Where’s the Social Capital for Young People?

There are so many wonderful initiatives supporting young people towards employment, training, enterprise, and ultimately independence.  Many work with young people to develop their mindsets, others help them to develop essential life skills, some provide access to role models and mentors, there is a growing field which creates the opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation among young people, and lots help to develop pathways to further or higher education.

These organisations do amazing work, have a real and significant impact, and I have untold admiration for those that run them, but something has been bothering me.  For a young person to access and succeed within these organisations they need to engage in the infra-structure that has been created for them by others.  Even if it’s youth-led, ultimately an individual’s success will largely rely upon their ability and will to be wholly bought into the processes and pathways of that organisation.  This works wonderfully well for some, but unfortunately these isolated initiatives, with inevitably limited capacity and reach, simply cannot impact upon the vast majority?

When I was younger I wasn’t provided with any particular infra-structure or organisation to guide me, I didn’t need or wish to buy in to or comply to someone else’s pathway for my achievement and success, and yet, I still managed to identify a potential career, create my journey, gain qualifications and subsequently employment.  I didn’t need anyone to hold my hand, or even so much as point me in the ‘right’ direction, I made up my own mind and chose my own route, but, and it’s a big BUT, I had access to something even more valuable……………social capital. (Social capital refers to networks between people and the relationships of trust and reciprocity they develop).

At the age of 18 I had no qualifications and had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life, not unusual, but what I benefited from was a network that I was able and willing to access.  My aunt worked at London Weekend Television and she arranged for me to have a tour and the potential for me to work as a runner at the studios, but at approximately £1 per hour not for me I thought.  My Dad was a builders merchant and offered to find me a job on a building site, but hard labour was certainly not my sort of thing.  My brother was politically involved, my uncle was an accountant, a family friend advised me about going into law, and a friend’s mother talked to me about her life as an entrepreneur.  I had a friend that worked in a wine shop, who arranged for me to get some part-time work, and at the same time I knew someone that was a member of a squash club where I started to do some odd-jobs, and this was also while I was volunteering at a local youth club, where the Director was able to provide me with an endorsement to get onto a part-time youth work course.

Nothing particularly peculiar in all of that I know, except that all those options and potential pathways empowered me with a degree of choice and self-determinism.  This social capital, for me and thousands of others, is what made all the difference between creating a route towards a career and financial stability, or having no direction and financial instability. In fact an Australian study published in 2011 found that social capital plays a crucial role in influencing educational participation, over and above the effects of parental education and occupation, geographic location, cultural background and academic achievement.

So what of those hundreds of thousands of young people that don’t have the good fortune to have this access, this social capital, where do they turn when they need some informal advice, or signposting, or some door opening, or support and guidance?

Many young people don’t need or want to become particularly ‘engaged’, or be a partner in a project, or be set on a pathway to success, or be mentored, or trained. What they actually want is someone to turn too when they decide they need it, to have their aspirations raised and their horizons broadened, to have options put in front of them, allowing them to create their own path, identify their own opportunities, to be empowered and able to make their own choices.

Anyone that has read my blogs before will know that I’m not one to identify an issue without at least attempting a solution, so here is mine – a nationwide inter-generational social capital sharing initiative.

This most definitely isn’t rocket science, but here are my calculations:

  • Professional networks + young people + youth sector partnerships = inter-generational social capital sharing
  • Social capital = networks → contacts & information → empowerment → options → opportunities

There are hundreds of professional and active networks out there, from design to music to engineering to programming to teaching to business to media, and so on.  Each member of each network does not just belong to that group but potentially dozens of others, and each member of those groups are in dozens more. Everyone is connected, everyone has the potential to link with everyone else by about 3 or 4 steps, and with the proliferation of social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, this has been made even easier.  So let’s take that incredibly powerful networked resource and create the means for all and any young people to tap into it, in a straight forward manner with clear benefits.

Effectively creating a means for networked professionals and young people to be put in the same room together (virtually and live), to begin conversations, share ideas, expertise, experience, guidance and contacts, or in other words to ‘share social capital’.

About 2 years ago I began to launch an initiative in collaboration with other enthusiastic RSA Fellows, we called it (rather imaginatively) the RSA Fellows Youth Network. Now it turned out that the RSA was perhaps not the best place to start something of this kind, they had many other initiatives on the boil that although crossed over with our concept was not quite the same thing.

After a pause of nearly 2 years and now leading ThinkForward, my mind has returned to this concept and I’m convinced it still has significant potential, and am happily seeking partner organisations and individuals who would be keen to explore this opportunity further.

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