In July 2018, I was appointed as chief marketing officer of the National Citizen Service Trust (NCS) – a non-profit organisation that runs programmes helping 16 and 17-year olds in England build work and life skills. I knew when I took the role that I was being presented with a great opportunity: it would give me a chance to work with the people who would go on to define this country, and to be able to provide an experience that could help them do it. What no one realised is that we would be taking control just as the most disruptive event to hit our country in a lifetime crashed into us all.
Our new CEO, Mark Gifford, took the reins in March 2020, and within weeks of his arrival, Covid-19 struck, with national lockdown coming hot on its heels. It’s been a battle for all of us, granted, but I have to wonder, as teenagers receive results for exams they didn’t sit, and offers from universities that they are not even able to attend, whether these young people have the most lost ground to recover. We all know school is difficult enough when it is running smoothly, and that normal life has become almost impossible in a Covid-19 world.
The few certainties that young people have at this formative stage in their life – the classes, exams and results that would traditionally lead them to some form of job or further education – suddenly seem out of reach.
Not to mention the intangible, traditional rituals of empowerment that we all go through when we’re young. The school disco, the first festival and the first kiss on a park bench. They didn’t seem that important at the time – but look back on them now. They were formative moments, as life transitions from the shelter of childhood to the scary promise of adulthood. Teenagers up and down the land have had these experiences taken away and replaced with nothing but a computer screen.
People are already writing off the teenagers of today as the new “lost generation”, but that sells our young people short. Are they hard done by? Certainly. Lost? Not a chance. From Black Lives Matter marches to protests over A-level results – young people everywhere, even in a moment where they could be forgiven for feeling sorry for themselves, have mobilised themselves in ingenious ways on social media, our parks and our high streets, to stand together in the face of injustice. It only takes a glimpse of these brilliant movements to feel their resilience, compassion and enthusiasm.
We were quick to see that spirit at NCS. That’s why we set up the One Million Hours of Doing Good initiative, which was a way for young people across the country to help their local communities through volunteering and social action. We picked one million hours because it was a big, clear number and because we know that if you give young people the right tools it is achievable. We’ve proved it. In our nine-year history we have managed 14.5 million hours.
We released a short film, Life After Lockdown, written and directed by Caleb Femi, the former Youth Poet Laureate, reflecting the hopes and dreams of young people in a post-lockdown future. It’s moving, ambitious and important. We have to remember that education is not confined to classrooms.
In every corner of our stricken country, young people helped elderly with food shops, they mowed lawns and picked litter. They often did it without any more payment than a thank you, and without any idea that anyone else was doing the same. But they were – in their thousands. We have been lucky to help bring together some of those people who might never have known that the goodness and generosity that they were showing, in such a hard time, was being shown in every city, town and village across the country.
That is what NCS is for. It’s the basis of a new kind of community, one that allows teenagers from every background, on every trajectory, with a myriad different challenges, to meet one another face to face, learn from one another and gain the confidence to tackle the world. And it works: 78 per cent of our participants say they felt more positive about people from different backgrounds after attending the program and 70 per cent felt more confident about getting a job.
When I read statistics like that, I realise that doing this job, at this time, will be the most fulfilling work I will ever do. More importantly, I know that as we all find our feet together again, as we begin to rebuild a society that looks very different, we will be led by the example of our indomitable young people. We should feel confident that when our race is run, this brilliant, special generation is poised to take the reins. This is not a “lost generation”, this is undoubtedly our “next greatest generation”.