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Five young people silhouetted against rising sun

Time of their lives


Zlatko Skrbis was watching a documentary with his children when the seed of a research project was planted. Thirteen years on, the extraordinary ‘Our Lives’ project is shining a light on the issues and attitudes of Australian youth.

The idea for the Our Lives study came to Professor Zlatko Skrbis, ACU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Innovation), as he sat watching the 7 Up documentary series with his children. The series famously follows a group of Brits from childhood into adulthood, checking in with them every seven years. Viewers were immersed in 50 years of life played out over several hours. They watched on as the children grew, their dreams lived and died, and their fortunes turned.

An idea is born

“My children were asking me such fascinating questions about the show,” says Professor Skrbis, and it sparked an idea he couldn’t let go of. And so, in 2006 he and his collaborators launched Our Lives, a project that follows some 2,000 Queenslanders from the age of 12 into adulthood.

“I realised that a study like this, with a single-aged cohort, followed over a long period of time, could uncover key determinants behind youth outcomes.”

Hindsight can be a powerful tool, but rarely has it been applied on such a large scale. For the participants, their lives from age 12 have been studied in detail through biennial surveys and one-on-one interviews. The group is now in their mid-20s and the cumulative data into their attitudes, challenges and beliefs has allowed researchers to analyse trends in a broad range of areas such as education, careers, relationships, attitudes towards climate change and even body modification.

“We’ve been able to track young people’s experiences of major life events, such as tertiary graduation, starting a full-time job, marriage and leaving the family home. We can see how these events affect their values, behaviours and quality of life in early adulthood,” says Professor Skrbis.

“The findings have potential to contribute to policy and decision making that will shape Australia’s future.”

A close up of man and a woman holding hands

A generational snapshot

The most recent report shows a snapshot of the cohort’s lives aged 23 and 24.

8 per cent are married.
5 per cent have children.
30 per cent live with their parents.
52 per cent are in permanent full-time employment.

Beyond demographics, the report also shows how participants attitudes are shifting on key topics. For instance, 36 per cent said they had no religion in 2008, by 2017 that number had almost doubled to 62 per cent.

In 2010, only 63 per cent believed immigrants make Australia more open to new ideas and culture. That number is now around 80 per cent.

On relationships

What does it take to have a successful love life? Money, good looks and an intriguing Tinder profile? According to the study, security and personal control were driving factors in building romantic relationships.

The study uncovered a strong link between secure employment, sense of personal control, education, health and love. While this generation was generally more highly educated than their parents, they were less likely to be in full-time employment. This undermined their sense of personal control and their ability, or desire, to maintain serious relationships.

On health

The findings show that between 2015 and 2017 the cohort felt less positive about their health. In particular, only 77 per cent felt positive about their mental health at age 24 compared to 84 per cent aged 22.

Professor Skrbis says this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, explaining that this generation may simply be finding it easier to be more open about mental health issues.

“One of the surprising outcomes from the study has actually been the resilience of the participants, particularly at times when we would expect vulnerabilities. It is a real testament to the generation.”

Running feet from a marathon

On growing up

Growing up has not been easy for this cohort, a process Professor Skrbis calls ‘The new adulthood’.

“In many industrialised countries, and this cohort appears to be the same, the transition into adulthood has become prolonged and complex,” he said.

Adolescence was once thought to be the period of time where young people developed a solid sense of identity before taking steps towards adulthood – getting a job, leaving home, finding a partner, and starting a family.

The Our Lives study showed that many in their early to mid-20s, well into the traditional age of ‘adulthood’, had still not committed to their identity. As such their work, home and romantic lives continued to be in flux.

One argument for the emergence of this ‘new adulthood’ is that people’s lives are no longer dictated by conventional patterns. Instead, with greater flexibility on how we live our lives, young adults have become ongoing personal planning projects.

On trust

The study also looked at participants’ trust in institutions. Throughout the study trust in police has remained consistent, however trust in politicians, the government and financial institutions has steadily declined. What remains to be seen is if the banking royal commission, another change of Prime Minister, and an upcoming federal election, further challenges that trust.

We may very well find out soon. The Our Lives participants will once again have an opportunity to share their views and their lives in 2019.

Professor Skrbis is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Innovation) at ACU and the Principal Chief Investigator of the Our Lives project.

Learn more about ACU. 

Professor Zlatko Skrbis

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G