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It’s not young people that are the problem, its us

Politics – an society – has got into an awful habit of ranking people according to their functional usefulness. And unfortunately young people aren’t all that functional useful, so we tend to see then in terms of problem. This can’t be how we relate to our own citizens.

What are people for? In day to day life that might sound like a strange questions but in politics it is an important one. Politics (and policy) tend to see people in a functional way. Actually, politics has a habit of seeing people only in a functional way – they are either the possessors-of-votes or means of achieving policy outcomes. This, it goes without saying, is a shame – and not least because it tends to rank people according to their functionality.

People with lots of money have many functions – they ‘create jobs’ (although most don’t really create jobs but simply capture a proportion of jobs one would expect to be there anyway). They give donations to parties. They buy influence and are then considered arbiters of who and what is good and who and what is not good. Their function and usefulness is clear. Then there are ‘hard working families’. These people have two functions – they are important for indicators (being in work, buying things in the shops, buying houses and so on all add up to numbers that politicians like). A certain kind of activist has a purpose, as long as the activism isn’t too political. Community activists, charity volunteers, campaigners for ‘nice things’ and so on are all good because they give politics a sheen of humanity and they provide lots of plausible soundbites when difficult social issues come up. Religious leaders are handy when providing endorsement. Middle-class ethnic minorities are good because they offer a vision of ‘the right kind of integration’. And so on.

But naturally, the corollary of this is that other people are not ‘politically functional’. First among these are the poor. They are all all problem and no usefulness. They don’t help with statistics, they don’t look good, they don’t even vote. Another group are pensioners – also bad for many statistics, cost money, and so on. Better than the poor though in that they look sympathetic and above all they vote.

So what about young people? Where are they in politics? It is here that I get the most awful sense of why politics can be bad for us, because young people (especially teenagers) fall right in the middle between functional and non-functional. On the up side they have a gloss of vigour and, well, youth. They are ‘the workers of tomorrow’, the hope of possibility and all that. And above all they are ‘our children’ and so are seen sympathetically. But then there are the problems. In fact they don’t really contribute to the helpful statistics, they don’t earn or spend quite enough, and damn it they’re just plain untidy. They’re always sitting around where they shouldn’t. They make too much noise. They drink and have sex and that’s Bad (capitalised because the assumption is that this is self evident, even though throughout human history teenagers have experimented with sex – not least because they are genetically programmed to – and it is us that conclude this must be bad).

This is bothering me today because of the St Andrews report which concludes that young people are smoking a bit too much (well, any smoking is too much), drinking too much, having too much sex and so on. But it shows that they are really quite happy in comparison to teenagers in other countries. I sort of get the sense that Scottish teenagers are happier very much despite the impact of politics and national policy on their lives. Yes, we’ve got a pretty good schools system (certainly in comparison to the social problems found in education in many big European cities). And yes we have pretty good rates of young people continuing their education. But still, this drags them back to their functional role as ‘future employees’. We don’t really celebrate learning as something to enrich their lives rather than to lead to their enrichment. And beyond the education system, politics likes young people when they accept being organised and structured in ways conducive to adults – Duke of Edinburgh awards, using facilities built by a local authority and so on. What we don’t really see is politics engaging with young people in their real lives, doing the things that matter to them, whether they like it or not.

And this attitude is pervasive. I’m on the Board of our local youth project and while mostly people are supportive, even so we still have people who think that allowing them some space of their own, largely on their own terms, is a ‘privilege’ they receive from us and which can be taken away if they’re not playing by adult rules. Meanwhile, a little shelter that was erected in the park so teenagers could go somewhere when it rains is about to be taken down after intense lobbying by a group of middle-class locals who consider it too noisy and untidy. So they’re back in the rain.

There are two issues here. One is about how adults respond to young people in society and this is an issue that has bothered me for a long time. We – collectively as a society – have demonised young people (the word ‘ned’ is just another ‘n’ word to denigrate an isolated social group, the teenager from a low-income background) and we have come to see them as a problem. But in this society has taken a lead from politicians who have ranked us all on our usefulness to the national political project and have found teenagers wanting (certainly in comparison to rich people). Many individual politicians have been diligent in listening and responding to the views of young people, but this hasn’t reached national politics.

So a simple plea – could we not have more discussion of what politics means for the groups about whom politics has not much interest? Could we not have a policy approach to the poor which engages with the situation they are in rather than reinventing an economic policy for the rich and claiming that it is really for them (most people in poverty have jobs, it’s just that they’re crap jobs, so all the talk about employment being the best route out is false if the employment is routine minimum wage part time). Could we conceive of pensioners as something more than a drain on the NHS (and the profits of bus companies) and take more interest in their experience of modern Scotland? And could we think of young people not as job-fodder or ‘fine if they’re in the Scouts’ and engage with their lives on their own terms?

Robin McAlpine