Young people: selfish individuals or uninformed and insecure?

Young people. Who are they? What do they do? And what influences them to be the way they are?

Young people in Birmingham. Photo by Tanisha Campbell

The press, the government, think-tanks and research centres are concerned about young people in the UK… they are unemployed, they have few skills, they are in debt, they don’t care about their neighbours, they are less likely to support welfare and they think the NHS isn’t that great. This is evidenced in scary statistics. Then again, some of these young people are engaged, protesting government cuts to public services, demonstrating at power stations and volunteering in unprecedented numbers.

Last week, the Guardian ran a story called Generation Self, which explored the paradox that young people – historically more inclined to hold values on the political Left – are now more negative than ever towards the traditional institutions that symbolise those values.

In trying to explain this trend, James Ball and Tom Clark touch on several valuable insights: one is that young people, flummoxed and crushed by the paralysis engendered by their position in a society that has consistently favoured policies supporting older generations, have responded ‘not by imagining collective fight-back, but by plotting individual escape’.

It would be easy to suggest that attitudes towards the welfare state have corroded across generations, influenced by the impact of recession, political wrangling, bad press and controversy. This corrosion might naturally have resulted in a new generation of young, independent hardliners.

But voting figures amongst young people would suggest that they are not interested in traditional politics anyway: only 44% of 18-24 years olds and 55% of 25–34 year-olds showed up to vote in the 2010 national elections. Issues of taxation, healthcare, benefits and so on are fought in this conventional political domain, only dominated by ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ politics within this sphere. If young people are not interested in the usual channels of political debate, then where are they shaping their ‘selfish’ opinions on the issues that are fought over within these usual channels?

According to Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, this move towards ‘selfishness’ amongst young people is caused by cosmopolitanism: being less interested in national boundaries due to the commonality of the internet, young people have come to feel less allegiance to their geographical location. “The NHS has been described as ‘the People’s Romance’: virtuous not because it’s the best, but because we’re all involved – it’s unifying. In another generation, that role might have belonged to the army. It makes sense in this modern world that people are becoming less interested in these national institutions.”

In fact, though young people are now unified through new systems and across global boundaries, in formative years we are all linked by something very particular to the community – school. The nation does not always need a war to unite itself (although it might seem so). A strong army stirs up national pride, social media opens windows on interests further afield, but school instils a sense of lived-in location, togetherness and cohesiveness.

Young people are ‘plotting individual escape’ not ‘imagining collective fightback’. And here is the key – young people are struggling to imagine collective action, or even the procedures involved living collectively because they have no food for their imaginations. Not only is school a place in which we learn why we ever left the wilderness and started interacting with other humans, it is also the grounds in which we consider and envision the ways in which we might ourselves interact with other communities.

Party politics might make the shocking surveys concerned with youth attitudes towards welfare seem like this is about young people becoming more Conservative; in fact what the attitudes show is that children are now growing up without the general knowledge about their positions in society, that form the basis of these opinions. They are individuals, working hard to stay afloat in a negative and pessimistic environment – concerned that they not be judged lazy or unlucky.

Not only does citizenship as a subject serve to bolster young people’s understandings of the institutions and procedures that build our collective place in society. More importantly, every subject that they encounter can help foster an element of democratic procedure – whether that’s in economics, learning about taxation policy; in science, considering ways in which governments fund research; food technology, learning about rights and responsibilities surrounding nutrition… Imagination is essential for young people to be able to conceive of their place in a difficult and over-communicated world.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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