What's next for youth social action?

James Cathcart
Monday, November 9, 2020

The Step Up To Serve seven campaign is drawing to a close.

Organisations are bidding to take forward #iwill 2.00 and the DCMS has just published the latest Youth Social Action Survey. How will this definition of youth ‘service’ roll out in 2021?

"The vast majority (9 in 10) cared about making the world a better place - however, overall rates of participation in social action have decreased over the last five years." 

Findings from the latest Youth Social Action Survey (2019), show that whilst 88 per cent of  young people still care about making the world a better place and 86 per cent agreed that is was important to try and make a difference, there has been a downward trend in youth social action activity since the annual survey started in 2014. 

Why? The report and analysis were commissioned from Ipsos MORI by DCMS to inform and influence the Step Up to Service iwill campaign. It aims to make meaningful social action part of everyday life for 10-to 20-year-olds across the UK and have invested £70m in grants.

Why have 'overall' participation rates gone down to 53 per cent from a peak of 59 per cent , and 'meaningful' youth social action' down to 36 per cent from a high of 42 per cent? This survey of 2000 plus young people pre-Covid, suggests that this was partly because there were fewer local opportunities and whilst the section on 'enablers' and 'barriers' to participation hints at other reasons, the report largely sticks to observing the trends rather than reaching firm conclusions about them.

Whilst continuing to benefit young people with increased self-confidence, communication and team-work skills, there was a disappointing decrease in the proportion who felt they were recognised for their efforts from 60 per cent to 54 per cent and those who did tended to be from more affluent backgrounds. 

In terms of impact (or agency of social action) whilst up to 80 per cent state they are ‘taking an active part in their community’ this drops to 57 per cent who believe they are actually ‘making a positive impact on their community’. 

Would a survey of communities about impact give young people more credit than they give themselves? Only 50 per cent of all young people, whether taking part in social action or not, believe ‘that people would take them seriously… if they decided to share their views on something happening in their local community’. Perhaps broader socio-economic factors, recession, cuts, lack of recognition, as well as lack of opportunity, have had a cumulative effect, but this would need further research to test each one's significance.

Is the balance of investment in youth-service, in contrast to youth-services, proportionate to the capacity and needs of young people? Do more young people now need to be the beneficiaries of social action rather than be agents of it? How can we make these goals mutually supportive?

Next steps for supporters for youth social action

The Step Up To Serve campaign for youth social action draws to its planned close in December after seven years of campaigning. However £500,000 [Oct 2020] has been made available by its backers to continue to champion "iwill" mark 2, which will be hosted by a consortium [yet to be decided at the time of writing] focusing on coordination, research and continuing the young ambassadors programme, for another two years. Young leaders have increasingly been empowered by the #iwill campaign to have their say and their 2020 'Power of Youth' three calls to action: 'Listen to us, Work with us, and Invest in us are an excellent benchmark for the future by which young people will judge today's efforts.

What can we learn from this survey going forward? What are the challenges and what new year's resolutions can we make for 2021 to address them? Perhaps some of the answers lie in the detail and more encouraging findings of the survey and investing in the key 'enablers', notably in schools as part of a revived youth citizenships curriculum. There is a case for trying to match young people's clear concern and care for their society (like the environment) with matching opportunities - and perhaps it is time to given them even more of a stake in shaping them.

Although I fear Covid will have further restricted many of those opportunities for youth social action I'm optimistic that young people's commitment to care will have new-found expression in creative ways to make a difference if their voices are amplified. I look forward to seeing them being rewarded and recognised by their service to date, by being given new spaces to shape, lead (and scrutinise) the continuation of meaningful social action going forward. Let's hear their views in a youth-led revival for positive social change

'Young Voices Heard Picks'

#Youthvoice heard: Six per cent of the sample aged 10-20 years-old stated that they had "been involved in Young Advisors Groups". There are over 8.3 million in this age group (ONS 2019), suggesting that as many as 498,000 were getting their views heard in some form of youth participation. This might seem surprising but not when you take into account the high number of school/student councils and local youth councils.

#Youthvoice action: Campaigning/awareness raising activities on "something you believe in" was also up to 12 per cent (2019) from eight per cent (2018) - that would suggest nearly 1 million young people were trying to influence others. (The UK Youth Parliament Make Your Mark campaign registered over 838,000 teen votes in 2019).

#PowerofYouth peer support: 15 per cent are still voluntarily mentoring, coaching or tutoring their peers. Although down on previous years - that's still an amazing 1.2 million-plus, youthled leading their peers.

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