Welsh Citizens Service: Lifeline for the Young

A work program for young people could address the generational inequity of Wales, writes Geraint Talfan Davies.

It is no secret that plenty of good ideas go to waste in life.

They fall by the wayside for lack of support, lack of money, lack of a champion, or the obstruction of vested interests, whether private or political or institutional. 

Sometimes it is simply a question of timing – ideas can fall foul of the indifference of fate. But some ideas do get a second chance. One that deserves such is the concept of a Welsh Citizens’ Service that could be a lifeline for a young generation that suddenly faces a much more precarious future than even a few months ago. 

In Wales this concept was first promoted by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, not long after the 2007-8 financial crisis, at the instigation of Andy Bevan, who had spent more than 30 years in youth work and international volunteering with both the EU’s European Voluntary Service programme (EVS) and the UK’s programme for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He now lectures on international development and politics at University of Wales Trinity St Davids at Lampeter. 

What was the idea? Why did it fall by the wayside? Why might now be the time to revive it? 

In essence the idea was to set up a Welsh Citizens Service programme for 18-25-year-olds willing to give between nine and twelve months full-time paid service focussing on intergenerational social support. 

Participants would have been paid at the level of the “living wage.” It envisaged that about 1,250 young people would be enlisted each year at a cost about £14m, with 50 per cent of the money coming from the EU’s Social Fund.  

It was definitely not intended as a short-term sticking plaster – just another job creation programme – but rather “a new and long-term addition to our social landscape in Wales.” 

It was conceived as “an opportunity for a comprehensive, wide range of young people from all parts of Wales to work together: young unemployed people, school-leavers over the age of 18 and recent graduates, who all want to contribute to Welsh communities, picking up valuable life skills, training and accreditation in the process.”   

Responding to long-term demographic changes in Wales, it also had a strong inter-generational emphasis “tackling two contemporary problems: an ageing population with growing care needs and, at the same time, a massive level of unemployment among young people.” 

But it did not rule out a broader deployment  “including conservation, heritage, youth work, mental health and disability support and so on.” In the current climate a green emphasis would undoubtedly increase the draw for young people.  

Each year 35,000 young people were taking part in the German programme.”

It would also have had the added benefit of creating opportunities for young people from a range of social and educational backgrounds to work alongside each other.

The aim was “to help young people in Wales to develop their confidence, to see themselves as a valued part of their community and to acquire good skills for life in team working, communication, problem-solving and negotiation.” 

International precedents abounded. Andy Bevan’s report set out much detail on similar schemes in Canada, Belgium, Italy, France, Ghana and Nigeria as well as Germany’s Federal Voluntary Service, created in 2011 to fill the hole left by the ending of both military conscription and non-military civilian service. Each year 35,000 young people were taking part in the German programme. 

The Welsh Citizens’ Service concept should not be confused with the National Citizens’ Service that has been running in England since 2011 ‘as a way of bringing communities together’.

The English scheme funded by the DCMS is restricted to a younger group – 16-17 year olds – who participate for only a matter of weeks outside term time. The proposal for Wales was for an older age group and altogether more ambitious. 

Why did the idea fall by the wayside in Wales? 

The scheme had been gestating within the IWA over a period of years under successive directors – first, John Osmond, who is now a Director of Policy with Plaid Cymru, succeeded by Lee Waters, now a Deputy Minister in the Welsh Government, and then the current Director, Auriol Miller, who brings to the table 20 years of international development experience. 

But discussions with the Welsh Government petered out in the wake of Cabinet changes and as government belts tightened. Proposals for a feasibility study and consultation with civil society organisations, to be funded by the Welsh Government, were not taken up.   

So why now? 

The value of ‘citizens service’ for young people would stand in any era. Properly designed it should provide an introduction to the world of work, create a new resource in many different areas of need, encourage social cohesion, and provide a means of personal development for a significant and growing cohort. 

Just imagine the legacy effect in Wales, over any period of five years, of having, annually,  more than 6,000 young people exposed to and helping to mitigate the problems of their own society. It is a powerful idea, but only as long as it is properly structured and funded, not as a means of cheap labour.  

The current pandemic and the prospect of both its short and longer-term economic and social effects creates an urgency even greater than existed almost a decade ago when the idea was first mooted. 

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Everywhere we turn the opportunities for the young are shrinking. It is going to take some years for the UK’s economy to weather the storm already brewing from a combination of Covid-19 and Brexit. Redundancies are mounting, apprenticeships are shrinking, and universities are struggling as overseas students disappear.

A report by the Resolution Foundation earlier last May estimated that one third of 18-24-year-old employees (excluding students) had lost jobs or been furloughed, compared to one in six adults. One third of 18-24-year-olds have had their pay reduced compared with less than a quarter of prime age adults (35-49-year-olds). 

Last year another Resolution Foundation report – an intergenerational audit – showed that real hourly pay for 18-29-year-olds fell by 9.2% between 2009 and 2014 – two per cent more than other age groups. 

“The chances of a graduate ending up in a low-paid occupation have increased by 30% compared with those in better times.”

Meanwhile, for those young people contemplating university, the prospect of a secular switch to online learning by the universities themselves is leading many to question – on balance, in my view, mistakenly – the value of their £9,000 year tuition fee investment.

Their worries are, however, understandable in a situation where the chances of a graduate ending up in a low-paid occupation have increased by 30% compared with those in better times. 

In effect, this represents a major deterioration in job quality compared with earlier generations – the not-so-secret fact that belies boasts that, pre-Covid, youth unemployment was comparatively low.  

These statistics are but the tip of an iceberg of generational inequity, the reduction of which should really be central to any post-Covid agenda. That is where a Welsh Citizens Service fits. 

Circumstances have changed since the IWA scheme was first mooted. Today it would be desirable to extend its range of work to take account of the differing interests of young people themselves, such as the green agenda. The non-availability of EU Social Fund money by now would also need to be factored in. In short, there is further work to be done to define and cost the project anew. 

But it remains a valuable concept that seeks to give young people both a heightened social awareness and a more secure platform at the outset of their careers. It deserves the interest of the Welsh Government and of us all. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Chair of the IWA, and author of Unfinished Business: Journal of an Embattled European (Parthian, 2018).

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