When I’m 25…

I am often asked ‘what do kids say about X’ or ‘what do they think about Y’?

This really is like asking ‘how long is a piece of string’. Each group of children and young people I meet is different. Each group has a different purpose and each individual a unique view of the world. But having said that, I do, like everyone else, group children and young people together in an effort to try and make sense of patterns I see in raw data.

Sometimes it feels like I am doing a jigsaw puzzle that has no picture on its box lid. But by the end of a particular investigation, I find there is always an “aha” moment for me; a learning that is so interesting, I find myself wondering if others might also find it so. Hence, why rather than just hold these ‘groupings’ in my own head, I have decided to share a few of the most surprising observations I made in relation to a series of questions I asked 289 children and young people about being age 25.

I asked them to ponder on what being 25 will be like for them and to tell me what they imagined they will be doing at this age. I asked them some specific questions such as…

Who would they be living with?

Where would they be living?

Would they have children?

Would they have tattoos?

Would they drink and smoke?

Would they volunteer?

For some of the children and young people I asked, responding to these questions involved them having to think more than 15 years into their futures. For others, the age of 25 was just a few years away. What they shared as individuals reveals some interesting outcomes. What patterns their responses reveal across the group is what I am most interested in sharing with you here.

Of the 289 children and young people I questioned, just seven believe they will be smoking when they are 25 years of age. Of these seven, five are already smoking.

I think we can confidently conclude the anti-smoking health message we’ve been sending our kids has been heard loud and clear, with an overall response rate of 98% giving a resounding no to smoking.

Other responses are less extreme, but they do reveal some interesting differences between genders. What struck me most was that factors like age, background, where you live, and how well off your family seems to be, have far less to do with what children and young people think about their future than gender does. Gender was a clear differentiator. The starkest of observations from the data collected was that 5% of girls in my sessions told me they saw part of their future involving looking after their parents. There were no boys who said this, and this was not a question I asked specifically.

On the flip side, having a tattoo by the age of 25 had no real difference in responses along with gender analysis. Similarly, the numbers of boys and girls who said they were likely to have one by age 25 was about the same, with girls providing more detail on the placement and design of their imagined tattoo than boys. A lot of young people also talked about the symbolism of their intended tattoos, with 25% responding that getting a tattoo was a definite yes for them.

Similarly, there was little gender difference between boys and girls who saw themselves helping or volunteering in their community. What was of interest was the number of young people who spoke about their desire to volunteer, with volunteering in sporting clubs - as an umpire or fundraising for charities - the most common examples of the kinds of volunteering they saw themselves doing.

For some questions, the difference in responses between boys and girls was quite marked. The most notable of these being the gendered responses to the following four questions:

So what does all this tell us about our children and young people?

I’m not really sure. It does indicate that in a mixed-gender group of young people aged 11 to 18 we can say the majority see drinking alcohol as the norm, with exercise and fitness on the radar of less than 50% of the group. It might also suggest having children is still more of an expectation for girls than boys, and that choosing to be single is becoming more acceptable for girls. It might also tell us that having children by the age of 25 is not a focus for the majority of girls or boys.

But these are just points of conjecture. They are neither scientific nor rigorous. They may be simple messages, or they may be tapping into the zeitgeist. We have no way of knowing anything for sure, and it is this observation that is perhaps more telling than anything. Because what we do know for certain is that these responses are being provided in a world in which our children and young people’s lives are changing dramatically and quickly. The world our ‘centennials’ are inheriting is ambiguous and uncertain. It is a world where what has happened in the past is no longer a prediction of the future, certainly not in the way it was when I was growing up.

As adults, we would do well to think about the messages and actions we take in the present and how they impact on our children and young people. Really listening to how our children and young people respond to questions they are asked is the key. Respecting how they see themselves in the world, and acknowledging it offers them a significantly different view than our own, is a good start.

There is strong evidence that just by listening more often, with our full attention, we will have a far better chance of understanding how best to support our children and young people as they face great change and uncertainty in their lives. This simple act of listening more often, may be the key to unlocking a collaborative relationship with young people that will enable us to co-design with them, a better future for us all!

Helen Connolly is South Australia’s inaugural Commissioner for C&YP. Her work ensures their opinions and ideas are being sought and that their voices are heard.

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