own position as citizens, individuals, and humans. Their writing reflects the tensions they experience as they navigate changing social and environmental landscapes. These tensions often express their sense of place in the world though concepts such as identity and belonging, but also the inclusion of other people, species, ideas and norms in the world. The ‘others’ they write about (that is, not themselves) come in many different forms: sometimes the nation, sometimes their family and friends. Over time we see, increasingly, the ‘other’ that young people write about is the natural environment, water, animals, air and food.

Their writing shows a distinctly political character, especially when they address environmental and social concerns. Over time the essays explore global climate change and Australia’s role in addressing it and the problems it is creating. These discussions often intersect with those about creating a better world, being more mindful of resource uses and the impact of humans on the environment around them. The future is a major concern for young people and many write about the intersections and relationships between environmental and social issues. For example, economic development, eradicating poverty and the need to address Global Warming are often discussed in the same essay. They are not seen as separate issues, but issues which need to be addressed in a way that recognizes how they are linked.

Similarly, essays include discussions about future generations and human legacies. Young people of all ages often include calls to action in their essays. Taking action is framed as ‘making a difference’ with consequences for future generations and as necessary for people of all ages. Taking action is also framed though discussions around government and responsibility. More than ‘individualised’ responsibility, What Matters? finalists reflect a strong sense of ‘shared responsibility’ that underscores norms consistent with the idea of ‘network governance’ – where people, civil society groups, business and government all have a role in identifying and developing responses to complex social problems.

Young people also express a concern for Australia as a nation, as a people and as a country in relation to other parts of the globe. Entrants are concerned about what Australia stands for, its future position in the world, and the need for Australia to exercise leadership on environmental, economic and humanitarian challenges. Their writing shows that they are aware and ready to consider changes that society needs for a more equitable and sustainable future. They consider issues that we face at both local and global levels and reflect that young people want governments to play a key role in addressing these issues and working with others to achieve positive change.

Young people have primarily taken a social perspective across the essays, and that social perspective includes issues germane to politics at that time, such as refugees, detention centres and the rights of children. We also see them writing about intergenerational issues that are of concern generally to people and communities such as age, death, smoking and cancer and the roles they should play as individuals when facing challenging global issues.

The analysis shows that young people are an untapped resource for Australian democracy – not for what they will become as adults, but because of their concerns and ideas on social issues and how they can be addressed right now. Their writing indicates that the civic norms and political values held by many Australian young people are not yet reflected in mainstream political cultures or current institutions and processes of democracy. In their writing young people reflect participatory, deliberative and reflexive norms and hopes for a form of democracy that is more intergenerational.

While young people under the age of 18 represent about 25% of the Australian population, they are rarely viewed as active participants and key constituents of Australian democracy. Despite more than two decades of research arguing for recognition of youth political practices and the ways existing discourses and social processes impact on how they are constructed as citizens, young Australians continue to be positioned as future citizens and citizens-in-training. Our analysis confirms that, by contrast, many school students are interested in diverse issues, democratic processes and institutions -and that political parties, politicians, policy makers and educators need to better recognise and respond to children and young people’s perspectives in Australian democracy.

To read more about this research click here.

Sky Hugman is a lecturer at Western Sydney University. Her latest project explores how artists, sociologists and curators can link art-based practice, sociological research, and curatorial activism to address wicked problems. The outcomes of this project will be explored during Art Month 2021 at Lane Cove Gallery.

Pip Collin is Associate Professor in the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. She co-Directs the Young and Resilient Research Centre and is author of Young Citizens and Political Participation in Digital Society: Addressing the Democratic Disconnect (2015) and Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (with Third, Walsh and Black) (2019).