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Teenagers have gone through enough – national service is too much to ask

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has announced plans to reintroduce national service should the Conservative party retain power in the general election. Under Sunak’s proposed scheme, 18-year-olds would either spend a year in the military or one weekend out of every four volunteering.

The scheme is intended to “foster a culture of service”, which Sunak said would make society “more cohesive”. But this is a way of asking even more from young people who will have already suffered disruption to their education and social development as a result of the pandemic, some of whom have seen increased family hardship from the cost of living crisis and a lack of support due to widespread cuts in youth services.

Sunak’s plan positions young people as a problem. Requiring them to develop an ethos of service suggests that this is lacking in young people. Sunak has commented that national service will keep young people “out of trouble”.

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This view of youth is far from new. Criminologist Stanley Cohen used the term “moral panic” to discuss the widespread and overblown alarm over disturbances between mods and rockers in 1964. These commotions occurred within a year of the end of national service. The press bemoaned the end of the scheme at the time and since its end there have been repeated calls for its reintroduction, particularly when the moral panic is concerned with the behaviour of young men.

Whether through drugs, anti-social behaviour, knife crime, early pregnancy, sexual identity, exploitation and radicalisation, young people are often labelled as thugs, users or victims.

Cuts to youth provision

But today’s teenagers have been let down. In the last 14 years, youth services have been cut massively by the current Conservative and preceding coalition governments. Safe places to meet, spend leisure time and have fun, overseen and supported by trained youth workers who are committed to offering them guidance and support, have been targets of austerity and local authority cuts.

Between 2010 and 2019, the UK’s youth service budget has been cut by £400 million. More than 760 centres have closed and 4,500 youth work jobs have been lost.

Government research, published in 2024, has found that if young people were able to attend a youth club they were likely to live healthier lives, less likely to be truant from school and more likely to attend higher education. But many young people are now missing out on the benefits of these services.

The impact of these cuts has affected all young people, but it is the most vulnerable who have been hardest hit. Those who live in areas of social and economic deprivation are at much more risk and experience the most entrenched inequality and lack of opportunity.

National service would have the most striking effect on the most disadvantaged young people – those who are least likely to be able to give up weekends when they may have jobs or caring responsibilities, or spend a year out of the job market in the military. No solid plan on how mandatory national service would be enforced has been put forward, but if it involved fines, these would most penalise the poorest families.

A raw deal

Young people have been denied access to safe places and the youth workers who might support them. They have been the victims of a global pandemic that has seen them stripped of the usual rites of passage.

They face years of living with their parents due to unstable employment, zero-hours contracts, student loans, high rents and unattainable deposits.

In the face of all of this, they are – not surprisingly – experiencing unprecedented levels of mental ill-health. In 2023 there were a record number of young people referred to child and adolescent mental health services.

What young people need is a level of understanding, some sympathy with what they have faced over the last decade and a robust youth service restored – not to be required to also give up their weekends or spend a year of their lives in the military.

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