The dark side of Schoolies
Fairfax's Nic Walker and Amy McNeilage explore the dark side of Schoolies celebrations in Bali.
Content warning: read to the end before you think this is a catastrophic vision of the future.
Your kids have just gone to schoolies and every night you go to sleep fearing the worst but the worst is yet to come. I can promise you it won’t be the drunken vomiting or a drug overdose.
It will be your child’s complete lack of preparation for what comes next in their lives. Every single year I tell parents how important gap years are and they rarely believe me. They come to university open days, asking questions on behalf of their children (who often sit there, blinking, mute) with a vision of the future firmly rooted in the past. It's law and accounting, it’s medicine and engineering; and it’s got zip to do with what comes next. This is not individual to the university where I teach.
More and more often, academic researchers tell parents that full-time work will soon be a minority activity and parents still opt for sending their children to those courses which those same parents think are identified with a job at the end. Yet none of us knows what those jobs are (although if it can be done by a robot, it soon will be).
So if you won’t listen, please send this story to your children and anyone else who wants to flourish in the transmogrifying world of work.
Extensive academic research shows us that those who take a gap year do better at university. Not bone-crushingly better. Not university medal-winning better. But enough to have a significant academic advantage. A positive academic experience in first year is a good predictor of what follows.
There are some other advantages too. I can always tell the students who’ve had a gap year. They don’t burst into tears over marks. They don’t get cranky when you critique their work. They have a resilience born from working at the checkout in the local supermarket where customers may behave deplorably and, if they have the economic advantage necessary to travel, they also have the resilience born from dealing with the travel disasters that happen when Mum and Dad can’t rescue you any more.
School might have prepared students intellectually for a tertiary education, but there is lots school can’t prepare you for – and that’s how to deal with real people in the real world. Teachers and schools are in cahoots to get them through a moronic accreditation system known as the HSC/VCE and with their self-esteem unrealistically intact. Mostly, they are prevented from failing and sometimes even from knowing they are failing.
But real life is full of failure and they need to become skilled at dealing with that, at dealing with rejection and pressure and a shortage of time and money. They need to learn to deal with people not liking them without falling to pieces. They have to learn to deal with the difference between their desires and their hopes and what they can achieve with what they have because those failures will all happen, no matter what they decide to do with their life.
Right now, they are pretty unprepared for criticism. Take those school reports each year. We all know the teachers have glossed over the bad bits. As Jordan Baker wrote this week, reports have changed from the frank and opinionated to the anodyne and standardised. She interviewed one teacher who said: "We sugar coat, for sure.”
I’ve even had parents who ring me asking about their child’s marks for a university assessment. A university assessment. It’s a good thing I’m only allowed to speak to the responsible adult who is enrolled at our institution not the one who is paying the bills. (Yep, parents have actually tried that one on me.)
There’s a strong linear preoccupation with what comes next in the story after high school – study, relationships, jobs, which is why I asked RMIT’s Professor Judith Bessant on what ideas she had for young people. Her life’s work is about work, what we do now and next. She rejects the notion that the two competing narratives sold to young people about their futures - entrepreneurial superhero or anxious precariat - are the only options and counsels a strong reality check. And that reality check includes seeking an education which is less about tipping content into empty heads, less about teaching specific digital skills, less about compliance, less about "the needs of employers" and more about thinking hard and strong.
In a keynote speech at a conference on the gig economy next week, Bessant will argue young people should learn to contest ideas and “to realise how we can approach issues from a number of contrasting views. It includes encouraging insight into how new language can herald and create change”.
And she has the best call-to-action for young people I’ve read. If you are at the beginning of your lives, take her advice. And if you are a parent, you should heed it. “Young people can and should play a larger role in shaping their identity and futures.”
And if you want my advice, definitely take a gap year. Not just to sit in your bedroom with Netflix but to take risks, earn some money, ignore your parents. Live a little.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a Herald columnist.