Learn to listen to young people…..learn to collaborate

Every year we bring partners together for a day of shared learning and collaboration around a common theme. This year, we considered some of the questions raised by the independent Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. Our discussions and views will feed into the national evidence gathering and inform the panel’s recommendations for the future.

What will be the biggest challenges for young people over the next ten years?   How will the youth sector need to adapt to address these challenges?

Those attending were supporting young people facing different challenges including homelessness, worklessness or emotional upheaval. The young people attending were passionate about the challenges facing them.

Despite the diversity of the group, their views were surprisingly consistent.

We need a different relationship with the State

In the coming years, facing a decline in support from the state, and withdrawal of the support offered by the EU, we need to take responsibility for equipping young people to stand on their own two feet. There is an urgent need for young people to be supported to develop necessary levels of “self-belief, self-confidence, agency and empowerment”.

We need a different kind of education

Young people will need resilience and independence to face the lack of fairness that seems inbuilt in our structures and systems. Youth sector leaders expressed their frustration at the lack of freedom they are given by funders and commissioners to prioritise work that delivers the kind of outcomes young people need to thrive. They observed a disconnect between our current education system and the world of work.

Young people agreed. Their main concern was the explosion of young people’s mental health issues.


Young people put this down to the pressures that young people are facing today and a lack of certainty over “Finding out who they are and where they fit”. They were clear they must be directly involved in shaping services that can help them on their future path.

We need a different relationship with each other

Youth organisations recognise that their strength lies in “Coming together to form one voice – [there is] strength in numbers, in one message”. Having given up looking for leadership and strategy in the national policy agenda, it is time for the youth sector to speak up for the reality of what they need to improve young people’s lives. “Don’t be complicit with government cuts – don’t agree to deliver at half price”.

And the real power, energy and expertise comes from young people themselves.


Youth organisations recognise they need the strength to “trust young people – listen carefully and act with them”. They recognise this isn’t always going to be easy but young people say “Don’t be a gatekeeper – don’t define what young people are interested in” and more and more of those of us who participate and lead the sector agree.

We need a different relationship with funders

There are challenges for the funder and commissioners in this. Youth leaders are clear that a different form of relationship with funders is going to be necessary to help them respond to – and with – young people. They are prepared to “challenge the funders and provide a platform for young people to have a voice” about what the real issues are – rather than what funders wish to pay for. Funders must remain adaptable and consider whether “Agreed outcomes – do they restrict?” in the face of the necessary flexibility charities are being asked to show.

We need a different civil society

We need to re-examine what we mean by the ‘youth sector’.

[There are] Positives and negatives of talking in those terms”. Young people themselves need their views valued and amplified in the debate; perhaps professionals need to develop and strengthen the skills of listening and learning from young people, rather than talking on their behalf? There needs to be clarity on which young people we need to listen to, for example some of those who are most disadvantaged or disengaged. Business, communities, adult and young volunteers all have their roles in ensuring good outcomes for young people.

As Civil Society Futures has travelled around the country, people have expressed a sense of powerlessness – the feeling that things are ‘done to’ people without their involvement in them. For young people, this feeling is particularly profound. And for organisations who work with young people – and for their funders – this creates a vital challenge.

How can we give young people a sense of control and choice over their own lives? How can we do the hard work of making sure we listen not just to the loudest voices, but to the silenced, too? As history moves fast, can the youth organisations we have inherited from the past become tools for young people to shape their future themselves? Because if we do not, we will soon find we lose relevance.



15th December 2017