Saturday, 3 September 2011

On being young and 'youngpeopleiphobia'

I don't know whether I have a mid life moment coming on, but I tend to think a lot about age. A few weeks ago Miranda Sawyer wrote about being middle aged in the Observer. There are not many articles that I read more than once, but this one struck a chord. You can find it here

But thinking about age is not new, I have often written here about the importance of remembering what it feels like to be young - real empathy with and understanding about the realities of young people is an outstanding quality of Brook staff that I see time and time again as I visit Brook Centres.

On a day to day basis, like most people I don't feel too different than I did when I was in my mid 20s. Yet more and more I look in the mirror and am surprised to see my Dad looking back at me. There are tell tales signs that I am no longer 18; fast onset of greying hair, my increasing love of celebrating Friday with a quiet night in, rather than a night of partying that ends at dawn, I constantly check my watch if out in the week to ensure I am home before 10.30. These little things have all crept up on me without even noticing mostly.

We do however need to think and talk about age. We need to be clear what our offer is for young people in the UK. I want young people to be young. I want young people to have a chance to influence decisions that affect them, and I want young people to be treated like they are young - not in a patronising way but in a way that recognises a 15 year old should not have the same responsibilities as they likely will later in life. I know that circumstances mean that some young people - those who are carers for example - do have responsibilities and it is vital that they also are given the support to fulfil these, and the space to be young.

When I think about age a lot it is triggered by memories - in the last 48 hours I had a phone call from a friend I haven't seen for 20 years; on thursday friends I went to Ibiza with over a decade ago have gone again - I will never know on balance whether I am deeply envious or deeply relieved I said no. I know how tiring it is. Yesterday I cycled past the old site where our favourite club in Kings Cross - The Cross - used to be and smiled to myself remembering how wonky I often felt when we left. This morning I have been planning for our trip to Cornwall later this month with my group of friends who spent much of our late teens, twenties and thirties together. And as I have been planning I have reflected a bit on how our lives have changed and developed. How responsibilities and roles have shifted - as friends, partners, employees, partners, uncles and aunts.

I don't write this to be self indulgent but to reflect on what we want for our young people. At Brook we know that how young people's experiences of being loved and cared for and allowed to realise their rights impacts on how they manage their relationships and sexual choices. We also know that most young people want to be and are responsible.

There has been lots of talk of how young people are going wrong in the post riot weeks and the importance of instilling responsibility in young people. I agree with the premise of responsibility, and at the same time I worry about some of the suggested means to do so. I am a responsible active citizen. I want to contribute to making things better. But that was not instilled in me with hefty discipline or ASBOs. It was through being loved and cared for, having an extended family that introduced expectations, created boundaries and told me clearly when I had crossed the line. Through having the opportunity to take risks and (often) get hurt because I took them. It happened because I was allowed to be young - not treated as a child, but not expected to be a 'fully fledged adult' either, and it happened most of all because I had the opportunity and the encouragement to do things I wanted to do and to achieve. All young people deserve this.

Over the last few weeks I have been discussing the riots with people I count as socially liberal. The riots, or more probably the reporting of them, have sparked a deep belly anger in many of these people and specifically soured their views of young people. And some seem to have lost their skills of discernment, failing to recognise this was a small minority of young people (with adults) and that the majority of young people were not involved. I hope the post riot analysis takes us to the root causes of the problems and as a country we think carefully about what our offer is for young people. Without a firm offer for all young people that we make sure we deliver on, even without a crystal ball I predict further unrest. Worse than that, too many young people will not have the chance to be young and create a happy memory bank and learn vital skills to manage their lives now and in the future.

The government is currently consulting on its Positive for Youth initiative - find out about it and respond here -

If you, like me, think being young should be the time of your life please stand up for young people and continue challenging the negative perceptions and assumptions that underpin one of the socially acceptable prejudices of our time - 'youngpeopleiphobia'.

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