Who are the teen engagers? Social action and social class amongst 10-20 year olds

Last week Step Up to Serve published its latest research into social action by 10-20 year olds. The independent work, undertaken by Ipsos Mori, adds considerably to our evidence base on what younger age groups are up to. I want to share a few quick reflections on what I think is particularly interesting.

Big, but probably stable

The research found that 42% of 10-20 year olds reported taking part in ‘meaningful social action’ during the past year. The same survey was carried out in 2014 and found that 40% of young people took part but this difference is not statistically significant so we need to count it as not having changed.

This isn’t necessarily surprising. If we look at the Community Life survey data on rates of volunteering over the past decade or so, what we see is a broad level of stability, as an earlier blog post of mine discussed. It will be interesting to see what future survey data tells us, but my guess is that it probably won’t dramatically rise or fall.

Not necessarily the same people taking part

Having the same rates of participation between years could mean that it’s exactly the same people taking part each year, but it’s unlikely. I recently went to an excellent presentation by the University of Birmingham’s Matthew Bennett on volunteering by 10-15 year olds, using data from the Understanding Society survey.

He’ll be writing a blog post for us soon to explain this, but he and his colleagues have found some fascinating stuff to show that it’s actually pretty fluid – lots of different people can move in and out between different years.

Biased towards more affluent communities

Unfortunately the research found that rates of participation are higher amongst young people from more affluent families: 49% in the most affluent and 38% in the least. This reflects some wider findings from volunteering research on the ‘civic core’, which found that volunteering demonstrates a similar pattern.

Young people from less well-off families could be missing out on the numerous benefits of social action. But this might also be a methodological issue. However good surveys like this are, they are often not able to satisfactorily capture the more informal ways of participating that can often be more prevalent in less affluent communities.

An interesting take on non-participation

The research found that 15% of 10-20 year olds said they were unlikely to take part in social action in the next 12 months (dubbed the ‘reluctant’ group by the researchers). This is a comparatively small group of people and realistically there are always going to be some people who don’t want to get involved.

However, this 15% are more likely to come from less affluent families than the most engaged (the ‘committed’ group), which could add to the risk of social action being the preserve of the better off.

External factors are critical

Once again the research highlighted the important role of schools – 74% of young people said they got involved through their school. But the role of families is also interesting, something I don’t think we know enough about yet.

Parents were mentioned by more than six in ten when asked who encouraged them to take part, and large numbers of those not currently participating said being able to do so with their family would encourage them to take part in the future.

It also reminds me of our Pathways through Participation research, in which adults frequently told us that their first experience of getting engaged in their community was with their parents and that they had ‘inherited’ the culture from them.

This is just a quick take on some bits from the research that leapt out to me – the full report gives much more detail, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what struck you. Let me know in the comment section below.


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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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