Young people in the time of COVID-19

Introduction HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s Fear and HOPE reports have, since 2011, tracked the public moodto understand how fears and hopes unite anddivide us….

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Chapter : Young people in the time of COVID-19


HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s Fear and HOPE reports have, since 2011, tracked the public moodto understand how fears and hopes unite anddivide us. We found that a traditional left-right,class based political axis was failing to explain peoples’ values, attitudes and voting behaviour.Instead, we looked at how attitudes in relation toculture, identity and nation were formed on thebasis of a complex interplay of class, personalexperience, economic security, life circumstance,and media consumption.

We split the population into ‘identity tribes’ based on a shared worldview, which we watched shift and change over time. These tribes helped us to understand resilience and vulnerability to hateful narratives, and to better understand how major events and political changes have contributed to a shift in how people saw identity issues. This new report builds on this research, looking specifically at how fear and hope shape the attitudes and behaviours of young people, aged 16-24, in Britain today.

Instability and uncertainty have been major features in the lives of young people in Britain. The UK economy has wronged young people for decades, as the closure of training programmes, market de-regularisation and privatisation have closed routes to security for many, with low wages the norm, unemployment rates consistently higher for young people than older cohorts, and employment primarily in the service sector where there are fewer opportunities to progress.

Further, 16-24 year olds today have grown up in the shadow of the 2007 economic crisis, recession and imposition of austerity, adversely affected by weak jobs markets, poor housing and cuts to public services. These cuts have slashed the support of youth services and social security, and young people today are more likely now than older generations were at their age to be in poverty and debt, as a result of precarious work and high housing costs, and disproportionately employed on zero hours’ contracts. The first generation to have grown up online and with social media, Gen Z are the most diverse, politically liberal and educated age set to date. However, in the wake of Coronavirus, Brexit, and ongoing political turmoil, those aged 16 to 24 are beginning their adult lives in a period of even more uncertainty, inheriting political choices of older generations in which they weren’t given a say. This report finds that on the whole, young people hold more progressive social attitudes than older cohorts, but our research on the far right and our work in classrooms across the country has also uncovered some worrying trends among young people, particularly young men.

Executive Summary

1 – Hopes and fears of young people in 2020

The attitudes of young people today are diverse, marked by their experiences, identities, hopes and fears. This report lays out how young people’s worldview places them on a spectrum from left wing activists to reactionary conservatives, and looks at how this informs their behaviour. We have created a new segmentation model of seven groups, each containing people with a similar worldview.

Because young people are overall more socially liberal, we have several groups who hold progressive views who make up around half the population. Two of these groups are politically motivated, with one voicing more faith in the political establishment. The third is aspirational, driven by their own interests, while the fourth is more disengaged. We find a relatively large apathetic section, who are generally indifferent around political issues and a more ambivalent group who have mixed views on social issues. Finally we find a more conservative group, within which some members engage with racist conspiracies and far right ideologies.

2 – Male supremacy and white supremacy

Young people share more socially liberal views than older people, but many, especially young men, hold deeply problematic views around race and gender. A large majority (79%) of young people say that there is a place for every kind of person in this country, compared to 63% of our December 2019 nationally representative poll, and 81% say that having a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures is part of British culture, compared to 63% in the same nationally representative poll. Young people also share more progressive views around LGBT+ issues. Yet young people have less positive attitudes of feminists, and many young men reject feminism as an ideology that displaces men. The overlay between male supremacy and white supremacy, and its pervasiveness among young people presents huge challenges as the men’s rights movement increasingly acts as a slip road to the far right. A backlash against feminism aligns male supremacy with white supremacy as it plays on white male insecurities to push back against progressive values and increasingly liberal social norms.

3 – “Generation Coronavirus”

Many are pessimistic about how coronavirus will affect their future and large numbers of young people are already struggling as a result of lockdown measures. Only half of young people think that in five years’ time they will have a good job and a decent place to live. Young people are facing significant challenges in work, education, wellbeing and household finances as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, many of which will outlive the pandemic. More than half (55%) of young people feel that the coronavirus outbreak has limited their options for the future, with young people from low income backgrounds or in precarious work most likely to feel anxious. These anxieties are opening up generational divides; a majority (67%) of young people agree that their generation will pay the price for a pandemic that has mostly affected older people; just 8% disagreed with this.

4 – Under pressure

More than half of young people state mental health in the three greatest issues they personally face. Young women and young people from Black and Asian backgrounds are most likely to report feeling under pressure in their day-to-day lives. With such uncertainty and high levels of insecurity over the future, it is not surprising that the coronavirus outbreak has had a significant impact on the wellbeing of young people. Almost half (44%) of young people reported mental health as the biggest issue they personally face at the moment, ahead of coronavirus (36%), and more than half (56%) of young people, including 62% of young women and 60% of 16 and 17 year olds say that they feel under pressure in their day to day lives.

5 – Politically disconnected

Most young people feel disconnected from the political system and feel that those in power do not care to represent them. Pessimism among the younger generation about the impacts of Brexit have only added to a widespread sense of political neglect. Three quarters of young people believe that politicians don’t care what young people think; just 25% think that they do. Young women are particularly disillusioned with politicians; 80% think politicians don’t care about what young people think and just 5% say that the political system works well. Less than a quarter (24%) of young people agree that their generation is well represented in political discussion; 48% disagree. This increases to 59% among 16 and 17 year olds, who are not eligible to vote.

6 – The rise of conspiracy theory

Large numbers of young people, especially young men are accessing extreme content online and many young men think political violence is acceptable. Many young people believe, or are receptive to, popular conspiracy theories, with young men more likely to believe conspiracy theories rooted in racism. While just 29% of 16-24 year olds say that they watch the news daily, large numbers of young people, especially young men, are consuming alternative media sources online, with some accessing extreme, conspiratorial or misogynistic content online. Almost half of young men (46%) believe that political violence can be necessary in extreme circumstances. Many young people believe in conspiracy, with young men more likely to accept conspiracy theory based on racist tropes.

Worryingly, 14% of young people, and 19% of young men, think it is true that Jewish people have an unhealthy control over the world’s banking system. Moreover, 15% of young people, and 20% of young men, say that is true that the official account of the Nazi Holocaust is a lie and the number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II has been exaggerated on purpose.

Due to the capital some seek by being ‘outrageous’ or ‘controversial’ in contemporary online culture, a behaviour which is especially widespread among young men and can frequently occur in relation to the Holocaust, it is difficult to gauge whether all of those who agreed with this statement genuinely believe it. However, a cavalier response to these statements shows a disregard for the severity of the issues at hand, indicates a reactionary response to official narratives, and an openness to questioning the existence of discrimination and prejudice.


This report highlights the need for immediate action to address the concerns of young people, many of whom are struggling under pressure and fearful about a future in the wake of coronavirus. Many young people are already feeling unsettled, and some are looking for answers in mistrust, blame and political disengagement. These sentiments will be magnified in the postpandemic context unless urgent and decisive action is taken.

There is a clear need for a recovery plan to support young people through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the long-term consequences it will have.

  • While we welcome the Government’s proposed £2 billion Kickstart Scheme to create fully subsidised 6-month job placements for 16-24 year olds claiming Universal Credit, this is a drop in the ocean given projections1 of unemployment rising to 11.7%, or 4 million people. We need to see a longer-term recovery plan that comes with a realistic budget for the scale what is needed, to avoid large scale youth unemployment and invests in skills and training, accounts for a second or third wave of the virus, and fundamentally, that prioritises the interests of young people.
  • We call on the Government to develop this recovery plan in consultation across sectors but also with young people. This could take the form of young citizens’ panels run by central government in each region and nation.
  • This recovery plan not only needs to address the economic impact on young people’s employment and financial security, but also on their wellbeing and their ability to feel valued in society. The Government must offer more funding for pastoral care in schools and colleges, social care and youth services to account for their increased need.
  • The Government must also ensure they are providing funding support for the invaluable organisations working on the frontline, especially those supporting young people with mental health and wellbeing, many of whom are facing funding crises when they are needed most.

Young people need to be given a stake in deciding their own futures, so that their voices are heard, they feel represented, and political alienation among young people is reduced.

  • 16 and 17 year olds must be given the opportunity to influence key decisions that affect their lives by reducing the voting age to 16 for all public elections
  • Democratic education must become a compulsory part of the curriculum for schools to teach students how the government and local government works, how new laws are introduced and how they are able to be heard in these systems
  • Too many young people are still not on the electoral register, so the Government should do more to promote voter registration, including raising awareness that students can register at both their home and term-time addresses
  • All Political parties must do better to represent the needs of young people by listening to their views and creating more opportunities for real involvement in their structures. They should also consider developing a youth manifesto alongside their party manifestos

Young people should not be burdened with the consequences of a hard Brexit, which will only add to the challenges faced by young people starting their working lives in the wake of a pandemic.

  • It is critical that the Government do not push through a no-deal Brexit, or agree a hard Brexit deal that is detrimental for the UK’s economy. Young people will feel the brunt of the economic impact this has, a decision in which most never had a say. It is unquestionable for their future that negotiations prioritise sustaining and improving economic growth in the UK
  • Young people should be guaranteed the opportunities offered by the Erasmus+ programme so that young people are given the chance to travel and benefit from each other’s world-leading education systems

The paths that lead those feeling isolated or excluded towards hatred, conspiracy and mistrust must be blocked

  • Government policy around online harms must take the lead in challenging hatred, conspiracy and misinformation online and not simply defer to big social media companies. They are ultimately responsible for holding tech companies to account
  • Tech companies need to step up; not just to remove extreme content from their platforms but to place content moderation at the very heart of their operation. To shift from responding to reports of illegal or harmful content, often submitted by victims of such content, to actively seeking it out themselves. To improve staff literacy of issues relating to hate and prejudice (systemic and organised) and provide better support for their moderation teams, and to never promote extreme content or make it easy for users to find extreme or harmful content
  • Social media platforms must consistently monitor and change their algorithms to avoid the ‘recommendation’ of extreme or harmful content, and the Government must hold them to account. This is most pertinent for YouTube – where we find many young people ‘falling down the rabbit hole’ from gateway to extreme content
  • Social media companies should not only crackdown on hateful and extreme content, but ensure there are positive alternatives for young people seeking to fill a void, by promoting positive counter narratives and by ensuring that influencers are actively promoting these

More must be done to challenge racism and misogyny in schools, colleges and universities, and more broadly to address the overlay of make supremacy and white supremacy

  • We support calls for the long overdue addition of Black history to the curriculum, so that topics like migration and empire are an integral part of learning in schools and colleges, and teachers are supported to deliver this
  • The Department for Education must urgently make tackling sexism and sexual harassment in schools a policy priority. They must offer schools guidance, ensure that there is adequate support and teacher training so that staff are able to deliver this, and ensure that the curriculum for relationships and sex education, across all key stages, is designed to promote consent, positive relationships and prevent sexism and sexual harassment
  • Schools, colleges and universities must do more to address sexism and misogyny, taking a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and adequately supporting staff to identify problematic behaviour and to adhere to these policies and procedures. They must ensure a survivor-centred approach so that young women are adequately supported
  • Policy makers must better understand how misogyny and racism intersect, as part of a wider pushback against an equality agenda and a furthering of white male supremacist power through frustrated entitlement. This includes ensuring greater support, including specialist services, for women of colour who are most likely to be on the receiving end of this hatred

Tackling the spread of conspiracy theory and misinformation entails more than just removing content, but addressing deeper causes which fuel the attraction

  • While preventing the spread of conspiracy theory and misinformation is an essential task, more is needed to stem their appeal. Conspiracy theory is in some ways a symptom as much as a cause of a cynical outlook on politics and society. Belief in conspiracy is a product of a cynical outlook on politics as well as enforcing the feeling that actions have little chance of affecting change. It is all a setup. These are issues that call for deep changes and require greater engagement and serious structural, political and financial commitment.


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