Empowering young people to become life-long engaged, active citizens is a key ambition for any democratic society. The implications of the Covid-19 pandemic across the UK have, however, impacted significantly on the crucial stages and transitions of young peoples’ pathways to adulthood.
Research has revealed how Covid-related disruptions to the educational pipeline and an increasingly precarious job market, which has seen a sharp increase in unemployment for young people aged 16 to 24, have impacted hard on young people across all walks of life – particularly the most disadvantaged, in economic, social and mental wellbeing terms. Moreover, there has been a diminishment in the resonance and agency of young people, both in terms of their ability to influence the decision-makers who powerfully shape their lives and opportunities to volunteer in their local communities.
Despite this critical outlook, the so-called ‘Covid generation’ have proven to be the ‘Resilient Generation’, quickly adapting during these difficult times to changing educational, social, and economic circumstances. Many have continued to engage with issues shaping their lives and express a strong desire to be socially active at home, in school, and across their local communities. A Deloitte survey of 27,000 young people worldwide reported that they are even more engaged issues such as health, equity and climate change than before the pandemic. Coronavirus has increased their sympathies for others, with around 75% saying they are planning to undertake social action in their communities once the pandemic abates. Furthermore, recent Royal Voluntary Service research indicated that almost three-quarters of young volunteers credit the experience of volunteering with improving their job prospects, while over one-third aged 16 to 19 said it helped them find their first job.
This resilience has, however, come in the face of sharp and disproportionate implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people. In terms of future pathways, this generation risk paying a considerable price – 30% of Gen Zs have lost employment, with 50% experiencing stress-related health impacts – and we do not yet know enough of the lived experience of other challenges – social, economic and in terms of active participation and wellbeing – that they have and will face. This noted, another study indicated that social class still has a significant mediating impact on young people’s awareness of, and access to, opportunities to be socially active, thus also presenting barriers to building the skills, networks and enterprise essential for enhancing their future education and employment. Indeed, the pandemic has further underlined what we already knew – that many young people feel they lack the requisite knowledge, skills, and support structures to make meaningful contributions in their communities and society more widely. Too often, existing structures exclude or fail to recognise and capitalize upon how young people can – or are already – taking enterprising and socially purposeful civic action. Moreover, there are too many moments in young peoples’ transitions to adulthood where the lack of integrated, mapped, and accessible support means their first experiences as active citizen are defined by a ‘postcode lottery’ and their socio-economic background.
The fragmented and uneven nature of the civic and political socialisation of young people means that inequality is experienced from childhood which can impact throughout their adult lives. This socialisation process is significant in that young people crystalize civic and political identities, values and behaviours that can persist throughout later life. It is a cognitive and relational process that significantly informs their transitions to adult citizenship, and is undertaken in a range of formal, informal, and non-formal spaces and places
Such inequalities reflect what is currently a significant but highly fragmented policy landscape in which government and non-government investments and interventions often focus on specific age groups, without any explicit focus on creating a more integrated and inclusive ecosystem to support youth transitions to adulthood; particularly one which offers a ‘civic journey’ into volunteering, active democratic engagement, meaningful employment, and enhanced life opportunities. Viewing civic and political socialisation as a ‘civic journey’ encourages policy-makers, academics, educators, community organisers, parents, and the public to understand how young people experience citizenship during such transitions both as being and becoming a citizen.
In many ways the component elements of a more comprehensive ‘civic journey’ already exist in policy terms. Children and young people have opportunities to participate in a wide-range of school-based, community, and other youth programmes provided by national and local government and non-governmental social enterprises, civil society organisations, and the private sector. There is however a need to encourage a more integrated and coordinated policy-pathway that runs from early years through to adulthood to ensure all young people have appropriate opportunities to develop civic skills, knowledges, and experiences to support and facilitate life-long active citizenship, and to foster connections to and pride in the places they live.
The pandemic offers a unique moment and opportunity to invest in the resilience, community spirit and the civic potential of young people through the mapping out a new ‘civic journey’. It requires all those who work with or who are interested in young people, and who celebrate their contributions to society, to think about how we might ‘level up’ how and when we civically and politically socialise the citizens of today and tomorrow. This will require us all to engage and listen to young people, exploring the barriers and tensions they experience in being civically engaged and to positively channel their aspirations and values to encourage new generations of active citizens. We will also need to see beyond single or structured age-related interventions to foster a co-created, collaborative, and impactful ‘civic journey’ that supports all children and young people into adult life. The challenge is ours; let us work together to ensure the Covid-19 recovery is one young people across the UK are equipped and empowered to shape and be proud of.
Institute for Community Studies Posted on: 29 July 2021