What can Tom Hanks tell us about effective youth participation?

Graham Duxbury
Tuesday, September 3, 2019

There's a special kind of sinking feeling you get as a parent when you realise you've made an error of judgment and either exposed your children to harm or exposed yourself as someone not living up to the values you espouse. My recent mini example was suggesting that, for our family movie night, we go old school and dig out Tom Hanks' Big. A bit gross in parts but harmless fun, right?

I suppose I should count it as a success that it was the kids who quietly suggested I turn it off for being inappropriate. Putting aside - if you can - the central premise that we're watching a 12-year-old boy in a man's body having a romantic encounter, it's two hours littered with casual sexism, glorification of consumerism, antediluvian business practices and, worst of all for my youngest, unabashed smoking in public places.

The scene we all remember, of course, is Josh (Hanks) ‘unlocking the inner child' of a jaded toy magnate by playing Chopsticks with his feet on an oversized piano keyboard, white sneakers and all. When you strip away the other plotlines - which clearly haven't aged well - this is the element that contains a couple of universal truths: any organisation will be better if it finds ways of listening to the needs and aspirations of those it seeks to serve; and children and young people are particularly good at telling it like it is.

Charities like ours are working hard to embed these truths in the way we go about our work and make our decisions. Young trustees, youth advisory boards and user-led steering groups are now becoming the norm in the sector, providing a new perspective and fresh challenges in terms of service design, communications and, crucially, the degree to which we are being authentic and living up to our values.

Enjoying other, more successful family activities during the summer holidays have cemented in my mind the need for more commercial organisations to follow this lead and listen more actively to the voices of young citizens. If today's young people, with their growing consciousness around waste and climate change, were more integral to business decision-making, would retailers really get away with selling ‘festival tents' seemingly designed for disposal after a single use? Would holiday club lunch boxes be filled with individually plastic-wrapped cakes, biscuits and bits of fruit? Would fashionable summer clothes really be so flimsy and throwaway that they can't survive a single wash?

It's often said that our unsustainable consumerism is driven by the need felt by businesses to keep pace with the demands and expectations of the next generation with cash in their pocket. I genuinely believe that if more business leaders really engaged with young people they'd go further faster in adopting more responsible practices and embracing the principles of a circular economy.

As minds turn to the new school term some parents and pupils will be thinking about work experience. Maybe another lesson we can take from our dated Hollywood view of the world is that work experience will be much more beneficial to businesses if young people are advising the CEO in the boardroom rather than spending their time with the photocopier and filing system.