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Covid-19 and young people’s recovery: an exercise in hope

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  • Picture of Professor Peter Kelly
    Professor Peter Kelly
    Head of the UNEVOC @ RMIT Centre

There is a tendency when looking at young people’s futures to frame the discussion through the question, “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?”

As UNEVOC@RMIT’s current project in Melbourne's inner north suggests, this is the wrong approach if we are looking to develop innovative solutions to help young people recover from the long-term impacts of Covid-19.

Historical precedents indicate that young people are particularly vulnerable to crises – both in terms of the immediate social, economic and policy effects and the longer term ‘down-stream’ consequences. The pandemic has pushed global, national and regional economies into a period of profound uncertainty and recession. It is already apparent that young people (15-24) will carry a heavy burden over the next 5 to 10 years in terms of their well-being, education, training and employment pathways.

In re-thinking young people’s futures, we need to plan and act in terms beyond the simplicity of being either optimistic or pessimistic. What we need is an exercise in HOPE.

Lessons from the past

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered profound crises around the world, which will shape the world in which young people live their futures. Early analysis indicates that the fallout from the pandemic is likely to be longer and deeper than any crisis experienced for several generations, and the impact on young people will be profound.

I have published a number of accounts exploring the ways in which young people in OECD/EU economies and the developing economies of Asia, Africa and Central and South America continue to be affected by many of the downstream effects of the 2008-09 global financial crisis. In those accounts my colleagues and I suggested that in the aftermath of the crisis we were in danger of condemning generations of young people to a life-long burden of precariousness and debt.

These burdens of debt and responsibility to 'make a life' under these circumstances are beyond the capacities of many us, young or old. For many young people, these burdens are much harder to bear when they have mortgaged their future on the promise that education and training will secure work in the precarious labour markets.

During the so called ‘Year of the Protester’ (Time 2011) young people around the world expressed their anxiety, uncertainty and anger, their outrage and hope, about their experience of these diverse and emerging circumstances. The Tumblr page We Are the 99%, a product of the global Occupy movement, gave voice to the frustrations felt by young people in the aftermath of that particular crisis. In one post, a forlorn looking young woman, wearing headphones and looking into her computer’s camera, holds up a notebook where she has written:

I CAN’T FIND MY FUTURE.

I looked in college.

I found debt.

I looked to my parents.

I found debt and heartbreak.

I looked at my friends.

I found grief and sorrow.

I looked at the land.

I found MY COMMONS DESTROYED, MY LAKES AND RIVERS AND SOIL

AND TREES AND BEES AND WORMS DESTROYED.

I looked at my fellow humans.

I found disease, debt, sorrow, dissonance, hate, greed, misery,

AND NO ONE CARES ANYMORE.

well. I CARE. an awful lot.

I’M TAKING MY FUTURE BACK.

(IT’S MINE)

Acknowledging the ways in which young people’s sense of self has developed in the long shadow of major crises is critical when it comes to discussions about the futures that the current generation of young people will inherit and make.

A hopeful future

In his book Hope Without Optimism, Terry Eagleton explores why the values of hope and optimism are often tied to our conceptions of the future. However, he argues, they should not be confused. For Eagleton, optimism is often used to justify inaction. It is a form of wishful thinking that glosses over the evidence of human history and relies heavily on the myth of human progress. This is dangerous, Eagleton argues, because “the past...is a vital constituent of the present. We can progress beyond it, to be sure, but only by means of the capabilities which it has bequeathed us.”

Hope, on the other hand, is a much more radical and productive act. Hope enables us to look critically at the past, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the reality of present, and, in so doing, providing us with the capacity to envision and radically transform our future. 

As philosopher Rosi Braidotti states, “Hope is a way of dreaming up possible futures: an anticipatory virtue that permeates our lives and activates them. It is a powerful motivating force grounded not only in projects that aim at reconstructing the social imaginary, but also in the political economy of desires, affects and creativity that underscore it.”

And this is what we and our partners are doing in co-designing Covid-19 recovery scenarios for young people in Melbourne’s inner north. Read more about our project.


Professor Peter Kelly is Head of the UNEVOC @ RMIT Centre. UNEVOC is UNESCO's global network for promoting learning for the world of work. 

Since 2018, the UNEVOC@RMIT Centre and RSA Oceania have been developing a collaborative partnership to build a research agenda for sustainable development in the Pacific region. Read more about this partnership

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