Thought leadership | Aug 03 2017

Young people bring unique benefits to social challenges – they’re not just a spare pair of hands.

A Channel 4 show that placed pre-school children into care homes shows us that our age can shape the good we are able to do in the world.

Last night I watched the Channel 4 programme: “Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds”. The story is simple: a Bristol retirement home invited ten children from a local preschool to share activities with residents over a six week period. Not only did it make for great telly – watching 4 year olds entice withdrawn and elderly residents out of their comfort zone hits all my emotional soft spots; but it also made for an interesting social experiment; with some remarkable outcomes for everyone involved.

At Generation Change, we know St Monica Trust, the charity which runs the home featured in the documentary, is doing some very exciting work to improve the experience of older people in care. They are also partnering with one of our Founding Members, Student Hubs on a similar inter-generational project with students, called Link-Ages – which we think has similar potential to redefine what it means to grow old in this country.

Student Hubs are running inter-generational housing projects to connect students with care home residents

There is some interesting evidence to suggest that there are positive benefits to health and well-being from bringing together care activities for different generations – such as running nurseries and care homes in the same place. There is a growing interest in this approach in the UK – and for good reason. Both the childcare and elderly care sectors face a lack of resources, and we live in an ageing society. Bringing the generations together is not only a positive thing to do – it could become increasingly necessary over the coming decade.

But what struck me about the Channel 4 programme is a reminder of something it is easy to forget. When we talk about social action, and the benefits it can bring, it’s easy to think in terms of “resources”. I even did it in the paragraph above. Often we focus on getting young people involved in social action out of an assumption that they are an untapped resource – a spare pair of hands. After all, the thinking goes, young people tend not to have jobs yet – why not get them volunteering? But seeing 4 year olds transform the life of a retirement home demonstrates that this is the wrong way to think it:

Young people bring unique benefits to social problems – that they can only offer because of their age.

The work of St Monica Trust, both with Channel 4 and Student Hubs, shows us that 4 year olds and students can offer something that adults and qualified professionals struggle to. In the case of 4 year olds, that might simply be offering the joy of life! No HR manager at a care home is going to see the benefit that 4 year olds bring as a resource capacity issue. And in the case of students, it might be that they are naturally able to offer a new perspective, or a desire to learn, which can flip the dependency that elderly people experience when “being cared for”.

In both cases, instead of thinking about tasks that needed to be done – the focus was on relationships that did not yet exist. A 4 year old is not replacing the work of qualified professionals in a care home – and neither is a student volunteer. They are bringing something else, that only they can bring, because they are young. This is why youth social action should excite us.

I certainly look forward to seeing some of the evidence from care homes that try out these approaches. There’s more to understand about why, and in what circumstances, inter-generational relationships can be beneficial.

But what is also important in the meantime is to challenge our thinking about the kinds of things we expect of young people when they volunteer. How often does youth social action consist of activities that anyone could do – or worse, that young people are in fact not best placed to do? This can all too often lead us into having low expectations about the sort of impact young people could be achieving through their social action.

Should we instead be looking for roles and activities where there a “youth dividend” from it being done by someone who is not an adult?

Or to put it another way…  how many of our ‘harder’ social problems should in fact be given to young people to solve, rather than adults?

My instinct tells me we should be thinking much bigger about the dramatic social change that young people can achieve – that, perhaps, only young people can achieve. A group of 4 year olds in Bristol might just agree with me.

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