Celebrating Generation C

Young people get a bad press. They are portrayed as lazy, selfish, rude and disconnected from society, and of course (and this is always the give-away) a pale shadow of previous generations. We know this is nonsense and yet such pervasive stereotypes are difficult to shift especially when they are so beloved of our tabloid media.

So it seems appropriate during Student Volunteering Week to do our bit to try and right this wrong and to pay tribute to the fantastic young people who do so much for our community and who, despite the unprecedented economic challenges they face, put many previous generations (including my own) to shame.

Two new reports provide ample evidence to back up this claim. The first produced by the think tank Demos argues that such is the extent of youth social engagement that this generation can legitimately be dubbed Generation C or Generation Citizen. The second report, produced by the NUS, showcases the incredible volunteering being carried out by students (another often maligned group) on campuses throughout the country. Together they paint a picture of a generation of young people deeply committed to social justice and desperate to make a difference to the world around them. A similar point has been made by my colleague, Karl Wilding, in relation to the generosity of young people to give money to charity.

This week I attended a meeting of the advisory group of Step up to Serve, the new cross-party supported initiative aimed at getting 50 per cent of young people aged 10 to 20 involved in social action by 2020. The group was buoyed up by these reports, and with a great new chief executive about to take up the reins, hugely optimistic that this challenging target is within reach. But the meeting was realistic about the barriers which exist which could get in the way of the realisation of this vision. One of these is the capacity of volunteer-involving organisations to create enough exciting and challenging roles to capture the imagination of young people. NCVO, as part of its commitment to Step up to Serve, is producing a guide for organisations on how to get this right. It will draw on a favourite report of mine from a few years back from Kathy Gaskin, who coined the term Flexivol as an approach organisations should adopt to win the hearts and minds of young people:

  • Flexibility
  • Legitimacy
  • Ease of access
  • Xperience
  • Incentives
  • Variety
  • Organisation
  • Laughs

This report is over a decade old and we need to test that it is still relevant to today’s fast changing world. What do you think? Is it still of value? What practical tips and examples have you used in your work to bring these principles alive? What else should be done to make volunteering the must-do activity for all young people? It seems to me that one thing has certainly changed since this report was written; the desire for young people to take a lead in shaping their own volunteering. So I would suggest that one of the ‘Ls’ should be leadership, or ‘youth-Led’. But no doubt other things have moved on as well, including the growth in bite-sized, technology-driven, micro-volunteering opportunities. We are thinking of setting up a reference group of organisations who specialise in working with young people to help in the production of this guide but it would be great to have your thoughts.

There was another report released this week by the ONS which makes for less positive reading. It suggested that young people in the UK are the least likely of all their European counterparts to vote. Evidence of youth disengagement? Not at all. For me it says much less about young people – who are harnessing their political energies in other directions – and far more about the failure of our political system to relate to their needs and passions. That, not the fallacy of youth disengagement, is the real challenge of our times.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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