04 October 2002 - 06 October 2002

Civil Society: young people and citizenship

Chair: Baroness Howe of Idlicote

Over a sunny weekend at the beginning of October we discussed Civil Society from the points of view of young people and citizenship.  We were helped in our discussions by having a wide range of experience around the table, not least a number of articulate young people.

We looked at the inter-linked questions of what was actually meant by youth culture and whether there were social attitudes and cultural interests held in common by the majority of young people: what we meant by citizenship and what might be done to encourage and promote good citizenship.

At the outset doubts were expressed as to whether the words “youth culture” had any real meaning.  One participant thought that “pop culture” which focussed on common tastes in music, style etc was a more useful description.  Apathy, at least as far as organised politics was concerned, was claimed to be a defining attitude.  People over 40 were thought to be irrelevant.  Some thought young people were a more heterogeneous group in which a diversity of opinions and attitudes existed. Research seemed to show that young people’s ambitions were more conventional.  They wanted a stable partner, a good job, a home, holidays etc.  Young people, we were told, wanted to be listened to and thought that both politicians and many institutions were apathetic towards them.  Finally, on a more upbeat note, young people were thought to be inventive, vigorous, enterprising, at home with the IT revolution and prepared to take a more global view of what they might be able to do with their lives.

On closer inspection we accepted that there were several “youth cultures” which were heavily influenced by social and economic factors.  The statistic which seemed to bring this out most vividly was the increasing number of teenage pregnancies, the children of which were much more likely themselves to become pregnant in their teens while, at the other end of the educational and economic scale, young women were postponing their first baby until they were 32.  Among the major influences on young people we identified pop music, fashion which could express individual or group identities, drugs, which in disadvantaged neighbourhoods could undermine any attempts at promoting good citizenship, alcohol which seemed to be particularly prevalent in the UK and IT which could both increase social contacts and information but which could perversely reduce young peoples abilities to acquire social skills and could make them more lonely.  One participant thought that young people were in danger of being swamped with information through the internet to the exclusion of any real knowledge of the issues they were trying to deal with.  Violence was seen as a destructive but widespread influence, with the majority of violent acts being committed on young people by young people.  Girl gangs were becoming more common and, overall, young peoples’ contacts with the police, or more likely, private security firms (the ratio was 1 to 100 in favour of private firms, we were told) left them with a low view of adult society.  On the other hand we thought that young people today had a strong sense of fairness and justice which was reflected for some in the passion they put into such issues as the environment, anti-globalisation etc.  Overall these global issues seemed to have more appeal than those of local poverty and homelessness or involvement in other grass roots local issues.

In looking at what we meant by citizenship we visited many of the classic definitions, some enshrined in the French Constitution and others in the traditions of Anglo-Saxon countries.  But we agreed that the debate had moved on from the legal questions of passports and residential rights to a discussion of what sort of values bound our societies together.  One participant argued that we should not be aiming to create “good” citizens so much as active members of society.  For that, it was necessary to know how society worked. It was more about being able to make a housing estate a little safer than about some of the “big” issues.  Citizenship should not be confused with volunteering or good works.  Given the increasing diversity of our societies we were now citizens of many communities.  One participant argued that citizenship now transcended national boundaries, core values were shared by people throughout the world.  We should be prepared to take a global view and learn lessons from countries in the developing world where some of the same problems existed. 

We attempted to agree on a list of core values and principles which were common to most western traditions.  They were all based on the principle of reciprocity and mutuality.  Top of the list, according to survey data, was respect for others followed by respect for the laws of the land. Importance was attached to listening and taking into account other peoples’ views.  But commented one participant, young people would have to accept that listening to the views expressed did not mean that they would necessarily be accepted by the majority.  That was the essence of democracy. Other values we enumerated included multiculturalism, international laws protecting human rights, social justice, and, in some cases religion.  We drew a distinction between passive involvement which included obeying the laws and respecting others and the more active values like community involvement.  This drew the comment that there was nothing wrong with passive values.  There was such a thing as “anti-citizenship” where adults set a bad example by evading taxes and other anti-social behaviour.  This was seen as hypocritical by the young and caused cynicism leading to an active disengagement from society rather than apathy.

Having identified the core values we went on to identify a number of barriers to their implementation which included among others religion, ignorance, ethnicity, nationalism and, even at times, democracy itself when the democratic system was based on such deep seated party or social divisions that it was virtually impossible for common values to prevail.  Difficulties were also seen when local or group values conflicted with the wider values of the community. In such cases individuals might have recourse to the laws of the land in order to free themselves from the constraints which might be imposed by religious or cultural beliefs.  We were also warned against the inclination to celebrate individuals and individualism.  Individuals could now be more dangerous than ever before.

In looking at ways of encouraging and promoting good citizenship we examined what might be done in society at large, at the local community level and through the education system.  At the wider level we paid particular attention to the media, governments and voluntary organisations.  We noted that media reports on young people were overwhelmingly critical.  Bad news stories about violence, drugs and sex predominated.  One answer offered was civic journalism which was developing in the USA and concentrated on good news about people making a contribution in society.  Equally, if young articulate people were given more exposure on the television and press it would make people aware of the selective nature of much popular reporting.  Some thought that Government should consider a more integrated approach to youth and citizenship such as a Minister for Youth, a youth parliament and representatives of young people on government boards.  Others were inclined to be sceptical about the value of Ministers for Youth and warned about introducing further bureaucracy into an already complicated field.  Government should concentrate on creating an overall framework and, as importantly, a climate in which young people’s needs and interests were given due weight.  A high priority should be given to the 10% or so highly disadvantaged youth. In the UK, we were told, there were some 200,000 young people who did not feature on any register.  These young people had little civic knowledge and therefore little chance or wish to engage in the formal civic process.  We asked ourselves if lowering the age of voting to 16 would encourage young people to feel that citizenship education had some point and might possibly make politicians more attentive to young peoples needs.  The young among us expressed scepticism as to whether party politics as it was now practised would appeal to young people.  Peer pressure was the most effective way of stimulating their interest and influencing them.

In discussing the promotion of citizenship at community level the suggestion was made that young people should be involved to the greatest extent possible in the actual governance of the community.  This could help to integrate old and young members of communities and give the young a sense of ownership of the consensual decisions made by their communities.  Community based organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award Schemes could also help by engaging self-interest in a beneficial reference on a young person’s CV with engagement in a scheme which could leave a lasting impact on their approach to society. In the USA, Community Foundations had also had a strong impact on local communities.  We discussed the role of voluntary organisations at some length and thought that central government was not making enough use of the expertise and infrastructure such organisations could provide.  One of the main challenges was how to scale-up existing schemes to reach the right youngsters.  Incentives such as honours, money and diplomas were not thought to be as important as some people supposed.  One participant said that a word of approval from an adult was worth more than any book-token.  Another claimed that providing a place in the community where young people could meet was an essential element in their development.

This led us on to a discussion of the role of schools in promoting citizenship values.  They were often the first experience of a community for a young person.  It was suggested that schools themselves should be run on more democratic lines to accustom young people to taking responsibility early on.  They should not simply be treated as children until they were 18 and thereafter as adults.  We were told that schools in the UK would now be teaching the new citizenship curriculum and expectations were high.  On the other hand  we were warned that young people were effectively only in a class for 9 minutes out of every hour of their lives and that we should not load too much of the responsibility of inculcating citizenship values and knowledge onto schools.  In that regard parents were thought to have a far larger influence than school and, more generally, the point was made strongly that older people should not behave in one way and expect the young to act in another.  Young people reflected the general attitudes of the society in which they grew up. Do as I say not as I do, was never effective advice.  Perhaps the most heated part of our debate was about the propriety of Governments trying to teach values to young people.  Values, it was maintained, were deeply personal and more likely to emerge from family and peer relations.  Top down methods were rarely successful.  The young would rebel against attempts to force values on them.  They did not want to be told what was important.  The best way of learning was by doing.  Personal experience was more valuable than many lessons.  If young people were empowered this would do more good for public safety and ‘good’ citizenship than any number of attempts to suppress their perceived ‘dangerous’ tendencies or behaviour.

In looking back at our discussions it was suggested that society needed young people who were well informed, critical and involved with their communities.  The younger participants emphasised the competitive nature of the world in which they were growing up, encapsulated in the remark that ‘I need to do well before I can do good’. We were reminded of the wide gap between the haves and have-nots and the difficulty of trying to teach core values.  We should not teach personal values but we should teach democratic values, commented an experienced observer.  Citizenship was for the public area of our lives, commented another.  Following on from that, one of the younger participants maintained that the aim should be that people would be able to get on with one another.  The old should not press their ideas of right and wrong on the young.  They wanted to find out these things for themselves.

Earlier in our discussions the point had been made that the relationship between the individual and the state as well as between the individuals themselves, was one of the oldest debates in human history.  In that sense our discussions followed a well trodden path. In another, however, they highlighted a number of important aspects of the current generational debate in societies in developed countries.  In an IT dominated, globalising world the pressures were different.  References back to ‘golden ages’ were likely to be misleading and attempts to raise the level of education, without raising the levels of participation and trust of young people in our societies, looked to many of us as likely to fail.

I am grateful to all those taking part for expressing their views so candidly and to Lady Howe for the skill and good humour with which she guided our discussions. I look forward with interest to reading in some years time what our successors have to say on this issue which is so central to the health of our societies.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: Baroness Howe of Idlicote

President, UNICEF UK;  Chairman, BOC Foundation for the Environment (1990-);  member, advisory committee, NCVO;  broadcaster and author

Miss Krista Nottage

Head Girl, Wycombe Abbey School

Ms Nancy Faraday-Smith

Specialist, Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs
Mr Rudyard Griffiths
Executive Director, The Dominion Institute;  Consultant to Canada-US studies programme, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars
Mr Dwight Newman
Rhodes Scholar, Legal Theory, St John’s College, Oxford;  formerly:  Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice’s chambers

Dr Geneviève Helleringer

Lawyer;  Lecturer in common law, University of Paris V, and French law at ESSEC business school
M Frédéric Niel
Staff reporter,  ‘Phosphore’

Ms Luise Kraas

Working gap year at Schering España, Madrid
Herr Jörg  Eduard Krumsiek
Managing Director, Alfred Herrhausen Foundation

Mr Gareth Graham

Modern Languages Graduate, St Catherine’s, University of Oxford

Ms Amina Aitsiselmi

Medical student, Cambridge University

Lord Best OBE

Director, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Ms Charlotte Boateng
2nd year student, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, Pembroke College, Oxford University
Ms Nicola Brown
Primary School Learning Mentor;  Children’s Church Worker
Dr Liza Catan
Director, “Youth, Citizenship and Social Change”, Trust for the Study of Adolescence
Mr Bob Coles
Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of York
Ms Viki Cooke
Joint Chief Executive, Opinion Leader Research;  Non-Executive Director, The Smart Company, London
Ms Anna Curzon
Head Girl, Maghull High School, Merseyside
Mr David Cutler
Director, Carnegie Young People Initiative
Mr Richard Elliston
Deutsche Bank:  Head, Citizenship UK;  Head of Secretariat and Secretary to Global Corporate and Investment Bank;  Chairman, Microcredit Development Fund;  solicitor
Mr David Faulkner CB
Senior Research Associate, University of Oxford Centre for Criminological Research;  Home Office Deputy Secretary (1982);  author, including ‘Crime, State and Citizen’
Mr John Graham
Associate Director, Audit Commission
Mr Mark Hirons
Sixth form student, Banbury School
Ms Elisabeth Hoodless CBE
Executive Director, Community Service Volunteers (CSV)
Professor Gill Jones
Professor of Sociology, School of Social Relations, Keele University
Mr Zaheer Kazumi
PhD candidate, Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University, Research Associate, Al Khoei Foundation, Committee Member, the Interfaith Foundation
Ms Afsaneh Knight
Completed degree in English, St Catherine’s College, Oxford (2001);  songwriter and singer
Mr Philip Martin
Head Boy, Maghull High School, Merseyside
The Rt Hon Sir Patrick Nairne GCB MC
Master, St Catherine’s College, Oxford (1981-86);  Chancellor, Essex University (1983-97);  Permanent Secretary, Department of Health and Social Security (1975-81);  Trustee:  Joseph Rowntree Foundation (1983-96);  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation
Ms Jan Newton
Citizenship Adviser, Department for Education and Skills
Sir Charles Pollard QPM
Chief Constable, Thames Valley Policy (1991-2002);  Chairman, Justice Research Consortium (2002-);  Member, Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (1998-);  Reader in Criminology, University of Pennsylvania (2002-);  Visiting Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford (1993-2001)
Mr Nick Pollard
Director, The Damaris Trust and Ethos Games
Mr Peter Shaw
Director-General, Youth Directorate, Department for Education and Skills
Mr David Tridgell
Sixth form student, Banbury School
Mr Nigel Whiskin MBE
Chief executive, Crime Concern (1988-); formerly:  National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) (1972-88);  Victim Support Scheme UK
Professor Robert M Worcester
Chairman MORI (Market & Opinion Research International);  Visiting Professor of Government and Governor, London School of Economics & Political Science;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation
Mr Tom Wylie
Chief Executive, The National Youth Agency

Vice Admiral John W Craine, Jr (USN) Ret

President, The Neil D Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce (2002-);  formerly:  President, State University of New York Maritime College
Mr Robert H McNulty
Lawyer;  Founder and CEO, Partners for Livable Communities (1977-);  formerly:  Assistant Director, Architecture and Environmental Arts Program, National Endowment for the Arts (1972-77)
Dr Brian O’Connell
Professor of Public Service, University College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University;  author
Professor Sanford J Ungar
President, Goucher College, Baltimore, Maryland:  formerly:  managing editor, ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine;  Washington editor, ‘The Atlantic’;  member, Council on Foreign Relations and International Institute of Strategic Studies;  author