The Institute of Public Affairs has published a new report by Sydney-based psychiatrist and author Dr Tanveer Ahmed entitled Self-reliance, Youth and the Task of Character.
All human beings need meaning and purpose in one form or another to strive forward in life.
It is central to who we are – psychologically, socially, and physically – for us to believe that there is some point to all of the suffering and challenges which define life.
Finding meaning doesn’t need to be complicated, but it has become more difficult in recent times especially for teenagers and young adults.
It used to be the case that the basic building blocks of a fulfilling and dignified life were laid out to us from a young age. The ‘cultural script’ was to get married, have kids, and stay married. Get a job, and pay your own way as far as possible. Participate in your local community. Take religious and spiritual life seriously, and avoid excesses.
Now, however, our societal focus on unfettered individual autonomy, supercharged with smartphones, has led to the cratering of the family and civil society, and the rejection by many of time-honored truths. Parents now try to be friends with their kids rather than being figures of authority, with the effect of the rise of ‘helicopter parenting’ and the ‘bank of mum and dad’ always there to offer protection.
Concomitant has been the shift in emphasis from physical to psychological and emotional safety. There is nothing wrong with seeking safety and protection. It is a natural impulse, and arguably a natural progression associated with material abundance. But it has become counter-productive.
Self-reliance is an obvious causality of this growing fragility. Self-reliance requires, firstly a belief in human agency, secondly, the ability to defer gratification, thirdly, a set of basic skills around economic and financial literacy, and, lastly, the ability to be able to get along well enough with other people to form social connection.
Many of these traits fall under the category of character, a concept with a moral connotation that is steadily being replaced by the more medicalised notion of personality.
But now, self-reliance implies a sufficiency that is linked to both a stigmatised male archetype and a psychic impenetrability.
The consequences in terms of the deterioration of the mental health of today’s youth is largely beyond debate. The presentations to medical professionals of physical and psychological harm among the young has increased steadily over the past two decades, and was further revealed and accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In many ways Australia’s response to Covid-19 punctuated our nation’s shift from a safety-first to a safety-only culture.
The way forward is to, firstly, diagnose the problem as accurately as possible, which is the goal of this report.
Secondly, to provide based on that diagnosis a set of tools and principles which can be readily applied by today’s youth so that they can rebuild a culture of self-reliance and develop the skills and experiences which used to be commonplace but now cannot be taken for granted.