MICHAEL LIFFMAN. Is it time for National Civic Youth Service Program?

Perhaps the time has come to consider a notion, at which most progressives’ immediate reaction is to recoil, that a compulsory non-military youth civic service program be introduced in Australia?  

‘There is a widespread view that a youth crisis exists in Australia. Rates of youth unemployment, homelessness, suicide and drug-taking, which so far show few signs of decreasing, are obvious indicators supporting this view. There is also a body of research that suggests that a fairly high percentage of young people are generally alienated from mainstream society and they lack hope about the future.’

This observation, the opening sentence of a paper commissioned from RMIT during my term as CEO of the Myer Foundation, was not especially controversial when it was made, some 20 years ago, even though that was a time before the full impact of worldwide structural changes to the economy and the workforce, the growing loss of faith in our political processes and inherited belief systems, and the advent of social media, ice, and ISIS. The authors of the report, (Robyn Hartley, Elizabeth Hartnell-Young, and David Maunders) went on to note that the usual calls for more prevention or support missed a vital element which they identified as a means of providing young people with opportunities for genuine involvement with something beyond themselves, and with experiences through which they can develop commitment and a sense of purposeful involvement in employment, education and, indeed, life itself.

It was at this point that the paper risked some controversy with its proposal that Australia introduce a national and universal scheme of civic or community service for young people. The scheme was to be inclusive of different groups (privileged and disadvantaged alike) and not targeted at the unemployed; non-punitive (in no sense a version of work for the dole); and would provide young people not only with with practical skills and experience but with real opportunities for reward (income, accreditation, references, study credits and the like), and with serious, purposeful and uplifting engagement with the community – and with, as the report put it, ‘something beyond themselves’. It would, of course, be non-military, but could include the physical and disciplinary aspects of working in development settings or critical and emergency situations, in Australia and elsewhere. (And, in perhaps one of the greatest challenges, it would have to designed and marketed in a way that made it ‘cool’.)

The report, ‘Opting into Active Citizenship’, acknowledged that such a suggestion was not new, with variants operating successfully in other countries. It also recognised the many challenges facing such a proposal financially, administratively, logistically, and in terms of community acceptance. It looked at overseas experience, consulted widely, and concluded with concrete suggestions as to how such a proposal might be developed.

While, sadly, the report received no serious discussion at the time, I believe that it remains, if anything, more relevant now than in 1997. The need to offer young people a sense of real but purposeful adventure, challenge and affiliation, as an alternative to the lure of the extreme experiences seemingly offered by drugs or militant and violent ideologies, or, more benignly, by our contemporary addictive consumerism, is only one of the benefits such a scheme offers. There is no lack, in the present era, of challenges which require the enthusiasm, inventiveness, idealism and energy of young people, whether in environmental management, new forms of entrepreneurship, or personal care.

Supporters of such a scheme are no longer confined to nostalgic conservatives lamenting the passing of the good old days. One of our more imaginative business leaders , Mark Carnegie, has enthusiastically advanced a similar idea, albeit somewhat more radical in that his scheme involves only brief contributions of time but would not be confined to young people.

Back in 1996 A global conference on National Youth Service called on countries to ‘give as much emphasis to national youth service in the 21st century as to military service in the 20th century.’  It may always have been the case that society has been as challenged by non-military threats as by military ones; certainly that seems to be true now. Perhaps one response is readily within our reach.

Michael Liffman (Dr), Adjunct Associate Professor, Centre for Social Impact, and Founding Director, Asia Pacific Centre for Social Investment and Philanthropy, Swinburne University, Melbourne, Australia 

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5 Responses to MICHAEL LIFFMAN. Is it time for National Civic Youth Service Program?

  1. This is an excellent suggestion which I have been advocating privately for years yet rather wary about suggesting publicly for the reasons outlined at the outset of the article.

    My background is in general medical practice and for the past 20 years my practice has been solely focussed on counselling and psychotherapy for men, teenage boys and their families, the last 10 years in Grafton on the NSW north/mid-north coast. I agree with all the reasons put forward in the article but would add another very important one which is to provide a socially acceptable opportunity for young people to escape the ghetto-like conditions of many regional and smaller country towns marked by intergenerational poverty and marginalisation, geographical isolation and immobility, social dysfunction, poor educational opportunities, high rates of youth unemployment and a general lack of worldliness. These conditions have created a huge underclass of people that is largely hidden from view but which is responsible for very high rates of D&A abuse, domestic violence, incarceration, mental health problems and suicide. Getting people out into the wider world geographically, socially and culturally is a necessary first step in breaking the intergenerational cycle and letting them see that all is not what it seems in their restricted little world.

    I spent 4 years in the Navy in the early 1970s and there were many such young people who escaped from the bush into the armed services at a time when the requirements were much less demanding and when there were many “jobs” on the military which were suitable for people with little education. The families of these young people encouraged this as military service was then very socially acceptable and the uniform somewhat of a status symbol when people came back to the bush. I recall many young people whose lives where opened up by the experience of getting away and even travelling overseas.

    Now there is is nothing equivalent with entrance standards to the military very much higher. Unemployment is a catastrophic experience for rural and remote youth. Centrelink payments are so low that the vast majority of people live from hand to mouth and cannot afford the petrol to travel any distance. They are effectively locked in. Work for the dole is a joke; often a large group of people are allocated to a “job” with very little supervision, no useful skills and without even proper OH&S training or workplace-safe clothing – a negative experience from what I’ve been told. Poverty means that many people have to engage in the “black economy” often then becoming involved in low level drug selling/distribution.

    All the evidence points to the fact that drug addiction is a “dislocation disorder”, dislocation from love, healthy family relationships, place and traditional lifestyle and meaningful work. Much of the extremely widespread drug use is a product of boredom and hopelessness. Most drug users are part of the drug sales network at the base of the drug sales pyramid. For example they buy $100 worth of drug, cut it into 5 parts, take one part for themselves and sell the balance on for $100 paying thus for their habit. These and the layer of petty distributers in the next layer above are the main people caught in the local police busts and random roadside D&A testing. Loose your licence as a result of a trace of marijuana in your test and you have a criminal record. Now you are completely stuffed. No licence usually means you can’t get to work so you lose your job (often casual if you are lucky enough to have something such as a few hours each week at Hungry Jacks or Macdonalds) as there is very poor public transport. Criminal record makes getting a job in the future all that much harder. Need I say more.

    So yes, you can see why I think it is a great idea. And the truth is that any decent programme is going to be very expensive and will require very widespread acceptance. In the present political environment this seems insurmountable.

  2. Bruce says:

    We once had such schemes that were stepping points to careers that made people feel valuable. They were government departments and semi government authorities. These, such as railways, housing authorities, electricity suppliers and so on created the near full employment of the young that we used to enjoy. There was no stigma attached, it was a common experience for a vast number of young people. Be it our accountants, apprentices, teachers, doctors, lawyers the vast majority were employed by the government or government authorities. They received training and renumeration at the same time. I don’t recall any apprentices or trainee nurses or doctors or teachers believing they were inferior and only surviving on the government teat.
    Many of those people went on to be captains of industry, school principals and so on.

    Then along came competitive tendering and privatisation. There were benefits of both practices, but the overall victim was training of the young. One of the most draining expenses for any business is training.

    The second major victim was security of employment for all. This security consisted of full time work at decent wages, reasonable sickness and holiday benefits and an identifiable career structure. It also gave private industry a competitor in the market for employees.

    Instead of even contemplating politicians who are going to “balance the budget”, consider politicians who are going to employ our young and not so young. I hear the screams how can we afford it! Two ways. In government “surplus budgets” are as rare as hen’s teeth and inevitably lead to economic downturns. Almost every government in the last hundred and sixty years has increased its debt consistently as have the vast majority of public companies. As long as you increase assets at the same time it is no problem. The second way is that it actually increases real work and consequently increases the asset base so that we are all better off.

    Infrastructure is the wealth of a nation. Let us go back a mere seventy years. No freeways, no Snowy Scheme, very few major dams, vast swathes of Australia with no electricity, most homes with no telephones, most of Melbourne and Sydney had no sewerage systems. All these were achieved through those “horribly wasteful” government organisations. Strange that no private entity was able to do this unless they received huge government subsidies.

    Don’t even consider artificial work schemes, go back to real work for the common good. After all that is what a society is, a group of people working for the common good.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    And no exemptions for the sons and daughters of wealth and privilege – and especially of politicians – with the first cohorts all from tertiary institutions. That might free up regular jobs for those without the finances to make tertiary studies an option! At least that’s my gut reaction!

  4. Michael – stay with this. Unemployed Sudanese Youth around here are getting into trouble. Everyone expects perfect behaviour of them – but no one employs them. Youthful depression and despair leads to problems. Non-military service could, with proper leadership, lead them into productive work and behaviour fitting a sense of belonging and identity.
    It has to be possible.

  5. derrida derider says:

    Of course this conscription would have to be non-military. It would be unwise to arm them …

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