More than ever, Australia is a nation of migrants. About half of us - around 49 per cent - are either first or second generation migrants, and among those born overseas, the number from neighbouring Asian countries has for the first time overtaken the number born in Europe.
These demographic shifts have important implications for how we understand generational difference in Australia. Almost one-quarter of young Australians aged 15 to 25 were born overseas. And it’s these people that represent Australia’s multicultural future, but we know little about them.
How are these multicultural Australians faring, economically and socially? How are they navigating cultural difference? What are their values? What are their challenges? What is their vision for Australia?
The answers to these questions are critical to successfully navigating Australia’s multicultural future. Which is why, this month, we are going to ask them what they think in what will be the first ever census of multicultural youth in Australia.
Our future is looking more culturally and linguistically diverse than ever. And while political debate and media commentary are rife with speculation about what this changing population means, there is little systematic research that helps us unpack the assumptions often made about multicultural young people.
But what we do know paints a picture of a highly socially-engaged group working successfully across cultural divides. Our yet-to-be-published qualitative research from the Multicultural Youth Australia project at the University of Melbourne shows refugee and migrant young people are active and vital participants in Australia’s civic and cultural life. They take part in a range of cultural activities – in school, sports clubs, ethnic community groups, leadership programs and social advocacy networks. Through much of this activity young people forge important connections between and across cultural groups.
Many are made aware of the obligation to demonstrate their contribution to Australia from a young age, and to act as community leaders and representatives. However, some express frustration that their efforts to do so are not always recognised. One research participant, who is a vocal advocate and community educator on sexual health issues, states that despite her achievements, “Every time we try and do something the finish line keeps moving”.
Our research suggests that many of these young migrants are hard-working and value self-sufficiency. Compared with the general population, they carry a significant burden of responsibility to their families and communities. As one participant put it, “you’re trying to please your parents or community by upholding certain values, but then at the same time you’re trying to connect with the wider community”.
Rather than being a time of freedom or leisure, for this group in particular youth is a busy period filled with study, work, networking and self-improvement. Many of these young people want to be influencers and entrepreneurs.
But despite these positive contributions, multicultural young people still face prejudice.
In March this year the Federal Government released Australia’s first national multicultural statement since 2011. While this policy, and those that preceded it, makes much of the fact that Australia is a ‘multicultural success story’, it offers a defensive vision of multiculturalism, emphasising the need for integration, unity and cohesiveness. The value of cultural diversity is understood largely in terms of migrants’ economic contributions to Australia. The policy offers no meaningful account of what else migrants contribute and create, or the range of ways to value diversity.
This instrumental and defensive rhetoric is reiterated by immigration and refugee policies aimed at securing Australia’s physical borders, proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act making it harder to complain about racism, and moves to narrow the criteria for Australian citizenship.
The last few months have also witnessed a vicious social media backlash against one of Australia’s most prominent young multicultural Australians, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, revealing the disturbing underbelly of fear, mistrust and cultural insecurity that exists in Australia today.
These efforts to safeguard what are perceived to be Australian values, and to attack those who supposedly threaten them, expose an urgent need for a more informed conversation about Australia’s multicultural future.
We are working with eight multicultural and youth organisations around Australia to conduct the country’s first multicultural youth census. It will survey some 10 000 multicultural young people, providing broad-based data to test and quantify these findings.
This is the first time such a census will be conducted anywhere in the world, and the results will provide a comprehensive knowledge base about young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, and a set of benchmarks for reporting on their economic, social and cultural progress.
Given the current contestations around what constitutes ‘Australian values’ it is worth asking this growing cohort of Australian society what they value, how they are faring in life and their vision for Australia.
Multicultural young people are increasingly defined by their mobility, and share connections with local and global communities in ways that are very different to previous generations. This mobility brings about important advantages, such as forms of cross-cultural belonging and literacy that are critical to working and living in increasingly transnational environments. However, they also face challenges that are not well understood by government and the broader community – such as racial discrimination, intergenerational conflict, economic insecurity and social and political exclusion.
They are also eager to challenge the stereotype of the grateful migrant and to ask questions about their place in Australian society. They are critical of the ways they are positioned by the media and wider community, but are also optimistic about their ability to change things. Some are critical of their parents’ generation who they believe to be too rigid or inward-looking.
This younger generation, by contrast, is flexible and inquisitive. They see themselves as cultural mediators – their identities are shaped not just by their parents’ backgrounds but by their engagement with Australian communities, technology and the global traffic in social media images and ideas.
This is where the census results will come in.
By understanding and documenting the contributions multicultural young people already make to Australian life, and the strategies and resources they draw on to navigate cultural difference and complexity, we can provide benchmark data for organisations to start tracking how multicultural young people are faring, and valuing the many positive roles they take on in their everyday lives.
The Multicultural Youth Census will take place across Australia from mid-August and can be accessed at that time. More details about the research will be available soon at www.multiculturalyouth.net
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