Women of Influence 2018: The power of doing work that matters

Jan Owen, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, was the overall winner of the inaugural Women of Influence awards in 2012. Photo: Elke Meitzel
Jan Owen, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, was the overall winner of the inaugural Women of Influence awards in 2012. Photo: Elke Meitzel

Jan Owen has always had a strong social conscience. Her parents helped establish Lifeline and were some of the first volunteer counsellors in Queensland. The family provided respite support for families in crisis and Ms Owen often went with them to rescue women and children from domestic violence situations.

Her work with child and family welfare organisations and experience with children in foster care was the inspiration for Every Childhood Lasts a Lifetime, a book of interviews with people aged 18 to 60 who had been in the care of the state. In her early 20s she was president of the Youth Affairs Council of Australia, which advocated for young people. More than 30 years later, she is still advocating, now as the chief executive of the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA).

The mission of FYA is to support and encourage young people while tackling issues that are important to them: inequality, climate change, resource sustainability and a rapidly changing economy. Ms Owen is helping to redesign the workplace for future generations.

"It's ridiculous to get to work with the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, dreamers and change-makers," she said, describing her job as the best in the world.

It is also a job that saw her named the inaugural overall winner in The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence awards in 2012. The awards, presented by Qantas, celebrate women in a range of categories including business enterprise, public policy, not-for-profit and innovation. This year’s winner will be announced on September 4.

Young people have done everything they've been told to do. They are more highly educated than any previous generation. They've aced the test. They've spent the time, the money, the investment and they're not able to get full-time work. So that's a really, really challenging environment for them to be in.

Jan Owen

Working in the not-for-profit sector since she was 18, Queensland-raised Owen has worked for the International Women's Development Agency, Social Ventures Australia, Save the Children and the Australian Association of Young People in Care (AAYPIC), which became the CREATE Foundation. Winning the award reinforced to Ms Owen that she was in the right profession.

"It basically led to a whole lot of people saying, 'Keep going. The work that you're doing matters, and the people that you're working with matter.' That was the most powerful impact for me," she said.

The latest findings from FYA, released recently in The New Work Reality report, show young people are better educated than ever, but that half of 25-year-olds can't get a full-time job. The report looks at how the education system and young people can accelerate access to full-time work and is helping young people think about the future, when there is less likelihood for young people to secure a dream job or have a linear career, and more tendency towards needing skills and capabilities that can be built on and applied to different contexts.

"Young people have done everything they've been told to do," Ms Owen said. "They are more highly educated than any previous generation. They've aced the test. They've spent the time, the money, the investment and they're not able to get full-time work. So that's a really, really challenging environment for them to be in."

The FYA research has strong repercussions for women, who possess many of the high-level proficiencies and global skills that will be valued in the future. Skills such as innovation, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, presentation and communication, as well as the cultural ability to work across diverse contexts and teams, will be most valued.

Jan Owen, second from right, was part of the 2017 Boss Leadership Summit. Photo: Peter Braig

Jan Owen, second from right, was part of the 2017 Boss Leadership Summit. Photo: Peter Braig

"This global skill set has, over and over again, been identified as literacies that women have, which is very interesting when considering women in the future of work," said Owen, adding small businesses were a huge part of the Australian economy and more women ran small businesses than men.

"The data says that usually women-led small businesses or larger businesses where women lead, are more productive. And so there's a lot about the future of work that really speaks to skills and capabilities that women have and can develop at home, which is very powerful."

Future skills

Moving into a future workforce that is more precarious but that brings greater flexibility does come with challenges, however. Ms Owen's next task is to work out how working conditions and entitlements and things such as superannuation can fit into new work environments. "There's a kind of a disconnect right now at a policy level. We need to work on that," she said.

For now, she is focusing on supporting young people to find work that makes the most of these new future skills. FYA's social enterprise, YLab, supports young people working across the country as paid consultants within organisations and government departments. Owen spends one day each week with a shadow CEO, who is 21.

"Working individually with young people through to effecting change in institutions and systems that affect young people and putting young people at the centre of the design process, is just the most profound work," she said. "I can't think of any more important work to be doing in the world, to be honest."