Ellie Levenson: Why can't we let the young just be young?

Today's Youth Green Paper is going to be all about how to incentivise good behaviour

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I knew the day would come that I would be old enough to do this, for it happens to us all eventually, I'm told. But I never knew what glee it would bring to be able to begin a sentence with the words "In my day ..."

Ready? In my day, all we had was a Sinclair ZX81, a game of Kerplunk and just four terrestrial television channels to keep us occupied. Or, as a friend, who faint-heartedly wishes to remain anonymous, remarks: "All I had was a bottle of cider, some glue and a park bench and I don't remember anyone complaining." (These days, I reminded him, there would be an Asbo on him quicker than you can say "pass me the brown paper bag mate").

However, despite this fake nostalgia (if the ZX81 was so much better, why have we all gone out and bought an Xbox?), I think most people have come to accept that a disused council building with a rusty ping-pong table set up as the local "youth club" isn't enough to entertain young people. Which is why today's Youth Green Paper is taking seriously the question of how to entertain "youth" in their local areas, only it's no doubt referring to it as something nauseous like '"putting young people at the heart of the community", by which we mean "let's stop the hoodies terrorising grown-ups as they shop at the local BHS".

Not for Ruth Kelly the "all I had was a few wooden building blocks and an orange once a year at Christmas" school of youth activity. Instead the rhetoric is going to be about getting young people to "buy-in" to their resources, and looking at how to incentivise good behaviour, touting the possibility of smart cards on which young people can gain credits to swap for shopping or activity vouchers.

Achieving "buy-in" is certainly going to be a challenge. I led a discussion of 19- and 17- year-olds considering applying for university recently. They were all polite, if a little nervous, but I realised that even as someone just 10 years older than them, I have very little idea what they're interested in. Nearly all that I know about young people these days comes from what I read in the newspapers, which in turn are written by people like me who don't really know much about young people.

But it can be done. In Lewisham, for example, their elected Young Mayor was given a budget of £25,000, and this has been spent on activities such as a free rehearsal space for bands to practise and a cricket tournament for local primary schools.

I do worry a little, though, when the Government starts referring to carrots instead of sticks. It's bad enough when it's the Department of Health issuing another directive on how many pieces of fruit and veg to eat each day (eat more carrots and fewer sticks is the advice, apparently), but when we incentivise good behaviour there is a risk of making everything a chore.

We mustn't forget that young people need to be allowed to be young. Although today's youth are Blair's children, brought up on a diet of rights and responsibilities and the bizarre logic of rewarding high performance with more resources and low performance with fewer resources, it would be wrong if we didn't allow our teenagers to be miserable and grumpy if they want.

If a 14-year-old has to stop and ask "how precisely does this put me at the heart of my local community?" every time they need time to chill out, instead of thinking, "I hate everyone, my skin is never going to clear up and when will I ever get a boyfriend?" (something 27-year-olds are not immune to thinking occasionally too) then we may as well bypass youth and go straight from primary schools into real jobs, something we've been trying to stop since abolishing young lads going up chimneys.

And if incentivisation is introduced, we need to be careful not to just create more inequalities. It would be deeply unfair if the child with enough time to join the local recycling scheme gets rewarded with cash or activity bonuses while the teenager who looks after their younger siblings while their parent works long hours to earn enough to feed the family doesn't.

Nor do we want to create a culture of doing good deeds only for the rewards that may be gained. I can picture now the bright but competitive young things trying to get more points on their youth smart card: "Sorry, Mrs X. I would help with your shopping but I'm too busy earning 10 credit points giving out leaflets persuading people to help their neighbours."

But, the DfES is right that we need to ensure young people are involved in both conceiving and commissioning their youth services. It's certainly a challenge for local authorities, but if young people have buy-in, and that is all young people from all social backgrounds, then of course they are more likely to use the services. And though not having a recording studio in the local "hood" isn't an excuse to mug old ladies or terrorise the neighbourhood, it is certain that having nothing to do doesn't help prevent it.

It is, as young people would say - except they probably don't any more because language has evolved but we're not in the gang so we won't find out how - a "no-brainer".

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