They say the car is the best place to speak to children: no eye contact, no evesdroppers and (crucially) no escape. Admittedly this works better when they’re not plugged into some form of technology – which is rare when they reach the teenage years.
With this in mind, I was intrigued to find out how a British teenager would respond to a new Unicef report on the well-being of children around the world.
Of the 29 developed countries included, Britain was rated 16th for overall quality of life. That’s below, for instance, Portugal, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. And so, in the car on an Easter holiday jaunt yesterday, while the earbuds were out, I asked a 16-year-old what he thought might be troubling for young people about Britain. My son’s answer was nuanced, and sad.
He said that a growing problem was that so many young people felt education was being shut off from them; were having babies of their own; were struggling socially; and were contending with lack of housing and lack of jobs. My son painted a detailed picture of a young woman being chucked out of her home by her family, needing to move into council housing, and then face a future of having to do without.
He felt that young people weren’t being heard. He said all of this in a weary tone that made me feel such things weighed heavy on him. Isn’t that a shame? That a boy who is lucky enough not to have to face poverty, homelessness or any other immediate difficulty in life is all too aware of them, at an age you’d expect sneaking a beer, seeing his girlfriend and playing footie to be foremost in the mind.
What must it be like if those threats are real and close? He hadn’t made the connection with the contribution played by benefit cuts and austerity measures, that there was a 26 per cent cut (roughly £300m) in budgets for young people’s services in England last financial year, and it’s only going in one direction.
But whether its low-level concern or full-blown crisis, for our young people the concept of “prospects” has never seemed so far off. According to Unicef, it’s not about GDP, and teenagers are more vulnerable than little ones; at an age where they need guidance and support, not just food and shelter.
If we can’t give today’s young people any prospects, or protection, or real quality nurturing, they’ll become an entrenched problem for all of our depleted services tomorrow. I wish I could keep my son in the protective shell of my car for ever.