Findings from the latest Youth Social Action Survey (2019) show that whilst 88% young people still care about making the world a better place, and 86% agreed that is was important to try and make a difference, there has been a downward trend in youth social action since the annual survey started in 2014. Why?   The report and analysis were commissioned from Ipsos MORI by the Dept for Culture Media and Sport 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 has invested £70m through the #iwill fund.

“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.”

Why have ‘overall’ participation rates gone down to 53% from a peak of 59% , and ‘meaningful’ youth social action’ down to 36% from a high of 42%? The analysis of the survey of 2000+ young people in pre-Covid, 2019, suggests that this was partly because there were fewer local opportunities to take part and whilst the section on ‘enablers’ and ‘barriers’ to participation hints at other reasons, but it largely sticks to   observing the trends rather than reaching firm conclusions about them.

The report goes on to highlight that the gap between the higher participation rates of most affluent young people (41%) and lower rates by those least affluent (29%) has persisted since the annual surveys were initiated (45% /34%).  Most of the activity was organised by schools and colleges, with an increase in the proportion involved ‘because school staff asked them to’. The report does not explore the extent of actual youthled or youth-initiated social action.

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% to 54% and those who did tended to be from more affluent backgrounds. In terms of impact (or agency of social action) whilst up to 80% state they are ‘taking an active part in their community’ this drops to 57% who believe they are actually ‘making a positive impact on their community’. Would a survey of those communities about impact give young people more credit than they give themselves? Only 50% 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 opportunity, have had a cumulative effect, but this would need further research to test each ones significance. When youth social action was conceived as a national policy, pre-recession and cuts, it highlighted the double-benefit of young people stepping up to serve a ‘Big Society’ and that society needed to step up to provide opportunities and support. Times have changed.  Has the balance of investment in youth-service in contrast to youth-services, proportionate to the capacity and needs of young people? Has there been an upward trend in the number of young people who need to be the beneficiaries of social action. This does not rule out a role for peer-led support. Many young people are getting socially active through campaigning on mental health, loneliness, education, unemployment, climate change and youth voice. Up until now the youth social action question has been – what can we do to empower youth social action to support society? But is there another question – what social action does society need to take to support young people? How can we make these goals mutually supportive?

Perhaps we need a campaign directed at communities about the amazing work young people do when we plug into the power of youth, and make a greater point of celebrating and recognising them locally (outside of schools and colleges) and nationally, part of enabling and incentivising both more investment, opportunities and recognition, empowering a self-belief that its worth stepping up to serve and stepping in to act.

Next Steps for supporters for Youth Social Action

The Step Up To Serve campaign for youth social action draws to its planned close this year after seven years of campaigning. However £500,000 has recently [Oct 2020] 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 youth ambassadors, for another two years. Young leaders have been increasingly empowered by the #iwill campaign to have their say as part of youth social action, and the 2020 ‘Power of Youth’ challenge by them to stakeholders was neatly summed up by its young ambassadors in three calls to action: ‘Listen to us, Work with us, and Invest in us.

What can we learn from this survey going forward? What are the challenges and what new year 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 (see Young Voices Heard Picks below) 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’s 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: 6% 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% (2019) from 8% (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% are still voluntarily mentoring, coaching or tutoring their peers. Although down on previous years – thats still an amazing 1.2 million plus youthled leading their peers.


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Whats been the impact of Covid given that most youth social action was embedded in organisations like schools and colleges?

How do we empower more young leaders and mentors to drive youth social action in the future?

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