Understanding the Complexities of Youth Transitions
As young people progress into adulthood and attempt to develop a career there are several transitions that occur at different stages and times in their working lives. Sometimes transitions are relatively simple and straightforward. At other times, they are non-linear and require improvisation and negotiation. However for young Australians generally, their transitions have changed over time. The types of youth transitions experienced by their parents and grandparents are not the same as the transitions experienced by young people today.
Since the second World War, Australia and the world has seen major social, cultural and economic changes; technology is both disruptive and transformative. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were usually able to make linear transitions into employment and adulthood. A majority of young people left school at about 15 years of age and moved into apprenticeships or full-time employment. A minority completed a final matriculation year of school and went onto study at universities. The transitions for young people during these times were supported by growth in primary industry and manufacturing sectors as well as a growth in factory, office and clerical work.
There were some points of difference. Gender, social class, migration and ethnicity shaped school to work transitions, but ultimately pathways were predictable and much more clear-cut than they are today. Full-time employment was the norm as were secure working conditions that often provided the context needed to learn new skills and forge long-term careers.
In the 1980s the economy underwent a major restructure. New industries emerged as a result of the growth in retail sectors and service-based work. Credentials gained more importance and a post-secondary education became critical to careers. Governments encouraged more young people to complete secondary school in an effort to increase the knowledge and education levels of the labour force. These efforts meant young people were discouraged from seeking alternatives to traditional academic studies and from entering the workforce at an earlier age. The result was mass education and a credentialised workforce with less full-time work available.
Unlike their predecessors, in 2018, young people are required to navigate much more complex transitional terrain. It is common nowadays for young people to experience non-linear, fragmented and extended youth transitions. This is because work has changed and the conditions under which people are employed have changed.
So what are the different transitions going on in a young person’s life and how do they impact young people today?
School to work – this transition reflects an ambition in young people to move directly from school into work, and the aims of those less inclined to study at university and more inclined to learn on-the-job. This transition also includes those willing to be employed as apprentices and/or work as trainees. It also covers those willing to harness their entrepreneurial tendencies by starting a business. It does not include those who volunteer their time or participate in unpaid or underpaid internships.
School to post-secondary study – this transition represents the desires of those who wish to continue their education beyond secondary school. Young people making this transition must consider the various educational institutions available to them and the costs involved. TAFE, registered training organisations, universities and community learning centres constitute a number of options but access to campus, working commitments and courses on offer also play a role. In this sense, online education also comes under consideration and may impact this transition. In online learning settings young people often work full-time and study part-time, which means their lives hinge on the cusp between youth and adulthood.
Post-secondary to work – this transition reflects the pattern of those who have completed or partially completed post-secondary study. It requires young people to negotiate between various employment opportunities, constraints and occupational identities. Decisions may be based in the negotiation of working arrangements and conditions, whether to enter the workforce as freelancers, employees or both, and whether to work part-time, full-time and/or casually.
During this phase young people often acquaint themselves with social security and the provisions made by Centrelink, and some must learn to balance entrepreneurial desires and paid labour. Young people may also find themselves working in jobs that don’t utilise skills and/or credentials they have acquired through study or training. Instead, they may end up in areas they have no training or interest in.
Some young people find themselves working for free, volunteering or working as unpaid interns. They may have the credentials, but lack the experience needed to move into paid employment. This may even be called the ‘catch-22’ phase.
Work to work – this transition is the result of fractured employment patterns. It reflects the experiences of young people who work as freelancers or on short-term contracts and/or within the gig economy. Young people employed casually can also experience work to work transitions while managing a number of jobs at once.
Unemployment features here because the move from job-to-job isn’t always seamless. There may be regular bouts of unemployment without any social security in place to help people through low-income or no-income periods. Young people are also at risk of entering the vocational cul-de-sac during this transitional phase – meaning they enter into occupational arrangements that don’t provide much room for escape or progression. Often young people during this phase are compelled to take on increasing casualised hours, all the while chasing the jobs they truly desire or are trained to do. Young people can feel the compulsion to take whatever work comes their way in order to survive during this transition, placing them in a vicious cycle of casualised underemployment.
Work to study – this transition is reflects people who have reached a “career plateau” or find themselves in jobs that don’t fulfil them or in jobs that require new skills in order to progress their careers. These days, this can occur in the early stages of working life as many young people feel the compulsion to do the type of work that makes them happy or helps them to be socially mobile. Studying also provides access to financial subsidies because young people who study are in a better position to apply for benefits. Youth Allowance for example, is available to many that study, and despite its inadequacy, it is profoundly relied upon by students today.
This transition is also the result of young people not being able to access effective on-the-job training. In light of technological change, the need to reskill or upskill is an important aspect of the future workplace and the capacity to undertake training is critical to careers.
Each of these transitions occur with a similar objective in place – the objective of moving from youth into adulthood effectively. Alongside these transitions are key adulthood milestones of both progression and success including buying homes, having children, and the ability to borrow and pay off debt. Employment and adequate wages are necessary stepping-stones into adulthood and sustainable livelihoods. But in 2018, the way into employment and adulthood is complex, and requires of young people, resilience, confidence and flexibility in the face of uncertainty.