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Unsustainable Futures: The Future We Are Likely to Get

Unsustainable Futures: The Future We are Likely to Get describes an unsustainable future in which the resources we use cannot be renewed and continuing with a ‘business as usual’ approach to manage the crises the COVID-19 pandemic and fallout will mean that international, national, state and local institutions and systems will be overwhelmed.

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)

Many aspects of this possible future echo those in the Chaotic Futures scenario. A ‘business as usual’ approach to the climate, the economy, education, training and employment pathways for young people, and their health and well-being reflects a sense that these things were in ‘pretty good shape’ prior to the pandemic, and that we just need to ‘bounce-back’ to this ‘normal’. 

The Climate and Biodiversity Crises

In late 2020 the United Nations Development Plan (UNDP) released its latest report titled – The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene. The UNDP lists the challenges that humans, non-humans and the planet face: 

‘The climate crisis. Biodiversity collapse. Ocean acidification. The list is long and growing longer. So much so that many scientists believe that for the first time, instead of the planet shaping humans, humans are knowingly shaping the planet. This is the Anthropocene – the Age of Humans – a new geologic epoch.’

In our headlong pursuit of ‘unsustainable’ development humans ‘have taken the Earth for granted, destabilizing the very systems upon which we rely for survival’. COVID-19, ‘which almost certainly sprang to humans from animals, offers a glimpse of our future, in which the strain on our planet mirrors the strain facing societies’. From this perspective, COVID-19, as a symptom or signal of wider processes took ‘very little time to expose and exploit overlapping inequalities, as well as weaknesses in social, economic, and political systems, and threaten reversals in human development.’[1]

In this future:

‘There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic…The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment…This is the path to pandemics.’[2]

The Economy

The lack of response around the globe and in Australia to the climate and biodiversity crises impact negatively on international and national economic development. In this scenario, Australia makes limited progress in meeting key targets in relation to UN SDG 8 to Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Various agencies point out that exponential climate change impacts threaten more than supply chains and physical infrastructure, they endanger growth by exacerbating systems-level disruption to customers, investors, employees and communities. Wildfires in California, the world’s 7th largest economy, and Australia, the 11th largest provide an indication of the potential impacts.[3]

As many international and national agencies have predicted, the climate crisis will grow worse, and Australian governments will continue to struggle to develop a coherent and co-ordinated approach in line with the Paris Agreement. Global and Australian business leaders must look at climate risk in new ways.[4]

In this scenario, the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing economic crises undercut plans for an economic ‘reboot’.[5]An uncertain recovery in 2021 and beyond is predicated on the pandemic fading, helped by new vaccine approvals and policy support with global growth expected to rebound to 5.5 percent in 2021 and 4.2% in 2022.[6] The recovery projected for 2021-22 follows a severe collapse in 2020 that has acutely impacted women, young people, the informally employed, and those working in contact intensive industries.[7] The strength of the recovery beyond 2021 is predicted to vary significantly across nations and is dependent on the effectiveness of policy support, access to medical interventions, and structural characteristics that were evident prior to entering the pandemic and its economic and social crises.[8]

Education and Training

The challenges facing education systems in Australia, pre and post-COVID, and the sorts of education, training and employment pathways that might engage all young people, and cater for their health and well-being, are significant. As the Shergold report observes:

Education must prepare young people both for active citizenship in a democratic society and for purposeful engagement with the labour market. This is vital at a time when trust in democratic governance and institutions is at a low level and cognitive technologies are transforming the future of work.

Young people are increasingly anxious about the uncertainty of their futures. The profound disruptions of COVID-19 have heightened that unease. They sense that normal life is unlikely to be fully restored. Economic recovery is likely to be slow and patchy…

School leavers do not just need to be employable. They need to be adaptable, flexible and confident. Education must provide students with the essential attributes they require for lifelong learning in whatever fields of endeavour they may choose. The professional and applied skills they need will change significantly over their lives. The jobs they do will be transformed. Some, driven by entrepreneurial ambition, will want to set up their own businesses. Most will switch careers.

To achieve this – for all young Australians – profound challenges need to be overcome.[9]

In this business-as-usual scenario these challenges look similar in 2025, to the ways that they look prior to, and during the pandemic.

The Inner North

As spiralling youth unemployment, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate crisis converge, young people are left particularly vulnerable to forms of collective trauma in this unsustainable futures scenario. Moving to a funding model that narrowly focuses on jobs and relegates creative and critical thinking to the periphery, leaves many young people saddled with large HECs debts that will be difficult to pay off in a shrinking full-time youth labour market with slow wage growth. The ‘business as usual’ response gives young people a tokenistic voice to reimagine education, employment, entrepreneurship and economic recovery in the face of tectonic shifts in the global economy:

‘I think we’ve just got to start to look at things a bit differently. You know, we put too much focus on a job and the job outcome rather than the skills that could relate to the job. And providing these young people with work experience, diverse skills and the ability to actually integrate into a workplace are far more important than, you know, can they wire up a little component or they’ve got specific building skills. I think we’ve got to go back and, you know, instead of trying to stream them very early, trying to provide them with an armoury of basic skills, which includes digitalization.’ 

Mike Grogan, Advanced Manufacturing Skills Centre.

In this scenario, a more regulated and compliance driven education system, under the banner of ‘education for all’, rarely caters for individual differences and needs and only offers supports that are based on narrowly defined metrics. Teachers, students, and parents are left to navigate a fragmented, labyrinthine system, and individual students are left to find meaning and connection within this complexity. The education system does not recognise the different impacts of certain subject areas such as the humanities and social sciences in improving young people’s prospects for meaningful employment. The opportunity to engage young people in critical and creative thinking in order to secure future employment opportunities is lost in this scenario:

‘I don’t think we could just continue to rely on wellbeing staff or teachers within schools that, you know, whose resources are already stretched. I think satellite services into those institutions which funnel most of the kids of Australia. I think that’s probably the best.’ 

Keith Waters, CEO, National Youth Commission. 

Young people navigating this system, who have already experienced disrupted education are more likely to have a difficult time re-engaging in education and training. More and more young people in this scenario face discrimination based on the lack of culturally appropriate support to reach successful outcomes in schools. This system also provides opportunities for unregulated training bodies to take advantage of vulnerable cohorts of young people without any guarantee of jobs or outcomes for their future livelihoods. Young people in this scenario are left with a lack of community support and trust in the services and systems designed to support them. 

The ‘business as usual’ approach to the issues of over-stretched resources and a narrow focus on young people obtaining employment will continue to be unsustainable in 2025 as stakeholders grapple with issues far beyond the scope of their organisations. The entanglements of the COVID-19, climate, and economic crises with young peoples’ futures, provide perplexing problems that cannot be addressed through a ‘business as usual’ response. 

These concerns about unsustainable futures are mirrored by many of the young people we spoke to in the inner north. Their feelings and experiences of current systems during the pandemic, signal how housing, employment, education and health might play out for some young people in an unsustainable, ‘business as usual’ recovery and future. For example, Aidyn describes his frustration in seeking employment during the COVID lockdown in Victoria, while his family was experiencing financial issues.

‘Right now I’m applying for a job…but because of the second lock down, that’s actually taking me longer to find a job right now, or for them to employ me. Seven months for a reply. That’s how long it took me. I’d actually like a job right now because at the moment my parents are…experiencing financial stress…in terms of paying bills…’ 

Aidyn, Fitzroy

Ruby looks forward to a future that will amplify the voices of young people to change the trajectory of these unsustainable futures. 

‘I’m 17 years old and I know that I hold similar beliefs to all my friends and in five years in the future, we’re all going to be able to vote and the voices that we have are going to be a lot louder in a political sense.’ 

Ruby, 17, City of Yarra

Ann observes how the COVID-19 crisis has increased her level of stress and susceptibility to experiencing mental health issues.

‘COVID-19 made my life miserable. It made me more anxious, depressed, agitated. I’m the type of person who doesn’t like being at home because of my family situation. I like being at Uni or at my friend’s house. So being restricted to go anywhere and see my friends made me anxious to the point that I have mental breakdowns on a daily basis.’

Ann, 23, Moreland

These unsustainable futures demonstrate how the ‘business as usual’ approach scenario may play out in 2025 as young people struggle to find employment, deal with the amplified effects of the COVID-19 crisis on their mental health, and find a space to express and voice their concerns in a broken political system. 


[1] The United Nations Development Program 2020, Human Development Report 2020. The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene, http://report.hdr.undp.org/index.html

[2] Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). IPBES (2020) Escaping the ‘Era of Pandemics’: Experts Warn Worse Crises to Come. Options Offered to Reduce Risk https://www.ipbes.net/pandemics-media-release

[3] EY Megatrends 2020 and Beyond (p. 23)

[4] Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology (2021) Annual mean temperature anomaly Australia (1910 to 2020), http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/change/#tabs=Tracker&tracker=timeseries

[5] Sacks, D., Bayles, K., Taggart, A., and Noble, S. (2021). COVID-19 and education: How Australian schools are responding and what happens next. https://www.pwc.com.au/government/government-matters/covid-19-education-how-australian-schools-are-responding.html#:~:text=However%2C%20COVID%2D19%20has%20resulted,ascertaining%20engagement%20levels%20of%20students&text=increased%20social%20isolation%20and%20reduced%20ability%20to%20support%20student%20wellbeing

[6] International Monetary Fund (2021). World economic outlook update: Policy support and vaccines expected to lift activity. https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2021/01/26/2021-world-economic-outlook-update

[7] International Monetary Fund (2021, p. 1).

[8] International Monetary Fund (2021, p. 1).

[9] Education Council (Shergold review, 2020) Looking to the future – Report of the review of senior secondary pathways into work, further education and training, p.12, https://www.pathwaysreview.edu.au

By Peter Kelly

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

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