Youth social action and inequality

Today, Step Up to Serve published their latest research into social action by 10–20 year olds, undertaken by Ipsos Mori. This is the third year this research has been undertaken and it’s starting to form a very valuable body of information about how younger people are engaging. But what might it mean for anyone working with young people?

Levels of involvement look stable over time

The research found that four in ten (42%) young people took part in ‘meaningful social action’ over the past 12 months. This is a large number of people, equivalent to more than three million. This hasn’t changed much since the first survey in 2014, with levels at 42% and 40% in the previous two years. This consistency doesn’t necessarily surprise – or worry – me. Volunteering levels for all ages (while distinct from social action) have remained broadly stable over the past 15 years, and are also similarly high: 41% of people said they volunteered through a group, club or organisation at least once over the past year. It is, however, a helpful reminder that we shouldn’t spend all of our energy obsessing about quantity, but that we might do better to ensure a quality experience for those taking part.

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still taking part less

Once again we unfortunately find that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are doing less youth social action than those that are most affluent – 49% of people from AB groups (the most affluent) took part compared to 40% in DE (the least). Activities such as social action and volunteering are essentially social phenomena and will therefore often reflect wider social inequalities that are present. But while this nine percentage point difference is notable, it is considerably less than the 51%–31% difference seen in 2014. Time will tell if this is a trend (I hope it is) or simply variation between years.

This social divide becomes more pronounced if we look at young people’s involvement in youth social action programmes, which the researchers define as participation through a charity, a uniformed group, a development programme, or full-time volunteering. Here we see 48% of the most affluent young people taking part, compared to 27% of the least affluent. Such programmes often tend to be at the more formalised, longer and more intense end of the spectrum, and they can also demonstrate a greater depth and breadth of positive impacts, particularly on employability – have a look at the evaluations of the National Citizen Service and our own evaluation work with City Year.

I’ve been impressed by the work of many youth social action providers who are trying to increase involvement from young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds (again, have a look at our work with City Year UK). But if we’re to ensure equal access we need to be regularly asking who is taking part in these programmes and challenging each another to help close this gap.

Youth social action and Brexit

The campaign around the EU referendum and the result revealed a country divided along many different lines. Calls for civil society and charities to help heal these divisions and bring communities together followed, with volunteering, social action, and civic engagement seen to be an important way in which to achieve this.

Problems and perspectives will be better understood if we can get out of our bubble, the argument goes. Today’s research did find some connection between participation and the social networks that young people have, but didn’t find a link with social mixing. Is youth social action simply strengthening existing relationships with people of similar backgrounds (not a bad thing in itself) rather than bringing together people of different backgrounds and cultures? It would be unfair to see youth social action as a panacea for all of society’s ills, but in the context of a suggested divide between those from more affluent and more disadvantaged backgrounds, this might be an area we want to look at in coming years.

This is just a quick take on some aspects of the research that leapt out at me – the summary report gives more detail (the full report will be available next year). I’d love to hear your thoughts on what struck you – let me know in the comment section below.

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Avatar photo 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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