What it means to be 21 in 2014
Today’s typical 21-year-old is on a path very different from the one their parents followed. Four Gen-y Queenslanders share their journeys.
At 21, you have the world at your feet. Anything is possible and an exciting future awaits. So what’s it like to be 21 in 2014? Demographer Bernard Salt says the first generation to grow up on social media can seem “coddled”, due to increased time in education and longer in the family nest. “A 21-yearold male in 1940 or even 1970 was far more self-sufficient, capable, could chop wood, fix a car, turn his hand to anything,” Salt says. “If you’re independent and have earned an income for a few years, by the time you’re 21 you can take on a relationship and a family responsibility, but you can’t really do that if you’re still living with Mum and Dad and existing on student allowances.”
Salt says today’s youth are late starters. “They might not be out there and self-sufficient at 18 like previous generations, but by their mid-twenties or early thirties they catch up and can deal with more complex issues than preceding generations could.” Starting a family typically is not a priority: “skills, training and experience are what they value”.
And if older generations are inclined to view their youth through rose-tinted glasses, Salt says each generation rebels. “Baby boomers certainly rebelled through the hippie movement, marijuana and LSD but that phase was short, say from ages 17 to 21 in the late 1960s, early ’70s. By the 1980s those hippies were capitalists like Gordon Gekko [the fictional character who espoused the “greed is good” philosophy in 1987 film Wall Street] and by middle age they had become conservative.”
Gen Y’s rebellious phase lasts much longer, making them the “most extreme generation in history”. “Issues around employment, income, relationships, the work they do, commitment to religious institutions falling by the wayside … it’s very hard to find an area of connectivity between today’s 21-year-olds and their parents. I would say 21-year-olds now differ more from their parents than their parents did from their parents.”
University of Queensland School of Psychology PhD student Megan Weier is studying “emerging adulthood”, the period of development between 18 and 29 years. She says the average 21-year-old Queenslander is well-travelled and in tertiary study. Marriage is at least eight years away – the median age for men is 31 and women 29, much older than the respective 24 and 22 in 1979. Women are having fewer children and the median age of giving birth is 31, up from 27 in the ’70s.
Demand for higher levels of education means full-time work is pushed back. While risk-taking behaviour with drugs and alcohol is consistent across generations, Weier says today’s youth are at greater risk of mental illness, with 26 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds having had a mental disorder. “There is far more diversity in their pathway but it’s assumed they are delaying adulthood out of selfishness rather than necessity.”
There’s pressure to have stuff up on social media all the time so you can maintain an
image. Sharing your life on social media is normal; people overshare, if anything. It feeds FOMO [fear of missing out] and for me it can lead to jealousy because I compare myself to others my age. If something in your life happens, like graduating from uni or getting a job, you share it because you want to show off a bit. Then everyone will be congratulating you and I think, why hasn’t that happened to me? I want to have something to post.
Relationships play out on social media too. On Facebook, when your status is changed to “end of relationship”, it has a little picture of a broken heart. That is so intense and heartbreaking. If I start seeing a new guy, it’s weird, but if I don’t have him on all the social media outlets it feels like it’s not serious. Like, I’ve been talking to him for two weeks but I still don’t have him on Instagram.
I never saw drugs at school [at Kedron State High, in Brisbane’s north] but I see a lot now. I think my friends just know drug dealers. A lot of my friends do weed and they offer me pills and ask if I want to buy them. I’m not that cool. There’s not really any stigma around drugs at all, people talk about it a lot when we’re out. I just stick with drinking and plus, I don’t know what drugs would do to me. I just have this really big fear of not being in control – one minute feeling fine and the next minute not knowing what’s going on and not knowing how to stop it.
I feel like I still have an immature and irresponsible mindset. I’m only two years into a new [university] degree. I change my jobs a lot [currently working in a clothing store]; I don’t drive so I don’t have a licence. There’s a couple from my school who have just had a baby. It’s crazy. I can’t imagine getting married or having a kid – that phase of my life seems really far away.
I’m doing business management and journalism
Changing my name was a huge decision FOR ME BECause i’m so close to my family.
– STEPHANIE DENNIS
at UQ [University of Queensland]. I was studying creative and professional writing at QUT [Qld University of Technology]. They scare you at QUT with all this stuff about a lack of opportunities when you graduate. [But] if I get this business management degree under my belt, I can combine the two and test things out. You don’t really think about getting a job when deciding what to study, you just think about what you’re good at.
I’ve lived with my mum [Sue, 52] my whole life. We’re really close. I don’t really know my dad. I’ve never met him. I’ve talked to him a few times over email and I know that he lives in New Zealand and he’s married and has a four-year-old daughter. But I’m not really that interested, to be honest. Mum and Dad were together for a year. And when Mum got pregnant she just told my dad “you can choose how much involvement you want to have” and he just decided he didn’t want to be involved. I guess it happens. I was 18 when I first heard from him. He messaged me on Facebook and then gave me his email address. I’m not interested in having him in my life when it took him all that time to get in touch.
When I was growing up, from the age of about six months to seven years old, Mum had a partner that she was engaged to and I still keep in contact with him and I called him Dad when I was growing up, so that’s who I consider my dad.
I have a lot of worries about the future. I worry about my HECS debt, finding something to do after uni, and whether I’m going to be making an income that’s going to sustain the life that I want. I worry about retiring as well; it’s going to be really hard. Buying a house is another big thing. I’d just like to have a job where I’m enjoying what I’m doing. Not be filthy rich, but just live comfortably.
Money has definitely been a worry for my family so I think my mum wants the same thing for me. I didn’t notice it that much when I was a kid; it was more when I started high school and even now. If I ask to borrow money for my go card she will say, “I really don’t have anything to spare this week”. But I think we all definitely have enough opportunities to live well if we try hard.
In Grade 11, my [now] husband Tyrone got a chick at our school [Bracken Ridge State High, on Brisbane’s northern bayside] pregnant. Their relationship was just a fling. I guarantee that many teenagers wouldn’t have stuck around like Ty did. They’d just be like “that’s your problem now, I’m not being a part of this”, but he stood by it and stepped up; it was a big thing for a 15-year-old. He had to mature basically overnight for his son, Jett [now 5], as he wanted to be a good dad. He tried harder in school, got a job and tried to be better for him.
once you reach a mature age, that’s it. it’s easy to start something and not finish it. – ANDY YIP
We dated for a few weeks in Grade 10 but we fell out, and after the pregnancy I said “I’m never talking to Ty again”. Then the year I started uni , he began texting me out of the blue and we started hanging out. We talked about getting married one day but it was a big surprise when he actually asked me. We got married in August.
Changing my name [from Fernandez] was a huge decision for me because I’m so close to my family and I feel like my last name is a part of me but I did it because I thought of Ty and my [future] kids and want them to have the same last name as me and their dad. I’m going to keep Fernandez professionally. When we got together Ty was doing security work and it was such a crap job with late nights and hardly any money and I said, “you’re worth more than this”. He really did everything he could to better himself for me. And he let me into his son’s life, which was important.
It was hard for me with Jett at first because it was difficult to adjust to having a child and it was messy between Ty and Jett’s mum. They share custody now and the relationship is civil. I love Jett to pieces and treat him like my own. I used to go out every weekend, drinking, nightclubs, the [Fortitude] Valley, local pubs. I met a lot of new people but grew out of it. It’s hard to relate to my friends who go out a lot or are still single and not really sure where they’re going in life.
We struggled with money a lot when we were growing up because Mum [Helen, 40] was a very young mum. Dad [Ricardo, 40] was 18 and Mum 19 when they had me. I was not planned. I wasn’t aware of the money issues when I was little and we had such a good childhood but I found out later. I felt bad, like I’d pushed them to that, but they said “we wouldn’t have it any other way”.
My parents live in Warner [northern Brisbane] and Mum runs a life coach business from home. She’s what people call a medium. She channels energy and advice for people and helps them with blocks in their lives and tries to get them into the career or relationship they want. I see spirits too but not as well as Mum. A tall Kenyan is my spirit guide. I first saw him when I was 13 years old at my birthday party and he was patting my dog. I started seeing him more often but not much now. My sister, Isabel , is totally into it. She meditates all the time; she’s big on crystals. Dad thinks it’s awesome but it’s not his thing.
Since Ty and I got married, we’ve been living with my parents but last Friday we finally moved into a place of our own [in Warner]. Ty has a full-time position in a factory [vitamin and supplement company Nature’s Own] that’s really good money but the majority of it goes to Jett. I finished a BA in communications, journalism, writing and literature at Griffith University last year. Although I passed everything with flying colours, I struggled for eight months to find any work related to my degree. I thought it would be easy but I kept getting knockbacks because I didn’t have any experience. It was really disappointing. Then in August, I got lucky. Someone finally took a chance on me. I’m now employed full-time at Customs Brokers and Forwarders Council of Australia at [inner-north] Albion as a support service officer – writing media releases, managing membership and PA work.
My ultimate dream is to be an author. I’m going to do anything I can to get there. I’m writing a sci-fi young adult book and am in the last stage of editing it. I’m going to self-publish it as an e-book.
There are people who don’t know what they’re doing with their lives but then there are others like me who have their life together and are respectful of others. It’s the younger generation we have to watch out for, the “twelvies” [sub-teens] who are all over social media and they’re so bad for it. It’s all hooker heels and fake tans. They’re so young, they’re drinking, smoking, wearing revealing clothing and it’s out there for everyone to see. It’s crazy how times have changed in one decade.
Tattoos are so normal now, [just about] everyone has them. Mine are all about my journey. I consider tattoos another outlet for my creativity. I’ve wanted them since I was young. I have full sleeves [both arms] and tattoos cover my knees to my ankles also.
I have a tattoo of David and Goliath on my upper arm. I’m not religious but I admire the story. It represents me doing what I want to do, which is hairdressing. A lot of people, especially as I came from the mining industry in Emerald [880km north-west of Brisbane], said I couldn’t do it. I did and that was the giant I defeated. People didn’t get why I would want to do hairdressing but I get to surround myself with beautiful people every day.
I’ve got a tattoo of a tree on my leg, like the tree of life, and I’ve my box brownie [camera], and an elephant for good luck. I’ve a girl on my upper leg always keeping me company – just a little joke.
I’m one of the lucky ones, especially with my
i think turning 21 is a time to take stock of where you’re at … what lies ahead?
– SAMUEL DUFFY
family, which is why I’ve got “family” written on my hand. They’ve always been there for me. We’re not wealthy but I’ve had great support.
I moved to Emerald when I was 15 to do my hairdressing apprenticeship. It is a good hour-anda-half from our property which is a hobby farm out at Dingo [120km east of Emerald]. It’s in the middle of nowhere on the road to Rockhampton. My parents [Delma, 50 and Greg, 50] gave me and my brother Cory  a choice – either go to boarding school at St Brendan’s in Yeppoon [40km north-east of Rockhampton] or do a trade and we’d get our rent paid until we were 18. You either love school or you hate it and given the choice, I left school [Blackwater State High] and did my trade. I was so certain about what I wanted to do at a young age. My whole family is creative, we’re good with our hands. My brother fixes things – he’s a diesel fitter [in Yeppoon].
Mine was a tough apprenticeship. If I spoke back to the boss I would have lost my job – their way or the highway. That’s common sense really, you shouldn’t talk back to your superior. I find for trades these days the apprentices get it very, very easy, especially in the hairdressing and service industry. You shouldn’t get in until you qualify.
Emerald is very money-driven and it’s easy to get caught up. If I had got a job there, say in the mines, I’d have been paid ten times more than any apprentice hairdresser wage, but hairdressing is not about money for me. It’s about education and the people I surround myself with and share creativity.
I moved to Brisbane when I was 18 and now work at Vogue Nationale [in inner-north Newstead]. I went to London with work in 2013 and have been at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Festival in Sydney the last few years.
I have to plan and know how to save – not going out, not taking a [credit] card out when I drink. I don’t want to waste my money. I’m not a typical 21-year-old. I had to grow up really fast. I believe once you reach a mature age in your mind that’s it. It’s so easy to start something and not finish it – it’s okay to do that, apparently. I do 38 hours of work across four days a week and I work in [fashion] retail at Scotch & Soda too. I’m breaking into both fields. It’s hair, makeup and fashion, and put together it makes a beautiful image.
I’m not in a relationship because I’m moving to London this month. I don’t want to settle down. It happens to so many of my mates, then they break up and it’s like you’re stuck, you wasted seven years of your life. I don’t want to do that. If I get to travel the world with hairdressing that would be amazing. The best thing at the end of the day is a really good haircut.
I’ve dropped most of my high school friends. I went to an all-boys school [Padua College, in Brisbane’s north]. We did the usual Schoolies Week and some of the stuff I saw there I was a bit iffy about. There was binge drinking, friends getting arrested, and drugs like pills, weed and cocaine. The drugs were so easy to access and my friends had no regrets about using them. It was peer pressure; they were just doing it because everyone else was.
In school you have to be really great friends because you’re in that environment every day for five years, so you make an effort. Once Schoolies happened I just went, “I don’t see any value in your friendship and there’s nothing you can really bring to my life that’ll help”.
It was a hard decision and I look back on it and sometimes wish I had stayed close with more of them.
When we grew up, Dad [Peter, 45] was in the navy so we [Mum Donna, 43, brother Jakob, 11, and sister Amelia, 23] moved around a lot. I was born in Brisbane and we’ve been back here for about eight years. At the time I hated having to move but, looking back on it, it’s made me who I am. It taught me a lot, especially the ability to connect with people and make new friendships. Amelia’s been my best friend in a sense, just having that constant connection with her. We relied on each other. What you’d normally see with friendship circles, I went through with her.
After Dad worked on the navy ships as a mechanical engineer he worked in the ADFA [Australian Defence Force Academy] running the leadership training for small groups. That was when we were in Canberra and I was in Grade 5 so I’d tag along and join in. It’s similar to what I was doing as a presenter with yLead for the past two years. It’s an independent, not-for-profit organisation that runs youth leadership courses in about 300 state, independent and Catholic schools. A lot of it is encouraging people to realise that it doesn’t need to be the person with a badge or a title who makes a difference.
I started studying primary education straight after high school and I’m still chewing away at the degree even though I relocated to Mackay [Central Queensland] last month to be with my girlfriend, Sarah Chisholm , an engineer with Cardno Ullman and Nolan. I’m now managing the Hog’s Breath Cafe there.
Eventually, I want to teach Prep to Year 2. Those are the years you can have a real impact. Looking back on the teachers I had, there were five or six that inspired me. One used to look after kangaroos and bring them into the classroom. That’s the type of thing I’d like to incorporate – get kids involved, make sure they’re engaged.
So many men are afraid to go into teaching. Male teachers are perceived to be creeps and paedophiles, especially when they choose to focus on young children. It’s sad. That is the reality of it, though, unless that culture’s redefined.
One thing that worries me about my generation is people losing their ability to think for themselves and so they just go with what they hear. It is something that can have serious effects moving forward. You see on Facebook people who whinge about politics but don’t see both sides or take in the bigger picture. I think turning 21 is a time to take stock of where you’re at and it’s that age where you’re getting close to finishing your degree or your apprenticeship or whatever you do, and it gives you the ability to stop and think, what am I doing? What lies ahead of me?
Go to couriermail.com.au and tell us your advice to your 21-year-old self and watch our special video.