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