Young People’s Activism in Times of Austerity
“I don’t think anybody had ever sat in front of us and said like, you are working-class young people, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it is something that in life, that it’s…you automatically, you’re a couple of a steps behind those that aren’t […] And it made us start looking at the world and dynamics of the world, and actually seeing, oh, yeah, that is unfair, that is unjust.” Older alumni member, October 2020
During October 2018 and April 2022, young people and staff from RECLAIM participated in the ‘Young People’s Activism in Times of Austerity’ research project with Liz Ackerley, an academic at the University of Manchester. The project sought to explore what activism means to young people and how this work is supported by a youth engagement organisation in a challenging socio-economic context.
The research outlined the dynamics, challenges and everyday politics of engaging in and supporting working-class youth activism in a context of austerity, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings were then arranged into the following three themes:
Young people’s ideas about and experiences of activism across the life-course
Intergenerational care, support and solidarity
Challenges facing youth engagement organisations in a difficult economic context
It is well evidenced that youth engagement organisations, youth work services and informal education spaces play a vital role in supporting young people to think critically, develop life skills, organise to push for social change and influence policy and practice. Austerity measures put in place over the last decade however, as well as longer processes of neoliberalisation, have fundamentally changed structures of financial support in the UK, impacting the availability and structure of youth service provision.
“So I feel that activism can take place in your everyday life, in the simple things that you take part in, but it can also be something big, something that's organised, something that's set apart beforehand. Or even what something that someone could do by telling a friend when they say something offensive about someone else, saying oh that's wrong, you shouldn't say that, you should be respectful towards that person […] there's also demonstrations, protests, things like that, or speaking in government lobbying different things that you can do on a larger scale for different things.” Younger alumni member, August 2020
Through feminist ethnographic and participatory research methods, which centred values of care, commitment and collaboration, the research explored t5he following questions:
How young people understand, describe and engage in activism
The impact early engagement in activism has on young people as they get older
How youth organisations such as RECLAIM support young people’s activism and political participation across Greater Manchester
How ethnographic and participatory research methods can be used to explore youth activism
The research calls for systemic changes within the funding system to ease the pressure on charities and highlights the importance of spaces like RECLAIM for young people to develop critical thinking skills, to feel valued and to encourage feelings of capability and power to fight for social change.
The key reflections and recommendations from the report present groups who support youth activism and funders within the movement space some much needed strategic interventions when working with young activists during periods of austerity.
“… I think funders don't realise the impact that has on young people and I think especially with a lot of working-class young people there's always knock-backs within their lives, so consistency is a massive massive thing and if the consistency isn't there I think it can do worse damage going in and parachuting out than not at all, doing it not at all.” Staff member, March 2020(Staff member, 11/3/20)
Those reflections and recommendations include:
Young people think about activism as taking place at multiple scales, with all actions along this scale being valuable
Activist identity is bound up with intersecting identities, including race, gender, class and age.
Austerity measures have created a challenging economic context for youth engagement organisations.
Systemic changes within the funding system are needed to ease pressure on small charities.
RECLAIM offers an important space for young people to develop critical thinking skills, impacting on their sense of worth as young people and feelings of capability and power to fight for social change.
Research conducted with care, commitment and collaboration can support youth activists by amplifying their work and tracing the processes and legacies of change making.
You can read about the findings and recommendations in more depth in this short booklet.
Illustrations by India Joseph @ Moon and Moth Studio
If you would like a hard copy of the report please email Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org