David Kirkby is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
Britain’s young people are widely regarded as unusually self-centred and selfish. Today’s 18-34 year olds have been labelled the “Selfish Generation” and the “Monstrous Me Generation”. Since these are the people who will be leading our government, businesses and communities in ten years time, this is a rather alarming suggestion.
Of course, every generation has doubts about the next, and young people today probably do themselves no favours with their tendency to walk around with headphones in their ears and their eyes interminably fixed upon a screen. However, are we really witnessing a surge of selfishness and a less altruistic outlook amongst young people?
It is certainly true that young people are much less supportive of state welfare – government support for those vulnerable and in poverty – than older generations, and this has been key in motivating the “selfish generation” label. Only 28 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 support more government spending on welfare benefits for the poor – the lowest proportion of any age group. More generally, young people are less likely to agree that the creation of the welfare state was one of Britain’s proudest achievements.
However, judging young people solely on this basis is highly misleading. The state is not the only medium of altruism, nor the only marker of compassion the taxes you wish to pay. Once you look beyond the state, the “Selfish Generation” label looks utterly wrongheaded.
While young people are more hostile to state welfare, there is evidence that this group is more supportive of welfare from non-state providers. In Bright Blue’s new report, Give and take, we found that young people place a much greater value upon volunteering and charity than older generations. A high proportion of 18-34 years olds agreed that an individual counts as a contributor to ‘the system’ if he undertakes voluntary work (76 per cent) or donates to charity (62 per cent). By contrast, of those aged 35 and over, only 51 per cent considered an individual undertaking voluntary work a contributor to ‘the system’, falling to 29 per cent for the case of an individual donating to charity.
We also found that young people saw charities and neighbours and friends as more effective and responsible for supporting people with financial difficulties than older generations. Given the choice of the state, families, charities, neighbours and friends and the local community, 18-34 year olds were less likely to select the state in this regard, placing a greater emphasis instead upon charities and neighbours and friends. This attitudinal evidence fits with a recent Ipsos MORI survey which found that young people have higher levels of trust and confidence in charities than older people.
Young people are positive about giving up their time and money to help others – they just do not want the state to do it for them. The hostility to state welfare is not selfishness, but part of a new kind of selflessness.
This is good news for the Conservative Party, and particularly for those modernisers who have defended the concept of the Big Society. Prior to the 2010 election, there was a suspicion that the Big Society was primarily for pensioners who have plenty of spare time and long for the tight-knit communities of their childhood. Yet it is clear that it resonates for many young people also. They not only want to curtail the responsibilities of the state, but want greater recognition of volunteering and charity in its stead – a distinctly Big Society recipe.
Indeed, it is surely no coincidence that one of the most successful Big Society initiatives in this parliament, the National Citizens Service, has been targeted at young people. This programme involves 16 and 17 year olds in volunteering and community action projects. Initially dismissed as an “unproven vanity project”, the participation rate has risen sharply and in 2015 there will be 150,000 places available.
Britain’s young people are not a selfish generation, but want a smaller state and a bigger society. With further cuts to the state welfare budget planned for the next parliament, it is imperative that young people are encouraged to practice what they preach.