Australian youth were among the least happy and most stressed in the world last year, according ViacomCBS’s Beyond 2020 study, which looked at how global young people responded to the chaotic events of 2020. After the significant and disproportionate economic impact of COVID-19, they prioritized stability and security, and were among the least hopeful for positive change in the future.

We decided to check back in with them in 2021 – this time, with a broader study that spanned 2,200 Australians across two comparative demographics, ages 16 to 24 and 25-plus.

We found that even with the panic and uncertainty of 2020 behind us, young Australians do not feel much better. They’re only slightly less stressed (51%, down from 55% in 2020), slightly less uncertain about their future (72%, down from 76%), and not any happier (45% vs. 46% in 2020).

Importantly, their thoughts on the future have major implications for brands and advertisers.

Why they’re stressed

In short: they have a lot going on. Age 16 to 24 is a transitional period of life, with many big life events and more change in relationships, schooling, career, and home lives. There are more beginnings and endings. Life is less fixed. The pandemic added an explosive new element – consistent and significant disruption.

The disruption

Almost all 16- to 24-year-olds had at least one life event disrupted in the past year. Importantly, they have been affected more than older age groups.

Compared with Australians over 25, those aged 16 to 24 were 14 percentage points more likely than to have had their work impacted and 28 points more likely to have had their education impacted. Almost 6 in 10 Australian young people have had their mental health impacted, 24 percentage points above those over age 25.

81% of those who say their mental health has been impacted have also experienced a lot of disruption in their life events, showing the cumulative effects of the last two years.

Youth are re-thinking their priorities

With major disruptions, stress and uncertainty, young Australians continue to rethink their priorities. We saw in our 2020 study that they were focused on security and stability – and this year is no different. The #1 priority for youth is their mental health (64%), followed by a stable job (60%).

16- to 24-year-olds are 2.5 times more likely than older age groups to prioritize a stable job and 2.5 times more likely to say they want to earn a lot of money. Compared with 2020, they are less likely to say they are prioritizing a dream job (down 9 percentage points), or making a difference in the world (down 5 points).

Youth are more cynical

When asked about their hope for change in the next decade, Australian youth are not optimistic. Only 38% expect social class divides to improve, down 9 percentage points from 2020. Only 39% expect government leadership to improve, down 8 points. Just over half think the economy will improve, down 7 points from 2020.

In other words, Australian youth have adopted a wartime ethos of realism and hard work. This is a huge departure from what we understood of them before the pandemic.

What it means for brands

Despite this gloom, Australian youth remain resilient and feel positive about their own future. Almost 9 out of 10 want to “make the most of what happens next.”

They just know it will take more effort, with 88% saying they will have to work hard to achieve their goals and a majority feeling this more than in 2020.

Similarly, youth want brands to work harder. Eight in 10 expect brands and the media to stand up for injustice.

Australian young people have inherited a world rife with uncertainty, a growing social and economic divide, and unprecedented health and environmental challenges. They are not looking for brands to make light of their situation or gloss over these realities.

To resonate with Australian youth today, brands need to show empathy and talk to youth about the world they live in now.