This is no time to be young

When Pete Townshend sang ‘Hope I die before I get old’ back in the sixties, he was presumably at least contemplating the prospect of a few years of youth. Sean Vernell in this magnificently angry pamphlet suggests that even this might be a dubious pleasure, and reading his relentlessly depressing statistics on the barriers erected in the way of today’s young achieving happy and fulfilled lives, it is hard not to think he may be right.

There can be little doubt that it is far more difficult to be a young person today than it was when I was growing up in the 1960s. Then you could be reasonably certain that a night out with your mates was not going to end in bloodshed, that the state would provide you with a university or college education, as well as with a reasonable amount of money to live on while you were there, and that at the end of your time in education a job would be waiting for you. It is frightening to consider how in the space of little more than forty years all of these desirable features of a young person’s life have been removed, leaving them instead in a world which is full of uncertainties, uncertainties bound to increase as a result of the coalition government’s policies.

One of the great virtues of Vernell’s pamphlet is the way in which he contextualizes the progressive demonization of young people throughout the industrial age and establishes an unbroken line from the gangs of young pickpockets depicted in Dickens’s Oliver Twist to the ASBO culture and the casual labelling of young people as ‘feral’ that characterize present day society’s interaction with its youth. Young people are actually far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators, yet, as Vernell points out, the number of children and young people locked up in England and Wales doubled in the decade to 2006, with a disproportionate increase in the number of boys and girls from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Nor do the afflictions of the young stop there. In section after section of his pamphlet, Vernell shows how the youth of today are disadvantaged in the labour market, access to affordable housing and, particularly important to us, education. He points up the way in which the expansion in education over the past thirty years has been undermined by the narrowing of the curriculum, the relentless pursuit of targets and meaningless indicators of ‘quality’, and a corresponding increase in teacher workloads, with teachers being able to spend less time on doing the things they went into the profession to do while they spend hours of their time on unproductive paperwork. To anyone who works in a further education college, all this will be depressingly familiar.

Not surprisingly, all this has had an effect on the health and happiness of the young. The report into child well-being in the twenty-one OECD countries published by UNICEF in February 2009 put Britain in 20th place on every criterion. Only the US came lower. Accordingly, rates of mental illness, self harm and anorexia are increasing, while suicide rates among young men in the 15-24 age group rose from 9.8% in 1976 to 15.8% in 1996.

As Vernell points out, although there are many reasons why young people decide to take their own lives, it is surely not chance that this period coincides with a period when young people have seen an intrusion of competitive values into every aspect of their lives.

If Vernell’s pamphlet were merely a catalogue of woe, it would make for very depressing reading. However, the latter part of the pamphlet creates a picture of young people’s political engagement which effectively debunks the idea that today’s young are self-interested, politically apathetic and lacking any sense of collectivism.

He quotes young people from Britain, France and Greece, and cites the involvement of the young in the anti-war movement as evidence that young people are getting involved in radical political movements, if not the traditional party political activity of previous generations.

The final section sets out a list of steps which would improve young people’s lives and here the emphasis is on allowing the young to determine for themselves the direction of their lives and construct alternatives that work for them.

I was particularly struck by the proposal to start a building programme for youth clubs and shocked to learn that three out of four 11 to 16 year olds do not at present have access to one.

Don’t get young in the third millennium! is cogent, well argued and timely. It makes a compelling case for a radically different approach to the way we regard and treat young people in this country. You might quibble with the odd detail – Cathy Come Home was a drama rather than a documentary – but no-one in UCU reading this will want to dispute the main thrust of the analysis or the proposed remedies. In his foreword the poet Michael Rosen urges everyone to read it, ‘especially any young people wondering how and why all this stuff goes on’. I would add that it should be made compulsory reading for anyone involved in working with and for young people, and in particular by those with the responsibility for setting the laws and policies which affect young people’s lives.