CHILDREN AND YOUTH
Quo Vadis Australia?
Australia is often known as 'the lucky country' and indeed we are in many ways. Our capital cities continually rank among the most liveable cities in the world and we seem to have survived the recent difficult economic times better than most. Indicators of wellbeing such as life expectancy at birth, high educational outcomes, and self-reports of happiness put us right up there amongst the top countries in the world.
Until recently, social progress was measured by economic growth, stability, and opportunity. Such economic factors are important for the social wellbeing of a country and Australia fares well on those indices. But a Country's wellbeing is a lot more complex than that. In commenting on the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of wellbeing Ross Gittins states: "the problem is we have fallen into the habit of regarding GDP as something much more: the nation's bottom line, a measure of the progress our society is making, the supreme indicator of our wellbeing.
"GDP was never intended to fill that role and, as every economist will concede, it is quite inadequate to the task. The very features that make it a good guide to the economy's job-creating potential make it unsuited to measuring our wider wellbeing."
Gittins notes that there are many other mechanisms for measuring social progress including the OECD's 'Better Life Index', the ABS's 'Measuring Australia's Progress', and the Canadian Index of wellbeing. Gittins is writing here in introduction to the Fairfax attempt to present another measure of Australian social wellbeing, the Fairfax/Lateral Economics research known as the National Wellbeing Index.
The National Wellbeing Index tells us that while the Australian social situation is in good health according to some factors (self-reports of happiness; net national income; and human capital, including education) there is cause for concern when measured by other factors. A sense of wellbeing has been assisted by improvements in education and a rise in net national income, but it has been attacked by a steady decline in health (especially obesity and mental health problems), inequality, and job satisfaction.
Obesity has been found to have a major impact on one's sense of wellbeing. Dr Boyd Swinburn of Deakin University in Melbourne stated that research has found obesity has an effect on the quality of life similar to a major physical disability such as blindness or deafness. ''Quality of life includes mental and physical health, social wellbeing and personal self-esteem. Obesity affects all of those,'' he said. It is estimated that obesity affects almost 25% of the population and is a huge drain on the Nation's wellbeing.
Mental health problems continue to be on the rise in Australia. It is estimated that around 20% of our population are affected by mental illness at any given time and that metal illness has effected over 45% of the population at some time. It becomes even more disturbing when it is recognized that mental illness is grossly under-reported and undiagnosed.
According to the Wellbeing Index, along with other measures, Australia is doing pretty well, especially when compared with many, if not most, other countries. But there are causes for concern, indicators that all is not well and that the 'wellbeing' is a fašade that is not very deep in places. It doesn't take too much digging and the underlying social problems appear and at times for some people appear overwhelming. There are many who tell us that we are sick, our social environment is broken, and that there is a call for all of us to be involved in its repair. This is especially so when it comes to the social environment for our children and young people.
Richard Eckersley, Founding Director of Australia21 Ltd, has written and spoken a great deal about this problem. In a talk at the ACL 2011 National Conference in Canberra he told the story of how, after a trip away overseas, upon return he was able to see Australia through different eyes. He saw a culture that was exploitative and oppressive, harsh and oppressed, and suffering from spiritual poverty. Wellbeing is much more than a number of boxes that can be ticked. He said that human wellbeing was to be found across four different spectrums. The Material (food, water, air, clothing, shelter), Social (family, friends. Community), Cultural (reasons to live), and Spiritual (defined by him as connectedness to the world). He said that the things that matter most are at risk to the things that matter least. One example of that was the change in motivation to undertake higher education. Whereas In the 1970's the primary motivation was reportedly to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, today it is to become financially well off.
Eckersley's thesis is that the official story given to us regarding youth and wellbeing needs to be challenged. The Government and certain sections of the Media tell us that our young people are the healthiest generation ever and back this up with measurements of dropping mortality rates and of self-reports of happiness by young people. The new story is not as rosy. Amongst our children and youth, mental health problems are on the rise, child and youth obesity is increasing, and alongside self-reports of happiness are self-reports of being overwhelmed, exhausted, depressed, anxious, and angry. He concludes that our young people may be 'feeling happy' but that they are not experiencing wellbeing.
What's causing this? Eckersley states that there are a multiplicity of factors associated with family issues, mass and social media, education and work, and religion. He states that materialism and individualism are risk factors in our society that need to be closely watched.
Barbara Biggins, the Honorary CEO of Australian Council on Children and the Media, has asked the question through 'On Line Opinion', "Has Australia been good to its kids?" In it she quotes from Richard Eckersley, speaking at the second Australian Conference on Children and the Media: "The orthodox view is that young people have never been healthier; mortality rates continue to fall, and most report that they are healthy, happy and satisfied with their lives. This perspective tends to run counter to claims of media harm. However, a wider analysis of data on young people's health suggests it is declining, especially through increased rates of mental illness and obesity. The media are implicated in these trends in multiple and complex ways"
Biggins suggests that children are adversely affected by messages through all types of media that impacts their health and wellbeing along with their developing sense of self, and their understanding of where happiness really lies. These messages convey the need for consumerism and have been termed a corporate takeover of childhood. Such messages are often linked to the sexualisation of children and the idea that to be happy I need to have more.
She concludes her article by asking 'is Australia being good to its kids by continuing to allow advertisers and marketers fairly free access to them, and turning a blind eye to the consequences?' That's a question that shouldn't be ignored.
There are many other social researchers writing in this area and agreeing that all is not well for Australia's children and youth as we venture further into the 21st Century including Michael Carr-Gregg, Hugh Mackay, and Steve Biddulph.
So, in asking the question 'Qou Vadis Australia?' we see that in many ways we are in trouble, especially when it comes to the social environment for children and youth and the ways that our young people are trying to cope with that. Indicators of the social problem include drug abuse, obesity, mental health problems, physical and verbal abuse in bullying, street violence, and in the home, along with a growing sense of social isolation amongst our youth. Blame has been thrown at the Educational system, the Media, and Government policies and lack of funding, to name a few.
Working to Repair the Brokenness
However, the approach to doing something about it needs to be a Community Development one. It does us no good in the long term to be scapegoating for in the end it simply passes the blame around and causes everyone to be sidestepping and looking for the next 'big answer'. A Community Development approach asks the question 'What can I do about this?' 'What can my organization do to address this problem?' And, 'How can we all work together to create a better society and nurture wellbeing?'
When I was a Councillor with the City of Melbourne we started to introduce policies that would lead to Melbourne being accredited as a UNICEF Child Friendly City. That work continues, not only in Melbourne but in many cities across Australia. It is an excellent challenge and works on the principle that if a city is a child friendly city is a city that is friendly for all. The only way to achieve a child friendly status is for everyone, all the City's stakeholders, to work together and to bring all their strengths to the table to overcome the factors that are working against child friendliness and to put into place those factors that will deliver child friendliness. The same is to be said of any initiatives that are designed to work toward social wellbeing. If our social environment is healthy for children and young people it will be healthy for all and it will be of advantage for the future. And, it is the responsibility of all of us.
All of us? Where do we begin? Sophia Think Tank (Bible Society Australia's national think tank on values, priorities, and behaviour in Australian Society) identifies ten drivers in Australian society that are highly influential in the development of that society. These Drivers are
If we are going to experience sustainable change in our social environment, if the social environment is indeed going to be repaired, all of these Drivers will have a role to play. It is also true that each one of these Drivers have had a role in the decline of the social environment. During the year of 2012, in what we are calling Project 217, Sophia Think Tank is conducting Roundtables with representatives of some of these Drivers to identify and discuss the ways that the Driver has added to the brokenness and what each Driver can do to help begin to repair the brokenness. And then, what are we going to do about that?
24 April 2012