Why is youth engagement important?

Youth Advisory Panel Member, Richard Glenhomes, writes about youth engagement:

With an increasingly negative portrayal of young people in the media, it is perhaps understandable that some organisations are reluctant to rely on young people to be responsible and committed or even engage with young people at all.

Combine this bad (and untrue) perception with the societal concept of young people ‘never having it so good’; then we run into a real problem when it comes to empowering and involving young people into the development of our society.

In reality, young people today are in an increasingly difficult and challenging socio-economic climate that is rapidly and constantly changing, with the introduction of new technologies and educational standards. Unemployment rates amongst young people are on the rise, leading to depression with the Prince's Trust Macquarie Youth Index showing that 40% of jobless 16-25 year olds reported a mental illness as a direct result of unemployment. Combine this with higher costs of living, lower wages and massive students debts (if you can face taking out £9,000+ a year in the first place!) and we see that the situation is tight (let alone wallets and purses).

If this is not hard enough, then what about the education inflation? With more and more people going into higher education and gaining degrees, the bar has risen, not only creating more competition, but also forcing some young people to take the academic route when they really are not suited to such a path.

The constant fears that youth have to face, pressures to succeed and stigma in society can only lead to disempowering young people - which is why the need to engage them is more vital than ever.

Quality engagement for young people can have a fantastic and diverse effect on them as individuals and amongst their peers. There are the obvious benefits of course: transferable employability skills for careers, being more active and healthy and gaining essential life experience. These are great as starting points, but the trove of benefits runs deeper for the engaged young person.

Studies by Generation Citizen report that 96% of 16/17-year-olds claimed volunteering made them feel good about themselves and the Step up to Serve Ipsos MORI report stated the average wellbeing score for those who had participated in social action in the past 12 months was significantly higher than for those who had not. This research shows that engagement is effective at tackling mental illness in young people, restoring their self-worth and improving their general wellbeing - an outcome of Spirit of 2012.

The same study reported that over 20% of 17-year-olds claimed immigration was one of their top concerns. Yet 95% of young people who were engaged through volunteering met people they would not normally mix with and 80% felt more positive towards people of different backgrounds. In an age where we should be celebrating diversity, but with serious threats to this aim, proper experience of those from other cultures gained through engagement could be the key to an inclusive society.

Of course, it is not just young people that gain from being engaged, the ‘engager’ or organisation benefits too. Utilising young people’s skills as digital natives and their knowledge of the changing world around them can lead to a fresh approach and a project’s success.

The creativity of young people is endless, as long as we encourage them to realise their ideas rather than quash them, an issue our current education system has, with such a heavy focus on academic examinations and stale education techniques.

The onus is then left to us. Can we really risk the development of our young people and leave it in the hands of an out-of-date system? We need quality engagement techniques that reach a variety of learners and this is one of the best things about youth engagement. It is fun! Ask the Participation People, our Spirit YAP mentors and trainers, their multi-sensory teaching approach left me feeling empowered for weeks and still sticks in my mind. Perhaps use sport like the Inclusive Futures scheme or maybe arts like the Unlimited Impact project. Or, what about Inspired Action social action projects?

Are they the best route to take? With so many options, we can really let young people flourish in their own way - meaning the excuse ‘we can’t engage young people’ is simply not true.

So, why is youth engagement important? Let’s face it, young people are the future, so why not let them be agents of their own future and change. Work in partnership with young people so they can represent their own interests and try drawing on their expertise of the new world we are in - you will be surprised at how much they have to give.

Also, keep reminding yourself of how easy it is to fall into the trap of creating too big a distinction between ‘young people’ and ‘adults’. One day the ‘young people’ will be the ‘adults’ and society's leaders (scary thought?) and it will be their responsibility to engage the next generation while looking after the old. Why not make sure they ask the question we should be asking young people today ‘what can we do for them?’ over ‘what can they do for us?’