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Generation Y can energise the Big Society

    Alan Mak argues that the energy, ideas, skills and optimism of Generation Y's young professionals can turn the Big Society from powerful vision into a positive reality. 

    In his keynote speech on the Big Society last month, David Cameron declared that "Alongside the task of building a dynamic economy...we must build a bigger, stronger society". For him, “the Big Society is not some fluffy add-on to more gritty and more important subjects. [The Big Society] is about as gritty and important as it gets – giving everyone the chance to get on in life and make our country a better place to live". One key group that can help the PM deliver on that mission is Generation Y's young professionals. Their energy, ideas, skills and optimism are key to delivering the government's flagship vision for a Big Society. Charities, civil society and policymakers should do more to engage them.    

    The role that Generation Y can play in the Big Society was the theme when over 100 young professionals came together with the Big Society Network and Fastrack, a network for Conservative-supporting young professionals, at Somerset House for a panel discussion in May. Speakers included James Wharton, the youngest Conservative MP; Shaun Bailey, the government's Big Society Ambassador; Malcolm Scovil, Founder of LeapCR, a social enterprise that provides employees of large companies with volunteering opportunities at over 100 charities; Robyn Scott, founder of OneLeap, a social business that puts aspiring entrepreneurs in touch with established influencers; and Shane Greer, CEO of Biteback Publishing, publishers of Total Politics magazine.

    The main conclusions from a lively panel discussion and Q&A session were:

    • Generation Y young professionals are typically university graduates aged 21-35 living in urban areas, with higher than average levels of disposable income. They are time poor and often work long hours in demanding jobs. But they are aspirational and ambitious: keen to get a foot on the housing ladder, to holiday abroad, to get ahead in their careers. They enjoy networking, meeting new people, and are interested in their communities, well-being, and supporting good causes. Uniquely, Generation Y have been shaped by the events, leaders and trends of their time, particularly globalisation, which has delivered more consumer choice, cheaper travel, and social media and technology that shapes their daily lives, routines and choices.
    • The Big Society and Generation Y are a good fit. The hallmarks of Big Society – devolving power to local communities, giving individuals greater influence in their communities and more choice over their own lives – are consistent with, and instinctively appeal to, a generation that has grown up with choice, power and freedom as the most potent by-products of globalisation. In their short lifetimes, they have seen the world become a smaller place, exercised more control and choice over increasingly numerous aspects of their lives, and have information at their finger tips. If Generation Y has a dizzying array of choice and control when it comes to the restaurants they eat in, the smartphones they Twitter on, and where they fly to on holiday, why shouldn't they have control over how their taxes are spent locally or get involved in shaping the future of their local school? 
    • Generation Y has a huge amount to offer the Big Society. Gen Y's young professionals are well educated, skilled, ambitious, energetic – and optimistic. Across the world, ours is the generation with the "can do, will try, aim high" spirit. We make things happen. From launching their own businesses and crowdsourcing new ideas at One Young World to volunteering at school breakfast clubs with Magic Breakfast, fundraising for charity with Justgiving, or teaching Britain's toughest kids with TeachFirst, Gen Y is far from being apathetic. In fact, Gen Y is the most civic-minded, community-spirited generation to date. Just that much of it happens under the radar. Getting involved, giving it a go, making a difference. Stepping up, not sitting back. Generation Y is already working hard in communities. Generation Y is, in reality, Generation Y-Not?
    • Doing good is just as important as doing well to Gen Y. In a recent YouGov/National Young Volunteers’ Service survey, 70% of those aged 25 to 34 in the UK said they were likely to volunteer in their community, compared to 49% of those aged 55 and over. Similarly, in America, a recent survey found that 81% of young professionals had volunteered in the past year, whilst 61% of young adults felt personally responsible for making a difference in the world. So, whilst volunteering and social action help Generation Y in the workplace – YouGov found that 96% of managers believed that workplace skills can be gained from volunteering – Gen Y is equally motivated by a desire to do good, not just do well.
    • Technology is key to harnessing the power of Generation Y for the Big Society. How do Gen Y catch up, share ideas, and make plans? Technology. No other group before them has been influenced by technology as much as Generation Y. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Foursquare, the internet, smartphones. Could Gen Y live, work or play without any of these? Gen Y are used to using technology for "horizontal" peer-to-peer engagement and networking. The Big Society now needs to plug itself into technology to empower Gen Y to interact "vertically" with their communities, charities and civil society as a whole. Government has already realised this. In the Giving Green Paper published on the same day as Cameron's speech, it promised to make giving time and skills easier by using  technology, from allowing donations at cash machines and supermarket tills to more payroll giving. But again, it is Get Y-led, technology-based platforms such as LeapCR that are setting the agenda. Technology has the potential to harness the power of Gen Y in the community at a level and intensity not seen in the Britain for generations.

    Engaging Generation Y young professionals must be an integral part of the Big Society's vision for inclusion, growth and success. Built-in, not bolt. (All of us) in it together. Generation Y is uniquely placed to energise the Big Society, and represents an untapped pool of talent who can bring energy, ideas, skills and optimism to the Coalition government's flagship project. The challenge now for government, policymakers and civil society is to make community engagement, social action and volunteering opportunities so diverse, compelling and "easy to use" that giving up your time to help others becomes a natural lifestyle choice for a generation that is socially conscious, environmentally aware, and community spirited. The potential upsides are enormous. Take just two examples: across the UK, 300,000 school governors are needed every year to make schools run more effectively, yet 40,000 governor positions remained vacant last year. Equally, the government has ambitious plans to make "participatory budgeting" compulsory for all local councils by 2012, giving all local residents a say in how local councils spend their money. Whether it's shaping the futures of millions of children or determining spending priorities in local communities, Generation Y young professionals can make an enormous impact.

    In his 2010 Party Conference speech, Cameron defined the spirit of the Big Society as “... the spirit of activism, dynamism, people taking the initiative, working together to get things done ...” but recognised that “... the Big Society needs you to give it life.” The energy, ideas, skills and optimism of Generation Y young professionals can turn that powerful vision into a positive reality.

    Alan Mak is Co-Chairman of Fastrack. He is a primary school governor and a trustee of Magic Breakfast. He writes in a personal capacity. A shorter version of this blog was published by Platform 10.

    Alan Mak was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Havant in May 2015, succeeding former Cabinet Minister David Willetts, and re-elected in June 2017. 

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