Making Youth - A History of Youth in Modern Britain

By John Freeman

| 17 March 2017

One of the few benefits of getting older is that one develops an increased perspective from the past to the present - things haven't always been as they are now!

I have recently been reading Professor Melanie Tebbutt's new book, Making Youth - A History of Youth in Modern Britain, an encyclopaedic overview of childhood and youth from about 1700. Written primarily, I think, as an academic analysis, I found it a fascinating read, which enabled me both to extend my knowledge of the history around what we now call ‘children's services' in the very broadest sense, and to put my knowledge of the current position, and, indeed, my own childhood experiences, into some sort of historical focus.

So, for example, there has been a continuing development of the narratives around ‘childhood' and ‘adolescence', involving work and economic activity, leisure, and education, centring on the idea of the child and young person as being increasingly autonomous as they grow towards adulthood. One of the trends described throughout the book is the contribution made by children and young people to the economy, first directly, as workers, and then, following a series of reforms over many years, indirectly through education. Another trend is the perceived threat of children and young people, as a group, to the social order, leading to a series of ‘moral panics'. In both cases, legislation followed rather than led the concerns.

The nature of society and employment impacts directly on children and young people - in 1911, more than a quarter of boys under the age of 15 were employed as ‘messengers'. This speaks directly to economic activity - at that time, cheap messengers were needed to keep the wheels of commerce moving. But increasingly such jobs were being automated out, by the telephone and telegraph, and by the public service mail. And being a messenger was a dead-end job that was part of what we now call the ‘gig economy' - not so much a zero hours contract, more catch the work you can.

Another feature of the times was the existence of pamphleteers - literally thousands of crusading pamphlets were published, promoting one cause or another. In the 1890s, there was a flood of pamphlets on the ‘boy labour problem', by which the authors usually meant that the various work open to young people of both sexes was in fact low skill, low pay and low security, with poor - or no - preparation for whatever the future held. Does this campaigning culture ring any bells with social media and Twitter?

Another facet of the life of children and young people is that of what Tebbutt calls ‘troublemaking and imposing order' - the ways in which children and young people caused trouble to their elders, and in which their elders applied sanctions and rewards (mostly sanctions) to reduce the trouble. The main tension was often seen as being between punishment and rehabilitation, as is even now the case. Again, Tebbutt sets a legislative framework around what we now call the ‘youth justice system', showing that the law of the land usually followed, rather than led, the social discourse.

Over the three centuries, there have been very many moral panics around, in particular, delinquent young men, often in externally-defined groups such as apprentices, students, teddy boys, mods, rockers and punks. One of the more obvious aspects of the growth of cities was the development of larger groups of young people who were outside the control and support of their immediate families. Periods of unemployment, often linked to war-time cutbacks, added to ‘unease about the potential moral corruption of youth'. Oddly, the great public schools - Eton, Winchester and Rugby - were seen as ‘seats of vice', disorder and riot, with armed police called out on at least two occasions - The ‘Riot Act' was read at Rugby in 1797.

Later, there was an emphasis on organised youth movements - both negative with ‘street gangs' and positive groups set up by religious or philanthropic organisations including Sunday schools to more formal groups such as the Boy Scouts. For me, one of the sadnesses of working my way through the detailed history of youth work is the steady growth in, and eventual state support for, youth work followed by a very rapid decline in the last five years. Locally to me there is an empty, derelict, youth centre, purpose-built in the 1970s. There are local voluntary groups, both church and secular, but they are, I judge, of very limited impact.

There are chapters covering working youth and educating the young, troublemaking and imposing order, organised and disorganised youth, policing sexual behaviour, leisure and consumption, new youth identities, and youth transforming. Each of these has insights that compare and contrast the forgotten or the remembered past with lessons for the present, and brings the reader right up to date with recession and austerity. Perhaps the most worrying feature for the future is the way in which we (here I mean the UK) have emphasised higher education as a goal that will lead to economic wellbeing, while at the same time we have two confounding factors - increased automation and globalisation - which, together, mean there are fewer and fewer skilled jobs available.

I end, therefore, where I started - large numbers of boys employed as messengers, dead-end jobs which did not prepare them for ‘proper' work, and which were extraordinarily vulnerable to technological change. I don't think that's giving in to despair - but I really don't know where our young people will earn their living or find fulfilment in the post-Brexit, post-Trump future. I am sure, though, that some of what we are seeing in popular political culture will have an impact as stark as anything we have ever seen.

Perhaps it's as well to remember, though, that while things change, the fundamentals stay the same - and that the past is a foreign and strange country!

John Freeman CBE is a children's services consultant and former DCS

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