There is a difference between people who want to get on and those who want to get ahead. One is about fulfilment, the second is about competition.
The backdrop of economic inequality and the rise of consumer materialism documented among young people in the UNICEF UK research talks to a culture in which children are being encouraged to compete – for attention, for recognition, for qualifications, for success.
It is reasonable to ask whether the social evils of riots and looting reflect a culture rooted in senses of entitlement, of entertainment and where success is what you have and not who you are. If so, this is an urgent debate and not just about young people but about the adult world that they aspire to and that we should take responsibility for.
The UNICEF UK research encourages us to think Spanish – or failing that, Swedish. But it also reinforces the value of being co-operative in terms of fulfilment and well-being. Children, after all, are naturally co-operative. That is the simple conclusion, after years of research, reached by Professor Michael Tomasello, eminent developmental psychologist and author of Why We Co-operate. Drop a toy, he demonstrates, and a fourteen month old will pick it up for you without question.
At an older age, children sign up to the core idea of consumer freedom and individuality, but it is interesting that in reality their happiness is still socially defined and young people remain deeply tribal, in their tastes, clothes and behaviours.
The good news is that, from the UNICEF UK research and from my own with young people over the last five years, published in the influential book Consumer Kids with Agnes Nairn, I see no shortage of ideals among many young people. Their view of how the world should operate is typically far more hopeful than that of older people. But their worldview is also one that is compromised and complicated by the world of commerce, which on the one hand promises above all that you can be happy if you have the right stuff, and on the other, presents the reality of an uncaring, intrusive tide of marketing that plays to and exacerbates your vulnerabilities.
Of course, young people vary and are no less segmented or varied than any generation. But I do find it encouraging to see signs of response and resistance to the world of inequality and materialism that young people find around them. Some young people are campaigners, often turning the toolkit of branding and marketing around for the purposes of social change. Fair trade, co-operative schools… and one group of girls organised a “girlcott” of one retailer for stocking T-shirts printed with slogans like “Who needs a brain when you have these?” The T-shirts were quickly pulled from the stores.
Young people’s models of participation are entirely new and entirely different to their parents. They look at other young people for influence. They work online. They are media literate and are cynical about what is presented to them. As a result, young people are the most influential consumer group, bar none. It may be true that children nowadays are older, younger. But it is a timeless truth that adults want to be younger as they get older. Young people are technology pioneers and commercial early adopters and influence trends and fashion for all age groups.
There is a growing set of concern and practice around young people’s participation, but mainstream business, with honourable exceptions such as the Inspiring Young People programme of the Co-operative Group, has done absolutely nothing to engage with young people. You will find them portrayed in every advert, from Coca-Cola to Gap, but they have no voice in British business.
Britain today offers a brutal culture for young people to grow up in – with the promise of happiness all around but the reality more unevenly found than for generations before. We all need to be tough and resilient enough to compete where we need to, but setting up schools, consumer life and the economy at large as a “winner takes all” system is never going to be good for everybody. Whether it is in our role models, our school cultures in our homes or on our high streets, we need to encourage ways to promote a fresh and better balance of competition and co-operation in the environment for young people.
Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK