Evidence clearly shows that the recent economic crisis has had a detrimental affect on young people in the UK. Young people in Britain are among some of the most vulnerable, lonely and disaffected in Europe with some of the highest rates of unemployment, teenage pregnancy and underage teenage drinking.
And the relationship between the establishment and young people is equally bleak. We are more politically disengaged than ever before, a trend that has been developing over the past few years. According to a recent Joseph Rowntree poll most young people did or do not intend to vote in the next general election and only 25% felt a connection with any of the mainstream political parties, pushing more young people into the hands of extremist parties or a state of complete apathy. It appears as though young people have not only lost confidence in the systems which govern them but also in themselves.
When you think of civil society, what comes to mind? Angry trade unionists protesting on picket lines? Old ladies sitting in church pews? Or a peaceful protest gone horribly wrong, descending into a violent clash between underpaid workers and riot police?
There can be no doubt that all these groups, to some extent, represent a facet of civil society activity, of the past, but what about the future? What about young people?
Gone are the days it seems of radical student protests of the 1960’s. Young people agitated into action, speaking out on a broad range of social and political issues which not only affected them but others, ultimately motivated by the genuine belief they could make that difference. Yet 50 years on, in an era equally fraught with uncertainty and socio-economic upheaval, it seems there has never been a greater need for youth involvement than now. Whether it is on a local or national level, engaging with issues around climate change, politics, economics or education - it is absolutely vital that young people’s voices are heard from across the UK.
However, it is in times of social and economic crisis that the greatest remedies can be found - and we as young people can lead the way in creating them. At 17, whilst I was studying for my A levels I established the English Secondary Students’ Association (ESSA – www.studentvoice.co.uk). Inspired by similar student union representative bodies across Europe, I felt strongly that young people in the UK needed to be more engaged in civil society and the issues affecting them. At the time, there were no other social action platforms in this arena for young people run by young people and whilst parents, teachers, governors and other stakeholders all had national forums to have their views heard, the customer within secondary education i.e. the student did not have their own. Since its humble beginnings as an idea whilst studying for my A-levels in 2003 to launching the organisation in 2005 ESSA has flourished and is now working with thousands of school students aged 11-19 across England and works with schools, local councils and government to ensure students’ needs are heard by those who matter.
I recently set up a website (www.enternships.com) which enables ambitious young people and graduates to find work experience within small and medium size enterprises and start ups. I realised there was a gap in the market, when there was no organisation providing work experience within an entrepreneurial environment when I needed it. Social entrepreneurship is just one of the ways in which young people can make the difference. By using existing business models to combat social problems we can bring positive change - no matter how small.
But clearly neither ‘enternships’ nor ESSA would have been created unless the need had been identified. And that’s the key - social innovation is about finding a need and meeting it in the most creative and effective way. And given this particular socio-economic context we are in, these are ideal conditions in which young people can take the initiative and make the difference.
The thing is, as a young person advocating on behalf of young people and the issues which affect us, we have a distinct advantage - we are living it. Middle aged policy makers and decision makers may have been young once, but I know what it’s like to be a young person right now at this specific time in history. And this unique insight is something traditional policy and decision makers, no matter how intelligent or ‘in touch’ can no longer be. And because we understand our position, we are the people best placed to change it.
But it’s not just about young people taking responsibility for their own involvement. Government and institutions need to make more of an effort to engage young people too.
For example, youth parliaments are an established and great way of engaging young people and there are already examples of this happening in the UK, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But more needs to be done to promote this as an effective tool for young people to have their say. At times, there is such a sense of apathy and hopelessness from the young people that is incredibly disconcerting. So many times I have heard “What difference can I make?” “There is no point because nothing will change” But the thing is nothing will change unless we try to change the situation. And the best way to do this is collectively.
More could be done to encourage young people to campaign for the issues that affect them. Whether this is at a local level or at a national level like Planestupid, a national climate change campaign driven by young people, so much can be achieved in working together. I am a strong believer in starting where you are and with the issues which most agitate you, that was one of the reasons I decided to be a representative of Chelmsford Borough Council’s ‘No Vote…No Voice’ campaign, to encourage young people to vote in the local elections. This was really worthwhile, as it not only enabled me to directly impact young people in my community but demonstrated the need for more young people to become role models whether it is in local and national government public and the voluntary sectors.
It is crucial that more should be done to help young people collectively engage in civil society activity, by government and other various agencies. But equally, more needs to be done by young people themselves to take initiative, both on an individual and collective basis. But it is crystal clear, if we are to ensure that civil society is working to optimum capacity, then all sections of society - young and old, rich and poor, employed and unemployed need to be plugged in. And in the instance of young people, especially, if they are not engaged or given the opportunities to engage, we could potentially lose a generation of change makers.