Time to explore why our young people are being left out in the cold
A few years ago, I visited a family in the east end of Glasgow as part of my job at a charity. Two mothers and five children were living in overcrowded and substandard housing.
They lived on what little money they had, barely surviving week to week, and certainly not making their cash stretch to ‘luxuries’ such as bus fare for the children to get to school. But there was love there, even if it was dulled sometimes by circumstance and a sense of hopelessness.
It was there that I met Michael*. At the time he was a lanky 14-year-old, his trousers too short from a growth spurt or two, who sat quietly in the corner as his parents spoke about their circumstances and their hopes for the future. Eventually he spoke and although in reality it was probably only a five-minute conversation, it has stuck with me.
He didn’t have friends over, he said. The shame of the small flat they all shared meant that he kept his peers at arms-length. He didn’t much like coming home, instead choosing to go somewhere – anywhere – else. He was usually at the public library after school until he was asked to leave by staff each night as it closed. There was little space to do his homework at home, and anyway it was far too busy until the TV was turned off and everyone went to bed at night. It was then that he pulled out his camp bed in the middle of the living room and got stuck into his books, but he was getting sick of it and wondering why the hell he even bothered.
Here’s the thing that I remember most though. The way his eyes lit up, and then fell to the ground when I asked him what he wanted to be later in life. He hesitated before telling me he dreamed of being a doctor but that ‘aye right, that’s not for people like me.’
If I’m honest, I haven’t given this family much thought in the last five years or so. That was until last week when a polar explorer, Craig Mathieson, gave a presentation to the Charlotte Street Partners team.
Craig literally woke up one day and decided that he was going to lead an expedition to the South Pole. Formerly in the Navy, he worked for the likes of Ernst & Young and Johnston Carmichael, so it was somewhat a change of pace swapping the boardroom for skis and -60 degree temperatures. I’m informed that, combined with the world's driest air, the temperature makes it a struggle to even climb a flight of stairs, let alone walk for days, dragging double your body weight in supplies and equipment. The air causes instant pain to any exposed skin. It's not even wise to smile as Craig learned when the enamel of his teeth shattered in the cold into a fine powder.
But we digress. What I found most fascinating about Craig is not that he survived his expedition (with most of his teeth intact) and then after finding it difficult to adapt to life back in the finance world quit his job - before telling his wife it should be noted – but that he made the decision to use everything he had learned about himself and human endurance to improve the life chances of tens of thousands of children in Scotland.
Craig established the Polar Academy charity in 2013, identifying ‘invisible’ 14-17 year old secondary school children, crushed by a lack of self-esteem and give them the chance to redefine their physical and mental limits.
Participants are put through a rigorous ten-month training programme before being immersed in the wilds of Greenland, navigating through some of the world’s remotest terrain for ten days.
On their return to Scotland, each pupil shares their experiences with their peer groups, collectively speaking to more than 30,000 school children in their region. They are living, breathing proof that young people can achieve extraordinary things, if given the opportunity.
And that’s where we’re falling down as a nation. We are not affording young people the opportunity to thrive. We have become complacent and in doing so we’re missing a trick that’s going to bite (harder than any Arctic frost) in the not too distant future.
A recent survey found that in general while society has an overall positive view of young people, we still question their trustworthiness, ability to communicate and their willingness to take responsibility for their own actions.
No wonder, then, that our young people feel isolated and disconnected from society, lacking a belief in themselves that they can achieve much more than society expects of them. A Youth Loneliness Survey found that over a third of young people feel lonely either most of the time or more than half of the time. That’s a devastating statistic and ought to be a wake-up call.
So how do we fix it? We can’t turn an entire generation into polar explorers, but what we can do is give them the same mind set and resilience to prepare them for the brave new world we’re all entering together.
There’s the issue of hard cash too. The Polar Academy needs to raise £170,000 for each of its annual expeditions, something they struggle to do as rigid funding models mean that because they take Scottish kids out of the country to deliver life transforming initiatives, they don’t qualify. What this fails to recognise is that the young people return to Scotland and it is here that they make their impact.
But even then, the Polar Academy won’t transform the life chances of Scotland’s young people alone – though they will probably try.
We need to accept the badge of shame that Scotland doesn’t offer every young person a chance and that, ultimately, we have a problem with poverty and inequality. We need investment in education and future-proofing of youth services to ensure they’re fit for purpose and readily available to young people. However, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that wealth has been significantly distributed away from younger people in the UK.
Most of all, we need to inspire. Inspire a generation to believe in themselves and not what some in society believe of them.
Young adults like Michael, who despite his talent, probably didn’t become a doctor. He had an ambition but not the self-belief and resilience to pursue it.
In the words of Captain Falcon Scott: “Fortune would be in a hard mood indeed if it allowed such a combination of knowledge, experience, ability and enthusiasm to achieve nothing.”
Written by Sabina Kadic-Mackenzie, Associate Partner
8 February 2019