The reality of youth alienation and disaffection

Sociologists and educationalists all over the world have shown how the condition of youth has changed in the neoliberal economies with acute degrees of inequality. The more unequal a society the more violent and alienated young people become. They turn against each other in gangs and against the high street trappings of wealth from which they are excluded. Young people in Knightsbridge won’t be rioting.

The classic account of this new reality is in the brilliant book by Henry Giroux called Youth in a suspect society, democracy or disposability?

Giroux looks at the severe trends of youth alienation and disaffection in the United States, the society with the least welfare state provision and the highest extremes of market madness and inequality. But these trends are all too clear in Britain now.

The policies of a few are wrecking our communities. The Tories particularly have targeted youth services not for cuts, but for closure. The significance of this is very great. Young people saw the new government come in and without a mandate to do so raise student tuition fees, get rid of the Education Maintenance Allowance and then begin their most serious assault on the architecture of services closest to young people’s hearts.

What is little recognised is that one of the public services substantially built by young people in their own interests, the youth service, could be the first public service to disappear. Already a number of Tory councils have abandoned it and London Boroughs have been reckless in its neglect, with £17 million proposed to go from 15 already threadbare London youth services in the last half of this year.

The youth service was created fifty years ago in its modern form as a service that young people choose to get involved with. This element of personal choice means it becomes a service that young people shape and mould themselves. It’s part of our democracy.

It is designed to give free association and fun, experience of collective decision making and above all a democratic voice. Youth workers fundamentally are political educators whose subtle work to assist personal and social education belongs to a long progressive tradition of community learning and development. They work alongside young people on their agenda and do not approach them as ‘problems’ or deficient individuals requiring ‘cure’.

Most youth councils have been created and sustained by youth workers. At a deeper level, literally millions of young people who once saw no hope or who lacked self esteem, communication skills and felt miserable about their predicament have been transformed into active positive citizens by the youth service over the generations. It is a vital service in working class communities where many other services have disappeared already or where services are about doing things to young people rather than with them.

Youth workers empower young people and this empowerment is the best foil to the sense of hopelessness and worthlessness that mass unemployment and poverty breed.

Around this service over the years a range of other support services developed for young people, advice and information, youth arts, disability and sexual issues support, street work, mental health services and legal guidance.

Look at any study of the cuts and you will see that these are the first and hardest to be hit. Lifeline services which our young people need and help to create have been wilfully and deliberately targeted. Even the hardest hit charities are those supporting children and young people. Many are closing.

57% of young people volunteer in a positive way in their communities. For every one pound spent on youth work a further eight pounds is generated in voluntary activity. Youth workers are not just trained to engage responsible and properly treated volunteers in positive community activities, they area also trained to fund raise.

A third of the amount invested by local authorities in youth services is raised from other sources by youth workers keen to see young people resourced and supported.

There will be four hundred thousand fewer young people engaged in voluntary activity in their neighbourhoods this year as a result of cuts to youth volunteering projects.

Alongside the closure of Connexions Services and youth services have gone the closure of vital street level advice and legal services. Also, hundreds youth centres which have been the only source of safe, warm and creative activities in rural and urban areas have closed.

In boroughs like Haringey and Hackney huge 75% cuts to youth services have been proposed. Young people have campaigned tremendously and very responsibly against this vandalism of their services throughout the country, but Haringey’s campaign was a shining example. Young people used and reused every element of the existing political machine to make their point.

But as in so many parts of the country councillors and MPs simply have not listened to the voice of the disenfranchised with no vote. Despite some of the largest petitions ever gathered in defence of public services in many parts of the country against youth service cuts, Tory and Lib Dem councillors have ignored all of the warnings.

Like the TUC, and the British Youth Council, we say it is time for votes at sixteen. Alienation and frustration have been compounded as young people feel the established political system simply does not listen or care.

At the end of this summer term I cautioned publicly that this was going to be the worst summer for young people since the second world war as the devil makes work for idle hands and the combined effect of youth unemployment and destruction of their services outside school, together with the feeling of being a target and being ignored was creating a new cocktail of frustration and anxiety.

A recent Parliamentary Select Committee showed how about 85% of young people’s waking hours are spent outside formal education, yet each year local authorities spend 55 times more on formal education than they do on providing services for young people outside the school day.

The Committee went on to condemn the government for saying that youth service expenditure represented large slugs of public money and congratulated the sector for its long standing dexterity in making limited resources go a long way.

Yet the government is attempting to ignore this report and proceeding with the daftest set of youth policy papers ever produced. These are under the misleading title ‘positive for youth’.

Never has a government been more negative for youth as this one. It is managing a disposable generation of unemployed and unwanted young people who will not even be a reserve army of labour as the predicted double dip recession now begins to bite.

If policy is based on the idea of young people as being disposable, then it sheds any democratic aspirations. Even the Big Society bank originally designed under Labour to provide funding for youth organisations, has been redesigned as little more than a scam for the banks to recycle loans to each other for a profit.

From our perspective we must show that our progressive Labour Movement will be the source of engagement and nurture and political activity for the young. Trade unions must re engage with young people as never before. The young people who have come forward to lead hope for the future must be welcomed more into our meetings at community and national trade union level.

This is essential as these disturbances are different from the Notting Hill riots of the 1950s or the Brixton, Toxteth and other riots of the eighties. This time there is a lack of any semblance of direction, there is a lack of any faith in the public sphere to solve community problems. There is a turning in on each other as reflected in the continuing instances of youth on youth violent crime.

The average age of the young people caught up in the disturbances is 16. Society has to offer something better and fast, or next year’s problems as the economy goes into tailspin will be even worse. Society should treasure our young not vex them to this intense degree.

Doug Nicholls.
National Officer
Community, Youth Workers and Not for Profit Sector

clear.gif