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Chaotic Futures: The Future We Want to Avoid

Chaotic Futures: The Future We Want to Avoid describes a chaotic future in which the existing crises of a pre-COVID-19 world are amplified and become unmanageable by international, national, state and local institutions and systems that are ill-equipped for responding to or managing this chaos.

In a series of three posts we will outline the three scenarios which we produced in the COVID-19 Recovery Scenarios for Young People in Melbourne’s Inner North project in partnership with the Inner Northern Local Learning and Employment Network (IN-LLEN)

In this scenario it is all too easy to become pessimistic and/or unhopeful about our short and longer term futures. But these futures are recognisable, possible, and need to be acknowledged and addressed if we are to avoid them (which should not be taken-for-granted as something we can achieve). As many agencies, organisations and commentators have suggested, many of the features and possibilities of this scenario became starkly evident during 2020, but the pandemic also amplified existing trends and trajectories.

The Climate and Biodiversity Crises

Given the warnings of the recent past, and projections over the next 5 years, in this scenario we see little evidence that the human activities that have produced these possibilities are changing at all, or are changing fast enough to avoid this chaotic future. For example, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) produces an annual ‘Gap report’ that measures progress, or a lack of it, towards particular indicators of/for sustainable development and achieving the Paris Agreement targets. In its 2020 report the UNEP (2020) points out that:

‘Between 2020 and 2030, global coal, oil, and gas production would have to decline annually by 11%, 4%, and 3%, respectively, to be consistent with a 1.5°C pathway. But government plans and projections indicate an average 2% annual increase for each fuel.

This translates to a production gap similar to that estimated in the 2019 report, with countries aiming to produce 120% and 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C, respectively.’[1]

Many argue that by 2025 we will be left with only 5 years to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.[2] This chaotic scenario also sees the world’s biodiversity continue to decline as the species extinction rates accelerate.[3]

The inaction, or a lack of sufficient action to address these challenges, that characterises this scenario, is something that young people around the world have been protesting for the last few years in the School Strike for Climate and Fridays for the Future mass movements.[4] For young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and her colleagues, the climate and biodiversity crises that global agencies are outlining and foretelling are just ‘the very beginning.’[5]

In the chaotic futures that these young people all too easily imagine, and fear, they acknowledge that: ‘the world is complicated and that what we are asking for may not be easy or may seem unrealistic. But it is much more unrealistic to believe that our societies would be able to survive the…disastrous ecological consequences of today’s business as usual. We are inevitably going to have to fundamentally change, one way or another.’[6]

The Economy

Nouriel Roubini is professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank. Drawing on this extensive experience and knowledge of the recent history of the global economy, and his sense of the more immediate and longer terms possibilities of the pandemic, he identified, in 2020, what he called ‘10 ominous and risky trends’ that point to an L-shaped “Greater Depression” for the decade of the 2020s.[7] The 10 risks are:

1) Deficits and debt, 2) Demography, 3) Deflation, 4) Currency debasement, 5) Digital Disruption and Employment Replacement, 6) De-globalisation, 7) Backlash against democracy, 8) The US v China, 9) New Cold War, 10) Environmental Crises.

Roubini reinforces the sense of the world that COVID-19 emerged into, and the ways in which these histories and presents are entangled with the possible, probable futures that we all face – the more than likely, if not inevitable, worst case scenarios:

‘These 10 risks, already looming large before Covid-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair.’ [8]

In this scenario, the initial economic shocks of the COVID-19 recession in 2020 and 2021, and their impacts on the education, training and employment pathways of young people over the coming 5 years, mirror many of the burdens and costs that particular populations of young people carried in the ‘downstream’ effects of the GFC.[9]

For many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, Aboriginal and indigenous communities, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and young people with disabilities, these effects include: long periods of unemployment and underemployment; being ‘trapped’ in precarious and gig work beyond the limits of the choice and flexibility that are often touted for these forms of work; finding that they don’t have the skills and capabilities demanded by increasing digitalisation, automation and globalisation of the 4th Industrial Revolution; and the social, economic, and health and well-being ‘scarring’ that accompanies these experiences.[10]

The Inner North

Stakeholders from the inner north who were interviewed by the LLEN, and who participated in the facilitated forum workshop also share these concerns in their observations and experiences with young people. Young people’s anxiety about their sense of place in the world, and about purposeful education and employment, have escalated from a pre-existing condition to what is now palpable during the COVID-19 crisis. Their concerns, at times despair, about climate change have also been heightened as they both observe and experience the disconnect between existing systems and urgent challenges. These crises leave groups who were experiencing disadvantage or discrimination, such as young people from refugee and migrant communities, Aboriginal and indigenous young people,LGBTQIA+ young people and disabled young people in the inner north, more vulnerable in this chaotic futures scenario.

‘I think schools really need to think more about, you know, heighten the levels of distress and particularly around mental health, around some of the ways they operate, the hours they operate, the way in which they enforce rules that don’t need to be enforced. That if young people are already incredibly stressed, incredibly uncertain about continuing to attend school, then schools really need to answer the question, how are they going to change how young people are going to change? What is school going to do about how are they going to take the stress level down for young people?’ 

Melanie Raymond, Chair, Youth Projects.

Multiple recessions from the 1990s onwards have contributed to young people’s vulnerabilities in the inner north. These vulnerabilities operate on two interconnected levels. The first is the declining number of, and access to, meaningful employment, even entry level positions, and situations where young people juggle a few hours of work across a number of jobs while studying, with little prospect of gaining a qualification that leads to secure work. And second, the precariousness of the gig economy and economic shifts that contribute to the deepening of mental health issues that are further exacerbated by factors such as homelessness, domestic violence and substance abuse. 

Stakeholders’ concerns over young people’s low wages, poor employment conditions and rising unemployment and the attitudes of employers, financial institutions, and services towards young people in the inner north are warranted in the wake of a national youth unemployment crisis. In this scenario, these issues worsen, particularly for young people with a large HECS debt, and in relation to low housing affordability and transport options and costs: 

‘The worst case scenario for me is we go back to where we were beforehand and we don’t learn from that. So we go back to a place where young people cycle through unemployment benefits. The length of unemployment remains at twenty-four months in Broadmeadows. We don’t have really strong pathways from school to further education or school to employment for those very vulnerable kids. We don’t intervene early enough.’ 

Ben Vasilou, CEO Youth Projects.

The issue of young people’s anxiety over post-school options for their futures is an ongoing concern for many stakeholders. Stakeholders acknowledge in this scenario that a failure to act in a comprehensive and collaborative way to re-engage and reimagine young people’s livelihoods will lead to a chaotic futures scenario. 

These concerns about chaotic futures are mirrored by many of the young people we spoke to in the inner north. Including, importantly, the feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and fear that accompany a sense of a chaotic future. These young people also voiced their concerns about chaotic futures where they lose hope in the abilities of institutions to deal with crisis, and the scarcity of affordable, safe and secure housing: 

‘So looking into the future, I would say I am scared anxious and hopeful all at the same time, I think… I think we kind of need to turn on our moral obligation… because we’re not doing that at the moment… I think about the economy and how we are going to have to be, my generation, is going to have to be fixing that as well as paying off Uni fees or whatever… I think about we’re still not really going to be able to afford a house and yeah just everyday expenses like that.’ 

Rosie, 18, Northcote

Ash describes the insurmountable obstacles to receiving adequate support from the government to budget for daily expenses:

‘The other thing is like the financial situation. I don’t have anything financial backing from like family. So at the moment without a job, my only financial support has been from the government with like Centrelink. Like youth allowance, and when on youth allowance, that money is not really sufficient to be able to, live on, when you’re living in a place like Melbourne, where rent is so expensive, over half my finances, my money, was going to just my rent, it’s a lot. Um. (laughs)…I think, yeah, I’m not really sure what to do.’ 

Ash, 24, Pascoe Vale.  

Young people in this scenario are left with mortgaged and chaotic futures. These chaotic futures are further exacerbated by the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19, climate, and economic crises that leave young people in a perpetual state of precariousness with little voice in changing their predicament.


[1] UNEP (2020) The Production Gap: 2020 Special Report, https://productiongap.org

[2] UN (2019) Only 11 years left to prevent irreversible damage from climate change, speakers warn during General Assembly high-level meeting, https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm

[3] UN (2019) UN Report: Nature’s dangerous decline ‘Unprecedented’; species extinction rates ‘Accelerating’, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

[4] https://fridaysforfuture.org

[5] Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Anuna de Wever, and Adélaïde Charlier (2020) After two years of school strikes, the world is still in a state of climate crisis denial, The Guardian, August 19, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/19/climate-crisis-leaders-greta-thunberg

[6] Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Anuna de Wever, and Adélaïde Charlier

[7] Nouriel Roubini (2020) A Greater Depression?  https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/coronavirus-greater-great-depression-by-nouriel-roubini-2020-03?barrier=accesspaylog

[8] Nouriel Roubini (2020) A Greater Depression?

[9] Kelly, P. and Pike, J. (editors) (2017) Neo-Liberalism and Austerity: The Moral Economies of Young People’s Health and Well-Being, Palgrave, London.

The Productivity Commission (2020) Why did young people’s income declinehttps://www.pc.gov.au/research/completed/youth-income-decline

[10] Kelly, P. (2017) Growing up After the GFC:  Responsibilisation and Mortgaged Futures, Discourse, 38, 1, pp. 57-69

By Peter Kelly

I lead the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre in the School of Education at RMIT University.

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