Introduction

Australia’s youth provides a picture of the wellbeing of young people living in Australia. It assembles the latest available data on a wide range of topics to explain how Australian young people are faring and what changes have occurred over time. It builds on previous Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) youth reporting—including Young Australians: their health and wellbeing 2011 and the 2015 data portal National Youth Information Framework (NYIF) indicators—and is a companion report to Australia’s children. It also outlines related data gaps, thereby providing a platform to support the improvement of and need for regular reporting on young people.

Young people are defined in this report as those aged 12–24. This life stage, from adolescence to young adulthood:

  • is a critical time for acquiring the emotional and cognitive abilities for independence, completing education and transitioning to employment, civic engagement and for forming lifelong relationships (Patton et al. 2016)
  • is a time when identity and sense of self are changing, and when values are formed (Harris et al. 2015)
  • is a time when the foundations for health and wellbeing are laid down for these parents of tomorrow, thus influencing not only their future health and wellbeing but also that of the next generation (Patton et al. 2016).

The pathways from education to work, and from the parental home to independent living, have become more varied and complex for young people, and often take longer than in the past (AIHW 2015). The challenges these pose make resilience a key life skill to develop during adolescence, to cope with difficult or stressful situations. Resilient people who know their own strengths and use them to achieve their goals have been reported to have higher wellbeing scores (APS 2016).

Since early 2020, COVID-19 has emerged as a major health threat and disrupted almost all parts of society worldwide, including Australia. Data until 16 June 2021 has shown that although case numbers are high among young Australians, deaths have been low compared to older age groups. However, it has had a substantial social and economic impact on young Australians, particularly in relation to psychological distress, educational disruption, unemployment, and housing stress and safety.

At the time of publication, data suggest some outcomes for young people have returned to pre-COVID-19 levels. However, the full impact of COVID-19 on young people is likely to be complex, long term, and will not be fully understood for some time. As many life trajectories are set in place during adolescence and young adulthood, having regular data collection in place to monitor the wellbeing of young people over time and across domains has become even more important.

About the report

The topics included in Australia’s youth are based on the 7 domains of the AIHW people-centred data model—health, social support, education, employment, income and finance, housing, and justice and safety. A separate section on the impact of COVID-19 on young people is also included (see COVID-19 and the impact on young people). The report supports comparisons across different groups and internationally, where possible.

As a starting point, the following policy and national documents were used to identify areas of ongoing policy relevance, and issues considered important to young people:

  • the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children
  • Australia’s Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan, with a special focus on Indigenous young people
  • the National Action Plan for the Health of Children and Young People 2020–2030
  • the Productivity Commission’s Inquiry report on mental health
  • the Alice Springs Education Declaration
  • the Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia
  • Mission Australia Youth Survey reports
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Action Plan for Youth.

The selection of final topics for the report was based on advice from the AIHW’s Child and Youth Information Advisory Group, members of the Wellbeing, Health and Youth (WH&Y) Commission aged between 15–21, and data availability and/or suitability. The report is not meant to reflect all major topics important to young people. For more information, see The voice of young people.

Each topic section outlines the importance of the subject to youth wellbeing and, wherever possible, presents data on established measures over time and for particular population groups. International comparisons are included where available, and sources with more information are given. Available national or state or territory data sources have been used for those topics with no established measures to give some insight into the topic.

A companion PDF report, (Australia’s youth: in brief), presents a high-level summary of key statistics and findings from the report.

COVID-19 and the impact on young people

Where COVID-19 data for 2020 and early 2021 were available from the data collections underpinning this report, they are included. However, data were not yet available for many of these collections.

An additional section, COVID-19 and the impact on young people, overviews the emerging picture of the impact of COVID-19 on young people across the 7 domains of the report. It draws on several new surveys conducted since the pandemic began that were specifically geared to assessing the impact of COVID-19. Some of these data have limitations (for example, the sample size of young people included). Given the nature of the data available and their limitations, the COVID-19 information included is not always nationally representative; it does, however, represent the best available data.

Young people in scope

Definitions of the age range for young people vary across Australian and international data collections and reporting. For this report, youth are defined as those aged 12–24. This age range complements that in Australia’s children and the Children’s Headline Indicators aged 0–12, noting there is 1 year of overlap for young people aged 12.

Where data for young people aged 12–24 are not available or readily published, or the numbers are too small for robust reporting, a different age range (most commonly 15–24 years) is reported. This is especially the case for health-related data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Regardless, the age range reported in Australia’s youth complements that used for equivalent indicators in Australia’s children. For example, if data were reported for children aged 0–14 in Australia’s children, the age range reported in Australia’s youth will be 15–24 (Figure 1). (Summary demographic information is given for young people aged 12–24 in Demographics of Australian young people and their families).

Wherever possible, this report presents data for sub-age groups. The age range for sub-groups is based on robustness of the data and alignment with relevant guidelines (for example, legal age for drinking, physical activity and nutrition guidelines).

Figure  1: Relationship between AIHW reporting on children and youth

This diagram shows the sequential age groups included in reporting on children and youth. Prenatal and early childhood and primary school age (5–12 years) were included in child reporting. Adolescence (12–19 years) and young adults (20–24 years) were included in youth reporting.

An ecological approach to reporting youth wellbeing

The ecological approach to youth reporting adopted for this report considers how factors that shape people’s health interact within and between different social and ecological ‘levels’. The specific approach taken derives from existing frameworks for children and young people used in Australia: The young person is at the centre and their development and wellbeing occurs within dynamic concentric circles of influence exerted by different settings, namely:

  • immediate influences of a confident and capable family
  • direct and indirect influences of strong and supportive communities
  • broader influences of the wider society in which the young person lives (Tasmanian DHHS 2018; Victoria Department of Education and Training 2018).

The many influences on young people of these spheres can be organised into information domains. As mentioned earlier, this report is structured around the 7 domains of the AIHW’s people-centred data model, developed to measure and report on the health and welfare of the general population. Modified for youth reporting, it includes 7 information domains across the health and welfare sectors: individual health, social support, education, employment, income and finance, housing, and justice and safety. The interrelationship of these domains in the context of youth wellbeing is highlighted in Figure 2.

While the 7 domains are represented separately in Figure 2, they are not mutually exclusive, but rather interconnected in the lives of young people.

  • For example, while the importance of physical and mental health within the health domain is well established, health impacts young people’s lives across all domains and different sectors, including family life and housing, education and employment, and justice and safety.

Currently, data are mostly available from separate and disconnected sources. This makes it difficult to undertake regular national reporting on many topics that cut across different domains—such as physical and mental health within the context of education or work, homelessness or unstable housing, or of young people in the justice system. Regular national reporting on such cross-cutting themes requires regular national multi-sectorial data linkage. For more information, see Data gaps.

Figure 2: AIHW people-centred data model and an ecological approach to the wellbeing of young people

This diagram shows a people-centred data model with young people in the middle surrounded by 4 circles. The innermost circle reads ‘confident and capable families’ followed by ‘strong and supportive community’, and thirdly ‘enabling society and environment’. The outermost circle is segmented, with one domain per segment. The domains are: Housing, education, employment, income and finance, health, social support and justice and safety.

The voice of young people

According to Mission Australia Youth Survey report 2020, young people aged 15 to 19:

  • identified equity and discrimination, COVID-19 and mental health as the 3 most important issues in Australia today
  • reported the following 3 issues to be of the most personal concern: education, mental health and COVID-19 (see also COVID-19 and the impact on young people (Tiller et al. 2020)).

For this report, the AIHW sought the perspective of some young people through collaboration with the Wellbeing, Health and Youth (WH&Y) Commission. The Commission, which was established as part of the Wellbeing, Health and Youth NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Adolescent Health:

  • is a platform for young peoples’ ongoing participation in the design of adolescent health research agendas, research design and innovative methods, as well as for working through ethical dilemmas and advising on translation of adolescent health research
  • has 20 members (currently) aged 15–22 from a diverse range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and lived experience
  • is being supported to become an expert group of young people trained in a range of core aspects of research and translation.

The Commission also provided input into the topic selection for Australia’s youth, and drafted 3 topic sections of particular importance to members and for which only limited data are currently available. For more information, see Contributions from young people for information pieces on Climate change, Discrimination, belonging and health and LGBTIQ+ young people.

Providing children and young people with a voice on their experiences is a role undertaken by the National Children’s Commissioner, and state and territory children’s commissioners. For more information, see Where do I find more information?

Population groups

The AIHW’s people-centred data model approach supports reporting on inequities in health and wellbeing outcomes that are influenced by the social determinants of health. Groups of young people at increased risk of experiencing health inequities who may need additional support include those:

  • from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds
  • from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, including young people in refugee and asylum seeker families
  • with disability
  • who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender diverse, or who have intersex variations
  • living or have lived in out-of-home care
  • who are incarcerated
  • with parents who are incarcerated
  • born into poverty
  • experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage
  • living in rural and remote communities (AHRC 2017; RACGP 2018).

Being among one of these groups does not equate to inherent vulnerability. It is increasingly recognised that vulnerability exists on a continuum and arises from circumstances and contexts, rather than from intrinsic qualities of individuals or groups (NHMRC 2020). Neither are these groups mutually exclusive; there can be overlap between them. Young people who experience multiple forms of vulnerability are likely to be particularly at risk of poor outcomes.

  • For example, research has found that more than half of young people who had been in youth justice supervision had also received child protection services (AIHW 2018).

To help to identify where health inequity exists, the report aims to present data for each domain disaggregated by young people from selected population groups, wherever possible. However, this is one area where there is an overarching critical data gap (see Data gaps). Due to current data availability, reporting has generally been limited to young people:

  • from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds or born overseas
  • living in different geographical areas (remoteness)
  • living in areas with different socioeconomic characteristics based on the ABS Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (see Methods).

At times, due to small sample sizes of young people in a number of surveys, data disaggregated for these 3 populations are not possible (see also Data gaps).

It should be noted that young people living in rural and remote areas face unique challenges due to their geographic location and often have poorer health outcomes than young people living in metropolitan areas. They also have poorer access to, and use of, primary health-care services (AIHW 2020). Due to the limited length of this report and extensive coverage of Indigenous young people and young people with disability in other recent AIHW publications, these 2 priority populations are not included in this report.

This report does include some overarching information on young people living in out‑of-home care; however, additional data on this group of young people from other sources are very limited. For information on specified indicators relating to out-of-home care, see the National Standards for Out-of-Home Care (the National Standards) under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020.

Reporting data for different groups is important for high-level national reporting; however, as each sub-group is reported separately, insight on the multiple disadvantages that children may experience is not given.

  • For example, young people living in out-of-home care can also experience relatively high social and economic disadvantage (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017). Moreover, young people experiencing economic disadvantage may also face social exclusion.

National initiatives and reporting on youth wellbeing

Responsibility at the national level for services and/or policies to support core elements of youth wellbeing—health, development, learning and safety—cuts across different sectors, and across different government departments of:

At a national level, several initiatives, developments and/or publications have specifically recognised the importance of supporting young people, including:

As a result of the shared responsibility for youth health and wellbeing, national reporting frameworks have been developed by different government departments as well as by non-government agencies to support decision making. Some are youth specific and broad in scope; some focus on an aspect of child and youth wellbeing (such as child safety). Others cover whole-of-population, or specific population groups (for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) and either include indicators relevant to youth and/or disaggregate for youth. Figure 3 categorises the current frameworks.

Figure 3: National frameworks relevant to youth

General youth frameworks


Government

Australia’s youth
 

Non-government

ARACY’s (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth) The Nest Wellbeing Framework and The Nest Report Card: the wellbeing of young Australians
 

Whole population and sector specific

Health

  • Australian Health Performance Framework(a)
  • National Healthcare Agreement
  • National Strategic Framework for Chronic Conditions(b)

Welfare

  • Australia’s Welfare Indicator Framework
  • National Disability Agreement
  • National Housing and Homelessness Agreement(c)

Youth and sector specific

Health

  • National Action Plan for Health of Children and Youth People 2020–2030 Health (currently no reporting)
  • Healthy, Safe and Thriving: National Strategic Framework for Child and Youth Health (currently no reporting)

Safety

  • National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children(d)
  • National Standards for Out-of-Home Care

Education and employment

  • National Schools Reform Agreement
  • National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework
     
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan: Implementation Plan goals
     
  • National Indigenous Reform Agreement
     
  • National Framework for Health Services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children and Families
     

(a)  The Australian Health Performance Framework subsumes the National Health Performance Framework and the Performance and Accountability Framework. A core set of indicators has been agreed.
(b)  The National Strategic Framework for Chronic Conditions Reporting Project, being developed by the AIHW, is expected to be finalised later in 2021.
(c)  Children and young people are a priority cohort under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement.
(d)  The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s children expires in 2021. A successor plan is being developed.

Some variation exists across the frameworks in relation to the:

  • breadth and depth of domain subjects covered
  • age range reported
  • disaggregation of data for specific populations
  • frequency of reporting (Table 1).
Table 1: Domain commonalities across national reporting frameworks
Framework Age in years Disaggregation Reporting frequency

Key national indicators of youth health, and wellbeing (National Youth Information Framework indicators)

12–24

Age group, gender, Indigenous status, CALD, remoteness, SES, some international

4-yearly to 2015

ARACY The Nest Report Card

0–24

Indigenous, international

5-yearly

National Framework for Protecting Australia’s children

0–17

Age, gender, Indigenous, CALD (for some indicators)

Annual

National Standards for Out-of-Home Care

0–17

Indigenous, remoteness (for selected indicators)

Annual

Australian Health Performance Framework

Whole population

Varying ages

2-yearly

Australia’s Welfare Indicator Framework

Whole population

Varying ages

2-yearly

National intergovernmental agreements

Whole population/students

Varying ages

Annual

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework

Whole population

Varying ages

2-yearly

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan: Implementation Plan goals

Whole population

Varying ages

Annual

Abbreviations: ARACY (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth); CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse); SES (socioeconomic status).

 Of the 7 domains in the AIHW people-centred data model, in relation to young people, the Health domain has the most established measures across the various frameworks while the Income and finance and Employment domains have the fewest (Table 2).

Table 2: Established measures under national reporting frameworks
Framework Health Social support Education Employment Income and finance Housing Justice
and
safety

Key national indicators of youth health, and wellbeing (National Youth Information Framework indicators)

ARACY The Nest Report Card

National Framework for Protecting Australia’s children

 

National Standards for Out-of-Home Care

 

 

 

 

National core maternity indicators

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australian Health Performance Framework

 

 

 

 

 

 

Australia's Welfare Indicator Framework

 

National intergovernmental agreements

NHA NDA NIRA

 

NSRA
NIRA

 

 

NHHA

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework

 

 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan: Implementation Plan goals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abbreviations: ARACY (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth); NHHA (National Housing and Homelessness Agreement); NSRA (National Schools Reform Agreement); NYIF (National Youth Information Framework).

There is growing interest in Australia and internationally in developing positive indicators for wellbeing. However, historically many national well-established indicators, including some presented in this report have a deficit, rather than a strengths-based focus. This can potentially reinforce negative stereotypes about young people.

Data supporting national indicator reporting

Australia’s youth aims to present a national overview of how Australian youth are faring at a particular point in a way that can be regularly updated and allow for progress to be tracked. It therefore focuses on data that are nationally representative, collected periodically, and that support population-level comparisons.

The report draws predominantly on:

  • administrative data sets held by the AIHW
  • national surveys by the ABS
  • specific national collections, such as the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy.

A mix of administrative by-product data and data collected directly from young people is included. See Data sources for a full listing of data sources used. However, for some topics of interest, where nationally representative data collected periodically are not available, other national data sources, or sub-national data sources, have been used to further insight on a topic.

In future, data integration could enable improved national reporting. For example, data could be brought together from multiple sources on select population groups (such as young people in out-of-home care and young people with disability) to better understand their use of services across multiple sectors (such as education, health and justice) and their transitions over time (such as from school to work). Data integration would also facilitate improved understanding of topics that cut across different domains, such as mental health.

Where do I find more information?

For more information on Children’s Commissioners in Australia, see: