The importance of joy and trust: how to construct a post-COVID future that works for young people

At BBC Children in Need, we have been hearing directly from young people about the consequences of this pandemic. There is a sense of collective loss which is difficult to quantify, articulate and address – but unless we do, we will have failed a generation

Fozia Irfan

As we collectively try to make sense of the past 18 months, spare a thought specifically for the future of young people. There has been a multitude of data and reports trying to quantify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people – but equally important is recognition of the intangible nature, the complexity and the uniqueness of the loss that has been suffered by a whole generation.

At BBC Children in Need, we have been listening to the charities we fund and hearing directly about the consequences of this pandemic. We already knew of the long-term damage caused by poverty, social deprivation, inequality and complex or multiple disadvantages prior to the pandemic – but now these pre-existing issues have been amplified beyond our imagination. Our young people are facing the most extraordinarily challenging times at one of their most critical transitional junctures.

We all know the statistics:

This is a snapshot of the deep changes and issues being faced by young people, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. These are the easily quantifiable symptoms to which we turn to provide a focus for our immediate response. Look deeper and further, and there is a sense of collective loss which is difficult to quantify, articulate and address – but unless we do, we will have failed a generation.

Young people have lost trust in our systems

At a recent Children in Need meeting, young people were asked what the greatest impact of the pandemic had been on them. We were expecting the usual answers we read about in reports – poverty, education, inequality. Instead, the first answer that a young man gave was ‘loss of trust’. He explained that he and his peers felt let down by the political system, the democratic system, and the failure of our institutions to deal with the crisis we face.

This mirrors research carried out by the London School of Economics which shows how an entire generation of young people have less faith in governments, elections and the systems which govern us. They are also hyper-aware of the fact that they will be the first generation who will not be better off than previous generations – in terms of their wealth, income, housing, job opportunities and environmental climate.

Yet at the same time, young people are increasingly politically engaged. Many have emerged as successful activists, building global movements against poverty, climate change and racial injustice. They care, they are powerful –​​ but our structures for engagement have failed them.

If young people are disconnected and have lost trust in our systems, we won’t be able to harness their power and their ability to be part of the post-pandemic recovery, helping to change the future for all of us. Critical to this is developing new methods and vehicles to nurture and facilitate their meaningful engagement with our institutions, creating new ways for them to approach us.

But let us also think about us as organisations, approaching them – how do we meaningfully connect with young people where they are, in their spaces and communities? We need to be able to work with young people in places which are unfamiliar to us, less institutionalised and more fluid. For our generation who like meetings, agendas, constitutions and due diligence before we engage, we need to look beyond and be comfortable with informality, less structure and more unconfined, passionate activism.

Four steps to building hope and joy in young people

New research from the Prince’s Trust reveals that more than a third (36%) of the young people surveyed say they have ‘lost hope’ for the future. Let that sink in for a moment. The study also shows that 41% of young people believe their future goals are ‘impossible to achieve’. In addition, 38% of the young people surveyed feel they will ‘never succeed in life’, increasing to almost half of those surveyed from poorer homes.

Why is this so important? The editor of infed.org, Mark K Smith, has articulated how hope gives a sense of purpose and a sense of being able to achieve; you have to believe in the possibility of things happening and you have the agency to change things. He begins by quoting the philosopher and education reformer Mary Warnock: ‘To lose hope is to lose the capacity to want or desire anything; to lose, in fact, the wish to live. Hope is akin to energy, to curiosity, to the belief that things are worth doing. An education which leaves a child without hope is an education that has failed.’

How can we rekindle hope and make young people feel they can achieve and have a fulfilling future? Firstly, we have to provide a space and the time for them to envision and dream – where they can create their own future. The best place for this to happen is through all the youth work taking place every day in every community – not just in formal institutions but in parks, online, in forums and on social media platforms.

Secondly, we must talk specifically about joy, that all-pervasive feeling of happiness and lightness which brings fulfilment. If we signify through our programmes and engagement that this is a critical and valued emotion, it allows young people to also place importance on this, in the same way they do educational outcomes or employment.

Thirdly, we need to adapt our work as organisations to recognise there are additional barriers being faced by young people. We need to understand what these are and how young people perceive them, and then develop specific actions to ensure there are clear pathways (and opportunities) through them. This also means recognising that young people are complex and have multiple and intersecting identities. Instead of trying to address needs by putting young people in boxes, let’s get comfortable with working within this complexity.

Finally, we need to step back and ensure we are not ‘doing to’, but are actually led by the young people we work with. Young people do not need or want pity – especially ours. They are driven by a sense of justice and it is through this lens that we must work together, recognising that they have suffered loss in many forms which go beyond educational or employment outcomes.

This generational loss of joy, trust, connection, meaningful life milestones and building collective memories is just as significant for us to acknowledge and address in our work as the quantifiable data we tend to focus on. The next time you see overwhelming numbers and statistics in a new report, look past these to the compelling stories which lie underneath and remain untold.

Fozia Irfan OBE is Director of Children and Young People at BBC Children in Need, and a member of IPPO’s Advisory Group.