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How the environment can improve young people’s lives

A new report from the Sustainable Development Commission investigates the impact of the environment on the lives of young people, finding that environmental volunteering and outdoor activity and exercise can help maximise employment chances and improve wellbeing and personal responsibility.

SDC Improving Young Peoples Lives

Improving Young People’s Lives: The role of the environment in building resilience, responsibility and employment chances identifies three outcomes for young people where the environment can have an impact:

  • Jobs and employability
  • Resilience, health and behaviour
  • Personal responsibility

The report proposes a “green thread though policy and practice”: considering the impact of the environment alongside social and economic factors will provide the missing element from most policy making for young people, helping to improve their outcomes and reduce the cost to society of poor mental health, unemployment and social problems.

Opportunities in the green economy

The report argues that preparing young people for employment in the green economy is ‘vital to tackling youth unemployment’ and recommends that the Government expand its emphasis on environmental activity and green skills for young people, to enable them to take advantage of opportunities in a growth area.

The UK’s low carbon economy is currently ranked sixth largest in the world with significant potential to provide employment: it has been estimated that improving home energy efficiency in the UK could provide 20,000 new jobs; and a Government-commissioned study has predicted an estimated 400,000 jobs in sectors working towards lowering the UK’s carbon emissions by 2015.

The report recommends focusing on making Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects more interesting to young people to provide them with the skills to take advantage of emerging areas of employment.

The healthy outdoors

Obesity and mental health disorders are increasing in young people, while research shows that contact with the natural environment improves young people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Low-cost programmes to promote cycling and walking can significantly increase physical activity, while involvement in schemes such as Forest Schools has been shown to improve confidence, self-esteem, concentration and social and language skills.

Volunteering for civic responsibility

Young people are often disengaged from civic society, being less involved in local communities and voluntary work. Participation in community projects can bring positive outcomes for health, educational achievement, employment and help reduce crime.

The report finds that providing structured environmental volunteering opportunities specifically for young people would support the Government’s ambition to nurture civic responsibility through the Big Society. For example, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) estimates that for every £1 spent, its People and Places volunteering programme generates £4 through reduced crime, increased employment and improved leisure facilities.

The opportunity of an environmental approach

The Sustainable Development Commission’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Ann Finlayson, highlighted the benefits the environment can offer to young people:

“Enabling young people to connect with the environment – through volunteering to help improve their local area; challenging themselves with new experiences and working with others – offers holistic and long-term solutions to the problems which lead to disaffection, unemployment and antisocial behaviour. As we design the new National Citizen Service and the things we want from the Big Society, we would do well to take advantage of the opportunity to achieve more for less that an environmental approach offers.”

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