The Future is Bright (if we get out of the way)

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as despondent as I have over the past few weeks. The uncertainty of Brexit, political chaos, elected representatives acting like furious toddlers fighting over a fire engine, terrorist attacks, racist attacks, personal attacks, coups…Hardly a day has passed without something to feel terrible about. But there are some really positive and lovely things happening too and I was lucky enough to witness one recently that made me think that everything will be well.

Much has been made of the intergenerational conflict arising from Brexit. Claire Fox, a commentator who establishes her role modelling credentials with a profile picture of herself with a fag in one hand, bottle of beer in the other, has berated the young for their “feeble” mindedness, claiming that any problems with mental health are grossly exaggerated and simply a matter of children not being tough enough. She seems to miss the irony in a further, post Brexit article of defensively arguing the case that the young should not generalise about their elders – even as she brands them the ‘snowflake generation’. At the other end, young people took to social media to denounce the generation they think has shafted them through rising property prices, falling pension and work rights and ultimately the chaos of a Brexit vote. Even within the Labour party, the battles for and against Corbyn are being presented as the young and disenfranchised against the older and privileged members of the labour establishment. Again, with no irony. Of course, the truth is much more muddled and complex than the headlines suggest.

I live in Oldham and have done so for 20 years. And before that, I was born and raised in Burnley. Neither town has a glorious reputation. Race riots, BNP/UKIP support, low levels of achievement in schools…these things are more likely to make the headlines than any successes, leaving football aside. Shortly before the referendum vote, a terrible article appeared in The Spectator – An Elegy for Oldham in which a former resident of the town – one who had been educated in a selective and private grammar school, gone to university and rarely returned before writing this – berates the town for demolishing a pub in order to make way for transport links. He laments the fact that Muslims no longer drink in pubs like they used to. His evidence for this seems to be scant, but he is clear to condemn a place on the basis of the fact that there is a large muslim population, which he links to its downfall. He doesn’t mention the thriving theatre, the new art gallery, the millions of pounds of investment being poured into a new shopping centre, the highly successful and integrated sixth form college, the university satellite college that has allowed people, like parents, who cannot travel away to university, to study nonetheless. He mentioned none of this. And as I spat feathers, an invitation landed on my doormat. It was to the mayor making ceremony of the new youth mayor of Oldham, T-Jay Turner.

T-Jay is a student at Oldham Sixth Form College. He is also the partner of my son, Gabriel. He took Gabriel along as his plus 1, introducing him to the dignitaries present – the Sheriff of Manchester, the adult Mayor, councillors and youth workers. They did not worry that they wouldn’t be accepted. They attended, together, proudly. A symbol of this generation’s refusal to accept that difference should be hidden.

His nomination for youth mayor came from the youth council – a multi ethnic mix of young people from across the borough who want to have a say in the running of the town they live in. And they do have a say. They meet in council chambers. Their thoughts and ideas are treated with seriousness and have impact. They follow due process, learning to debate, to follow constitutional procedures, to be patient. They learn that the town is made up of a diverse mix of people with different needs and that their problems are complex but not insurmountable. The speeches made to nominate T-Jay are moving and deeply intelligent. His response is too:-

I hope to be a Youth Mayor who combines an ear to listen with an empathetic mindset, working with the community at both a grass roots level through to the leaders of our borough. Conversations are important. I hope to engage young people in a conversation, one which ignites a passion to be inquisitive and creates a drive to make a change. We must all look to the future with an optimistic eye, more so now than ever before.”

Speaking with the principal of the college he attends, I find out that the youth council have been involved in the development of a borough wide consultation on educational entitlements for young people which go way beyond simply passing tests. The Oldham Offer seeks to give children the experiences they need to become active and compassionate citizens and articulate and confident adults. It comprised initially of 12 challenges for young people. In return, their schools and colleges pledge to do all they can to provide the facilities and resources for them to successfully meet their goals.

– To attend regular enrichment within your place of learning,
– To attend regular enrichment activities beyond your place of learning,
– To take responsibility for your own health and wellbeing,
– To actively look for and pursue reading opportunities,
– To actively engage in the world of work and to be money wise,
– To actively engage in fundraising events,
– To actively engage in an outward bound activity or residential,
– To take part in a presentation or performance to an audience,
– To attend sporting and creative events,
– To be involved in a volunteering or leadership role in or beyond your place of learning,
– To be involved in a cultural or international experience.
– Contribute to environmental sustainability.

The youth council debated, amended and agreed these, and added two of their own:-

– To be involved in a democratic process,
– To use digital technology to enhance learning

It lifts my spirits to see young people and adults working together in such productive ways. And we need to recognise that this generation, for all the headlines, is becoming the most politically engaged one we have had for a long time. Over 70% of 18-24 year olds are now thought to have voted in the referendum – overwhelmingly to remain. This challenges Sky News’ initial assertion that the turn out was lower than 40%. Young people account for the bulk of new members of the Labour party. And not all are Corbyn supporters – my eldest son most certainly is not. He will not be allowed to vote in the leadership contest, which has disappointed him greatly, but he is planning to campaign for the party, attend meetings and become actively involved in political process. As are many others.

At this time, it is vital we nurture this growing enthusiasm in young people to get involved and to be active. I’m not sure that pricing them out of the voting system for the Labour party is helpful in this respect. But nevertheless, there is an appetite among the young to change the world. They are concerned about climate change, about poverty, about housing and jobs. They have ideas and energy. We should respect it, acknowledge it and feed it. And perhaps, to an extent, we should step aside and let them in with their torches, to cast light on the shadows of our assumptions and habits. Perhaps the future is bright.