Making It Work – Improving participation support for disadvantaged young Australians

Author: Jeremy Davidson-Tear

Davidson-Tear, Jeremy, 2021 Making It Work – Improving participation support for disadvantaged young Australians, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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This research investigates two issues which affect large numbers of young Australians: unemployment and precarious employment; and the high prevalence of mental health disorders, in particular anxiety and depression. My original contribution to knowledge is the examination of policies pertaining to how these issues are associated, with unemployment contributing to mental health distress, and poor mental health resulting in low rates of participation in employment and education. The research argues that the issues are too frequently represented as failings of individuals, with insufficient attention given to the social determinants of mental health and wellbeing.

The research is informed by my practice experience as a social worker and project manager, working in the Australian income support system and in primary mental health care programs. What I observed was that the unemployment benefits regime, subject to rigorous conditions and activity requirements, pays little heed to individuals’ circumstances and wellbeing. Mental health services are heavily focussed on medical models of diagnosis and treatment. The disconnect is that employment and income support services focus on what people are, or should be, doing, but do not consider how they are feeling. Mental health services deal with how people are feeling, but rarely explore what they are doing regarding work, or participation in training or education.

Central tenets of my argument are that we already have much research about young people who are unemployed or in precarious work, and who, as a result, experience poverty and insecurity due to low wages and benefits. We know also that the level of mental health distress is highest in the population cohort aged 16 to 24. Policies and service provision are fragmented. In many cases, this fragmentation reflects the complexities of Australia’s Federation. For example, some mental health services are delivered and funded by State and Territory Governments, while other services are delivered by nongovernment agencies and private practitioners and funded by the Commonwealth Government.

This research endeavours to bring a fresh perspective to consideration of current problems and how they might be addressed. Four themes are identified and discussed: mental health; inequality; welfare conditionality; and innovations in policies and support services for young people. Analysis and further discussion explores past and present policies and service provision, and how these could be done differently.

This thesis has been completed in the 18 months during which the COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected Australia and most other nations. Many young people were immediately affected by loss of jobs and interruptions to their education. Some responses by governments were timely and compassionate, including financial support to employers, temporary increases to unemployment benefits, and suspensions of the draconian Mutual Obligation requirement placed on jobseekers. These showed what can be possible in addressing a crisis, but also what could be done to address chronic problems.

Key findings of the research include the need to address income and housing inequality, how mental health services for young people can be improved, and how employment services can be reformed to more effectively help young people into participation. Some proposals will require more government spending, but I argue that others can be funded by redeploying existing provisions. It is also important to consider the long-term financial and emotional scarring of people who experience prolonged unemployment in their younger years. Arguments for reform can therefore be constructed as investment, not merely cost.

Keywords: Australia, young people, mental health, anxiety, depression, unemployment, precarious work, employment services, inequality, social determinants of health, income support, welfare conditionality

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Dr Keith Miller