We Are Calling To Be In The Room

Sophie Johnston mid speech at Youth Futures Summit 2022

We Are Calling To Be In The Room

We often hear Australia spoken about as a lucky country and at the centre of that fortune is our democracy – the notion that each individual voice holds an important space in the decisions that are made and the representation that is exercised by the people in power. But for many years, gaps in representation have existed and expanded. Young people have been a political afterthought and social policies have been short-term or without breadth. There has been a failure to listen to the experiences of young people and heed solutions from the source.



The beginning of our working lives should be the most exciting, where we set our foundations for a rewarding, secure life. Over the last decades, they have become our most vulnerable. With little or no savings in the bank – something as incidental as a lost shift or a rent increase can completely collapse the fragile foundations we have built for ourselves. There has been a failure to build coherent transition pathways with and for young people. Often, 17, 18, and 19-year-olds who have moved out of their family home to be close to study or work will find themselves sacrificing food or their health to pay rent. Many young people are under housing stress. For a young person trying to rent a room in Canberra or Sydney, they would have to pay between 83 and 92 per cent of their Youth Allowance. In the year 2020, there were over 42,000 15 to 25-year-olds seeking support from homelessness services. This is unacceptable.



The issues facing young people are diverse. As a generation, we have been consistently generous in sharing our needs and insights – we have offered our experience and understanding of the problems so that we can help deliver the solutions. But when that offer has been refused, we have had to create our own rooms. The national Youth Futures Summit is one of those rooms. Where we can come together without condition, without short-sighted platitudes about how good we have it. It is where we can shape a future that we can genuinely look forward to. It is an exciting and important opportunity to come together to listen, understand, and contribute to a better future for young Australians.



Two years ago, we met for the inaugural Youth Futures Summit in 2020. At that time, the world was grappling with the early stages of the pandemic. Countless jobs were lost, and livelihoods became extremely uncertain. Front-line workers went to work each day surrounded by panic, abuse, and visible signs of scarcity. The pandemic itself did not discriminate and its effects were felt deeply and widely across communities. However, it did highlight the gaping structural holes in our systems – the brunt of which were borne by the most vulnerable. In the workforce, the first jobs lost were those dominated by insecure, casual workers in industries with a track record of exploitation. With the lockdowns, came the layoffs and hundreds of thousands – if not more – young Australians found themselves without income. This shone a light on the need for reform in the industrial relations and social security systems, but this opportunity for change was not realised.



Young people are still struggling within the systems that had failed them well before the pandemic hit. Youth homelessness and housing insecurity has been exacerbated, yet housing ‘solutions’ continue to be directed at home buyer schemes that will only benefit a small few.



Many young people have no choice but to live pay cheque to pay cheque. This makes the loss of hours from being sick, or loss of employment because of shutdowns, an impossible balancing act. Things do not have to be this way. We can achieve a future where the youth unemployment and underemployment rates cease to be double the national average.



Over the last few years, young people have been viewed as a political problem. We’ve been loud, when people with power did not want to listen. We’ve disrupted, when the status quo was the preferred alternative. And we have proven that we have the power to make structural and political change when we work together and are organised in our goals. The amplification of climate change and the need for ambitious action has been driven by organised youth movements and has become an electoral imperative for politicians.



We are calling to be in the room, because understanding the problem is central to knowing what is needed to make real, lasting change. There was a big moment for this country a few weeks ago. And young people did not miss the opportunity to grasp it. I am, of course, talking about the Federal election. During the election campaign, youth issues were the elephant in the room. The government offered little to appease the inadequacy of their handling of the issues we faced.



There was little mention of the climate crisis and the action needed to match its significance. There was little offered to address the insecurity in transitions between education, training and employment. And there was a failure to offer long-term solutions to address mental health, rental affordability and social security. This was a mistake. Young people represented almost one-fifth of all eligible voters and as the results rolled in on election night, it was very clear they were going to be heard.



Now is not the time to be complacent, now is the time to demand change off the back of this momentum. Our demand is simple, yet powerful – to confront these challenges with us, to find solutions with us – by bringing us in the room.



(This is an extract from the opening address given by Sophie Johnston – National Youth Commissioner at the recent national Youth Futures Summit)

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