Who wants to make any predictions about 2021? The internet and media will be awash with them in the coming weeks; but talk to police commissioners, local authority chief execs and those close to their communities and a ‘growth in tension’ is mentioned with increasing regularity; largely driven by unemployment which is projected to rise to over 7% in 2021. It’s predicted that youth unemployment might top 1,000,000 next year.

In 2019, the ONS reported that ‘average anxiety in the UK jumped to its highest level since we began measuring wellbeing and average happiness levels also declined steeply and significantly.’ That was in 2019. Think of everything we have gone through since then.

On the road to recovery

Large scale challenges demand large scale solutions and over the summer, the prime minister set out an ‘Opportunity Guarantee’, with every young person being given the chance of an apprenticeship or work placement; a very ambitious programme, particularly given unpredictability of demand for labour-intensive sectors, such as hospitality, persisting into 2021.

It is hard to imagine a tougher environment for anyone seeking work and while there are reports this week that due to a vaccine we could be ‘back to normal’ by Easter, we know the road to recovery will be long; and the futures of young people in this country far from assured.

Opening up every possible opportunity for employment is clearly a key government strategy for young people; but in amongst this, there is potentially something very powerful being overlooked; and a lesson from history to be drawn.

The upswing

At the end of the 20th Century, America was a highly unequal, politically polarised place, with poor levels of cohesion, firmly underpinned by a culture of individualism. As the country moved into the 1900’s, this seemingly entrenched dynamic began to shift; largely driven by young people, mostly under thirty years of age innovating and creating new forms of association and institutions. These reformers worked very locally, setting up (now universal) institutions such as primary schools, which spread rapidly from place to place, transforming the landscape of America and leading the charge into a new progressive era, with increasing equality, communitarianism, political comity and cohesion – right up until the mid 1950’s. This the central story of The Upswing, Robert Puttnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s new book and we’ll be welcoming them both to the Institute for Community Studies on 24 February.

The Young Foundation is a fitting place in which to explore their work. Michael Young himself was the architect of over sixty social innovations and institutions; most of which still persist in different forms and guises today, including the Open University, Which?, Language Line and NHS Direct to name a small handful. What’s striking about them is not just that they still exist and are operating at some considerable scale, but that they are resolutely practical in nature. They have a simple, definable purpose to meet an unmet need. And when I say unmet need I mean things like being able to speak with a doctor in a language you understand, or needing to train for your qualifications after you’ve put the kids to bed. As opposed to pursuing the art of meeting unmet wants such as hyaluronic face cream or home sushi delivery. Love both as you wish – but they’re not needs.

Meeting unmet needs

Michael Young and his colleagues identified unmet needs through days and days of observation and through extended conversations with people from all walks of life. The sparks of inspiration that flowed from this work led to the household names and institutions that are still around today.

At The Young Foundation, there remains a continued ethos to understand how lives are being lived and to use this as a prompt for innovation, institution building and social change. And it’s why we’ve applied to the Government’s Kickstart Scheme, to employ young people under 24 to be trained in these self same observation and engagement techniques, supporting them to build pathways into mission-driven and social purpose work.

But this is small beer. What does big beer look like?

The good and great

There are few things that we know. Firstly, that while there could always be more, there are thousands of young social entrepreneurs in this country; and increasingly, people under thirty are prioritising working for organisations that align to their values and can demonstrate both social and environmental purpose. Second, that while many good and great social enterprises work well operating at a small scale; most operate at sub-scale with long pathways to sustainability and high degrees of fragility. They compete for scarce grant funding, and are understandably cautious about taking on expensive social investment.

So when Rushanara Ali spoke at The Young Foundation’s recent event to launch Lise Butler’s new book, it was a sobering reminder that many of Michael Young’s innovations achieved scale through state backing; largely made possible because Young danced across the domains of government, institutions, innovation and entrepreneurship with the ease of Astaire. He was comfortable using whichever levers were available, including non-market policy levers to startlingly good effect.

We can’t all be Michael Young; but there’s a lesson here for how we think about ‘teaching’ entrepreneurship or ‘teaching’ policy making or ‘teaching’ for any kind of change. In the words of Peter Mandelson recently “we need more iconoclastic mavericks; more Michael Youngs”, skilled in creating practical, innovative solutions to address real problems, faced by real people but – crucially  woven in such a way that any government of the day can get behind in a big way.

If the progressive era in the US was driven by the local efforts of a very young cadre of reformers and innovators, isn’t it worth, just for a moment, assuming that this is a possibility for us?





Speech Transcript: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-economy-speech-30-june-2020

Families & Youth Innovation and Investment Posted on: 25 November 2020 Authors: Helen Goulden OBE,


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