The Missing Link in Youth Empowerment

There are so many wonderful initiatives supporting young people towards employment, training, enterprise, and ultimately independence.  Many work with young people to develop their mindsets, others help them to develop essential life skills, some provide access to role models and mentors, there is a growing field which creates the opportunity for entrepreneurship and innovation amongst young people, and lots help to develop pathways to further or higher education. 

These organisations do amazing work, have a real and significant impact, and I have untold admiration for those that run them, but something is bothering me.  For a young person to access and succeed within these organisations they need to engage in the infra-structure that has been created for them by others.  Even if it’s youth-led, ultimately an individual’s success will largely rely upon their ability and will to be wholly bought into the processes and pathways of that organisation.  This works wonderfully well for some, but unfortunately these isolated initiatives, with inevitably limited capacity and reach, simply cannot impact upon the vast majority?

When I was younger I wasn’t provided with any particular infra-structure or organisation to guide me, I didn’t need or wish to buy-in or comply to someone else’s pathway for my achievement and success, and yet, I still managed to identify a potential career, create my journey, gain qualifications and subsequently employment.  I didn’t need anyone to hold my hand, or even so much as point me in the ‘right’ direction, I made up my own mind and chose my own route, but, and it’s a big BUT, I had access to something even more valuable……………social capital. (Social capital refers to networks between people and the relationships of trust and reciprocity they develop).

At the age of 18 I had no qualifications and had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life, not unusual, but what I benefited from was a network that I was able and willing to access.  My aunt worked at London Weekend Television and she arranged for me to have a tour and the potential for me to work as a runner at the studios, but at approximately £1 per hour not for me I thought.  My Dad was a builders merchant and offered to find me a job on a building site, but hard labour was certainly not my sort of thing.  My brother was politically involved, my uncle was an accountant, a family friend advised me about going into law, and a friend’s mother talked to me about her life in business.  I had a friend that worked in a wine shop, who arranged for me to get some part-time work, at the same time I knew someone that was a member of a squash club where I started to do some odd-jobs, and this was also while I was volunteering at a local youth club, where the Director was able to provide me with an endorsement to get onto a part-time youth work course.

Nothing particularly peculiar in all of that I know, except that all those options and potential pathways empowered me with a degree of choice and self-determinism.  This social capital, for me and thousands of others, is what made all the difference between creating a route towards a career and financial stability, or having no direction and financial instability. In fact an Australian study published last year found that social capital plays a crucial role in influencing educational participation, over and above the effects of parental education and occupation, geographic location, cultural background and academic achievement. 

So what of those hundreds of thousands of young people that don’t have the good fortune to have this access, this social capital, where do they turn when they need some informal advice, or signposting, or some door opening, or support and guidance?

Many young people don’t need or want to become particularly ‘engaged’, or be a partner in a project, or be set on a pathway to success, or be mentored, or trained. What they actually want is someone to turn too when they decide they need it, to have their aspirations raised and their horizons broadened, to have options put in front of them, allowing them to create their own path, identify their own opportunities, to be empowered and able to make their own choices.

Anyone that has read my blogs before will know that I’m not one to identify an issue without at least attempting a solution, so here is mine – a nationwide inter-generational social capital sharing initiative.

This most definitely isn’t rocket science, but here are my calculations:

  • Professional networks + young people + youth sector partnerships = inter-generational social capital sharing
  • Social capital = networks → contacts & information → empowerment → options → opportunities

There are hundreds of professional and active networks out there, from design to music to engineering to programming to teaching to business to media, and so on.  Each member of each network does not just belong to that group but potentially dozens of others, and each member of those groups are in dozens more. Everyone is connected, everyone has the potential to link with everyone else by about 3 or 4 steps, and with the proliferation of social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, this has been made even easier.  So let’s take that incredibly powerful networked resource and create the means for all and any young people to tap into it, in a straight forward manner with clear benefits.

Effectively creating a means for networked professionals and young people to be put in the same room together (virtually and live), to begin conversations, share ideas, expertise, experience, guidance and contacts, or in other words to ‘share social capital’.

Myself and some enthusiastic colleagues have already begun the process and are working towards a pilot with the RSA Fellowship, a network of 27,000 extremely well connected and influential professionals with exceptionally varied areas of expertise, as well as access to hundreds of thousands of onward networks and communities.  We are currently seeking seed funding to host a launch/feasibility event and to identify youth sector partner organisations. Here’s an overview of the current proposal:

Core aims

  1. To enable networked professionals to interact with, inspire and support young people
  2. To set up an online structure so that young people can develop their own networks, make links with professionals, and other young people, to share knowledge and experience, collaborate and innovate
  3. To enable young people to positively contribute to the work and knowledge of adult professionals

 Intended results

  • Expand and share personal and professional networks amongst young people
  • Create the opportunity for social capital sharing
  • Develop innovation and social action projects
  • Engage and inspire professionals and young people alike
  • To act as a junction point and connection between existing networks of young people and existing networks of professionals

Current project vision

  1. An online space for professionals and young people to connect across shared interests
  2. Live, in-person collaborative events bringing together professionals and young people
  3. Young people to directly pose questions, engage in discussions and share information with professionals
  4. Professionals to directly pose questions, engage in discussions and share information with young people
  5. Shared and public access to links, blogs, videos and articles, with associated discussions
  6. Professionals to host webinars and live chats on specific areas of interest to engage young people
  7. Young people to upload and share their own video blogs, presentations, and to host webinars
  8. Mutual signposting towards organisations, initiatives, individuals and websites
  9. Ability to form intergenerational groups and discussions around specific areas of interest
  10. Structure to foster more in-depth partnerships and support, e.g. professionals and young people developing moderated one-to-one relationships, or professionals providing ongoing support for youth-led initiatives
  11. Professionals invited to attend schools, youth clubs and events to present to young people

The RSA pilot concept piece can be seen here, you can join our burgeoning online group on the RSA Ning site, and you can see a brief video explanation here.


We’re very keen to involve as many people from as many areas of expertise and interest as possible, and to gather as many views, opinions and suggestions as we can.  Please feel free to comment either below, on the Ning site or message me on Twitter.

If you’d like to be kept in the loop with developments please e-mail, or put you’re address in the comments section below to be added to our e-mail list.


7 thoughts on “The Missing Link in Youth Empowerment

  1. Keen to explore this and discuss further. I am especially keen to look at how this could sit with the Family of Academies. Interesting post.

  2. Your comments re. the problem of lacking social capital are true, this is one of the key barriers to those in socially deprived areas getting any social mobility. I went to a school this week, which is about 2 miles from the South Coast of England, and there are teenage kids in that school who have NEVER actually been to the sea!, they are trapped in a continuous cycle of deprivation, nobody they knows does anything, or knows anyone that really does anything, apart from finding their way around the benefits system as best they can and a bit of occasional robbin’. Luckily they all have 3 G phones so they have a tool they can access information, it’s just whether they realise what is there.

  3. Thanks Matt – looks good. Are there plans to design how this might go jointly with some young people? I should think their views on what sort of networking might work online would be interesting … and maybe different from that of organisations including RSA.

  4. Networks are the crucial to success. I have always encouraged others to build their own. Most young people lack these important life skills. I wished every young person learnt how to network effectively aa part of the NC.

    Setting up a layer which integrates with existing online platforms as opposed to another networking portal could be advantageous.

    The RSA has a huge part to play as part of the solution!

  5. Hi Matt, really insightful blog and I do agree that access or exclusion from social capital has a vast impact on young people’s life choices, employment/training opportunities, mental & physical health and general quality of life. I think social media can help break down the barriers to connect with social capital opportunities, individuals and institutions. My business would never have grown from Devon to an international level without social media. Social media platforms also can provide young people to create ‘professional personas’ of themselves to share their interests, work/volunteering experiences, skills and qualifications.

    We have developed a Social Media Employability course to help up skill young people to learn how to create a Facebook marketing campaign, how to use twitter to connect and network, creating a presence on LinkedIn and how to create appealing dynamic content to engage target audience members with images and short film clips.

    Keep up the hard work and the message!

  6. Hi Matt, I have been doing some work looking at communities that have resilience to poverty and I think the issue of social capital is at the key of building resilence in why ceratin communities flourish when other communities fail.

    The model of using a group of fellows (already invested in maximising the impact of their social capital) with young people seems to be the type of intervention that would be of interest to people designing social impact bonds.

    I also think there is an amazing opportunity to build something in London that could address why youth unemployment is higher in the capital than in other regions despite the fact that our young people have on overage more skills than other regions. Great stuff – I look forward to hearing more about this!

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