What’s in it for me? Not interested. Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. It is the typical presentation of a generic teenager by an equally archetypal person of a certain age; and it normally seems to correlate with the apparent laziness, lack of interest and general indifference to any social and political issue. Politicians and the media find numerous mediums through which to criticise this caricature: for example during the course of last year’s 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination, it was common to find screeching news headlines reminding us of one of the president’s most famous speeches stating: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, leading journalists and politicians to draw comparisons between the moral integrity of young people at the time compared with now.
I disagree with this generalisation. I think that teenagers today are arguably more conscious of single issues than ever before and are, more importantly, actually active in terms of exploring these concerns. I think this is more visible when it comes to problems that affect their immediate community. Whether these relate to helping out in food banks, volunteering for local charities or perhaps even campaigning against political issues such as the HS2 train line, most teenagers that I know feel strongly – even passionately – about some matters and act accordingly. What we are not interested in, and react equally strongly against, is the pettiness and seemingly superficial nature of party politics and the constant lecturing from politicians and the media about what we should be doing.
Towards the end of last year, an admirable campaign called ‘Step Up to Serve’ was launched by Prince Charles. It aims to have half of young people volunteering by 2020. I find it difficult to imagine a more worthwhile and optimistic pursuit for our age group. We live in a world that desperately needs volunteering – from both older and younger generations. In Britain it has become increasingly difficult to be governed under centralised leadership, and this shift in focus has brought with it a greater significance to the role of local initiatives. In the past, establishments such as Trade Unions, Co-operatives and even the Church have been imperative in helping those who need it. As these institutions are used less and less frequently and become less important to society, a subsequent movement must take their place; volunteering seems to be the answer.
However, the warming image of Step Up To Serve’s launch was marred, at least for me, by the ambushing of the event by the political parties. All three of the main political party leaders attended the launch and took turns to proclaim their belief and conviction in the potential of youth. The result? Confusion with the people I spoke to that this was merely another party political decree. I think I understand what the Prime Minister means when he talks of a “big society”- it is the need to volunteer and play a part in your community. But the point that Mr. Cameron seems to miss is that any such campaign needs to come from society itself, rather than politicians who mug the campaign for their political agendas. If you believe in the unequivocal goodness of people, then this will surely happen on its own accord. Go to any local charity; the people who spend their unpaid hours and days working to benefit their local community are not there because they have listened to the Prime Minister’s speeches about the big society but rather, because they want to make a difference.
According to Anthony Sheldon, Master of Wellington College, nearly 30% of 16-24 year olds in England and Wales are already involved in some sort of regular monthly volunteering and according to a 2010 survey of 11-16 year olds, over 90% are prepared to volunteer. At Berkhamsted School, we have an impressive history of providing volunteers for the community. Over the course of 2013 over 2000 hours were dedicated to volunteering and helping others in the area by students of the school.
So, as someone who does believe in the innate goodness of people, my message to politicians is clear. Please don’t tell us what to do but trust that we will do the right thing. And when we do the right thing, please don’t try and highjack it and take political credit. We may not vote in your political elections (partly because we find it impossible to differentiate between any of you), but we are engaged in our local communities and we do in fact play a part in trying to sustain them.