Being Young in Tory Britain

Being Young in Tory Britain

A talk given by Tom Lane, Principal Youth Worker, STEPS Club, Weymouth, to Swanage and Rural Purbeck Labour Party in July 2022

Re-framing the question

We often talk about the ‘problems of young people’ rather than the problems for young people – the problems young people face in the society we have created for them.  It’s what’s known as the ‘deficit model’ of young people – we ask ‘what’s wrong with young people today?’ and we vilify them (especially in the billionaires’ media).  We rarely, if ever, ask: “How are we failing our young people and what can we do about it?” 

We have created a world where young people experience:

– An education system which, for many, fails them and is authoritarian and dispiriting

– A future of exploitative and poorly paid work and/or student debt

– Poor housing and only a very slim chance that they will ever be able to own their own home

– Climate chaos and destruction

– A materialistic society that values what they’ve got, as opposed to who they are, what they can give, their positive relationships and their active role in their community – never mind kindness and compassion!

The Children’s Society’s findings

In 2006, The Children’s Society launched a three-year Inquiry into childhood in the UK and how this compares with other European countries.  The result was the excellently-named Report “A Good Childhood – Searching for Values in a Competitive Age”.  The Report found substantial levels of unhappiness and poor wellbeing in the UK and concluded that the major contributing factors were consumerism and ‘excessive individualism’.  The results were a clear indictment of the capitalist system and of Thatcher’s ‘There’s no such thing as society’. 

The Children’s Society then developed a Good Childhood Index and various objective and subjective measures of the wellbeing of children and young people, and The Good Childhood Report is now produced annually.

Twelve years on – and crucially, twelve years of Tory rule – has seen an even more dire picture emerging.  In the 2020 Report, of children in 24 European countries, UK children had the second highest levels of sadness and ranked lowest for life satisfaction and lowest for purpose in life!  Not coincidentally of course, the Report notes that from 2015-2018, the UK had the highest increase in relative child poverty and the second highest level of socio-economic inequality.  The 2020 Report also cited ‘Fear of Failure’ as a huge factor in young people’s poor sense of wellbeing and unhappiness – with UK children having the greatest fear of failure.

The 2020 Report shows levels of children’s happiness and satisfaction in the UK has deteriorated since 2010 with significant decreases in almost all areas of life – school, schoolwork, friends, appearance, life as a whole.  The latest 2021 Good Childhood Report states that 7% of 10–15-year-olds (an estimated 306,000 children) in the UK are unhappy with their lives.  Ten years ago, the estimated number was more like 173,000 so it has nearly doubled. The Report states: “Children’s happiness is in an alarming state of decline.  Society is tragically failing our young people.”

There are, of course, a wide range of factors affecting our children and young people – many of which have very negative, impinging and even destructive effects.  Naturally, these include factors like social class, poverty (incl. food poverty), housing, health, disability, education and technology.  Of course, many young people also face both the institutional and the personal effects of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.  I’m just going to focus a little on three of these: poverty, education and technology.

Childhood Poverty in the UK

There is more than one way to measure poverty or childhood poverty.  There is ‘relative poverty’ and there is ‘absolute poverty’ and each is defined – although the government has changed the way these are defined. 

The internationally accepted way of measuring relative poverty is to count anyone whose ‘household income is below 60% of the median income.’  This was how we measured childhood poverty for decades and is defined in the Child Poverty Act of 2010. 

However, the current government have changed the way this is measured. They introduced a new body – the Social Metrics Commission – who have measured poverty since 2018.  This ‘independent’ body currently includes one person from YouGov, one from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, one from the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘Nudge Unit’) and two people from the Pro-Brexit Think Tank the Legatum Institute!  They have redefined how poverty is measured to include a range of factors including incomes, housing and mortgage costs, childcare, costs associated with disability, and accessible savings…. and the relative poverty measure was reduced to 54% of the median!

It is important to recognise that when the government (including several times the Liar in Chief Johnson) boasts of ‘lifting x-number of people/children out of poverty’, they have only done so by reducing the measure from 60% of the median to 54%!!  (It’s worth noting that there are 2.3 million people between the 60% mark and the 54% mark!)  In 2016, the Tory government also removed the legally-binding targets for child-poverty reduction which were set in the Child Poverty Act.

Here are the stark facts based upon the original relative child poverty measure of 60% of median income:

Under the Tory government 1979-1997, the rate of relative child poverty in the UK DOUBLED (from 13% to 26%), making us the worst in Europe for child poverty!

Under Labour the increase stopped and the figure was reduced to just under 20%. Labour set out a bold policy to eradicate child poverty by 2020.  They were not on track to achieve this. However, they reversed the rising levels they inherited and they reduced it from 26% to 20% and it was falling!

Since 2010, under the Tories, the declining levels they inherited have been reversed and the figure has risen alarmingly, reaching over 33% nationally by 2018 and over 50% in many deprived areas!  33% of our children living in poverty is 10 in every classroom of 30!  It’s a total of 4.5 million children!!

It’s also worth remembering that poverty affects certain people more than others. For example:

– Children from Black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 46% are now in poverty, compared with 26% of children in White British families.

– 49% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty. 

– 47% of children living in families with 3 or more children live in poverty.

– Overall, 7.2 million people in poverty are living in families that include a disabled adult or child. This means that half of all people living in poverty in the UK live in a family where someone is disabled.  This includes 1.4 million children who are disabled (almost one-third of the total children in poverty).

– 49% of people in families living in social-rented accommodation are in poverty.

– And of course, in a capitalist society with widespread poverty wages and the gig economy, work does not alleviate poverty. 75% of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works!

Finally, admissions to English hospitals for malnutrition rose dramatically from 3,161 in 2008-9 to 10,183 in 2018-19.  So, malnutrition admissions have more than trebled in ten years.

Shockingly, NHS figures show a significant increase in the number of ‘Victorian Era’ diseases including Rickets, Scurvy, Cholera and Scarlet Fever.  Rickets is symptomatic of Vitamin D deficiency and malnutrition. 70% of those admitted were children aged 9 and under and this is symptomatic of growing child food poverty.

And all of that is pre-Pandemic and pre the current cost of living crisis!  All these figures will be worse now (save for the government’s fiddling!)


The Social Reproduction Theory of education proposes that (from a political point of view) education’s purpose is to recreate society as it exists; to preserve the status quo; to replicate society with all its inequality, discrimination and exploitation.  It’s easy to subscribe to this view, especially given our two-tier education system with our extremely well-resourced public schools with excellent facilities and technology and small class sizes…… and our often-crumbling state schools with ever-increasing class sizes and teachers having to buy stationery for the students!  The theory suggests that public schools prepare privileged students for future work roles as bosses, as CEO’s and ‘Captains of Industry’, as City bankers and even as politicians, whereas our state schools prepare working class kids for poorly-paid, repetitive work roles and lives of drudgery. 

The correlation between the school environment and the workplace was explored in detail in Bowles & Gintis’ ground-breaking 1976 book Schooling in Capitalist America – a key Marxist and sociological interpretation of the schooling process.  They examine how the organisation of schools (its structures, hierarchy, norms, values and even uniforms) corresponds to the organisation of the capitalist workplace and workforce, preparing working class students for their inevitable workplace roles.  The pupil-teacher relationship is identified as preparation for their subservient workplace relationship with their bosses.

The steamroller (or is it a juggernaut?) process of academisation under the Tories can be seen, amongst other things, to have a distinct focus on uniform, conformity, punctuality, rules, compliance, discipline and punishment, so it’s hard not to see Bowles & Gintis’ observations as still highly relevant today.  We may also see a distinct focus on ‘the needs of the economy’ and ‘employable skills’, but are unlikely to find much on the importance of joining a union or the purpose of taking industrial action.

In 1968, the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote the seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Freire’s work includes a Marxist class analysis in his exploration of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and calls for a different relationship between teacher, student and society.

Freire calls traditional pedagogy the “banking model of education” because it treats the student as an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, like an empty piggy bank.  This system fails to engage the student in a learning process and also assumes that all knowledge is already known (and is held by teachers and textbooks), thereby denying the opportunity for new knowledge to be discovered and created.  Freire said: “Liberating education consists in acts of cognition; not transferals of information.”  He was also critical of an education which bore little resemblance to the lives and struggles of the students.  Freire argued that education should instead treat the student as a co-creator of knowledge, engaged in a process, and that learning should be experiential and relate to people’s lives and struggles.

Of course, the ‘banking model’ that Freire was so critical of continues to form the backbone of our education system, with students often being taught to learn and remember existing knowledge without question and to regurgitate this at exam time.

Due to time constraints, I ‘ll just add three more quick things about education:

Firstly, that SATS, testing, exams and league tables (as well as the general marginalisation of the more creative subjects) all take their toll on both students and teachers.

Secondly, that all of the negative things I’ve mentioned here about our education system are systemic things and they can be, and very often are, mitigated by our very many exceptional, wonderful and inspirational teachers!

And thirdly, I must share with you some of my favourite quotes about education:

“The purpose of Education is to replace an empty mind with an open one” (Malcolm Forbes)

“Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife” (John Dewey).  And perhaps there we can see why the Capitalist class desire a particular type of education for the masses that has little to do with the development of critical thinking skills!  As Assata Shakur said: “No-one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them!”

And finally, from the great Paulo Freire: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom – the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”  Well, the latter gets my vote!


In the space of one generation, we have seen the most extraordinary and fast-paced development of technology, as well as the ways in which technology has become commonplace in the lives of young people.  This is undoubtedly having a profound effect on our young people…… and my strong belief is that this effect is predominantly harmful, especially in terms of young people’s sense of identity, their self-esteem and mental health.

I’m a huge fan of the late Neil Postman who wrote much about education, technology and the media.  My favourite book was co-written by Postman in 1969 and is called Teaching As A Subversive Activity – a fabulously titled work which, amongst other things, advocates for an education based upon students learning to ask questions and then to find their own answers.

However, Postman also wrote a fascinating book titled The Disappearance of Childhood.  It’s a book of two halves; in the first half, he proposes that childhood is a social construct which came into being after the invention of the printing press and the development of schools and children learning to read and write.  Prior to that, he argues, children were seen mostly as little adults and were privy to all the bawdiness, sex and violence of the adult world in the taverns.  Once children were schooled, we developed the concept of childhood as a precious thing and determined that children should be protected from this adult world until such time as was deemed appropriate.

In the second half of the book, Postman proposes that the concept of childhood has been rapidly disappearing since the advent of electronic forms of mass media such as the television.  Through exposure to advertising and other forms of media, children are no longer protected and their innocence has been removed.  It’s a very interesting and reasonable proposition, made even more extraordinary by the fact it was published in 1982, before the introduction of the internet!  If only Postman was alive to see it now!  Modern children have easy access to things such as porn and violence and are contacted by strangers for nefarious reasons as a matter of course.

For so many young people, their whole sense of identity is wrapped up in their online identity.  Their self-esteem is predicated upon how many likes their posts receive in 10 minutes.  They experience ‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out), worrying that they’re not part of friendship conversations online or that they’ll be judged negatively if they haven’t immediately responded to a message.  They experience online bullying and harassment, sexual invitations and threats, grooming by sexual predators and County Lines drug dealers; they experience peer pressure and exclusion from online friendship and messaging groups, vastly amplified humiliations, and the fear of humiliation and judgement in front of their friends.  And all this is there 24 hours-a-day!  Whereas previously, adolescent trials and tribulations were mostly experienced during contact time with friends and young people had a break from it when alone and at home, now mobile phones, the internet, social media and messaging services mean there’s no hiding place. 

And there’s the addiction factor: young people are increasingly addicted to their phones, to social media and messaging.  I can’t understate how damaging I believe modern technology to be in the lives of our young people!  At STEPS, we have Digital Detox evenings where young people are encouraged to hand in their phone at the start of the night and get it back two hours later.  We then explore how this felt for them.  For some, the experience is liberating and they articulate how they felt ‘free’, had more real-life interactions than usual and took part in more developmental activities.  But for some, the experience is worryingly difficult, exemplified by a 15-year-old girl who said: “I felt like I wanted to die!”

Unless we devise more positive ways for technology to be used by young people, I fear that the epidemic of mental health problems we’re seeing will only get worse.

Mental health

Having explored issues of poverty, education and technology, I’m just going to briefly mention mental health and cuts to young people’s services.

New NHS figures show that a record 420,000 children and young people a month are being treated for mental health problems and there are long waiting lists to be seen by CAMHS.  We have an epidemic of young people experiencing anxiety and depression and increased numbers who self-harm or have suicidal ideation. 

On top of the technology issues I’ve mentioned, I must briefly mention the added worries of school and exam pressures, fear of failure, money worries, student debt, discrimination, gender identity and sexuality issues and concerns about climate change and future pandemics.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has been a contributory factor – especially for young people who suffered through the lack of social contact during lockdowns or who experienced very unhappy or violent or abusive home situations.   However, I’m angered, as ever, by the political right who have used young people’s mental health as a reason for abandoning public health measures and getting everyone back to work.  It strikes a particularly sour and hypocritical note when the Tories – who have cut adolescent mental health and other young people support services for over 10 years – suddenly pretend to give a shit about it! 

And vast cuts have also been made over the last 12 years to Sure Start centres and to Youth Services.  Indeed, over £1 Billion of cumulative cuts have now been made to youth services with a staggering 73% of youth provision disappearing and over 1,000 youth clubs gone!  I always describe youth work as ‘educational, developmental and preventative’ – we enable young people to gain information, skills and confidence so that they can make healthy and informed choices.  Our work prevents young people experiencing critical problems and gives them the tools to cope better if and when they do. 

The destruction of youth services nationally (and in Dorset) has predictably seen increases in the number of first-time entrants to the youth justice system which is eye-wateringly expensive, as well as, for example, more young people needing to access NHS services.  There is a moral argument that our young people need developmental opportunities and support outside of school, but even if we just looked at the bottom line and the cost to the public purse, cutting youth services is a false economy.

Here in Dorset, the Youth Service (previously regarded as ‘the jewel in the crown’ of Local Authority services) was destroyed in 2016.  Due to government funding cuts and the lack of a statutory base for youth work, Dorset Council stopped running all 22 youth clubs and centres that it formerly ran and made all youth work posts redundant.  Many Clubs closed, including the majority in Weymouth & Portland, but some Clubs survived and are now run by community groups or as Charities (as is the case with STEPS where I work).

There is no doubt that the destruction of youth services nationally has exacerbated problems for young people, leaving them with less well-developed skills to cope and less support.

Fighting back

Finally, I want to talk briefly about fighting back.  The Capitalist system requires fresh generations of low-paid workers, ready to be exploited to create profits for the few.  It requires the exploitation of young people.  But young people are starting to fight back.   

We have recently seen the growth of the ‘tang ping’ movement amongst Chinese young people.  This translates as ‘lying down’ or ‘lying flat’ or, if you like, ‘doing the bare minimum’.  The anti-work movement is growing in popularity in the US and on social media such as Reddit.  In a movement dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’, record numbers of people in the US quit their jobs last year – a high proportion of which were young workers, fed up of being exploited in a nation where the Federal minimum wage has remained $7.25 for the last 13 years!  So, we are starting to see young people fighting back – or at least rejecting and refusing to participate in, the oppressive system that we have created for them. 

Perhaps one of our most important tasks as revolutionary socialists is to support young people in creating a better, fairer, more equal world and one where the wellbeing of people and the planet are prioritised ahead of profits for the few…… that notion of young people ‘discovering how to participate in the transformation of their world’ that Freire talked of.

And some of that must come through enabling young people to devise and explore the ‘right’ questions.  I’ve engaged young people in a lot of question-asking (and exploring their own answers) over the years and it can be a very engaging and transformative experience.  Through this process, amongst lots of other fabulous questions, I selected a set of four questions that focus on active engagement in the world and encourages being an active participant in its transformation. The questions are:

To what extent have previous generations succeeded or failed to make the world a better place?

What can we learn from that?

How can my generation do better? 

How can I play a part?

Perhaps there is the beginning of a socialist curriculum for the future? 

Thanks for listening and I look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions.