"Why we need civil society to stand up and lead"
Director of Strategy & Innovation, Youth Futures Foundation
As a society we face an unprecedented set of social, economic and environmental challenges, many of which have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Children and young people have been particularly hard hit by Covid and, without urgent action, the pandemic threatens to create a lost generation with poorer living standards and worsened life chances.
If we are to tackle the significant challenges we face, it is vital that young people are supported and empowered to be active citizens. Too often, young people’s voices are excluded from decision making and their capacity to make a positive difference isn’t sufficiently recognised or maximised. This is particularly true of young people from marginalised and disadvantaged communities.
Civil society organisations should be at the forefront of a conscious and substantive shift of power to young people, enabling them to better shape and address the issues that affect their lives, their communities and broader society. How can we unleash the power of young people to help drive national renewal over the next decade? By listening to them, investing in them and co-creating an ambitious nationwide plan that empowers young people to create positive change.
Emerging evidence about the impact of the pandemic shows that young people are likely to suffer its long-term consequences the hardest. The economic downturn is set to cause youth unemployment to skyrocket, with young people under the age of 25 most likely to have lost work due to furloughing, hours reductions and job losses. Existing labour market inequalities are also set to increase, with ethnic minority young people significantly less likely to find employment. Although the full impact of school closures is still unclear, the Sutton Trust anticipates that the attainment gap will widen between young people from low-income backgrounds and their wealthier peers.
Young people feel deep uncertainty about the future of society and their role within it. A University College London (UCL) study found that three-quarters of young adults (18 to 29-year-olds) feel worried about future plans, compared to just under half of 30 to 59-year-olds and a quarter of adults over 60. Such anxieties are widening generational divides, with 67% of young people agreeing that their generation will pay the price for the pandemic.
Young people will enter adulthood in a period of increasing uncertainty, dealing with the consequences of decisions on which they had no say. Three-quarters of young people believe that politicians don’t care what young people think and less than a quarter (24%) of young people agree that their generation is well represented in political discussion.
Yet despite sacrificing much through the pandemic, Government and media portrayals of young people have often painted them simply as selfish and individualistic. Spikes in the infection rate have led to fingers pointed at the young, with warnings not to “kill granny” by catching and spreading the virus.
This characterisation is deeply unfair. Most young people feel a strong sense of social responsibility, with the vast majority following Government guidelines. Moreover, the majority are concerned not only about their futures, but about the implications of the current crisis for those around them and the future of society. Beatfreeks’ Take the Temperature report found that 92% of 14 to 25-year-olds feel this could be a moment to change society for the better and 51% said they are making more effort to help those in need.
Over the best part of a decade, the #iwill campaign has helped to coordinate and drive efforts across the UK to make participation in social action activities such as volunteering, campaigning and peer-education the norm for 10 to 20-year-olds. Thanks to the activities of large national programmes and community organisations across the UK, there is now a strong body of evidence on the extent to which young people are making a positive difference within their communities.
Young people are eager to make a positive impact on society: 86% believe it’s important to try to make a difference in the world; and 88% care about contributing to make the world a better place for everyone. Three-in-five young people say they’re likely to take part in social action over the next 12 months. This appetite provides a strong foundation for the state and civil society organisations to build from.
Growing evidence shows the multiple benefits that are created when young people take part in high-quality social action activities, such as volunteering, fundraising, campaigning and peer-education. For young people, taking part in social action correlates with higher levels of wellbeing and lower levels of anxiety. Randomised control trials showed that young people who participated in high-quality social action activities saw improvements in character qualities like empathy, cooperation, resilience and problem-solving, qualities that support educational attainment and future employability. 
Youth social action also has the potential to be transformative for communities and wider society. Young people who take part in social action are much more likely to feel as though they belong to their community compared to those who never take part. Likewise, research shows that participation in social action means young people are much more likely to feel their views will be taken seriously in their community. Communities benefit when young people feel valued, engaged and involved through creating a greater sense of community and boosting social cohesion.
Powerful examples can be found across the UK of young people creating change within their communities and beyond. From taking part in school strikes to campaigning against plastic and creating the first ever Young People’s Forest, young people have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle the climate emergency. Likewise, young people have driven efforts to combat racial injustice, engaging in peer-education on anti-black racism and through leading campaigns to decolonise the curriculum.
Although there have been significant efforts to mobilise adult volunteers in response to the Covid pandemic, most notably at a national level through the NHS Volunteer Programme for over 18s, there has been limited focus on the positive impact young people can make. Despite this there are inspiring examples across the UK of young people taking action in their communities during this crisis, be it through acts of kindness to people in care homes, checking in with discharged patients, creating mental health ‘survival guides’ or helping to draft youth-friendly social distancing guidance.
Through the young volunteer programmes established in 30 NHS Trusts across the UK with the support of Pears Foundation and the #iwill Fund, young people are also adding value to healthcare services, enhancing patient experience, supporting staff and improving care while developing their own skills, wellbeing and career opportunities.
Data from the National Youth Social Action Survey has consistently shown a stark participation gap. While 47% of young people from the most affluent backgrounds participate in social action each year, this is true for only 28% of young people from low-income families.
The survey results also show a significant increase in the proportion of young people who state there are ‘few/no opportunities in my area’ (19% in 2019, compared with 12% in 2018 and 4% in 2017), with young people from low-income backgrounds more likely to identify this as a barrier to participation than their wealthier peers. This perhaps reflects the fact that despite investment in social action opportunities through initiatives like the #iwill Fund and National Citizen Service, these have been offset by significant funding reductions to the youth and education sectors over the last decade.
Over the years the survey has consistently shown that the most common motivations for participating in social action are ‘If I could do it with my friends’, followed by ‘If I could do it at school, college, university or work’. Schools and colleges remain the key route into taking part in social action for young people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and are particularly important for young people from low-income backgrounds.
To emerge from this national crisis and ‘build back better’ over the next decade we can no longer afford to treat young people as leaders of tomorrow. Rather, we must harness the energy, talent and ideas they have to make a positive difference today.
Youth volunteering and social action more broadly is often framed by conceptions of ‘service’ and ‘sense of duty’. But since the long-term consequences of the Covid pandemic will be felt most of all by the young, what we need is meaningful action to address imbalances of power. How can we ensure that in the 2020s, young people have more power to shape and change things for the better? To answer this, civil society organisations should work with government and the private sector on three critical areas:
Empowering more young people to make a positive difference should be an integral part of how we seek to address current and future challenges. An ambitious nationwide plan to boost the numbers and diversity of young people taking social action should be developed in partnership with young people to address a range of issues including the climate emergency, mental health and racial injustice. Given the scale of the youth unemployment crisis to come, linking such a plan to boosting young people’s employability, including through links to the Kickstart Scheme, should be a priority.
Although a structured programme that supports young people to take social action should be explored, collective ambitions to further mobilise young people should not start and end with efforts to create a ‘service year’ in the UK. Any plan should also encompass the variety of ways in which young people can make a positive impact. It should build on existing collaborative structures, infrastructure and projects, including the sector-based partnerships stimulated by #iwill since 2013.
Too often, decisions are made about young people without young people. However, their views, experiences and ideas must be heard to shape how we build a better future. Despite making up 12% of Britain’s population, 18 to 24-year-olds account for less than 0.5% of all charity trustees. Likewise, the majority of central government departments have no structures in place to consistently engage with young people to shape policy making. There is currently patchy evidence on the extent to which local authorities have developed youth engagement strategies.
Organisations at a national and local level must do more to give young people from diverse backgrounds a seat at the decision making table. These opportunities should be meaningful and well supported and could include recruiting young trustees, creating young advisor groups and young ambassadors or involving young people in grantmaking and commissioning processes.
With the #iwill Fund set to finish in December 2022, further investment will be vital to ensure that more young people and communities benefit from high quality youth social action. Both the government and funders should prioritise investment that targets young people from low-income backgrounds to take action. In particular, funding should; aim to embed youth social action in schools and colleges as the key gateway for participation for disadvantaged groups, invest in civil society organisations providing critical infrastructure that enables youth social action opportunities and remove financial barriers that can prevent young people from taking part, such as travel or suitable clothing costs.
It’s time we took young people seriously. Young people have an essential role to play as active citizens in leading national renewal, as part of civil society and beyond. By working with young people, listening to them and investing in their capacity to create positive change we can truly unleash the potential of civil society.
 C Smyth & R Bennett, “Don’t kill granny with coronavirus, warns Matt Hancock”, The Times, 8 September 2020
 A Mycock, “Latest Covid-19 study shows young people worried for their future”, University of Huddersfield, May 2020
 Scoping a Quality Framework for Youth Social Action, Young Foundation, June 2013