Turn any page of a newspaper or hear a member of government or business leader speak, and it’s hard to miss talk of “levelling up” and “building back better”.
Whilst there is so much debate about what levelling up really means and what it will deliver, there is one thing I am certain of. We cannot truly build back better if we don’t understand the specific challenges and needs of each person and community post-pandemic. This is especially important for our young people, who have disproportionately suffered in the last year. Our young people have had to put their life plans and aspirations on hold to contain a virus that is far less likely to cause them serious illness or death, and they are now burdened with paying down the national debt accrued over months of lockdowns, furlough and subsidies. That is not fair.
I was struck and sad to hear what Ellis, our latest apprentice recruit in Co-op Funeralcare, said on Times Radio the other week about how at some points during the pandemic he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning as he felt so unmotivated by the lack of opportunities available to him.
To have any conversation about a fairer future, we must delve deeper to understand what young people like Ellis think and feel, and the changes they want to see – both from British business and from government.
That’s why at The Co-op, we decided to commission one of the largest post-pandemic surveys of young people – 5,000 10-25-year-olds – examining how the pandemic has affected their life chances, skills, education, mental health, and overall future life aspirations. These are the areas that we know are often at the centre of deep-seated inequalities that prevent too many from reaching their full potential.
Our findings are stark and concerning. They reveal the devastating effect that the pandemic has had on the perspectives and aspirations of the younger generation, with children as young as ten feeling that they will be permanently disadvantaged and a third feeling that the odds are stacked against them.
The research also reconfirms the urgently disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities in the UK. Young black people are less optimistic than their white counterparts – showing the urgent need to ensure opportunity is spread as evenly as talent is across our communities.
We also found that whilst young people aspire to do so much – own a home, earn more than their parents, be financially secure – many do not believe they will have a chance to achieve those aspirations.
To hear our young people say they are feeling like this is a real worry. They are our future, and they deserve the opportunity to prosper and develop their skills. We must listen to them, help them, and create clear pathways for them, so they don’t become an unheard, ghosted generation.
Tommy Kirkwood, a member of our Co-op Young Members’ Group which brings together young Co-op Members from across the UK to work on projects for young people, told me that we need to hear the voices of his generation and future generations to make the impact they need for a brighter future.
And I couldn’t agree more. Decarbonising the economy, fixing social care, creating employment opportunities and de-stigmatising mental health are things that – amongst many others – will be shouldered and experienced by young people in the years to come.
We must therefore all actively seek – and listen to – the voices of young people across the UK, so that they are involved at every step and every level of decision making that impacts their future.
This is my call to arms for business, government, and local leaders to find a joined-up way to make sure that every young person can fulfil their potential. As Co-op, we are calling on the government to create a senior Minister for Youth within the Cabinet Office with a single objective – driving the change needed across government to ensure that every child in the UK is empowered to meet their potential.
We believe this would be a powerful first step to creating a better future for our young people. It is within our grasp, if we work together.
Steve Murrells is Chief Executive of The Co-operative Group.