The Foundation for Young Australians CEO

Interview with Jan Owen CEO Foundation for Young Australians.

We think about jobs as a kind of jungle gym now, not a ladder.

You need very different skills and capabilities to cope.

Jan Owen, AM.


Jan Owen knows a thing or two about preparing our young people to thrive in the new work order.

As CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians she engages with hundreds of thousands of them each year.

FYA research has reached a whopping 11 million people and evolved into a global hub of new thinking, research and design work.

The ‘New Work Smarts’ report predicts that by 2030, automation, globalisation and flexibility will change what we do in every job.

By 2030, we will, on average:

1/ Spend 30 per cent more time per week learning skills on the job;

2/ Spend double the time at work solving problems;

3/ Spend 41 per cent more time using science and mathematics skills;

4/ Utilise verbal communication and interpersonal skills for 7 hours a week each;

5/ Develop an entrepreneurial mindset due to having less management (down 26 per cent) less organisation coordination (down 16 per cent) and less teaching (down 10 per cent).

Source: FYA The New Work Smarts Report, download here. 

As you’re about to discover, none of this terrifies Jan Owen. She backs our youth and her positivity is contagious.

Meet Jan…


Martine Harte: Jan you say jobs are no longer about climbing the ladder but more about navigating a jungle gym, do young people need new capabilities?


Jan Owen Foundation for Young Australians:

We’ve done a substantial amount of research over the past 3 years about what’s driving the future of work and how young people can be best prepared.

A 15-year-old today will have 17 jobs in 5 different industries. So that’s a really different world to their parents and their grandparents.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the future, by definition! But what we do know is there is a set of enterprising skills required to navigate the new world of work which employers are asking for, and which are equally important if you’re going to run your own enterprise and create jobs.

We expect a 15-year-old entering the workforce in 5 or 6 years will spend some time working for themselves, sometime working for other people, sometime with other people, and sometimes not working at all.

In the future workforce 7 out of 10 jobs will require a degree of digital literacy.

In a highly globalised environment, bilingual skills are being sought after and transferable skills like problem-solving, critical thinking creativity, innovation and communication skills are key long with an entrepreneurial mindset.

It’s not that everyone has to be an entrepreneur, it’s more about being able to apply these skills across a range of different contexts in the new work order.


You believe cultivating an ability to be nimble is important?


Jan Owen Foundation for Young Australians: So important. A lot of people would say we’re in the fourth industrial revolution working with the previous industrial revolution tools.

Interestingly we transform individually ahead of our institutions, so our institutions are lagging behind.

AT FYA we have 300 young social entrepreneurs that we put through an incubator every year since 2009.

We were really the first entrepreneurship incubator in the country. The program keeps building year on year because young people can see the world is changing and want to contribute to that.

One of the great things about being alive today is the toolkit is really accessible if you know how to use it.

You can create change in the world, start your own business, learn differently to being in a classroom. Everything’s up for grabs at the moment in terms of improving on the old ways of doing things.

Our goal is to ensure that young people are equipped to step into the driver’s seat.

You’ve dedicated your career to social change, was that influenced by your parents and their role with Lifeline?


Jan Owen: Yes, my parents helped set up Lifeline.

They were among the first Lifeline counsellors in Australia and in those days you took the emergency call on the helpline, put the phone down, got into your car and drove to where the emergency was.

They would go to domestic violence situations –  because police didn’t get involved in “family issues” back then – and pick up the mothers and young children and take them to our place.

I grew up waking up without knowing who was going to be on the floor in the lounge room or whether I was going to be on the floor on the lounge room and somebody would be in my bed. (laughs). 


Seems you didn’t live in a bubble and this had a positive impact on you?


Jan Owen: I think the most profound impact was I realised that with the right support even the most difficult life experiences could be episodic and not dictate your destiny.

That was really important because it changed how I’ve approached my work and my future working life. It meant I always ensured that I worked alongside, not ‘for’ people.


So you then set up Create?


Jan Owen: I set up Create Foundation with a group of children and young people who were in and ex-care, I was always really clear that we need to work ‘with’ people not ‘for’ people.

We set up a social enterprise employing young people in care to give paid consulting advice and provide training to governments and service providers about how to look after children and young people in care better as customers not as welfare recipients.


Must have been a huge change at the time?


Jan Owen: Big change. There was post institutional care and it was all about a new system.

We were really interested in how young people get a voice in creating a new system that they are the consumers of. Even the word ‘consumer’ was very difficult for service providers to accept.

We’ve come a long way since them with changes in policy and service provision like the NDIS which puts people with disabilities with choice and ownership of available services.

After that I went to Social Ventures Australia. It was a perfect transition for me to go and help other social entrepreneurs like myself who wanted to change the world.

I worked alongside some seriously experienced business people and investors like Michael Traill and Chris Cuffe. SVA gave me the business frameworks and acumen that I was lacking as a start up entrepreneur.

I realised what took me five or six years previously, I probably could have done in two or three with the right support.

This has been a key driver in our work with young entrepreneurs at Foundation for Young Australians.

How could we get support, advice and skills to entrepreneurs so they could be more effective faster?

We asked, how do we prepare young people for a radically changing future?

We are ecumenical in the sense of no matter who you are or where you live as a young person in Australia we are vitally interested in how we can prepare, equip and inspire you.

We also do an increasing amount of work in enterprise learning and entrepreneurship in the school setting with programs like $20 Boss which has seen more than 20,000 high school students across Australia set up 2,500 business ventures in the past 3 years.


What’s something else you would like our readers to know?


Jan Owen: 

1/ You are as good as the people around you and the networks you build and create.

If you don’t have this, for whatever reason you are going to have a much more difficult experience. From our perspective at FYA the real question is how do we ensure all your people get access to networks? We have spent a lot of time developing programs that ensure people who don’t have the kind of networks which forge relationships gain access to new networks through our initiatives.

2/ We have atomised our family to the parental group (in whatever form this is constituted) and the kids.

The idea that you could say to your children, “Name me 5 adults who you could go to at a drop of a hat to ask for anything at any time or talk about anything at any time as a mentor or as a friend?” You will find most young people can’t name 5 people.

We need to ensure our children have this network of people around them of mentors, friends, advisors.

I want my children to say, “I’ve got three other mums and four mentors.” That’s super important.

Facilitating these relationships is extremely powerful for young people emotionally, mentally and also when it comes to navigating their way through the world in work.


In 2012 you received  a Doctorate of Letters from Sydney University, in 2000 the Order of Australia for services to children and young people, amazing!


Jan Owen: Amazing for a high school and serial university drop out! (laughs)


Amazing and well deserved! When we look at the deficit of female voices and faces across society whether it be in politics or media, do you think it will self correct or are you not of that view?


Jan Owen: That’s such a good question. I did an absolute back flip in my Westpac Women of Influence speech, when I stated I now believe in quotas. Previously, I thought the balance would self-correct.

I believed if we flooded the market with talented women it would be inevitable that women would make up 50% of all jobs, positions etc.

This hasn’t happened and I believe quotas, along with other actions, are an important lever for accelerating change.

There definitely wouldn’t have been as many women in Parliament if it wasn’t for initiatives such as Emily’s List.

I feel that after all this time, with this incredibly highly educated, talented pool of women in this country, that we are still where we are, I definitely have come to the view that even for a short time quotas are appropriate.


Find our more about Jan Owen Foundation for Young Australians here. 

You can join them for a discussion around their upcoming report in the New Work Order series in Sydney on Thurs 17 August 2017.

Want to hear our chat with Natasha Stott Despoja on diversity? Head to interview section.

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Five minute watch here.

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