A Better Deal for Youth

For the House Magazine, TUC week 2001.

Written by Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the Community and Youth Workers’ Union.

Forgotten generation.

The transition from childhood to adulthood creates a period known as youth. During the period of full employment this transition was relatively linear. Young people went to school and went into a job or further education. At work they would be nurtured by the collective trade union culture prevalent within the apprenticeship system and with so many unionised workplaces. With the break up of industry and trade union organisation and the penetration of the market into all spheres of life, the period of youth became full of risks and uncertainties. Youth has also become a longer period. Poverty and unemployment have meant a shortage of money to create independence from parents. An unaffordable housing market has made stable family building difficult. In fact under the Tories, the state of youth became so dire that over 250,000 young people dropped off of all registers and could not be found in work, education or permanent addresses.
The worst Tory legacy was the theft of youth from so many. At the time of life when character, self esteem, personal identity and skills are so indelibly formed the Tories took from hundreds of thousands of young people the right to untroubled growth and development. Our youth suicide rates shot up to be the highest in Europe.

Youth Services depleted.

This unseen discrimination was made worse by the continual reduction of precisely those facilities designed to support and cherish young people on their own terms. The Youth Service became the most severely cut part of education budgets. Denying the existence of society, the Tories similarly denied quite openly to me the existence of a special social category called young people. The Youth Service is staffed by professionally qualified full and part time staff. Their job is to advise, befriend and counsel young people and engage them in political and social education. They draw strengths from young people, enhance self-esteem and respect them for what they are. Youth workers have been successful because young people do not have to relate to them, they choose to and this voluntary basis of contact enables levels of trust and personal support to develop that are impossible elsewhere.
There has never been any reference to the Youth Service in statute. A political equivalent at the other end of the age spectrum would be that there was no such thing as a state pension. Since the 1944 Education Act said that every local authority should provide “adequate facilities for young people” youth work agencies have argued that this should be strengthened, as elsewhere in Europe, to provide a clear statutory duty to provide a youth service in each local authority area with a definite funding stream. Something close to this was established in the late seventies when there was a government figure given to local authorities recommending a level of spending on youth work. The Tories removed this and as a result the previously disparate levels of youth service spending became chaotically varied. This means that there is a different level of support for young people depending on where they live. Postcode inequality continues unabated. Government audits consistently reveal the threadbare patchwork of provision around the country which means that young people in some areas can expect fifteen times the level of resourcing and available youth workers than others.

Post code inequality.

The unevenness of provision was worsened by New Labour. Though supportive in opposition of several Bills seeking to introduce a statutory youth service, once in office the government actually weakened the already pathetic 1944 reference, and effectively left local authorities with no real duty to support young people. While failing to invest in the generic youth services, the government has embarked clearly on a set of strategies to prioritise support for young people. There is stronger Ministerial responsibility both in the Home Office and DFES and the Chancellor chairs an important cross departmental Committee and the work of a new Childrens’ and Young Peoples’ Unit. We have started to catch up with the rest of the world in which governments create Ministers for Youth.
While the problems created for young people by the Tories are being earnestly tackled, the fundamental denial of rights and inconsistent levels of support for them are still big problems.

Votes at 16.

Most organisations that support young people are now calling for a reduction of the voting age to sixteen. This has long been the policy of my Union and is also the policy of the TUC and the National Youth Agency. At sixteen you can go to work, join a political party, join a union, pay tax, join the forces, and contribute to a full range of responsibilities as a citizen. But you cannot vote. Indeed you cannot stand for local election until 18 or national election until 21. At the heart of social inclusion agenda must be the completion of the work to extend the franchise and the full acceptance into active citizenship of all 16 year olds.

Political interest.

The lack of formal voice for young people and the different rights and entitlements for them in each part of the country is being countered. There has been a renaissance of youth participation. Local Youth Councils have developed all over the country and there is a UK Youth Parliament. The young are engaged in their hundreds of thousands in community activities and the self management programmes offered within the Youth Service that give a foretaste of democratic decision making. But the young by and large do not want to know the trade unions and political parties. There has been in fact a very subtle exclusion of them from these quarters and no amount of flash in the pan gimmicks will solve this. A sustained and strategic approach is necessary.

Maximum disadvantage in the minimum wage.

But involvement of the young in civil society has always depended on economic opportunity. The transition to adulthood is eased by a good wage that enables you to save, to mix socially, to explore different interests and to literally get out of the house and establish your own independence. This is why the most pulverising blow to young people desperately seeking their way out of poverty and disaffection is the refusal by government to ensure that the minimum wage recognises that a loaf of bread costs the same whether you are sixteen or eighteen. Discriminating against young people on the minimum wage because of their age means more of the sweat shop type economy and ultimately exploited child labour.

Threatening Youth ?

A further element of the discrimination against young people is harder to explain briefly. It relates to the fact that social policies relating to young people, with the notable exception of the ground up development of the Youth Service, have always been based on the idea that the young must be contained and restricted. A former President of my Union wrote an analysis of post war youth related policies called ‘Threatening Youth’. Young people are the demonised hooligans, yobs and mobsters to be policed, tagged, tracked, punished and controlled. No other section of society has been treated in this way. The fact that young people are the biggest victims of crime and the poorest members of our society is often forgotten. We need to work with the government to develop for the first time a policy framework built on the appreciation of the young as active, responsible citizens.

Forgotten members.

Trade unions have championed womens issues, low pay, and pensions. It is time that they too were seen to get past the prejudice and champion the young. Today’s young workers are part of the solution not the problem. They need our support and guidance and collective spirit. We must not be seen as a trade union movement to collude with society’s deep discriminations against the young. In previous generations it was the workers under twenty five who built key structures and principles within the Labour Movement. By forgetting this history we run the danger of forgetting the future.


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