Put a sock in it, please

26th March 2004 at 00:00
The nanny state is at it again, with a campaign to tell young people to stamp their feet and demand to be heard, says Stuart Waiton

atching the television at a friend's house in England last week, I was taken aback by the advertisement for the youth service Connextions. The ad involves a number of adults telling you, the viewer, in a number of annoying ways to "shush", "stop", "hush up" and "LISTEN".

"Your generation just doesn't listen," says a grey haired granny. "Are you listening to me?" shouts an irate mother. "Less chat," snaps a mustachioed gym teacher.

Just about every adult authority figure, from home, school and working life, is included in the advert, telling the viewer to "stop talking and start listening". At the end, a softly spoken, more caring voice talks to us and explains that, if you are aged 13 to 19, are sick of being talked at and want someone to listen to you, then get in touch with Connextions - "Let's talk about you."

Connextions was set up a few years ago in England and has received a number of criticisms, particularly from "radical" youth workers. Compared to the past ideal of the "associational" youth club, where young people could mix freely and learn through developing informal relationships and loyalties, Connextions has been attacked for being a more managerial service based on a bureaucratic relationship between youth worker and young person - developed in part to help the surveillance of adolescents.

However, perhaps an even more problematic aspect, certainly of the advertising campaign for Connextions, is not so much the more authoritarian aspect of its work, but the portrayal of adult authority as a problem for young people.

It is one thing for young people to moan about "not being listened to", but a Government-sponsored advertisement promoting the idea that adults should stop talking and start listening to young people is something different altogether.

Part of life as an adolescent is the battle to be taken seriously, to be listened to by others, especially adults. In practice, this generally develops quite naturally as you grow up, develop your knowledge, experience and personality - in other words, as you become an adult.

Interestingly and somewhat ironically, in my experience the relatively few teenagers who constantly whinge about "not being listened to" are the least mature young people. Those young people who mature earlier and stop acting like adolescents, despite the limitations on their freedom at home and school, appear to try to get on with their lives themselves rather than relying on or complaining to adults all the time.

Indeed the complaint itself of not being listened to is to a degree a reflection of a reliant and immature attitude towards your own life. This is to be expected in young children, but is also something you would expect teenagers to grow out of. Unfortunately, this more immature and reliant attitude to life is being encouraged by adults who should know better.

Implicit to the Connextions campaign is the idea that the interests of all those adults around you at work, school and even at home are not your interests. The very attempt by these adults to get you to listen to them is portrayed in a negative light, as something alien being imposed from outside your self. Rather, Connextions wants to "talk about you" - the inner you - the real you.

Equally, this campaign is suggesting, as is the norm today, that young people who have something "on their mind" should go to a paid professional rather than an adult they know or to their friends. The idea of young people discussing their problems with "open-minded" youth workers is nothing new.

Whereas in the past this role for youth workers was seen as perhaps being necessary because other adults didn't have the time or the freedom to discuss certain issues, today the implication is that other adults, by asserting their authority over young people, are actually the cause of these problems. Being made to listen to adults, the Connextions ad is suggesting, is actually helping to undermine the self-esteem of young people.

If this Connextions "campaign" is successful, the result will be a generation of young adults who stamp their feet and demand their right to be heard, but who unfortunately have very little to say.

Stuart Waiton is a director of YouthGenerationIssues.org.

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