Matthew Greenwood is an Intern at Onward.
Belonging starts locally. That’s what I learnt growing up as I was hurried off to local clubs and Scout huts as part of my mother’s bid to help me make friends and build valuable life skills. Years of mapwork might not have made me a pioneering geographer, but it did imbue me with a love of the outdoors and the community around me.
Yet today too many of my generation are busy packing their bags when the opportunities to broaden our horizons in the community around us are innumerable. But there is cause for relief. The last year has renewed our community spirit. As we emerge from a weary year of lockdowns, now is the time to lock in that spirit by fostering civic service at home.
Here at Onward, we’ve been investigating the state of our social fabric and the findings of our report, Repairing our Social Fabric, should give us pause. Young people increasingly feel they don’t belong. Only 51 per cent of 16-24 year olds say that they feel like they belong to their local neighbourhood compared to over 77 per cent of over 75s. Why do young people not feel like they belong often in the neighbourhoods they were born and grew up in?
Trust also runs low among young people. Only a third of people aged 16-24 years old thought they could trust “many people” in their neighbourhood, and, once again, numbers are higher in older people. We therefore find ourselves facing double jeopardy; low trust and low belonging spells trouble because if young people don’t feel part of their community, why would they ever stay or support it?
Given these findings, it should come as no surprise that young people are increasingly less likely to be a member of a community group. Among 20-29 year olds, group membership has fallen by 17 percentage points between 1993 and 2020 and volunteering, whether formal or informal, has dropped by 10 per cent since 2012.
Taken together, these statistics should give us cause for concern. While we do not know the cause of this decline, they suggest that young people are increasingly disconnected from the rest of society. I would hypothesise that low trust, limited feelings of belonging and decreasing group membership are self-perpetuating and therefore something must be done to break out of this cycle lest our social fabric continue to fray.
Coronavirus has had a mixed impact. A year of lockdowns has pushed up the number of people who feel lonely. ONS figures show those aged 16-24 are the most likely to report “often” or “always” feeling lonely. However, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge the overwhelming community spirit that has been created. When polled by J.L Partners, nearly three fifths of young people claimed they felt more connected to their local community than they did the month before and almost the same amount said they trusted their neighbours to support them through the crisis.
Crucially, 85 per cent of those who now feel they are better connected to their community indicated that they would take some form of local action to support others around them. This is good news because it means we have a once in a generation opportunity to harness this untapped potential for the benefit of the community.
But as we open up, let’s not forget that we shouldn’t want absolutely everything to go back to normal because that means a return to the fraying of our social fabric. Rather, now is the time to lock in the benefits of community that we’ve realised throughout the crisis, mend our social fabric and give young people the vital skills they need for the future, be that in employment or more generally.
Past generations have benefited from local clubs and opportunities in the community and young people can do so again today. Building on the success of the Kickstart scheme, the Government could consider a number of options.
One option would be to review how the National Citizen Service engages young people in civic action. Is there more we could do to build this infrastructure as we recover from Coronavirus? Thankfully NCS is already thinking in these terms. Another option would be to work with local and national civic organisations to expand opportunities in every community, potentially funded through the Government’s Kickstart scheme. This could take the form of a Year to Serve, a proposal put forward by Onward in January.
Finally, the Government might consider using its catch up plan for education to instil civic values. Many multi-academy trusts, such as Inspiration Trust, already offer enrichment opportunities over a longer school day and within existing budgets. Other organisations like The Challenger Trust also offer extracurricular activities in partnership with schools. These suggestions are just a small contribution towards locking in our renewed community spirit for future generations.
Onward will be hosting a webinar on how civic society can help us build back better after coronavirus and give young people a brighter future on Friday June 18 at 11am. Sign up here.