Words by Joshua, 17 NSW
When the first wave of COVID-19 hit Australian shores in March 2020, I had no idea what was coming. Time spent crying at my desk, my microphone muted and camera off while attending Zoom classes. Afternoons spent on assignments and wondering about questions I couldn’t ask. Talking with friends just once over a six-week period.
But I was just 14 – at a pivotal stage of my life where I needed the support of friends, family and teachers more than ever.
Yet I was left largely isolated and ended up seeking support for my mental health issues which continue today, almost three years on.
It saddens me that my experience is not a unique one – we know the devastating impacts that COVID-19 restrictions have had on all of society, but particularly young people. Our futures, once exciting and wonderful, now seem to so many bleak – economically, socially and educationally.
As a member of the “COVID generation”, I know we must act and the time is now. But I also know that mandatory national service – in any way, shape or form, is not the answer.
Suggestions raised recently by columnist Julie Szego in The Age have brought to the fore ideas that all school-leavers should participate in some form of national service for 12 months following graduation. This would not be limited to military service, but include options to become social justice advocates, volunteers or charitable workers.
Young people, now more than ever, crave connection. We crave opportunities. We crave the bright future that once seemed all but assured. To suggest that the implementation of mandatory national service – even in forms existing beyond the scope of the military – will address these issues is beyond unfathomable.
The reality is that mandatory service will limit the freedom of choice we young people need to envision our own futures, to carve our own paths.
Mandatory service for school-leavers would prevent us from launching into our chosen futures after school. It would stop young people immediately starting university, TAFE, an apprenticeship or joining the workforce. Fundamentally, we would no longer be the masters of our own destinies.
But after two years of lockdowns and isolation, the hundreds of thousands of Australian young people crave control more than ever.
Control is all I wanted when I struggled through the first lockdown – looking for a way to find answers, solutions to problems literally hundreds of kilometres out of the control of a 14-year-old from Wagga.
While a system providing broad choice for young people in national service – of social justice advocacy, charitable work and emergency responses – is an improvement on mandatory military service, such a method would still limit the avenues accessible to young people by forcing us to spend time on things we may not be passionate about, rather than enabling us to spend time on things that matter to us.
So rather than forcing young people into a year or more of national service post school, we must expand the options available to young people so we remain the masters of our own destinies – the very thing we lost during the height of the pandemic.