We must better prepare young people for the future by helping them develop empathy, cooperation, and other ‘soft’ skills such as negotiating a path through differences
Original article published on 17 July 2017 in the TES
Young people are once again in the spotlight. Look no further than the debate on student fees to spot their place in Britain’s biggest political divide as well as the continuing focus on wealth inequality.
Research by the Prince’s Trust says that young people are breaking new records (and not in the right way) on happiness and wellbeing. They also offer our best hope, however, and this renewed focus must be welcomed.
Now is the time for us to empower young people to take on some of the challenges that more experienced generations are struggling to tackle – including that of social integration.
That means learning from our mistakes and setting aside the tribal short-termism of our politics in favour of longer-term investment in our future. It also means daring to give young people the full freedom and power that a liberal, secular and open democracy like ours affords.
The solutions to big issues that will shape future generations’ everyday lives are yet being found, from automation to climate change. An estimated 65 per cent of children now entering school will work in the sorts of jobs that don’t yet exist.
We may struggle to provide all the answers that the future demands but we can invest more in the young people that will provide them. We can better prepare them by helping them develop empathy, cooperation, and other soft skills such as negotiating a path through differences.
Critical to this is young people being able to work together and integrate better than we are managing now.
Britain is projected to get more diverse – by 2050, the proportion of British residents belonging to an ethnic minority is projected to rise to 38 per cent, double what it is today.
Economic disruption risks deepening social divides. Already, the Social Integration Commission estimates that a lack of integration costs the UK as much as £6 billion each year. Its true cost is likely to be far more expensive than that.
Dame Louise Casey found that problems are “being ducked, swept under the carpet or allowed to fester” in her recent major review into integration.
The spirit of our communities has been severely tested in recent months. And people in Britain from all backgrounds responded.
That pain felt by so many of us was met with solace as people opened their hearts to the survivors and families of Grenfell, as taxi drivers shuttled worried concertgoers home in the wake of the Manchester attack, as doctors, nurses and fire-fighters bent the laws of human capability to their exceptional will – repeatedly.
I worry most about the kinds of callous attacks by terrorists designed to drive our communities apart. Religious fanatics and far-right zealots fuel violence that is ever dependent upon hatred.
Meanwhile, day-to-day hate is menacing: recorded hate crimes increased by 19 per cent last year – or 62,518 offences. 79 per cent were motivated by race hate, 12 per cent by sexual orientation, 7 per cent by religion, 6 per cent by disability and 1 per cent were transgender hate crimes.
We must marshal all our talents and leadership to turn this story around.
I had the honour in June of working together with His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols, The Archbishop of Westminster, for an “Interfaith Iftar” that would only rarely be possible outside open societies like ours.
The engagement brought together the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and a hundred young people aged 15-30 – representing all boroughs of London, and from all faiths and none. We discussed how to bring London’s communities together. Then we broke bread, together.
The words of one young woman especially struck a chord with me. She pleaded: “Let us make mistakes – and promise to be patient with us when we do!”
She is absolutely right. Young people must be able to make their own, often difficult, journeys: people will always make mistakes. How we respond, with patience and forgiveness, matters, especially during a time when every word a young person utters on social media can stick with them permanently.
For some years, I didn’t think much about my friendship circles: our religious beliefs, worldviews and our prejudices were overwhelmingly similar – providing security and comfort.
This stopped me plunging into introspection, but unlike the pressures afforded to young people today, I had the privilege of time and life experience to build perspective.
I now regret some views I had earlier in my life about people outside my own friendship group. That it was part of my personal journey is not an excuse, that it was avoidable fuels my passion for bringing people together so they do not repeat the same mistakes I made.
Only in the furnace of meaningful interaction with people from different backgrounds and opposing views did my barriers melt away.
Perhaps it is right for us to be more “muscular” in forging a more integrated future with our young people. We need not leave it to chance: we can design opportunities for people of all backgrounds to come together to break down their prejudices and realise what they have in common.
As the son of a headteacher, who handled diversity far better than I ever have done, I am a believer in the power of our educationalists to lead this empowerment, and not just through the curriculum.
The first recommendation of the Social Integration Commission still requires robust political action: that every school provides opportunities for their pupils to interact with children belonging to different ethnic groups and income backgrounds.
But it is increasingly online where we must turn our efforts. Our discussions at the Iftar emphasised how we can better wrestle with the social media algorithms that force us down pathways towards the things we already like.
We must approach it critically, and carve out spaces for differing views. I’m inspired by people like Daniel Lubetzky – the son of a Holocaust survivor, businessman and philanthropist – whose Foundation is shaking up Facebook feeds.
Ultimately, we must rely on more than people’s good-hearted will.
Governments must show leadership. They must lead by example in meaningfully bringing people together and creatively incentivising ways of empowering and integrating young people. Initiatives like the Great Get Together electrified the nation: it’s an example that all in public life can learn from.
I am as confident as I am optimistic about our nation’s young people being willing to forge a future of their own making. Our legacy lies with them: let us power that opportunity for them.