I first met Michael Young in 1997 as a student on the first cohort of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (more on that later). He was funny, light, and utterly obsessed about how we create a fairer, more progressive society. A man of contrasts. An academic who cared more about stories than statistics. Author of the 1945 Labour manifesto and willing to work across the political spectrum to get his many (and I mean many) social organisations going, he was a radical thinker and a doer.
Above all, he knew intuitively the power local communities have and the difference individuals, especially those at the margins, can make to society when given the tools to succeed.
We see this across his academic background.
In his 1957 sociological study Family and Kinship in East London, he looked at working-class families in Bethnal Green. He argued for the role of social capital. Families in the most challenging economic situations looked out for one another, created support networks and helped each other with childcare or financial aid. Rather than act individually and selfishly, these close-knit families came together as one community and had true pride in place.
‘Michael believed the solution to inequality was not equality but fraternity’
In his 1958 satire, Rise of the Meritocracy, he cautioned against a merit-based society. He believed it would perpetuate inequality and create self-justifying elites where those who rise to the top would have lower empathy for those lower in the hierarchy and if everyone truly gets what they deserve then there’s less moral impetus to help those who have less.
Both highlighted Michael’s belief that the solution to inequality was not equality but fraternity: a sense of social solidarity, common purpose and shared responsibility where to create a truly just society we need individuals to come together and look out for the welfare of others.
Beyond academia, we also see this across the organisations Michael set up as a social entrepreneur.
For example, the Consumers Association (later Which? Magazine) and the Open University. Whether it is helping consumers make informed choices about their purchases or widening access to learning to create higher levels of opportunity, across Michael’s body of work, he believed that with greater individual agency, there would be greater ability to contribute towards a community-based society.
These central ideas of community and individual agency are as important today as they were then. With widening inequality, eroding trust in our institutions and a climate emergency – it is easy to feel despondent and despair. Instead, we should be pushing further and deeper into Michael’s legacy.
'Ideas as important today as they were then'
At School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), founded by Michael in 1997, we have drawn from and built on Michael’s legacy. More than just an educational institution, we exist to help people develop the skills, strengths and networks to start and scale organisations that make a positive difference to society’s biggest challenges.
Given the right skills and networks, we believe those with first-hand lived experience of the social issues they are facing are those best-placed to solve them. Like Michael’s early thinking, we believe diverse differences – such as coming from a marginalised background – which are often seen as a deficit by mainstream society, can be the difference-maker in taking a social idea forward. By flipping deficit thinking, we root out talent with personal insights, leading to authentic social solutions that hit the mark.
Take La Toyah Lewis. As an ex-offender, she understood how hard it can be to secure work. This led her to set up Rising Stars Property Solutions, which provides property clearances, deep cleans and waste removals, while providing jobs to ex-offenders.
The central ethos of Rising Stars is recognising the true potential of people and giving them a second chance. In La Toyah’s words, “SSE has had an enormous impact on me because it has enabled me to grow significantly in confidence and legitimacy”. Our learning programmes are rooted in trusting our students have the answer and giving them the space and agency to explore what works for them.
In recent times, we have expanded Michael’s thinking on community, equity and agency further to the way markets operate by creating Match Trading grants. Looking at the current financial products available to social entrepreneurs we felt they were either not empowering enough (at their worst, traditional grants encourage dependency) or out-of-reach (repayable finance ill-suited for early-stage organisations). This being especially true for the vast majority who deliberately choose to work in failing markets – the toughest parts of the economy where their commercial counterparts won’t go. This isn’t because their social ventures are not commercially savvy but precisely because they want to make impact and economic change.
To acknowledge this, Match Trading rewards trading. For every pound of sales growth, recipients get £1 in matched grant. As a product, it places trust and agency in the hands of the social entrepreneur to innovate and grow on their own terms while acknowledging markets are not equal. Having supported over 900 organisations we found in control group studies those receiving Match Trading grew their traded income by 29% compared to 12% from their traditional grant peers. This translated to more sustainable growth, higher power on choosing how they could grow and critically on their own terms.
This different way of grant-making enabled Kitty’s Launderette – a co-operative that provides affordable laundry services and a social space for residents in Liverpool – to double their trading income. This directly led to the organisation going from a development project reliant on grant funding to a fully-fledged self-sustaining social enterprise. Similar to Michael’s views on meritocracy in relation to people, we know, structurally, merit alone is not enough when you look at finance. We have to make financial tools equitable and empowering.
To achieve the progressive, community-oriented and equal Britain Michael Young was after, in an era of climate change, social media and AI, we need to rapidly and constantly reinvent his thinking for a modern context. Greater individual agency and skills coupled with community power for the common good.
From Which? Magazine and Open University to Rising Stars and Kitty’s Launderette – we know the next generation of social entrepreneurs are taking on the challenge.Explore our Forever Young hub
To achieve the progressive, community-oriented and equal Britain Michael Young was after, in an era of climate change, social media and AI, we need to rapidly and constantly reinvent his thinking for a modern context. Alistair Wilson, CEO, School for Social Entrepreneurs