Teenagency Young people are the experts we’ve been waiting for - RSA

Young people are the experts we’ve been waiting for… and they are ready to take action

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  • Education
  • Adolescence
  • Creativity

Our recent report, Teenagency: How young people can create a better world, explores the motivations and perceived ability of young people to make a difference in their communities through social action. We found that young people have a real desire to make the world a better place, despite persistent negative attitudes held by many adults. But we also found that, while 84 percent of young people want to help others, only 52 percent believe they can actually make a difference.

Today, we are publishing insights from a series of events we held this Autumn to interrogate the findings of the Teenagency report. We are delighted to release these during #iwillWeek. Led by #iwill, a national campaign working to ensure that all 10-20 year olds have the opportunity to take part in high quality social action, this week is about celebrating the contributions that young people make to society.

Underpinning both the #iwill campaign and our Teenagency report is the belief that taking part in high-quality social action has significant benefits both for the young people participating and for the communities they serve (a ‘double benefit’). In line with this, our report calls for more social action opportunities that give young people the chance to:

  • Identify the problem they want to address;

  • Come up with their own solutions;

  • Lead the response to the problem;

  • Reflect on the impact they achieved.

In October, we conducted two workshops to interrogate the findings of our research. The first was with ten adults who work in the youth social action sector and the second with a group of ten young people aged 14-18. We also held a public event to launch our report, which brought together an expert panel and a public audience to discuss our findings. At each of these events we were inspired by young people who showed themselves to be ready to take on big social issues, and by social action organisations that create space for young people to shape and lead responses to the causes they care about.

From our workshops, we identified three key insights into how we can effectively design and implement social action opportunities for young people.

 1.   Where social action takes place matters

Social action must take place across a range of settings if it is to engage the greatest number of young people possible. Our research found that having access to social action opportunities through school is particularly important for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. But, as was highlighted in our workshops, the association with ‘being told what to do’ by teachers, could be a barrier to involvement for some.

We heard from young people who described eloquently how they had become involved in social action through the influence of local youth centres. Described by the National Youth Association (NYA) as “the science of enabling young people to believe in themselves”, youth work is well-placed to engage young people outside of the school setting. But it is impossible to ignore the impact of severe cuts to youth services in recent years. With the closure of over 600 youth centres and the loss of over 3,650 youth work jobs between 2012-16, providing social action opportunities for young people in their local communities is now more difficult than ever. This is particularly poignant as we reflect on last week’s Youth Work Week, a campaign led by the NYA to celebrate the impact of the work done by youth organisations, youth workers, and young people.

 2.   The language we use around double benefit is important

As #iwill describe, taking part in social action “develops 21st century employability skills, boosts access to further and higher education and supports enhanced well-being among young people”. While these are undoubtedly important outcomes, our research found that for many young people it is the benefits to the community – rather than the benefits to themselves – that provide the most powerful motivation for getting involved with social action. In our polling, the desire to help other people and make a positive difference was the reason most commonly given by young people for taking part in social action (61 percent), yet only 40 percent of adults believed that this was young people’s main motivation.

But it is important to recognise that language around ‘changing my community’ can be daunting and could put some young people off, particularly those who haven’t taken part in social action before. This necessitates that we open up space for young people to communicate their goals in language that makes sense to them. Thinking carefully about who the message comes from and how it is delivered is crucial in ensuring that social action opportunities are accessible and approachable to as many young people as possible.

 3.    Young people need to identify the issues they want to address and lead the response

The #iwill campaign stresses that social action must be youth-led in order to be meaningful. Our research found that young people welcome the opportunity to shape the social action they participate in, but currently less than a quarter (24 percent) of young people who have ever volunteered have had the chance to select the problem they want to solve. It is crucial to recognise that young people are expert at identifying issues that need addressing within their own (geographical and social) communities, both to attract more young people to participate in social action and to ensure the best outcomes.

During our workshops we discussed the role that adults can, and should, play in youth social action. Among the young people there was a sense that adults can unlock resources and help get things done, but that decisions about the direction and activities of the social action were the preserve of young people. Among the social action experts, too, the importance of adults taking a largely faciliatory role was highlighted.

This was echoed by the panellists at our report launch event, who suggested a number of practical ways we can support young people. Sam Conniff Allende, founder of Livity, suggested that businesses offer up their space to young people for free, Ruth Ibegbuna, founding CEO of RECLAIM, advocated providing funds for young people and mentoring them in their work, and Adam Ramgoolie, a 17-year-old youth activist and founder of Get2Learn, stressed the importance of giving young people places at decision-making tables, including on the boards of charities.

Like #iwill, we believe that when young people are given the chance to take part in high quality social action opportunities, we begin to see what they are truly capable of. We have a responsibility to create more of these opportunities if we want to support and inspire young people to change the world.


Want to know more about our work on youth social action and what’s next? Find out what happened at our workshops with social action experts and young people, read the full Teenagency report, catch up on the report launch event, and find out about our new project exploring social action with primary-aged children.

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  • Excellent and uplifting article and I am glad I read it today, the first day back of the year.  The emphasis on transferring responsibility and trusting youth to make the changes they need to see is powerful and essential.  Off to read the Teenagency report now - it is good to see the significance that agency/ active involvement is given in this approach.  My own community online research highlighted to me how common the barriers can be between agencies/ institutions that simply do not see how their patterns of engagement are off-putting to the very people they hope to reach.  Beginning with responsibility not vulnerability is something we all need to consider despite formal institutional concerns not always ready to trust enough to do this.  Thanks for sharing, Peter