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Who'd Be Young Today? The Many Ways in Which We Are Failing Our Children

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With the start of the university year and the surging presence of Young Green groups up and down the country, and speaking at events for the Youth Parliament and Woodcraft Folk, I've been spending a lot of time with young people. And an impressive lot they are - engaged, committed, determined. But what I've been hearing from them is how tough every aspect of life is for them and their peers, how institutions and services meant to be equipping them for life aren't delivering, and how economic pressures bear down on them from every angle.

We know that the wellbeing of our young people is poor. One in 11 aged from eight to 15 have a low sense of wellbeing. And one in 10 children aged between five and 16 has a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder.
Consumerism, lack of exposure to nature, lack of time with family are all cited as cultural/social reasons. Our advert-saturated media and physical environment can't be helping.

But there's also a huge problem with education. We have the most tested, pressured, manipulated generation ever now in and emerging from our schools. It's a sausage-machine system that unsurprisingly leaves many of its products squashed out of a healthy shape. Children can "fail" the phonics test at the end of Year One, and no matter how much teachers and parents might try to protect them, "fail" is a word that can scar many far into the future.

What they don't get at school, it's very evident from many groups of young people I've talked to, is a decent "life education". On topics ranging from banking and personal finance, to sex and relationship education, to cookery and food growing, to political involvement and citizenship, young people feel they've not been taught what they need to know.

And they are, of course, far too many of them, affected by poverty. Schools are somehow expected to work miracles with children from homes where their parents are struggling through no fault of their own to put food on the table (and far too often dependent on the charity of food banks), to pay the rent, to get stable employment, to provide a secure, comfortable home.

And as they move towards adulthood, the much valued, often critical financial support that the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) provided is no longer there. Bursaries are uncertain, insufficient, and don't reach those who never started on their further education because of financial pressures. I wondered if memory of the EMA had faded, but when I mentioned it at a debate before the South West Youth Parliament last week, it was very clear that audience had not, and that they wanted it back.

Then of course there's tuition fees. Many young people will now be leaving university, starting their life, with the weight, in case of students in England, of some £60,000 in debt sitting on their shoulders. In an attempt to keep that down, many are packing their university days with part-time jobs, cutting down time for the kind of cultural, sporting and social activities that once helped shape and develop graduates at least as much as their studies.

Nevertheless, nearly all but those with the richest parents will start with that weight of debt sitting on their shoulders. A significant amount may be expensive commercial debt, but even when it is the official student loan, which remains repayable for 30 years. Defenders of the tuition fee say, never mind - 40%/60% or even 85% of students will never pay that off.

Ignoring the national financial implications of that for now, that means there's a debt, a repayment every month, cutting into the salaries of people through the times of their lives when they're likely to have heavy other expenses -setting up a home, maybe starting a family, hoping to have a mortgage.

And that assumes, of course that they can get a job. Youth unemployment remains near 1 million. There's lots of focus on possibly skills shortages, and apparent mismatches between employer expectations and what young people have to offer, but that relies on an employer expectation that "first-jobbers" will be productive, full staff members from day one. Whatever happened to the starter job? Well in many cases now, of course, it's the "starter internship" - unpaid.

When I was editor of the Guardian Weekly 18 months back, I was horrified by the number of young people approaching me, begging me, to work for the newspaper for nothing. These were young people, usually, with a master's degree or two, several languages, a year or more's unpaid experience - and yet still the best they could hope for was another unpaid internship.

And what a work environment these young people face, even if they do get a foot on the ladder: One in five workers on less than a living wage, one in 10 working fewer hours (and earning less money) than they'd like to. More than one million workers (one in three of them under 26) on zero-hours contracts. None of these jobs that you can build your life on.

So how can we be positive? We can and we must be, for young people themselves are. They're understanding that they need to change, and that our current economic model, current social model, won't and can't continue as it is. It has to be massively reshaped, reborn.

A recent Fabian Society study found that 67% of British people agreed with the statement: "Britain's recent problems have exposed fundamental problems with the way our economic system works. The ways in which government, banks and major companies operate will have to change radically before prosperity is likely to return to British families". (And only 15% disagreed).

Globalisation, neoliberalism, privatisation, have delivered for all of us - not just the young - a clearly dysfunctional society. There's wealth in the hands of the few (very often deposited in tax havens), and a grossly degraded natural environment.

We need to change, we must change. All of us can start that change - making the minimum wage a living wage and banning zero hours contracts, ending privatisation and bringing public wealth back into public hands, moving towards a society that works for the common good of this and future generations - but it's primarily the young people who'll build our new society.
They'll be the ones to reshape our world. They have the challenge, but also the opportunity.

We can help them by abolishing tuition fees, restoring the EMA, reshaping our education system, not through unstable, risky free schools and academies, but good local community-run schools that focus on a complete, rounded education. And by protecting children under 11 from some of the advertising bombardment that they're now subjected to.

Good luck to them - and let's hope they do a whole lot better than we did.

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