Published on February 16, 2011

What’s keeping Young Urban Professionals from becoming Young Urban Participants?

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

Last week (Tuesday the 8th of February) Involve hosted a session at the launch of the Faiths Forum for London. Drawing from the preliminary results of our Pathways through Participation research, we intended to foster a discussion exploring how to unleash social action. The 30 participants to our workshop were presented the preliminary outcomes, which ignited discussion from the outset. One particular question stuck with me, perhaps because it had resonances with my own situation and perhaps that of many others of my generation. The comment that brought about this realisation was that of a participant who – with a trace of desperation and frustration – wanted to know how to get young urban professionals to participate.

The reason it sparked my interest was because the question did not go into negative terms, rather he spoke his genuine concern about City workers who are motivated to do “something”, but don’t have the time or relevant ways of doing so. How do you reach them?

I, and dare I speak for many of my peers, recognise these challenges. The times I’ve stumbled across this issue in conversations with friends… “I would like to volunteer, but I don’t know where to start or where to find the time!”

Time and place are clearly two major barriers to participation of the young urban professionals.

Let’s start with place. The current debate about the Big Society is heavily emphasising the local. Everyone’s talking about the roles of the local voluntary and community sector and local faith groups, for example, in keeping the local services afloat. However, I’d argue that, for the majority of the current young urban professionals, the concept of “local” is a bit of a non-starter. They are not necessarily rooted in the community where they live, or where they work. People have multiple identities, and the same point can be made in relation to places (Massey, D. (1991) A Global Sense of Place). If you have multiple senses of place, becoming active locally is not necessarily straightforward. Widening the narrow definition of volunteering in local setting as a building block for Big Society may indeed be essential in approaching this. I do believe the Big Society doesn’t end at the local library. Participation can go beyond “nimbyism” or a narrow focus on just your own community. What matters is the passion that lies at the heart of participation, and if this is through, for example, virtual volunteering then that’s great.

Time is the other main limitation. As a participant said in our workshop, where does participation fit “when you are working 24/7 in Canary Wharf all week, and sleep all weekend to recover?” I think my colleague Tim Hughes hits the nail on the head in his recent blog by reframing conventional notions of participation, focusing on “how we can bend participation to fit people’s lives” rather than the other way round. Doing anything else with busy, young professionals may well prove to be a blind alley. An example of fitting in participation is corporate volunteering, which can be a useful tool in brokering between the motivations of the yuppie to participate (but don’t know where to start) and solving the time constraint at the same time.

It seems that the voluntary sector is struggling to reach this pool of potential participants. There is motivation and enthusiasm to participate, but not, by definition, in terms of doing something in the local area, and not necessarily a couple of hours every Saturday morning. Voicing this sincere concern about the untapped potential of City workers may have revealed the need to rethink how participation and volunteering is approached. The challenge remains: How do we create an enabling environment for Young Urban Professionals to become Young Urban Participants?

Photo by lusi.

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