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Australians are Risk Averse and That’s A Huge Problem
Educator Development
7 June 2024

Australians are Risk Averse and That’s A Huge Problem

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Risk taking is a driving force for a culture’s wellbeing. Without it we’re worse off, but at every turn we’re fighting risk taking, giving it euphemisms and catastrophizing it. It has to stop.


Australia is the most risk-averse country globally, especially when it comes to our children. This extreme caution is causing long-term harm to our society’s resilience, innovation, and overall well-being.

  • Australia leads the world in parental risk aversion.
  • Overprotection stifles children’s growth and resilience.
  • Schools face socio-cultural pressures to minimise risks.
  • Decline in innovation and increasing mental health issues.
  • Need for a balanced approach to risk-taking.


Congratulations Australians, we’re number one. Don’t celebrate yet, it turns out we’re the best at being risk averse.

Don’t panic yet, we’re best at being risk averse with our kids. Ok now start to panic because it’s going to cause huge problems if we don’t do something about it. In fact it’s already started.

We’re already starting to see impacts of this risk aversion, it isn’t a recent thing. This has been creeping up on us for decades, sidling up to us through our cognitive dissonance that we’re providing a better life for young people by making them happy and comfortable, and that we’re not risk averse, or that even if we are, what’s the real harm in having a happy kid?

It’s a problem though, and we need to act. We’re just starting to scratch the surface in understanding just how far it’s gone, and we’re still just looking at schools.

Playing It Safe with The Precious Cargo

Recent research by Jerebine et al. reveals that Australian parents and schools are the most risk-averse globally. This extreme caution is stifling children’s growth and resilience, leading to long-term societal harm.

  • Australia leads in parental risk aversion.
  • Over 78% of parents restrict risk-taking.
  • Schools face socio-cultural pressures to minimise risks.
  • Overprotection causes children to miss essential growth experiences.
  • Balanced risk-taking is crucial for long-term well-being.

Recent research into the impact and nature of risk aversion in parents and schools has recently been propelled by Jerebine et. al. through the insightful and forward thinking research conducted in their papers, “Playing it safe” and “Children Are Precious Cargo”.

This research shows us that parents are enormously risk averse in Australia, the most in the world. Contrarily we’re very positive about risk however that didn’t translate into affordances to take risks. Over 78% had low tolerance to the negative outcomes of risk (such as injuries) and constrained young people’s risk taking. They fear what other families will think of them as parents, or that it’s better to play it safe than risk discomfort or “negative” emotions, for themselves or their kids.

In another paper, it’s shown that schools are burdened with enormously risk averse socio-cultural factors which again has us leading the world in risk aversion. Their hands are tied not just by onerous regulation, but also by the fears and trepidation of parents. Schools increasingly try to enhance educational environments safety and comfort, and have to fill in all the cracks and pave over any rough spots to make sure this is the case. Children are being banned from running in the fear that they injure themselves and the school is to blame. But who’s to blame for a generation of children who can no longer run, let alone ride bikes? It’s common that we have young people enrol who don’t know what burning muscles or sweating feels like at ages as old as 8 or 9.

It’s crucial to understand that nobody debates that parents and educators want the best for young people. This is often what drives these decisions, but what we often forget is that sometimes to achieve what’s best in the long run, it takes adversity, discomfort and even unhappiness. Without it, we’re consigning ourselves to increasing lifelong harm.

What This Shows Us About our Culture

Risk-taking impacts a culture by fostering innovation, creativity, and resilience. Australia’s increasing aversion to risk is stifling growth, leading to societal harm and declining innovation.

  • Risk-taking fosters innovation and resilience.
  • Australia is moving away from healthy risk-taking.
  • Misguided safety measures cause lasting harm.
  • Restrictions hinder growth and self-advocacy.
  • A balanced approach to risk is essential.

Risk taking is something which impacts a culture. When a society is averse to risk taking, it’s averse to the things which make innovation, creativity and resilience foundations of it’s way of life. Being pro-risk doesn’t mean being pro harm or pro recklessness, but it does mean being for growth and for exploration and adventure, and accepting and embracing the discomfort that will be a part of that.

Australia is a land which is resplendent with opportunity for these foundations. From our research, medical and sciences sectors to the splendour of our natural world, and our larrikin heritage we should be leading the world in healthy risk taking, but instead we’re going backwards.

Innovation is in decline, mental and physical illness are rife among adults and children, we spend more time indoors than we do out in the world, we’re contentious and short and this is being driven by an overly constraining government. Examples are everywhere of how through misguided attempts to keep people safe we’re causing lasting harm. The outdoor sector is constantly misaligned, the caretakers of adventure for our young people. Recent bans on horse riding (or even just handling), caving and even disability placement as public school activities in Tasmania is one of a laundry list of backward steps we’ve taken in recent years.

Increasing restrictions on businesses and operations in the name of protecting employees and participants from harm infantilizes both the owners who drive change, and their employees who look to advocate for themselves less and less. This doesn’t mean not protecting the vulnerable, having common sense protections, or letting people do whatever they want, but allowing for our communities to grow through adversity. There must be a better balance.

What the Long Term Impact Will Be

Workplaces are safer than ever, yet injury and mental health claims are rising, highlighting a decline in resilience and persistence. Overprotective policies and a litigious culture are stifling growth, leading to a society less capable of handling adversity.

  • Rising workplace injury and mental health claims.
  • Frequent job changes indicate declining persistence.
  • Overprotection leads to less capable individuals.
  • Litigious culture fosters excessive safety measures.
  • Need for developing risk intelligence and capacity.

We’re already seeing it. Workplaces are safer than ever, but workplace injury claims are higher than ever. Skyrocketing mental harm and illness claims are one example. The sharp increase in frequency of each generation of workers changing employers and industries shows deficiencies in persistence and resilience. This skill loss means industries will begin to founder with diminishing expertise, requiring more automation, again diminishing even the necessity for expertise.

When things do go wrong, we wail and gnash our teeth because we were told things were safe and everything would be ok. There’s mandatory insurance, mandatory WorkCover, manual handling policies, hazard tape, quarterly egress reports, guard rails and a multitude of protective policies in place and yet we inevitably have misadventures. This drives us to look for someone to blame, because we’re unskilled at having to take into account our own decisions, or that accidents are uncontrollable. Once we start looking for someone to blame, we start assigning fault. It’s a short step to seeing litigious behaviour increase. This pacifies organisations, fearful of the pain and ardour of facing legal action we cling to making everything as safe as possible, rather than as safe as necessary. That quickly becomes a race to the bottom, because you can always add more bubble wrap.

We’ve seen it in individuals, and organisations before. The more we’re constrained by layers of rules, red tape and guardrails, the less capable we become. The less capable we become the worse off we are and the more constraints are put in place. We end up with an intractable number of interconnected defences, and when something goes wrong (because accidents do happen) we can’t clearly see what needs to be improved. First we need to ascertain what failed in each of our layers of Swiss cheese, and our reaction is to add another.

As communities, we also have collective thinking which can and does mature if we let it. Stronger, more resilient communities face adversity together and develop their thinking. Increasing compassion, understanding and capacity by facing challenges rather than insulating themselves from them. The more mature the thinking, the more resilient and intuitive a community becomes.

If we don’t start thinking about risk intelligence and capacity as something we need, as crucial as social and emotional skills, we’ll continue to manage it, mitigate it and drive it from our workplaces, communities and society. It starts with our schools but it will pervade every part of our lives. We’ll be worse off as a culture with more impacts than the few we’ve explored here.

What We Can Do About It

We need a new approach rather than reverting to the past. Governments, organisations, and communities must re-prioritize risk to foster resilience and growth.

  • No golden age of risk-taking existed.
  • Re-prioritize risk based on benefits.
  • Governments should adopt Benefit-Risk assessments.
  • Communities must support resilience in children.
  • Break the cycle of fear-based avoidance.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Tim Gill about this, a proponent for positive and healthy risk taking and leading the charge in the UK. We agreed that the answer isn’t to turn back the clock. There wasn’t a golden age of risk taking, because there was no approach to it. We didn’t understand it well enough until we felt its absence, which has driven deeper understanding, motivating skilled researchers such as Jerebine et. al., and the team we work with at La Trobe led by Dr. Bennetts, to look deeper.

Powered by this research and understanding we have to first re-prioritise risk. For example, the State of Queensland recently advocated for increased adventurous play in education settings. This is a moderate start, we need more and also greater courage. As an example, they still had to use synonymous language. Instead of being clear and focusing on risk they chose the safer, less confronting “adventurous”. We could have told them, parents and communities don’t have a problem with the word “risk”. Just ask the hundreds of schools we’ve worked with or tens of thousands of families. Don’t ask the kids, they’ll tell you they love it.

Governments and organisations need to begin to re-approach their understanding of risk. Putting into effect Benefit-Risk assessments such as those practised in the UK. Looking first at the importance and benefit of any action, before deciding what steps, if any, should be taken and if they’ll diminish that benefit.

Communities, including parents, families and educators, must also practise greater resilience. Face the discomfort of their child without leaping to solve their problems. Allowing them to be bored, anxious or frustrated without removing them from the challenge, but guiding them through it. Families have to support their educators in this process as well, without feeling that every emotional or physical bump and bruise needs action or litigation or an external solution. Instead teach young people to look within, and even if there is an opportunity to make the world around them better, it has to start from within and the resilience to achieve that change.

Finally, we have to open our eyes. This is happening all around us and we’ve become numb to it. We’re the frog in hot water, except instead of hot water it’s cooling. There’s less agitation, less adversity and we’re losing our sense of what real harm can be and we’re starting to become immobile and incapable of taking a risk. We’re locked in downward spirals, doom loops, of self perpetuating, reinforcing fear based avoidance. We have to break out, and we have to do it soon.

Richard Williams

Richard Williams

Risky Kids Founder, Director of Programming

Richard Williams is a fitness industry consultant, gym owner, business coach and professional stunt actor with more than a decade of experience in the health and fitness industry. With an education in psychology and criminology, Richard blended life experience as a fitness industry consultant with Spartan Race, gym owner, elite-obstacle racer, ultra-runner and professional stunt actor to create the Risky Kids program.

Richard has a passion for enacting meaningful social change through all avenues of health and wellbeing and believes that obstacles are the way. Some of Richard’s key achievements include:

  • Key consultant/coordinator Spartan Race/Tough Mudder/Extreme Endurance
  • OCR World Championship Finalist –  Team & Solo (2015)
  • OCR World Championship Silver Medallist – Team Endurance (2018)
  • Professional film and television stunt performer for 15 years

Considered one of Australia’s foremost experts in the fields of fitness, wellbeing and behavioural science, Richard is frequently in demand as a guest speaker for relevant government and non-
government bodies and organisations. Speaking engagements centred on the success of the Risky Kids program, philosophy and approach have included:

  • Expert speaker/panellist Sports & Camp; Recreation Victoria and Outdoors Victoria forums
  • Closing expert speaker at the Australian Camps Association National Conference
  • Expert speaker at the National Fitness Expo, FILEX