UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Statement by Mr Adam Smith,
Australian Youth Representative,
Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations
Item 10 6: Social development, including questions relating to the world situation and to youth, ageing, disabled persons and the family.
6 October 2003
Mr. Chairperson and Distinguished Delegates.
Today’s young people live in an uncertain and rapidly changing world. As Australia’s Youth Representative to the General Assembly, I welcome the opportunity to share the challenges and opportunities which young people in Australia and across the world are currently facing.
I am extremely fortunate to have worked with young people throughout the world. From the streets of New York, to remote villages in South East Asia, and across Australia, I am always overwhelmed by the potential exhibited by young people.
While on the surface, issues for young people around the world appear incredibly different, it has been my experience that issues are fundamentally the same. Young people everywhere want to feel safe, valued and respected. They all want the promise of a bright future and a sense that they have control and influence over the direction of their lives. Young people have strong beliefs and ideals, and want to be able to live in alignment with such values.
Australia is a very fortunate nation, one rich in social values and goodwill, however I believe that often our communities don’t know how to best engage, challenge and inspire our young people. Some older Australians are particularly receptive to fear-based media about young people, which is exasperated by a lack of understanding of this vibrant generation.
It has been said that ‘never before have young people been told so much yet known so little’. There is a perception in our communities that the very essence of childhood is disappearing and that young people today are being propelled into adulthood and forced to make many choices from a young age about traditionally adult issues, such as drugs and alcohol.
In the past, Australian communities had very active church, scout and sporting groups, which allowed young people to interact with their peers, develop role models, and establish a sense of belonging to a community. Such structures do not exist to the same extent today, and consequently we are seeing young people detached from the traditional community, and feeling socially isolated.
Research has shown that young people benefit from having a strong, positive relationship with at least one significant adult outside of their family. Yet many people fear allowing this to happen. Our communities have lost their innocence and are incredibly protective of who we allow our children to interact with. While protecting children and young people is paramount, youth also need to be exposed to perceptions and ideals of people of all backgrounds and of all generations.
Our shift away from informal cross-generational relationships is resulting in a number of negative outcomes. There are indications that levels of depression and mental illness in Australia are increasing. We are grappling as a nation to define the role of men and masculinity, which is evident in our treatment and expectations of young men. The Government has initiated a number of approaches to explore the issue of male identity in Australia, including focusing on boys’ education and the way in which adolescent males are currently interacting within traditional educational environments.
As a nation, we are mindful of encouraging young people to express themselves, however we could still improve our core understanding of other cultures and beliefs. Australia is a nation looking to embrace diversity. The Government’s commitment to promoting harmony and understanding within our communities is outlined in the policy ‘Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity’. Many groups working with young people have embraced this approach, including a range of schools that have developed the ‘Harmony through Understanding’ program in response to September 11. This program is underpinned by the belief that –
‘To develop deeper levels of understanding and respect between different cultural and ethnic groups amongst the adults of tomorrow, young people need opportunities to work, play and create together.’
The Government is a driving force in many initiatives which aim to give a voice to children and young people, celebrate their achievements and promote greater community connectedness and youth empowerment. Examples of this include ‘The Source’ website which provides young people with information on all facets of life. There is also a newly established National Indigenous Youth Leadership Group, which provides an opportunity for young Indigenous Australians to express their perceptions and ideals, as well as advise Government on empowering indigenous youth. The Government supports the National Youth Roundtable, which works to ensure that the views of young people are included in policy-making processes.
The Foundation for Young Australians is another key stakeholder in creating opportunities for young people to bring about change within their communities. The Foundation for Young Australians is strongly committed to youth participation and encouraging youth to support the empowerment of other young Australians.
Previous Australian Youth Representatives have worked hard to promote engagement with young people as equal members of society, with a shared responsibility for creating a world which elicits the best from each individual. Today I echo their beliefs and encourage you to continue to support the voice of our young people. This presents many opportunities and challenges to the United Nations in considering the most effective mechanisms to achieve this.
By the middle of this century more than half of the overall population will be comprised of children and the elderly, yet the majority of decisions for these groups are made by those most removed. We must recognize the value in engaging with young people and acknowledge the fact that while at the moment they may represent less than 18% of our population, they are 100% of our future.