21/06/2013 07:41 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 06:12 BST

Power to the Young People

At the beginning of this week, Michelle Obama led a call to action to the young people of Northern Ireland to build peace in their time. "You have the freedom of an open mind, you have a fresh perspective that will help you find solutions to age-old problems", she said.

Mrs Obama (and her new fringe) might have garnered the headlines, but she was preceded on stage by someone equally impressive; 16-year-old Hannah Nelson, who clearly demonstrated why America's First Lady has so much faith in the next generation. Hannah highlighted that her age group should be the focus, the ones to build new relationships with people from different communities. Speaking for her peers she said: "We really need to be responsible, accountable people and live to make a better future for ourselves. There is no time like the present."

The theme of empowering young people to use their considerable talent, idealism and energy to make their world a better place NOW struck a particular chord as this week the charity which I lead in the UK, City Year, joined 12 other youth organisations to launch an ambitious new alliance: Generation Change. We aim to enable young people to transform their own life opportunities as well as their local communities through the double impact of social action. And when I say young people, I mean all young people, not just the so called 'lost generation'.

We believe that social action - be it volunteering at a homeless shelter, helping an elderly neighbour learn basic IT skills, or giving a year to serve in a school in a deprived area - and the benefits it brings to everyone involved, should be at the heart of growing up in Britain.

There is considerable untapped potential. The higher education sector alone has only 40,000 UK university undergraduates participating in structured programmes run by their university or union - out of a population of 2.5million higher education students.[1] By comparison, in the USA, over 30 per cent of all college students volunteer regularly on a structured programme, mostly involving mentoring.[2]

We also know the demand is there. New research from Generation Change group member, BeatBullying, suggests that the need for a joined-up approach to social action has never been greater: more than nine out of ten (94%) young people it surveyed thought there should be more volunteering opportunities for young people, and almost half (42%) of those who have taken social action would become more involved if they could move more easily between opportunities.

There needs to be more recognition of the transferable skills developed by this type of activity: teamwork, communication, empathy; in essence, all the things that businesses say that they are crying out for from young applicants. Why don't they encourage more of it by making it explicit on application forms, and why don't University Admissions Tutors look beyond academics to involvement in the community as part of the assessment criteria for a good student at their institution?

Many excellent youth social action opportunities exist, but there are still too many barriers to getting all young people involved. By working together we want to change that.

Michelle Obama added: "I have never felt more optimistic...Time and again I have seen young people choosing to live together, choosing to lift each other up, choosing to leave behind the conflicts and prejudices of the past and create a bright future for us all." Let's extend that sentiment to the whole of the UK by recognising that young people have the ability to be a solution in society, not a problem to be solved - they just need a chance to prove it.


[1] Volunteering England report, The Power of Volunteering: A Manifesto