4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2006  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 20/07/2006   
   Page tools: Print Print Page Print all pages in this productPrint All  
Contents >> Family and Community >> Social Participation of Young People

Social Participation of Young People

In 2002, 28% of people aged 18–24 years had undertaken voluntary work in the previous 12 months.

Social participation — in the sense of engaging with others in the domains of life appropriate to one's stage of life — can benefit individuals while also helping to make communities safer and stronger. Ideas about social attachment and social capital, together with government approaches such as the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy, have encouraged interest in the extent to which people are supported by links with family, friends and wider communities; take part in informal socialising; participate in community-oriented activities such as volunteering; and are engaged by wider political life. These aspects of young people's lives are the focus of this article.

While young people's participation in work and study is an important aspect of their social participation, this topic is not discussed here as it has been covered by previous articles in this publication (see Australian Social Trends 2003, Pathways from school to work, pp. 96–100 and Australian Social Trends 2005, Young people at risk in the transition from school to work, pp. 93–98.)

Data sources and definitions

This article draws principally on results from the ABS 2002 General Social Survey (GSS), which collected data on the characteristics of adults aged 18 years and over living in private dwellings. Some GSS data in this article relate to social participation in the 3 months prior to interview. More detailed data on sports and voluntary work relate to the 12 months prior to interview. For more information see General Social Survey: Summary Results, Australia, 2002 (ABS cat. no. 4159.0).

Data from the ABS 1995 and 2000 Surveys of Voluntary Work are also included.

In this article young people are those aged 18–24 years.

Data on political participation are from a published study by Assoc. Prof. Murray Print et al, commissioned by the Australian Electoral Commission.(EndNote 6), (EndNote 7).


Family and friends living in the same household are central to most people's social networks and the first point of call for care, practical help, and emotional support. In 2002, 95% of the 1.9 million people aged 18–24 years lived with others, while 5% lived alone, a lower proportion than at older ages.

Some of the social networks beyond their household that young people are part of may be indicated by the people they nominate as potential sources of support in times of crisis. In 2002, the great majority of young people aged 18–24 years felt they could call on someone living outside their home for support in times of crisis (98%). Among young people, family and friends were about equally as likely to be named as a source of support in times of crisis (83% and 82% respectively) whereas people in other age groups were more likely to name family than friends. Young people were about as likely as those aged 25–34 years to name work colleagues as a source of support (28% compared with 29%), even though a smaller proportion of young people were employed at the time of interview (72% compared with 78%). Neighbours were also seen as sources of support in times of crisis (25%), although this was more common at older ages (35 years and over).

Most young people also felt they could ask small favours from people living outside their household (93%), and had had contact with family or friends living outside their household in the last week (95%). These results were similar to those for older adults.



Social participation may be limited by negative behaviour in the community, such as criminal behaviour, and by people's perceptions regarding the extent of such behaviours and how vulnerable they are to them. Feelings of safety when at home alone are one indication of the level of trust in one's neighbourhood and community, although many factors may influence these feelings.

Relatively few young people felt unsafe or very unsafe alone at home in the day (around 2%), while 10% felt this way at home alone after dark. There were substantial differences between men and women in respect of feeling unsafe: 19% of women aged 18–24 years felt unsafe or very unsafe home alone after dark, higher than for any other age group of either sex. In contrast, around 2% of young men of this age felt unsafe or very unsafe at home after dark. This was despite the fact that young men were the most likely of any age group of either sex to have experienced actual or threatened violence (21%). Young women were less likely than young men to have experienced actual or threatened violence (10%). Both young men and women were more likely than people of other ages to have experienced a break-in or attempted break-in (15% for both sexes).



Relationships between people are held together by interaction. As well as support from family and close friends, people are thought to benefit from being part of wider communities of people with shared interests or circumstances, and also from being able to form more loose ad-hoc social connections with other people, outside of these networks. Interacting with people at work or through study and training is an important part of young people's social interaction. Taking part in social activities is also thought to benefit physical and mental health.(EndNote 1)

In 2002, young people aged 18–24 years had higher levels of participation in social activities outside the home than other adults, with 96% participating in at least one of eight selected activities in the three months prior to interview. Participation declined gradually with age to 79% of the oldest age group (75 years and over) (see Australian Social Trends, 2004, Social interactions outside the home, pp. 35–40). Relatively few young people had not participated in any of the selected social or sporting activities (4% or 72,000 young people).

The most common of the selected activities were going out to a cafe, bar or restaurant (89%), attending movies, theatre or concerts (81%) and watching, attending or participating in sporting events (69%). Taking part in community or special interest group activities was the least common of the selected activities (10%).



Nearly three quarters of 18–24 year olds (73%) had actively participated in sport or physical recreation in the previous 12 months. Just under two-thirds of these participants had taken part in at least one sport or physical recreation activity which was organised by a club, association or other body (65%), while the remainder had participated in non-organised activities only. Almost all participants had been players (99%), and 16% had taken on at least one non-playing role such as coach, instructor or teacher (10%) or referee, umpire or official (7%).

Young men participated in sport and physical recreation at a higher rate than young women (78% compared with 68%). Male participants were more likely to have been involved in at least one organised activity than female participants (68% compared with 62%) and to have taken on at least one non-playing role (16% compared with 13%).

Young men also participated in different activities from young women, with team sports predominating among the leading five. Among the 754,000 young men who had participated in sport or physical activity in the previous twelve months, basketball was the leading sport (played by 19%). This was followed by Australian Rules football (17%), and soccer, aerobics/fitness workouts, and cricket (each around 15%). Among the 636,000 young female participants, the leading activities were aerobics/fitness workouts (32%), walking (31%), swimming (26%), netball (26%) and tennis (12%).

Attending sporting events may also bring social benefits to young people, e.g. by providing a forum for social interaction, and helping to forge the bonds and networks associated with support of local or national teams. In 2003, almost two-thirds of young people (65%) had attended a sporting event in the previous 12 months. As with sport participation, rates for attending sports were higher for young men (70%) than young women (59%), but men and women tended to attend the same sports, with Australian Rules Football the most common.


Church and religious activities are one way that young people bind into communities. In 2002, 20% of young people had attended church or participated in other religious activities in the previous three months (16% of males and 23% of females).

Membership of clubs and associations, especially taking on official roles in them, is regarded as an indicator of civic participation. While direct information on membership of clubs and societies is not available from the 2002 GSS, some data on social activities outside the home may indicate 'associational activity'.(EndNote 1) In the three months prior to interview, cultural and recreational group activities were undertaken by 17% of young people and community and special interest group activities by 10%. Young men were more likely than young women to have participated in cultural and recreational group activities, which includes activities associated with sports clubs (19% compared with 15%). The reverse was observed for community and special interest group activities (undertaken by 8% of males and 12% of females).


Some young people undertake unpaid work on behalf of an organised group such as a social or sporting club, welfare organisation, community group, professional association or union. Volunteering generally involves face to face interaction, bringing together a variety of people for the benefit of others, and both develops and draws on social networks (see Australian Social Trends 2002, Voluntary work, pp. 146–150).

In 2002, 28% of 18–24 year olds had undertaken voluntary work in the previous 12 months (534,990 young people). Voluntary work through a sport, recreation or hobby group was the most common type of volunteer work among young volunteers (40%). This was followed by welfare and community volunteer work (28%). Young men were more often volunteers in sport, recreation and hobbies, while young women were more often volunteers in welfare and community.

In 2002, volunteering rates were similar for 18–24 year olds (28%) and 25–34 year olds (29%) but these rates were significantly lower than for 35–44 year olds (42%). This was the age group in which volunteering peaked, and probably mainly reflects parental involvement with school and other child-based activities.

ABS surveys show an increase in young people's rate of volunteering between 1995 (17%) and 2000 (27%), the rate then remaining stable to 2002 (28%). Although volunteering increased in all ages groups between 1995 and 2000, the increase was proportionally higher for young people.

In 2000, when detailed information was collected on voluntary work, the most common reasons young volunteers gave for doing voluntary work were 'for personal satisfaction' (40%), 'to help others/the community' (40%) and 'to do something worthwhile' (21%). These were also the leading reasons among people of other ages. Reasons which were more common among people aged 18–24 years than among people of other ages were 'to gain work experience' (17%) and 'to learn new skills' (13%).

As with people of other ages, volunteering seemed to grow out of young people's social networks. Most young people had become involved in volunteering because they knew someone involved (30%), because someone asked them (31%), or because they were already involved with the organisation (24%).



Youth disengagement from political processes (particularly from voting in national elections) has become a subject of debate in North America and the United Kingdom. (EndNote 2), (EndNote 3) (EndNote 4) There is concern in these countries that recent low rates of voting among young people may reflect not only a lifecycle stage but also continue a historical change to lower levels of voting.(EndNote 4) Australia has a high voter turnout because voting is compulsory, and so the extent of underlying engagement is harder to assess. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has commissioned research on this theme.

People in Australia are required to register on the electoral roll and vote from 18 years of age. According to the AEC, young people are less likely to be registered to vote than older people. The AEC estimates that about 400,000 18–25 year olds (19%) were not registered in 2005.(EndNote 5) This contrasts to 4% of the total population who were thought to be unregistered.

Year 12 school students are a focus of the study commissioned by the AEC, partly because school courses on civics and citizenship have the potential to influence whether young people vote after reaching 18 years.(EndNote 6) As part of the study, a national survey of Year 12 school students found that a large majority (82%) agreed that 'voting was important' and 87% reported they would vote in Federal elections when eligible. However, only 50% felt that they would vote if it were not compulsory.



Year 12 students were asked about other political actions.(EndNote 7) The activity they were most likely to report that they either had done or would be prepared to do was signing a petition (56% and 44% respectively). Other relatively well supported actions included letter writing (e.g. 12% had written a letter to the media and 57% would do it) and attending rallies or demonstrations (15% had attended and 46% would do so).

Protest activities that appeared to involve at least some degree of law breaking or violence were less well supported. That said, as many as 5–6% of students reported they had taken part in such actions, and the proportion who reported they would do them ranged from 22% for 'using violence, like fighting with the police' to 36% for 'occupying buildings as a protest'. The same questions regarding activities that students 'had done' were asked in surveys in 1987 and 1992, and the results showed little change over the period.

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Information paper: measuring Social Capital; an Australian framework and indicators, 2004, ABS cat. no. 1378.0, ABS, Canberra.
2 United Kingdom The Electoral Commission 2002, General Election 2001, viewed 18 May 2006,
3 Centre for Research and Information on Canada 2004, Canadian Democracy: bringing youth back into the political process, Centre for Research and Information on Canada, Montreal.
4 Putnam, R D 2000, Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community, Chatham, New Jersey.
5 Australian Electoral Commission 2005, Annual Report 200405, viewed 19 June 2006, <http:www.aec.gov.au/what/publications>.
6 Print, M, Saha, L, Edwards, K 2005, Youth Electoral Study - Report 1 Enrolment and voting, viewed 15 April 2006, <http://www.aec.gov.au/_content/What/publications/_youth_study_2/index.htm>.
7 Print, M, Saha, L, Edwards, K (2005) Youth Electoral Study - Report 2 Youth, political engagement and voting, viewed 15 April 2006,

Previous PageNext Page