Youth and statistics

Youth: my hope lies beyond the headlines

Posted: 30th May 2014

THIS IS A blog post I attempted to post in January 2014, but the computer network crashed and it didn’t upload. I post it now, as I believe the general thrust of the argument I make still holds true in May. And there’s bound to be another news story around the corner than reinforces my message…

JUST WHAT THE nation’s young people need to hear on only the second day of the year: news that a significant number of their peers thinks they ‘have nothing to live for’.

Apparently, many young people – including those who are not out of work – are experiencing suicidal thoughts, anxiety attacks and some are even turning to anti-depressants in a bid to cope with the notion of the future. Although the unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest level in four years, the perception on the ground is not yet positive. If the study is to be believed (and I have no reason to doubt it) this is serious stuff indeed.

The headlines, naturally, take the serious angle to heart. ‘One in 10 young British ‘have nothing to live for’ stated one online story. Young people ‘feel they have nothing to live for’ stated another.

But let us take a slightly different view. The news comes on the back of the publication of a report responding to a YouGov poll taken on behalf of The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index. It spoke to a sample of 2,136 people aged 16-25 online last autumn. While this is statistically a significant number to warrant taking notice of, we must remember that all statistics are extrapolated, a point the report made clear according to the BBC’s coverage (with my bold emphasis):

“The report found 9% of all respondents agreed with the statement: “I have nothing to live for” and said if 9% of all youngsters felt the same, it would equate to some 751,230 young people feeling they had nothing to live for.”

One of the most important words here has got to be ‘if’. It is the word that gets lost amid the terrifying figures. It is the word that gets omitted when people fear for their future. It is the little word that anyone already feeling a bit blue might not see.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t investigate the very real causes of youth unemployment and lack of opportunities where it is truly the case that there are scant vacancies or resources. We should always question the idea of cutting funding to areas such as Youth Services and libraries, where the majority of young people may turn for advice (especially if they are from a background which lacks support or guidance at home).

But the thing we can do something about almost instantly is change how we report these situations, these statistics. The tendency is to focus on the negative as a mean of counteracting any political spin. Consequently I believe this results in a lack of journalism to counter the negativity where it matters most – in the minds of the people who are being written about.

I remember being 16 myself, at the height of the early-90s recession. I was hopeful, I had plans. What I don’t remember is the headlines speaking to me, telling me that all hope was lost. If I read a negative story, I assumed the best, not the worst was to come. The proliferation of media today makes it harder to escape the constant round of data, opinion and information – it’s on tap, everywhere we go. You try switching it off, when it’s all you’ve ever known.

I’m no dinosaur: I don’t think we can, or necessarily should, switch everything off and go back to the ways of the ‘old days’. But I do think we have to make greater effort to sift and question the way information is fed to us.

That is not to let young people off the hook entirely. Their lives are in their hands. Once the stabilising wheels of childhood come off standing on your own two feet can mean one of two things: fear and uncertainty, or joy and liberation.

Here are my suggestions for making the future count, even if you’re not sure what the future holds:

1 – Question and challenge
So you’ve read a story that shows young people in a collective negative light. Don’t just read it and shrug; react. Write a letter to the publication that posted or printed it. Outline your anecdotal evidence to prove that you are employed, or looking very hard for a job; that you study and have a plan. If you don’t have these things in place, then write to ask why that publication doesn’t give young people tips and resources that could help them as well as the negative news? Offer to become a case study if you can stomach the publicity (but guard your image with your life – don’t let them own your brand if you can help it!)

2 – Get out there
If you feel yourself responding to an article negatively, try to counteract that by doing something positive. Identify the element of that report which hurt you most and turn it around. Did the article accuse people like you of sitting around doing nothing? Then prove it wrong by getting a new hobby or interest. If you are out there, contributing to society at large and not just interacting with people your own age, people will take notice. How about doing some voluntary work? There’s nothing better for helping you look outside yourself for additional inspiration and a great perspective on the world.

3 – Turn off the media
Every now and then, it does us good to do something differently. I think this could/should include short periods (or longer if we can manage) where we actively disconnect ourselves from the digital world. Turn off your internet connection, turn off your phone. Pack the computer games console into the cupboard for an afternoon. Do or see something you wouldn’t normally do without your media attached – be that taking a walk, a bus ride, or doing some exercise. Anything at all! What do you notice about the world without this connection at your fingertips? Is it a scary thing? Don’t forget this is how everyone lived their lives almost totally 15+ years ago. Your parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents will remember this time with great affection! It is a great way to decompress and also to work out what your own thoughts and opinions are without interruption.