Article: Breaching the Social Contract with Young People
Bernard Davies updates the evidence on the ‘condition of youth’ in the UK today and outlines a range of personal and structural issues which young people are currently having to negotiate, often with declining support from key state services.
Creating a new youth precariat
Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England started from the proposition that a decade after the 2007-08 banking crisis ‘a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract’ has occurred resulting in young people’s living standards in the future ‘… likely not to be as high as they are for their parents’. Some of the evidence for this came from the government’s own sources such as its Household Income Data – that for the third year running in 2016-17 the number of children living in relative poverty had increased to its highest level since 2007-08. Six months later, a new measure of poverty from the Social Metrics Commission put this total at 4.5 million, with more than half predicted as likely to remain trapped in that situation for years. Though often hidden in reports labelling them ‘children’, those in their teens and even into their twenties were thus already being recognised as firmly embedded within what had come to be recognised as the new ‘precariat’.
By late 2018 it had become clear, too, that this experience of poverty, intersecting with wider structural factors, was contributing to a range of damaging outcomes for young people:
- Between 2012-13 and 2016-17 the number of young people referred to the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) rose by 56 per cent, with the proportion of under 18’s who had self-harmed increasing by over 20 per cent. A Children’s Society survey of 11,000 14 year olds published the following month revealed that over a year nearly a quarter of girls had self-harmed compared with under one in ten boys.
- A survey by the charity Crisis reported in 2014 that 8 per cent of 16-24 year olds had been homeless in the previous five years. According to a Homeless Link report published in April 2018, more than a quarter of young people accessing homelessness services in the previous twelve months had been aged 16 or 17. Figures released in November 2018 by the youth homeless organisation Centrepoint, however, revealed that during 2017-18, 52 per cent of 16-24 year olds who had sought help from their local councils had been turned away.
- Research by the Joseph Rowntrees Foundation and others identified white 16 year old boys living in ‘post-industrial’ communities as the lowest academic achievers.
- As acknowledged even by the government, ethnic minority young people were facing an ‘enormous social mobility challenge … from reaching their full potential at every stage of their lives’. Its own findings in April 2018 showed that, when only 13 per cent of the UK population as a whole belonged to a BAME group, over 48 per cent of under-18s then in custody were classed as BAME.
It was perhaps hardly surprising therefore that 15 year olds in England and Wales were amongst the least likely to express high levels of satisfaction with their lives. Indeed, according to a 2017 Prince’s Trust survey, 28 per cent of the 2200 16-25 year olds interviewed described themselves as ‘trapped by the circumstances’ and ‘out of control’ of their lives.
Youth in poverty (continued)…
Authoritative research has continued to emerge over the past twelve months, including again from government sources, which both confirms and illuminates that generational breach of the social contract. Though some of the evidence is focused on 18-29 year olds, it nonetheless illustrates the likely future for the young people youth workers are meeting now and indeed what those young people themselves are often expecting.
A Resolution Foundation study published in August 2019, for example, found that at the same stage of life, 26-28 year olds born in the later 1980s were by 2019 earning only 3 per cent more than their counterparts in the 1970s. After allowing for inflation, those in the
For the current generation of young people, direct experience of poverty was already much more widespread. In March 2019, the Department of Work and Pension (DWP) reported that during 2017-18, the number of children living in absolute poverty had increased by 200,000 and those in relative poverty by 300,000 – the latter to 4.1 million or 30 per cent of the age group. Some of the personal as well as material consequences were indicated the following month in a Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report which found that a quarter of children from low-income families were going hungry during the school day with some who qualified for free school meals, such as 15 year old Maddy, left humiliated by the way staff treated them.
Based on a finding that the majority of children in one in every 40 council wards was living below the poverty line, the End Child Poverty coalition thus warned in May 2019 that in some areas child poverty was becoming the ‘new normal’. This conclusion was given at least implicit support two months later by the Social Metrics Commission which found that 7 million people, including 2.3 million children, had been in poverty for at least two of the three previous years. All this was occurring, moreover, just as (in 2017-18) the disposable income of the richest one per cent of individuals was increasing by more than seven times the average.
Some of the most compelling evidence on UK poverty, however, came from a non-UK source – the United Nations ‘rapporteur’ on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. Based on a two-week fact-finding tour in November 2018, his final report (released in May 2019) labelled the situation in which four million children were by then living in poverty in the UK as a ‘social calamity’. It was ‘crystal clear’, he said, that this, the result of the government’s ‘austerity experiment’, amounted to a ‘systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population’ with DWP seemingly having been ‘tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse’. Alston also pointed specifically to the ‘slashed government spending on services’ as a direct cause of ‘the 40 per cent of children predicted to be living in poverty in two years time’.
….Within a structurally unequal society
A key overall conclusion drawn by the government’s Social Mobility Commission from this accumulating evidence was that inequality in Britain was ‘now entrenched from birth to work’ – that is, including within the teenage period – and that ‘being born privileged means you are likely to remain privileged…’ Children who had ‘professional’ parents were thus 80 per cent more likely to go into a professional occupation, while even those from working class backgrounds who made this journey successfully still on average earned 17 per cent less than ‘more privileged colleagues’.
These conclusions – including again at least implicitly that the social contract with the young had been broken – were supported by a House of Lords Select Committee report published in April 2019. It pointed, for example, to ‘a structural shift’ between the generations and the ‘failure of successive governments to plan for the future and prepare for social, economic and technological change’. It also warned that if the government did not act, young people could soon ‘grow to resent older people for having … benefited from a lifetime of well-paid secure employment of which younger generations can only dream’. The Lords’ report attracted immediate endorsement from the British Youth Council which listed five issues which were key for young people including ‘investment in services such as youth provision’.
For many young people, their lived experiences of poverty continued to bring damaging personal consequences. Research by the Social Mobility Commission for the then Education Secretary Damian Hinds found ‘huge disparities’ in 10-15 year olds’ involvement in out-of-school activities when related to household income, with for example, the gap in participation in sporting activities reaching around 20 per cent. As well as pointing to cost and difficulties of access as likely explanations, the report noted, too, that ‘youth provision has been cut back by local councils’.
Young people also continued to register a wider and deeper personal disillusion with their condition – as indicated, for example, by a Prince’s Trust survey published in February 2019. Over the previous decade, this found, the number of 16-25 year olds who judged life not worth living had doubled from 9 per cent to 18 per cent. Though many did see positives in their involvement with social media, just under half of those responding said that when comparing themselves with others using these sites, they became more anxious about their future, with 57 per cent feeling that they created ‘overwhelming pressure’ to succeed. Related findings emerged from an August 2019 Young Minds report: that, as well as 77 per cent of the 7,000 young people it surveyed citing school as a pressure and 69 per cent worried about their appearance, 27 per cent said that spending too much time on social media had impacts on their mental health.
An Action for Children survey of 11-18 year olds and their parents and grandparents published in July 2019 also identified pressures to meet peers’ expectations and to achieve at school as well as anxieties about poverty, Brexit and climate change. A significant conclusion drawn from this evidence was that ‘The country is sleepwalking into a crisis in childhood and, far from being carefree, our children are buckling under the weight of unprecedented social pressures, global turmoil and a void in government policy which should keep them well and safe’.
Climate change and sexual harassment again appeared as serious concerns for the 14-25 year old young women surveyed by Girlguiding, prompting the organisation to publish a ‘Future Girls’ manifesto in April 2019 addressing these and other issues. Rising levels of dissatisfaction with life – what the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society called ‘a national scandal’ – were recorded, too, by the Society’s ‘Good Childhood’ annual survey of 2,400 households and its longitudinal study covering 40,000 households. Released in August 2019, this pointed to a fall in overall contentment amongst the 10-15 year olds interviewed which had left some 219,000 children in the
Within this overall environment of pressure and anxiety, disturbing evidence again emerged on how serious the mental health impacts had become for a growing number of young people. By 2019, for example, the rate of teenage suicides in
…And practical consequences
Behind this personal disillusion and indeed desperation lay a wider range of everyday, often structural-rooted, realities with significant practical impacts. Updated statistics from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, for example, revealed that that 48 per cent of young men in young offender institutions who in 2016-17 had identified as from a BAME background had a year later risen to 51 per cent.
For young people more widely, in some crucial areas their life choices were narrowing substantially. Co-inciding with a fall by half since 1997 in the proportion of 26-28 year olds owning their own home, the proportion of 20-34 year olds living with their parents rose in the same period from 2.4 million (19.48 per cent) to 3.4 million (25.91 per cent). In mid-2019 the largest-ever survey of potential first-time buyers carried out by the mortgage lender Santander revealed that, though 91 per cent of those interviewed still aspired to buy their own home, by 2026 fewer than 25 per cent of the 18-34 year old age group would be in a position to do that. (This compared with half of under-34 year olds who were homeowners in 2006). For the founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, this provided further evidence of the ‘breaking (of) the social contract’ and prompted a warning from Generation Rent, an organisation representing young people priced out of housing market that ‘resentment is growing’.
Another crucial component of the purported social contract – opportunities for personal advancement via educational participation and achievement – also seemed to be under growing strain. New evidence showed, for example, that 22 per cent of pre-1992 graduates and 34 per cent those who had graduated in or after 2007 were not doing jobs requiring degree-level qualifications. Perhaps not unconnected, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that, albeit by only 0.2 per cent, for the first time since 2010-11 the proportion of UK state pupils going to university had fallen; and that in the period since 2012 when tuition fees were raised to £9,000 recruitment of students from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’ had gone up by only 0.7 per cent, to 11.6 per cent. Moreover, at time when according to a National Educational Opportunities Network report more than half of England’s university intakes still included fewer than 5 per cent of ‘poor white students’, funding for an alternative route which some 16-19 year olds might have chosen – further education – had since 2012 been cut by 12 per cent.
Even about a ‘youth’ policy area where, it could be argued, progress had been made – a 61.1 per cent reduction between 2009 and 2019 in the under-18s pregnancy rates – Public Health
Where are the services: where is state policy?
Far from responding to these ‘wider determinants’ of young people’s condition, state policy, local and national, was usually in denial about them. In responding to the Alston UN report on UK poverty the DWP, for example, chose to highlight UN data which, it claimed, showed that ‘the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live’. In direct contradiction of Alston’s conclusion that ‘millions of those who are in work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope’, it also went on insisting that ‘… full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life’.
In this environment, the core services on which the young relied continued to struggle to provide even crucial everyday support.
- The Young Minds survey quoted earlier, for example, found that 67 per cent of its 7000 respondents hadn’t been able to get help with their mental health problems when they first needed it; that 78 per cent had had to manage their mental health on their own when help elsewhere wasn’t available; but that only 17 per cent were confident about doing this. Forty five per cent of those interviewed who had sought support from youth clubs said they had found this helpful (21 per cent said it hadn’t been) – though only 13 per cent had actually been able to find this source of help in their area.
- Research carried out by Homeless Link concluded that in 2018, young people continued to be over-represented in the use of homelessness services in England with 30 per cent of 16-25 year olds accessing these services even though this age group made up only 12.3 per cent of the population.
- The annual ‘Vulnerability Report’ of the Children’s Commissioner in England estimated that in 2019, 2.3 million children were then living in a ‘vulnerable family’. Some 829,000 of these were seen as ‘“invisible” (in the sense that they were not known to services) and therefore not getting any support’ while for an additional 761,000 known to the services, the level of care was ‘unclear’. The report thus concluded that the care being offered to around 1.6 million children from a vulnerable family background was ‘either patchy or non-existent’.
The Children’s Commissioner drew from her findings one particularly challenging message for the government: that ‘it might cost in the region of £10bn per year to fix this broken problem’. For her, ‘fixing’ had, amongst other things, to include opening schools in the holidays and providing ‘youth services to tackle gang violence’. With 25 per cent of all spending on children going on just the 1.1 per cent defined as needing acute and specialist services, the Chair of the Local Government Association’s used the report’s appearance to remind ministers that ‘children’s services were at a “tipping point” as a result of increasingly high levels of demand for support and cuts in central government funding’.
Moreover, despite repeated promises from at least late 2018 that austerity was coming to an end, including in the Chancellor Sajid Javid’s recent Spending Review statement in Parliament, its impacts continued to be felt well into 2019. For the current financial year, for example, Derbyshire’s Conservative administration planned to cut its ‘early help’ budget from £12.9 million to £4.5 million, with the loss of 160 jobs. This meant ending all funding for ‘generic youth activity clubs’, a ‘community grants scheme’ was proposed ‘to help more organisations provide a wider range of community-based youth activities for teenagers.’
As a way, he said, of ‘getting young people off the streets and changing lives for the better’, Javid did allocate money to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ‘to develop proposals for a new Youth Investment Fund…… to set out plans to build more youth centres, refurbish existing centres, and deliver high quality services to young people across the country’. No details were given in the Statement and none appeared in the days immediately afterwards on how much money is to be made available or on how, precisely, it is to be used. Given how Javid introduced the announcement, however – with a glowing account of a visit to ‘the fantastic Onside Youth Zone in Barking…. a brilliant example of how much Britain’s network of youth centres add to our communities’ – it was clear that this new example of ‘gesture funding’ had nothing to do with reviving locally based forms of open access youth work.  This conclusion was given greater credence by one highly significant ‘absence’ in Javid’s Statement: any indication that he might be considering reversing the ‘cuts in central government funding’ referred to above by the LGA spokesperson. These had been achieved particularly by his Department’s virtual elimination of its Revenue Support Grant to local councils – a policy which over the previous decade had had very direct and especially damaging impacts on local authority Youth Services.
Broader government policies since Johnson became Prime Minister have made it clear that reinstating these ‘soft’ forms of provision for young people is unlikely to appear on his administration’s agenda. Amongst the earliest decisions, for example, were to fund 20,000 additional police posts, to extend virtually unrestricted stop-and-search procedures across the country and to provide 10,000 new prison places. By August 2019, the Home Office had published draft guidance for the introduction of ‘knife crime prevention orders’ which, amongst other punishments, could impose a curfew on anyone aged 12 or older who the police believed was carrying a knife or who had a previous knife crime conviction.
The same hard-line ‘populist’ approach to young people was demonstrated in the new government’s proposed educational ‘reforms’, leaked in August 2019. One of their wider contexts (some of which the drafters were clearly aware) was that permanent school exclusions were already at their highest level for nearly a decade; that they were being targeted disproportionately at Black students; and that the young people left in limbo as a result often found themselves at risk on the streets and more likely to be drawn into the criminal justice system. Despite evidence that these exclusions were in some schools driven by their strict disciplinary procedures, the leaked papers nonetheless revealed that the government was intending to give renewed and explicit endorsement to the use by teachers of ‘reasonable force’.
…And the future?
One uncomfortable message coming out of policies with priorities such as these, is that reinstating a practice like youth work with its commitment to being personally educational and to operate in people-centred ways, is likely to be well down the present government’s agenda, if it appears at all.
More broadly, however, these policies, materially and ideologically, are unlikely in any substantive way to address many of the ‘condition of youth’ challenges outlined in this piece. Despite Javid’s beyond-austerity claims for his spending plans, the Department of Education will still be dealing with an 11 per cent cut in its resources since 2009-10 and the DCMS a 12 per cent cut. No less damagingly in the long run, embedded within these policies are explanations of the problems with which so many young people are struggling, which miss or marginalise some of their most crucial features. Implicitly as well as explicitly, for example, they repeatedly locate responsibility – blame – for those problems in the young person as an individual and/or, at its widest, in her/his ‘dysfunctional’ family. Not only, therefore, do they ignore deeper structural causes – shaped for example by the class, gender and race factors reflected in some of the statistics quoted earlier; they also are liable to sideline closer-to-home institutional factors such as, in schools, how a focus on ensuring a top place in the examination league tables can result in some 10,000 year-10s and 11s being ‘off-rolled’ and then no longer traceable within the state system.
All of which seems to point to a pretty gloomy conclusion: that current government approaches and initiatives will not only do little to relieve the pressures as evidenced in this post on young people and on the services working with them. They could even make them worse.
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Last Updated: 28 October 2019
 John Lanchester, 2018, ‘After the Fall’,
 Tristan Donovan, 2018A, ‘“Child poverty hits highest level in decade”’, CYPN, 22 March
 Patrick Butler, 2018, ‘New study finds 4.5 million
 See for example Brigid Francis-Devine et al, 2019, ‘Poverty in the UK: Statistics’, Briefing paper 7096, House of Commons Library, 2 July which defined ‘children’ as ‘… aged under 16, or who are aged 16-19, not married or co-habiting and in full-time non-advanced education’.
 Denis Campbell, 2018, ‘NHS unit on the frontline oin a child mental health crisis’, Guardian, 3 July
 Sarah Marsh and Amanda Boateng, 2018, ‘Quarter of UK girls self-harm at 14, “deeply worrying” survey reveals’, Guardian 29 August
 Emma Jackson, 2016, ‘We are on the brink of a homelessness crisis among young people’, Guardian, 9 February
 Joe Lepper, 2018A, ‘Youth homelessness rise linked to welfare reforms, report finds”’, CYPN 16 April
 Patrick Butler, 2018, ‘Half of young people facing homelessness denied help – report’, Guardian, 11 November
 Harris Beider, 2011, ‘White working-class views of neighbourhood cohesion and change’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, November; Mary Clare-Travers, 2017, ‘White working class boys: Teachers matter’, BERA, 31 August, https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/white-working-class-boys-teachers-matter
 Social Mobility Commission, 2017, ‘Young Muslims in the
 Neil Puffett, 2018A, ‘“Surge in proportion of black, Asian and ethnic minority children in custody”’, CYPN, 8 June
 Sally Weale, 2016, ‘British teenagers amongst the least satisfied in western world’, Guardian, 15 March
 Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“One in four young people ‘don’t feel in control of their life”’, CYPN, 6 January; Owen op cit
 Owen Jones, 2017, ‘The Tory policy for young people in Britain is victimisation by design’, Guardian, 12 January
 Richard Partington, 2019, ‘
 Phillip Inman and Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Poverty increases among children and pensioners across
 Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Quarter of children from low-income families ‘go hungry’”’, CYPN, 2 April
 Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Child poverty becoming the ‘new normal’, campaigners warn”’, CYPN, 15 May
 Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘More than 4m in the
 Danny Dorling, 2019, ‘Letters – Anti-Masochism’,
 Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Social mobility in
 www.parliament.uk, 2019, ‘Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Tackling intergeneration unfairness’, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldintfair/329/32911.htm#_idTextAnchor107, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“BYC backs measures to tackle intergenerational inequality”’, CYPN, 26 April
 Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Disadvantaged children missing out on out-of-school activities”’, CYPN, 19 July
 Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age’, Guardian, 5 February
 Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August
 Action for Children, 2019, ‘Childhood in crisis: Almost two thirds of parents and grandparents say childhood getting worse – and nearly two million children in the UK agree’, 9 July, available at https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/news-and-blogs/press-releases/2019/july/childhood-in-crisis/; Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘UK “sleepwalking into a crisis of childhood”, charity warns’, Guardian 9 July
 Amy Walker, 2019, ‘Climate change and sexual harassment top list of girls’ concerns’, Guardian, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Manifesto draws on views of 76,000 girls and young women”’, CYPN, 25 April
 Matthew Weaver, 2019, ‘Children in the
 Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age’, Guardian, 5 February; Denis Cambell, 2019, One in five young women have self-harmed, study reveals’, Guardian 4 June; Damien Gayle, 2019, ‘Men ht hardest as UK suicide rate soars to its highest since 2002’, Guardian, 4 September
 Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Half of boys in YOIs are from BME backgrounds’ CYPN, 29 January; Jamie Grierson, 2019, ‘Half of young inmate are from BAME background’, Guardian, 29 January
 Richard Partington, 2019, ‘
 Aamna Mohdin, 2019, ‘Nearly one million more adults now live with their parents – study’, Guardian, 8 February
 Miles Brignall, 2019, ‘Young Britons believe dream of owning home is over, survey says’, Guardian, 31 July
 Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Young adults have less to spend on non-essentials, study says’, Guardian, 20 June
 Sally Weale, 2019, ‘Third of UK graduates over qualified for their job’, Guardian, 29 April
 Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Rising trend of state school pupils going to university reverses’, Guardian, 7 February; Sean Coughlan, 2019, ‘Half of universities have fewer than 5% white students’, BBC News, 14 February, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-47227157
 Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Social mobility in
 Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Teenage pregnancy rate falls for 10th Year”’, CYPN, 15 April
 Robert Booth, 2019, ‘UN report compares Tory welfare policies to creation of workhouses’, Guardian, 22 May; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“’Nearly Half’ of
 Young Minds, 2019, ‘Huge gaps in early support for young people with mental health problems – new survey’, https://youngminds.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/huge-gaps-in-early-support-for-young-people-with-mental-health-problems-new-survey/, 2 August; Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August
 Children’s Commissioner, 2019, ‘Childhood vulnerability in
 Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Children’s Commissioner: Next PM should spend billions on children, not tax cuts’, CYPN, 4 July
 Derbyshire County Council, 2019, ‘Report of the Strategic Director for Children’s Services: Early help services for children, young people and their families – (Young People), 31 January; Eddie Bisknell, 2019, ‘Here’s the services which could be affected as Derbyshire County Council faces another year of multi-million pound budget cuts’, Derbyshire Times, 22 January; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘Council axes 160 jobs as it cuts £8.6m from early help budget’, Children and Young People Now, 6 February
 GOV.UK, 2019, Spending Round 2019: Chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/spending-round-2019-sajid-javids-speech, 4 September
 Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Curfews for young people planned in bid to tackle knife crime”’, CYPN, 21 August
 Sally Weale and Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Schools shake-up: the four key areas in leaked Tory proposals’, Guardian, 27 August. See also Community Empowerment Network, 2019, ‘Being Black & Dead While Excluded’ January 2019, available via https://indefenceofyouthwork.com/2019/01/18/being-black-dead-while-excluded/; Edward Timpson, 2019,Timpson Review of School Exclusions, OGL, May, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/807862/Timpson_review.pdf
 Phillip Inman, 2019, ‘Has the age of austerity really come to an end?’, Guardian, 5 September
 Richard Adams, 2019, ‘GCSEs: 10,000 pupils disappear from English schools at “critical” stage’, Guardian, 6 September
Bernard Davies is on the steering group of In Defence of Youth Work. His most recent book Austerity, Youth Policies and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in