We must smooth the path to adulthood for the Class of 2020

The final year of school is a rapturous one. It is filled with teasers of the life that awaits you, anxieties about what that will entail and bittersweet reminders of what you’re about to leave behind. For many, it is a year marked by friendship, camaraderie, emotional highs and lows – and study.

This year, it has been different. There have been very few tastes of freedom for the Class of 2020 and far greater restrictions than any year 12 group has ever experienced. Many of Australia’s 180,000 year 12 students have spent much of their year not in school but at home in front of a computer, separated from friends and struggling with a new way of learning. They have had to dig deep to stay connected and motivated, at a time when they are already under pressure to succeed.

This year’s school-leavers face an uncertain future.Credit:Marina Neil

Their future, too, is so uncertain and governments are doing little to help them. The unemployment rate is rising. University fees for some courses are set to double from next year under a proposed funding overhaul, with continued remote learning a real likelihood. And the government’s travel ban makes it almost impossible to spend a gap year overseas.

On top of that, we are saddling this generation with an unprecedented level of national debt as we respond to this health crisis. As The Age's economics editor Ross Gittins noted last week, recessions bite young adults the hardest. They are likely to be the last group to emerge from it and may struggle for years to find work, setting back their careers and limiting their options in life.

The Class of 2020 is about to make a very hard entry into the next stage of life. And we are not even letting them undergo those rites of passage which might have softened the blow – no school formals (at least this term), no gap years overseas, no schoolies week in Queensland with friends. We cannot underestimate how much it will hurt the Class of 2020 to be denied these celebrations.

Parents, too, will miss out. It is no easy feat shepherding a child through 13 years of schooling. This year it seems parents will be denied the chance to celebrate that effort and see their children graduate at the end.

We must find a way to recognise all the Class of 2020 have achieved since they started kindergarten in 2008, especially given the incredible challenges they have faced and surmounted in this final year of their schooling.

But their future is most important. Amid the competing needs of this pandemic, governments and employers cannot overlook our school-leavers. Those in power must do more to smooth the path into adulthood for this generation, be it through organising gap years in rural parts of Australia to make up for the loss of travel overseas, or establishing job-entry programs for school leavers to shelter them from rising unemployment. And the government must reconsider raising fees on so many university courses.

The National Youth Commission last week called on governments and industry to commit to a guarantee, based on nine pillars of need, such as education and and job creation, that would help young people make the transition into successful adulthood, despite the pandemic. It is an initiative worth supporting.

As a society, we owe a great debt to this generation. They are in a cohort least likely to become seriously ill with COVID-19 but they are making great sacrifices for our communities. We cannot ignore them. We must do all we can to repay the Class of 2020 and set them up to succeed in the next stage of life.

Note from the Editor

The Age’s acting editor, Michelle Griffin, writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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