Issues Magazine

Active Citizenship: Risk or Opportunity for Young People?

By Rosalyn Black

Young people are often held up as our hope for the future, the ones who will protect our democracies and spearhead better social and environmental practices. At the same time, they are subject to a pervasive risk discourse and to a range of mechanisms designed more to govern and control them than to learn from them or let them lead.

Welcome to the Risk Society
Like other western societies, contemporary Australia is frequently described as a “risk society”. Coined by sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992), the risk society is a metaphor for life in the modern era. It depicts this era as one in which the traditions and social structures that previously shaped individual experience and identity have largely evaporated. Rather than being an inheritance that arises from one’s role, family or position in society, identity is now understood to be the result of a process of autonomous, individualised, reflexive self-creation. Individuals have effectively become the authors of their own lives, responsible for crafting their own biographies. In the words of another leading sociologist, Anthony Giddens, “we are, not what we are, but what we make of ourselves” (1991).

This sounds a lot like freedom, but it is a chequered freedom accompanied by risk. If individuals have to navigate their own lives, they also have to negotiate the many risks that arise from life in a complex and rapidly changing world. This is a world where both the signposts and the goalposts are constantly being moved, so that the strategies and choices that guarantee safe passage at any one time may not do so later. It is also a world in which individuals, including young people, are held responsible for their own success and accountable for their own failure.

Protecting the Future
While human life can be said to have always been risky, the risks of the modern era cross both space and time.

They cross space because, in many instances, they are global risks. They are globally produced: they may be the result of economic arrangements and agreements that have done away with the previous, relative independence of nation states. They are also globally experienced: global warming, and the changing climatic patterns arising from it, do not respect borders. They cross time because their effects are as likely to be felt in the future as they are in the present.

The sense of uncertainty that arises from these risks permeates our lives. While modern society is not necessarily more dangerous than previous societies, it is more preoccupied with the future and the dangers that it might bring. One of its effects is that government has become extremely concerned with minimising risk and securing the future. Modern policy-making is predicated on a risk-factor approach that analyses the current behaviours and circumstances of individuals and groups in order to predict – and then seek to prevent – future social and economic problems.

Because young people will occupy the future, they are a particular target of policies that seek to control future risk. Education is one of the primary means by which governments seek to provide this protection. While education has always been an attempt, in one way or another, to prepare young people to participate in and to maintain a stable democratic society, modern schooling is particularly preoccupied with the preparation of young people for a volatile and uncertain future. This is expected to include complex economic circumstances such as globalised economies and internationalised employment, which may dramatically reshape the working lives of today’s young people. It is also expected to hold hair-raising health and environmental dangers such as water and energy shortages, global warming and lethal pandemics, as well as dangerous political contexts such as national and international security threats and global conflict.

Youth as Risk
Increasingly, then, young people are portrayed as hedged about by external dangers. They are portrayed as subjects of risk. At the same time they are themselves described as sources of risk.

Youth as a social group has always been subject to both positive and negative stereotypes. On the positive side, young people are frequently described as our hope for the future. In fact, this idea is so prevalent in the public culture that the phrase “young people hope for the future” exists as its own frequently used set of words in Google. Entering this phrase brings up no fewer than 143 million references.

At the same time, young people are seen as a risk to the future. Australian sociologists Dan Woodman and Johanna Wyn have suggested that “youth is a site for the expression of anxiety about the future and about social change”. This not a new phenomenon: another Australian sociologist, Peter Kelly, notes that “youth has historically occupied the ‘wild zones’ in modernity’s imagination”. It is a phenomenon that is showing no signs of lessening, however. As a result, it has now become commonplace for policies related to young people’s lives, such as education policy, to model the risks that young people are perceived to represent and to promote strategies to reduce those risks.

Caught In-Between
Youth is constructed as an inherently risky stage of life. This shows itself in numerous ways.

Childhood is widely accepted to be a dependent, vulnerable state, and children are understood to require both care and protection. Adulthood is depicted as the normal or normative human condition: adults are understood to be responsible citizens capable of managing their own lives and of contributing to society in fruitful and meaningful ways. Youth sits uncomfortably between these two places. Young people are no longer children but not yet adults. Instead, they are frequently positioned as incipient adults, or adults in waiting. This renders them vulnerable to numerous accusations of risk.

This is first because of what it is feared they might do – or not do – while this making is in train. Young people are frequently portrayed as only semi-civilised beings who may demonstrate any number of undesirable social behaviours while they are in transition from childhood to adulthood.

It is secondly because this transition may not occur in ways that are judged to be successful or that guarantee socially productive outcomes. Young people may not complete their schooling. They may not gain full-time employment. They may not make a full contribution to the national economy.

Youth is also seen as risky because of the dangers that confront or surround young people. The communique of one Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, in 2009, describes the risky behaviours and conditions that are associated with young Australians. These include poor mental health, binge drinking, alcohol-fuelled violence and assault. While such conditions clearly require both policy recognition and a policy response, one of the messages that emerges from such texts is that young people are either, as sociologist Ani Wierenga has noted, “the problem or the ones with the problem” (original italics).

This equation between youth and risk has given rise to a raft of policies designed to control young people’s actions and choices. These policies are often described as attempts to keep young people safe in a dangerous world, but a more critical analysis suggests that they are also motivated by the view that young people themselves represent a danger to society. This is what American cultural critic Henry Giroux has called the “assault against youth”. It is an approach that is particularly prevalent in education policy as it relates to young people’s role as citizens.

The development of young people’s capacity for citizenship is an important aspect of governments’ efforts to manage future risk. The past two decades have seen a deep, global concern about civic stability and cohesion, the fragility of democratic systems and the declining political engagement of citizens. This was sparked during the 1990s by the decline of longstanding regimes, especially in Europe, and the emergence of new and sometimes unstable political systems. It has subsequently been fuelled by widespread civic unrest and rebellion, most recently in the Middle East, constantly amplified threats of terrorism and climate change, and the erosion of economic stability across many nations. As a result, a concern with the democratic participation of citizens continues to be a central component of contemporary public policy across the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe and Australia.

This concern frequently focuses on young people, sparking a series of reviews and inquiries into their civic and political behaviour and their attitudes and capabilities for citizenship. These reviews typically conclude that young people are apathetic and disengaged, that they lack important civic and political knowledge, and that they make a lesser contribution to society than older citizens.

Education is one of the most regularly recommended forms of remediation for this alleged democratic deficit. As a result, the past decade in Australia, as well as in comparable countries, has seen the development of extensive government policies on education for citizenship and the creation of programs to enact those policies. Much of this activity continues to be motivated by the belief that schools need to counter young people’s apathy, yet there is plenty of evidence that young people are anything but apathetic.

Revising the Risk
A recent book by myself and my colleague at the Foundation for Young Australians, Lucas Walsh, shows that young people are participating creatively in their schools, driving action within their communities and leading initiatives for widespread social change. It also shows that they are forging their own particular forms of participation in ways that redefine active citizenship. At the same time, the emerging findings of my PhD thesis illustrate the socio-economic and other constraints that continue to exist within the lives of many young people, and the way in which this limits or reduces their capacity to shape their own lives, or shape society, in the way that they are expected to.

Research shows that, as a group, young people from low socio-economic backgrounds typically demonstrate less civic knowledge than their peers and are less likely to have faith in civic and political institutions. They are less likely to feel able to participate in society and less likely to believe that their participation would be valued. They are also less likely to have access to the opportunities, including the educational opportunities, that encourage participation.

To alter this situation, fundamental changes are needed in the way in which Australian schools understand and approach young people’s role in society, and in the opportunities they offer young people to participate in and influence that society. Change is also needed to the way in which Australian schooling itself reflects, reinforces and perpetuates socio-economic inequality. Without these changes, significant groups of young people will continue to be exposed not only to the accusation of being risky, but to the real risks that come with marginalisation and exclusion.