Our young people face unique challenges growing up in an increasingly digital world. We must do more to create initiatives which draw them into community life.

In an ageing society, in which loneliness amongst older people is arguably at epidemic levels,1 it is clear that a considerable amount of work to bring people together from different ages will rightly have the explicit aim of tackling the challenges our older citizens face, and that the debate will in turn focus on these benefits. However, as someone who spends much of my time working with 16-19 year olds, I want to talk about the other side of the double benefit provided by intergenerational connection.

Our political debate, when speaking about ‘young people’, is often fixated on Millennials and what makes them tick – whether it’s their supposed obsession with avocado on toast and what this says about their spending habits or their pessimism about the prospect of ever owning their own home. On the other hand, Generation Z – roughly defined as those born during or after the year 2000 – is often overlooked in our public conversation. I imagine this is partially because they aren’t yet voting en masse and for the most part haven’t entered the workplace, but it’s also because their ambitions and priorities aren’t well understood. This essay will aim to draw out some of these priorities and speak explicitly about my experience of bringing Generation Z into contact with older generations.

Polling by Ipsos MORI earlier this year shows a clear disconnect between the way older generations expect our youngest generation to think and behave, and the way they actually do. The (in some cases, only slightly) older generations quizzed by Ipsos – Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers – all thought social media accounts or mobile phones were one of the most important concerns for Generation Z. In fact, the results show that this group’s top concerns are family, relationships and education2 – issues which are consistently prioritised across the ages.

There are considerable values overlaps between the generations. Creating a society in which intergenerational connection is commonplace is about emphasising these overlaps.

At HeadStart – the incentivised volunteering programme I run in London, Greater Manchester and Birmingham – this is central to our approach. Young people volunteer for sixteen hours in their community, and in exchange, are provided access to a guaranteed job interview with one of our corporate partners. Through their social action placement we ensure they spend time interacting with people from older generations, whether that’s working on the shop floor of a charity shop or volunteering at a local care home. To date, over 8,000 young people have taken part and volunteered more than 130,000 hours to their communities. I’ll speak more about the impact of HeadStart below, but first, I want to provide some more context as to why it’s important that we have initiatives which draw our young people into our community life.

Whilst social isolation is most acute in the older generations, it is also increasingly a problem amongst Generation Z. In the US, rates of teen depression and suicide have soared since 20113 and there is a similar story in the UK – rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers have increased by 70 per cent in the past 25 years.4 This is doubtless partially as a result of the courage of celebrities like Prince Harry, Stormzy and Zoella who, through speaking about their mental health challenges, have in turn reduced the stigma young people face when speaking up and seeking help. However, ONS data shows that the suicide rate among 15-19 year olds in the UK is also on the rise,5 and NHS data reveals that the number of teenage girls admitted to hospital in England as a result of self-harm has jumped by 68% over the past decade.6 Both of these statistics highlight a hugely worrying trend which demonstrates that this problem is much more than simply a rise in the numbers of people reporting mental health issues.

Some have attributed this rise in mental health problems to increased smartphone and social media use7 – the reality is inevitably more complex. There is, though, emerging evidence that increasing digital connectivity and decreased social activity are to an extent connected. Child psychologist Betsy de Thierry, in a Guardian piece from last year argued that “[digital] connectivity is actually disconnecting people from real friendships and the opportunity to enjoy the world together”8, and that this was driving the increased levels of social isolation reported by today’s teenagers.

Above, I noted that neither their smartphone nor social media rank highly on Generation Z’s list of concerns. However this generation, whilst not consciously attaching a great deal of importance to these things, are much more likely to spend their free time on social media than their older counterparts.9 There is evidence from the US to suggest that teens who spend more time than average ‘on screen activities’ are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on ‘non-screen activities’ are more likely to be happy.There is of course a question of causality here – do unhappy teens spend more time in virtual spaces or do virtual spaces make their users unhappy?

What’s clear, though, is that there is a growing crisis of connection in our society, and that this is felt most acutely by our oldest and youngest citizens. This, combined with emerging evidence that there are a number of attitudinal faultlines rarely crossed by those of different age groups, makes the need for interventions to bring our younger generation into contact with those older than them more important than ever.   

HeadStart, like other youth social action initiatives such as National Citizen Service and programmes run by City Year and the Prince’s Trust, plays a vital role in ensuring today’s young people do have ties across the generations and routes into the life of their community. Research by the Social Integration Commission demonstrates that when people from different walks of life meet, mix and connect, trust grows and communities flourish10 – this belief in social connection as a tool to tackle some of the issues our youngsters face is at the very heart of HeadStart.

Not only this, but the skill of connecting with others from different walks of life is increasingly valued by employers. Starbucks, one of HeadStart’s founding corporate partners, have said that they are four times more likely to employ a young person who had been through HeadStart than one who hadn’t. Matthew Simmons, Starbucks Talent and Business Partner for London, commented that “time and time again, my store managers tell me that HeadStart graduates are visibly more confident at interview and that this in turn translates to the way they easily engage with customers of all ages on the shop floor”.

Sana, one of our volunteers, commented that prior to participating in the programme she found it difficult to build up the confidence to speak with people she didn’t know, especially those older than her. After volunteering over a sustained period of time at the Abbey Centre – a charity which provides activities and services for the local community – and being pushed out of her comfort zone, Sana came to feel much more comfortable interacting with people of all ages.

Along with the personal and professional skills which participants such as Sana gain, more than eighty five percent of HeadStart volunteers reported that the programme also helped them gain a better understanding of people from different backgrounds – a fact which speaks powerfully to the double benefit of cross-generational connection. David Robinson, who has also contributed to this essay collection, has written elsewhere about the manner in which  small scale interventions to promote community feeling can catalyse wider change – a phenomenon he describes as ‘social acupuncture’.11 I believe HeadStart is one of the ‘modest pin pricks’ to which he refers, and that, through investing in more interventions and programmes which create meaningful incentives for Generation Z to get stuck into their local communities, we might ensure that the Instagram feeds of today’s teenagers are filled with the faces of people of all ages, smiling as they connect with one another in ways that matter. 

By Emma Jenkins


Emma Jenkins is responsible for the strategic development and operational management of The Challenge’s HeadStart programme, having co-designed and developed the programme as a way to get more young people active in their communities. Prior to this, Emma managed a team of fundraising consultants at Generate Fundraising, and also worked as Head of Strategy and Business Development for DHA, a legal advice and homelessness charity.

This blog is from an essay collection recently published by the APPG on Social Integration, which The Challenge provides the secretariat for. The essay collection explores intergenerational connection in the UK – have a read here.



Polling carried out by the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission earlier this year found that almost three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely and more than half of those have never spoken to anyone about how they feel (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/21/three-quarters-of-older-people-in-the-uk-are-lonely-survey-finds)

2 BBC Newsbeat Survey Tables on Generation Z – September 2017 (https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2017-10/bbc-newsbeat-survey-tables-2017.pdf)

Twenge, J, 2017, ‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’, The Atlantic, September 2017


Bedell G, 2016, ‘Teenage Mental-Health Crisis: Rates of depression have soared in past 25 years’, The Independent, 27 February 2016 (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/teenage-mental-health-crisis-rates-of-depression-have-soared-in-the-past-25-years-a6894676.html)

Samaritans, 2017, Suicide statistics report 2017 (https://www.samaritans.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/Suicide_statistics_report_2017_Final.pdf)

Campbell, D, 2017, ‘Stress and social media fuel mental health crisis among girls’, The Guardian, 23 September 2017 (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/23/stress-anxiety-fuel-mental-health-crisis-girls-young-women)

Such as author of the Atlantic piece above, Jean M. Twenge (2017), who has written a book entitled, IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood- and What That Means for the Rest of Us, New York: Arita Books

Barr, C, 2016, ‘Who are Generation Z? The latest data on today’s teens’, The Guardian, 10 December 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/10/generation-z-latest-data-teens)

9 BBC Newsbeat Survey Tables on Generation Z – September 2017

10 Social Integration Commission, 2015, Social Integration: a wake-up call

11Robinson, D, 2017, H umbug or Hallelujah? Part six of Connecting Well, (https://medium.com/@david.robinson_1204/humbug-or-hallelujah-part-six-of-connecting-well-3784c8f1ed2c)