Role of young people in society

Young people are often closely associated with anti-social behaviour and inactivity, in part due to the level of youth unemployment. This means they often find themselves on the receiving end of negative attitudes, fuelled by unfavourable media coverage [1] and perceptions that they are a threat. Yet this can mask the positive attributes that they bring to communities and the value of their involvement in decision making. The Labour government 1997-2010 showed interest in increased youth participation and empowerment through schemes such as the Youth Opportunity and Youth Capital Funds. These gave young people the power to decide how to spend money to improve the provision of positive activities, and were spent on projects such as sports facilities. The Youth Capital Fund ends in 2011, having been reduced by 50% in July 2010 [2] and the Youth Opportunity Fund has been rolled into the Early Intervention Grant. [3]

Research suggests that young people’s engagement in formal politics is low, but also that concerns about young people’s disengagement from politics are centuries old. There has been interest from political parties in giving votes to younger people in order to encourage their engagement in politics, with the Labour manifesto in 2010 promising a free vote in Parliament to widen the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds. However, there is evidence that young people are engaged with broader politics and they already participate in environmental campaigns or volunteer in their local communities. Continued involvement of young people in their communities is important for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s Big Society agenda, yet this is hampered by the growth in inequality of wealth and opportunities between younger generations and the middle-aged.

The role of young people as active citizens has been stimulated by the plans of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government to introduce a National Citizen Service. The programme is designed for 16 year olds ‘to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens, mix with people from different backgrounds, and start getting involved in their communities.’ Participation is not compulsory, but the coalition government wants to expand the programme - which is being piloted in 2011 - so that every 16-year-old has the chance to part.

What are the implications?

  • Young people are in an uncertain position. They are the future, and the most able to adapt to technological and social change. Yet they are also seen as a threat, and associated with crime and inactivity.
  • The plan for a National Citizen Service may provide more opportunities for young people to take action in their communities. This may be enhanced by the Big Society agenda with its renewed emphasis on community engagement.
  • With an ageing population and with older people more likely to vote than younger people, young people may lose political influence.
  • The concepts of ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ may change. An increased focus on single-issue campaigns may see young people identify with others who share characteristics such as gender or race, rather than age. An increased political focus on the family may lead to more differentiation between children and adults.

Moving forward

  • How can you involve young people in your organisation?
  • Will young people become more interested in formal politics following the increased focus on citizenship in the national curriculum?
  • What is your organisation doing to challenge negative attitudes towards young people? What can young people do themselves to challenge negative attitudes?
  • Will youth participation lead to increased expectations of young people? Will young people have time to play and develop?
  • Will attitudes towards young people change as the population ages?
  • Will young people’s participation be seen as a tokenistic requirement or will their input really be valued? Does participation really give young people power?
  • Will policies and funds supporting youth participation continue to be seen as ‘nice-to-haves’, which puts them under threat in times of economic uncertainty?
  • Where young people are becoming more involved in decision-making and society, are minorities and harder-to-reach young people missing out on these opportunities?

Want to know more?

An Anatomy of Youth

Published by: DEMOS

Date: April 2010

What is it? A research project looking at society and policy-making from the perspective of young people in Britain aged 16-25.

How useful is it? A thought-provoking series of essays on what politics can do for the next generation, which also has an impressive amount of research and analysis.

Young people, politics and popular culture

Published by: University of East Anglia

Date: March 2010

What is it? A report examining the complex relationship between popular culture and young people’s political engagement.

How useful is it? A useful piece of research which examines how politicians use popular culture to attempt to engage young people. It highlights the role of young people in shaping these attempts.

Youth Funds

Published by: Directgov

Date: February 2010

What is it? The Labour Government 1997-2010 funding programme which gave young people a say in improving the provision of positive activities.

How useful is it? A good indication of the approach of the Labour Government 1997-2010 to youth participation – giving them power to make decisions about facilities in their area.



[1] Young People Now, 25 June 2007, Young People 'Seen But Not Heard' In National Media [Back]

[3] Department for Education, December 2010, Allocations for Local Government and Maintained Schools [Back]

Last updated at 16:45 Thu 03/Feb/11.

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