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The digital age is bringing a youth movement in waiting

This article was first published in Western Mail.

Wales had an economically productive year in 2017 and for a split second looked to be doing better than the rest of the UK. The celebrations though proved to be short-lived as once again the nation has now slipped behind the rest of the UK. The situation is made worse as Wales also remains stubbornly at the bottom of the list when it comes to ambition, attainment and economic prospects for residents of all ages, but especially for young people. 

There is a recognition that many of Wales’ young people are disaffected. Second, third and even fourth generations of family ‘work-less-ness’ means that many lack the ambition and reality of a work ethic. This is not of their making but raises the critical question of how you engage young people especially in a climate where their experience and expectations of working life are so very different to that of the majority of people charged with providing that help and support?

Welsh Government funding is rightly targeting initiatives to engage these young people. In July 2017 the Ministerial Taskforce for the South Wales Valleys was established under the title, “Our Valleys, Our Future”. Four months later, in November 2017, it published a rapidly produced but evidence-based high-level plan which outlined its future priorities as delivering: good quality jobs and the skills to do them; better public services; my local community.

However, what is also needed is to look beyond these plans and to recognise that every young person, unemployed or not, ambitious or otherwise, represents our future for Wales. They already hold at their finger-tips more knowledge, insight and transferable technological skills than any of us over 35 years old would have had at their age.

Mobiles, ipads and apps – all increasingly used for anything and everything – are giving young people real skills. But these skills are not always recognised. Spending hours locked away in a teenager’s bedroom in front of a gaming screen progressing through different levels of challenge represents a degree of competence in problem solving, determination, even creativity, as they find work-arounds and hack through into the next level or create their own games.

How can Wales respond to its teenagers’ new kinds of potential?

The key question is how the multiplicity of initiatives and funding mechanisms are recognising and responding to the very different kinds of potential and needs of young people. Certainly, creating job fairs and school clubs cannot be the only answer – especially for those who feel excluded from school and society.

The digital age is bringing with it a youth movement in waiting: young people who do not recognise the boundaries of 9-5 working, or even the physical locality of working. They have a different take on productive output and a different skill set, language and format for expressing themselves. This presents an increasing opportunity to create online job clubs and skills fora, to use the industrial edge of the creative community to develop new ways of engaging, experimenting and testing. This should give young people the chance to express their talents in open source problem solving. Through doing so they may be able to generate income or gain credibility and confidence in their insight.

This approach would draw on Wales’ position as a country of SMEs, including multiple third sector organisations. These organisations often have low capacity to design, develop or deliver social media or an online presence in their markets. Young people are adept at technology, and creative in problem solving. However, they do not always have the wisdom of age to put their talents to good use. These two communities could be brought together in an online platform to pitch problems that need a solution. A level of brokerage and safeguarding would be required, but this is not an unattainable ambition. 

The question is are we as an economy ready, willing and able to do enough of the right things to engage and encourage the development of young people on their level?

Karen Cherrett is an economic development and local public services specialist at PA Consulting Group

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