In early August, people – mostly adults but some of them young – took to the streets in riots that haven’t been seen on the streets of England since Brixton in 1981 or protests since the poll tax.
Young people were quickly blamed for the looting and violence, social media blamed for the escalation, a broken society blamed as the cause, the police blamed for being unable to deal with the crisis and politicians blamed for failing to respond.
Everyone got a portion of the blame, but young people took the biggest slice.
The numbers of young people in custody rose 8% despite the 45% of under-18s detained having never been in trouble with the police before. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England are currently investigating whether the UK has breached its obligations under the UN Convention on Children’s Rights.
Throughout August and September I worked with young people to find out what life is like for them, what happened, what caused the riots and what young people wanted to see changed.
Over 10 events with over 150 children and young people involved, I listened to the range of views of young people from different backgrounds, with different aspirations, born to different ethnicities, and with different roles, relationships and attitudes to the riots.
Opportunities for young people was the cross cutting issue of importance for all young people. While the aspirations varied from university, apprenticeships to jobs and training through employment, the lack of available opportunities and access to these were universal and cut through different social demographics, areas, ages and gender.
Figures this week showed practically 1 million young people are now unemployed and with the economy flat lining and showing no immediate signs of improving, the future looks bleak for an entire generation.
But while the lack of jobs, access to further and higher education and training schemes were identified as key contributing factors to the riots, what was noticeable was the negative culture and feeling of worth as a generation that this perpetuated. The atmosphere of anger, hopelessness and insecurity about the future was clear from many of the groups and the feeling of self worth and community value was low because they felt society wasn’t giving them anything despite many of their positive contributions.
What was clear was that young people do not feel empowered to make change on their own. To prevent further riots, or similar expressions of anger, occurring in the future, change and action must be taken from all sides.
It is difficult to judge whether we have moved on from the riots or not. It is true to say that the lives of young people move very fast, but while they may have moved on from the actually civil disturbances that took place, the start of the new academic year has brought a wave of concern about the future and many young people are about to experience first hand the impact of the closing of centres, projects and services as the cuts bite – both things highlighted as root causes of the disturbances and both more acute and present in the minds and lives of young people now than in early August.
For the first time in post war history, a generation of young people will have lower living standards than their parents. The lack of opportunities risk writing off a lost generation, but what is worse is the feeling from young people that there is no belief in the ‘it will all be ok’ mantra. There is no hope or optimism that we’ll sort this out from many in my generation. The dream sold to us of ‘work hard, stay out of trouble, get the grades, go to high education, get a job and you’ll have a great life’ is over and many young people are not willing to dream again.