Most people think that young people should be asked to give something back. Politicians agree. Yet a compulsory scheme has seemed too ambitious—until now. A civic service scheme could be the legacy of this recessionby James Crabtree / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
Despite its impressive name, the London Boxing Academy isn’t much more than a shabby warehouse, set back from Tottenham High Road in one of the poorest areas of north London. Inside, a few young black men hit punch bags around a faded blue boxing ring. On the wall is a poster, frayed at the edges, warning: “get a life, ditch the knife.” At the ringside David Lammy, the local MP, listens intently to Chris Hall, the academy’s stocky, shaven-headed founder. Hall explains how he takes 30 young people a year—all too tough for regular school—and gives them an intensive mix of boxing, sports and regular classes. Classes take place in scruffy rooms next to the boxing ring. But, he says, his mix of discipline and encouragement helps aggressive, troubled young men improve both their behaviour and grades. More than anything the academy tries to broaden horizons. “We took them to a west end musical last year,” Hall explains, because “none of them had been to the theatre.” Lammy thinks experiences like this can become part of a larger “encounter culture,” in which Britain’s young people—richer and poorer, urban and rural, black and white—mix with those from different backgrounds. “It isn’t that kids from Tottenham don’t know much about life in Britain. It’s that they’ve never even met anyone from Surrey or Kent. And many of them never will.”
Britain faces the worst recession since the 1930s, bringing with it the prospect of mass unemployment, even urban unrest. About 1.3m young people are already out of work, with more to come. But even this grim news hides deeper problems in the socialisation of our young people. The Good Childhood Inquiry, published by the Children’s Society in February, detailed how today’s teenagers leap ever earlier into an adult world of stress, consumerism and sexuality, without the traditional social structures or rites of passage that once helped them to cope. Just as our nation’s bankers seem to have choked on their freedom, so a new generation of young people—especially those from poorer backgrounds—struggles to grow older, younger. Many emerge with a thin conception of citizenship, sceptical about whether there is such a thing as society—and, even if there is, what it’s got to do with them.