The young and the not so restless

22:33, Apr 27 2011
hayward
Youthful signals: Bronwyn Hayward speaking about the youth study.

Lifestyle surveys like the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Visions for Change remind us that citizen wellbeing, rather than economic development, is central to a flourishing community.

The UNEP survey, released this week, surveyed 20 countries. It reported on the attitudes of 132 young adult New Zealanders, half of whom came from Christchurch.

New Zealand's respondents stood out for three reasons.

They rated their life satisfaction highly, (at a median of eight out of a possible 10) and were confident and optimistic about their future.

The UNEP study, conducted between April and June 2009, is only a limited snapshot and results cannot be generalised.

More than half (55 per cent) the respondents were in fulltime or part-time study, 37 per cent were working and 5 per cent were unemployed. More women (58 per cent) than men responded. The survey did not ask about ethnic identity.

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Despite its limitations, the survey raises key questions for politicians and communities about how we can ensure the conditions that enabled these respondents to enjoy their good life are available to all young people as we rebuild Christchurch.

Young New Zealanders expressed confident yet modest ambitions.

Many were hopeful that dreams of "a job", an "active outdoors lifestyle", "finding a partner" and/or "having children" are possible.

They appreciated friends and family and saw their future as "settled and content".

Across all 20 countries surveyed, the desire to make a difference and freedom emerged as key values.

However, in many countries youth are increasingly frustrated that they lack opportunities to effect change.

In his recent book, The Pinch leading Conservative thinker David Willets outlines unprecedented difficulties facing young adults: escalating unemployment, a legacy of deferred costs of spending on infrastructure and pensions and the challenge of adapting to, and coping with, environmental change.

These concerns have fuelled worldwide youth protest against the lack of employment and education opportunities and budget cuts to pay for bank bailouts.

Against this context, the young Kiwis were surprisingly confident about their future. However, their confidence is fragile.

The second most common fear reported by 28 per cent of the young Kiwis was that they "want to make changes but are unable to do so".

This fear raises challenges for New Zealand's central and local governments.

Kiwi respondents appeared to assume, for example, that educational opportunities will continue.

However, changes in New Zealand education policy (including the introduction of standardised tests at primary school and changing tertiary funding policies) could undermine their experience.

Will our young adults still rank their wellbeing as highly if policy changes reduce access to quality learning experiences?

The survey results also highlight some practical challenges for local government in Christchurch.

For example, 34 per cent of respondents said their worst way of living would be to "in an apartment in the city unable to enjoy outdoor pursuits".

Sixty per cent also said their ideal way of living would be more self-sufficient (growing their food or generating their energy), or living on more land or in the country.

Can our city support the transport and land conversion implications if these lifestyle-block dreams prove widespread?

Many reported enjoying ease of transport and access to the outdoors, running, long- boarding and cycling. Even those who did little exercise reported that the ease of getting around and getting away mattered.

This raises questions about long-term public transport and the immediate impact of a central-city cordon.

Could a lack of flexibility in health and safety responses to a city disaster undermine small business recovery and a prized physical freedom central to young people's wellbeing?

Philosopher Michael Sandel has recently stressed the importance of access to public spaces, such as parks, museums, art galleries and libraries. He argues these places matter as sites for cultivating a shared sense of wellbeing and citizenship.

Finally, the survey offers glimpses of wider social problems.

Asked what they would most like to change about their home life, 20 per cent of the Kiwis simply said they felt cold and wanted to improve heating and insulation of houses and flats to reduce power bills.

Six per cent were concerned about binge- drinking and property damage.

We know that after a major disaster most cities experience a surge of mutual support, followed by a period of anger before new visions emerge and finally the old order is resurrected, often with deeper inequality.

However, we can change this trajectory.

In Christchurch, there is an energetic, creative socially networked, youthful passion to effect change, and this vitality is expressed in groups like Greening the Rubble, Gap Filler, in art design projects like Gardensity and in intergenerational community efforts. A Kiwi desire to express agency as practical action means joining others to make a difference.

We can offer a better legacy to young people, lifting emergency powers to give everyone - young and old - a voice in decision-making and the ability to make changes that matter.

We can also pledge our accountability to future generations to develop a community that is responsive to their needs, and makes wellbeing through access to education, health, secure warm homes, and opportunities for creative employment central to local and national planning for our city.

* Dr Bronwyn Hayward is a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury's School of Political and Social Sciences; NZ visiting researcher RESOLVE, University of Surrey, Britain; visiting fellow Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, Britain.

The Press