Background: Drawing on a sociological analysis that brings the prevailing social and economic policies into the frame of this analysis, this article focuses on the relationship between the social conditions faced by young people in the 1990s and early 2000s, the opportunities and constraints that these conditions presented to them, and patterns of mental health.
Method: The article presents an analysis of selected data from two longitudinal cohort studies. One is the Paths on Life's Way cohort study by Andres, based in British Columbia, Canada, and the other is the Life-Patterns cohort by Wyn, based in Victoria, Australia. These cohort studies have tracked the lives of young people who entered the labour market in the early 1990s. The longitudinal analysis is based on the data available for 733 participants in the Canadian study in 2003, and 625 participants in the Australian study in 2004, which remains representative of the larger original samples. The data were collected through a mixed-method approach of surveys and interviews. As part of the study, education and employment policies in Australia and Canada during the 1990 s were also analysed.
Results: The data reveal that it took 14 years from the time of leaving secondary school for the majority of Australians and Canadians to find a degree of employment security. Young Australians had lower rates of marriage and fertility, and assessed their mental health as being worse than their Canadian peers. Education and labour market policies aimed to increase human capital to ensure global competitiveness and to increase the flexibility of labour for employers.
Conclusion: Social policies matter. In both countries, the creation of higher levels of human capital through increasing young people's participation in education, combined with labour market policies that increased job uncertainty and labour market precariousness meant that young people found it difficult to achieve their goals of modest affluence and security. The policies had an impact on young people's marriage rates and fertility, particularly for the Australians. These social conditions also had the effect of increasing young people's assessments of their mental health as poor. Greater attention needs to be paid to the impact of social policies on areas that lie outside their immediate domain. Addressing young people's mental health requires an awareness of the inter-connections across policy areas, and the recognition that mental health is an outcome of social conditions.