A shared project by Citizens Advice Northumberland and Silx Teen Bar
As a result of the invitation given by the Lords COVID-19 Committee, joint research was undertaken by Silx Teen Bar, in Blyth, Northumberland, and Citizens Advice Northumberland.
The aim of the work was to enable young people who use Silx, youth workers and advisors at Citizens Advice, to identify the impact of the virus on young people’s lives and their perceptions of life in a post COVID world.
Silx Teen Bar www.silxteen.com has been in existence for twenty years. Traditionally, it has provided a safe
environment for young people, 11 to 19 years old, to
meet friends and youth workers, and for 16 to 25-year-olds to receive employment support and guidance from an experienced and qualified staff team. Most of the young people with whom Silx interacts live in, or close to, Croft Ward, one of the most deprived electoral wards in England [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government 2019].
Citizens Advice Northumberland
www.citizensadvicenorthumberland.org.uk started in
1939 and has constantly offered a wide range of
free, independent and confidential advice ever
since. Today it operates from 10 locations covering all of Northumberland – a county of over 3000 square miles with a population of 322,000. The pandemic has generated an increased need for the services of this organisation. This will probably be the case for some considerable time as the economic damage of the pandemic is felt by more and more people.
As a result of the pandemic both organisations stopped their primary method of face-to-face engagement, towards the end of March 2020, and diverted full delivery of their service to digital technology routes,
websites, social media, telephone and webchats, video blogs, amongst other means.
Just recently, Silx also resumed its street work and introduced limited one-to-one appointments on its premises. The youth workers fully operated within recommended guidelines.
Eight videos have been made which include individual and group interviews. They were filmed within Silx premises, outside in the open, and on Zoom. Twelve young people, aged under 18 and over, are included with an approximate split of 50% male and 50% female. Two young people on the Zoom interview are anonymous and gender can only be assumed through their voices. Three youth workers were also interviewed. Social distancing guidelines were closely followed.
The video findings: questions & answers
When asked about specific issues there were, generally, more negative answers than positive, although some individuals may have been influenced by their friends. The findings, although taken from a small group of people provides qualitative data about the experience of young people in Blyth. The answers below closely reflect the responses of the young people, but do not provide a full record of the exchanges.
In the brief video summaries, the use of the word ‘positive’ denotes an acceptable or accepted consequence of lockdown. The word ‘negative’ means the opposite. There are also references to age groups 20-24 and 20-25. Silx will work with young people with a maximum age of 25, although common referencing of this age group stops at 24.
Question 1: Has COVID-19 made a difference to your life?
One young person said they had recently left an abusive relationship and another said lockdown had given them more time on their Xbox. Others had developed a more confident outlook on life and felt they had grown more independent.
On the reverse side, there were examples of lost motivation, missed GCSE’s, and the annoyance of not being ‘able to go out like a normal person’.
Question 2: Has it changed how you think about people?
Although positive responses included a general ‘no’ from one group, others said they were ‘still getting on with everyone’ and even making efforts to reconnect with previously little seen acquaintances. Negative answers indicated that some had lost contact with friends, had missed going out every day, and had lost trust in people.
Question 3: What do you think it will be like when you go back to education?
There was a general negativity in response to this question. Although some people were pleased to be re-acquainted with fellow students, they were generally unhappy about the new distancing measures. It wasn’t going to feel the same and it would be ‘weird wearing a mask’. The sheer number of other people would also make social distancing impossible to comply with. One young person felt distinctly nervous about returning to school and another just thought it would be ‘boring’.
Question 4: Has it affected your home life?
A few young people said lockdown hadn’t affected their home life. Two others were pleased they were now able to see more family members. However, on the negative side, there was a comment that life had just became more ‘annoying’. There were examples of young people being in a stressed relationship with other family members, due to close and
constant proximity, or not receiving any support from family when it came to caring for younger siblings.
Question 5: What do you think the New Normal will look like?
A number of questions and answers fell into the theme of the post COVID world and tended to be wider ranging than their own personal lives.
There was a shared agreement that their world would be a changed place and it would be harder to find employment – ‘it’s not going to be the same, as the economy has been hit’, said one young person. The consequence of this was taken up by someone else who said, ‘…so many people have lost their jobs, there will be so many looking for one’.
They had already seen other unwelcome signs of change symbolised by face coverings, social distancing and sanitisers and tended to assume these would remain for the foreseeable future. One young person’s personal dislike of the, often, uncomfortable face masks was reflected in their belief that the world would be a ‘sweatier place’.
Youth workers: through their eyes
Sarah, Kelly, and Chris, the three youth workers interviewed, agreed that COVID-19 had brought about major, negative changes to the lives of the young people with whom they worked. The only noticeable positive change is made in the reference to a family sitting down together to watch Netflix.
Sarah and Kelly were aware that those young people who had followed the lockdown guidelines had seen a complete breakdown in their otherwise normal and busy lifestyles. They felt they were already seeing negative impacts on their mental health and in relationship breakdowns within their families. On the other hand, some of those who had ignored lockdown may well have been involved in law-breaking behaviour, at times when they should have been at home.
Chris believes that many young people have become demotivated and have given up hope when they consider how jobless and bleak their futures might be. The lack of motivation is most apparent in the 16 to 25 – year-old age group. One section of this age group, sometimes referred to as NEET – Not in Employment, Education or Training – is a group who, in Blyth, will be more in need of employability advice and guidance from Silx than ever before, said Sarah.
Citizens Advice Northumberland: national and regional picture
With government protection of jobs and finances ending soon, Citizens Advice Northumberland anticipates a wave of public enquiries as the wholesale damage of COVID-19 on jobs, incomes, and relationships becomes clearer. Throughout the pandemic 6 million UK adults have fallen into debt for rent, or council tax, telecoms services, or some other household bill. When the temporary protection from aggressive debt recovery ends, the problems for many will probably escalate. The age group 16-24, who, overall, constitute 8% of workers on zero hours contracts [Scottish Parliament Information Centre 2018] are particularly vulnerable as UK employment drops.
The financial impact of COVID-19 is overwhelmingly concentrated on young people and those in insecure work – the two certainly go together with regard to zero hours contracts – and people with health risks.
Citizens Advice Northumberland believes the scale of COVID-19 impact on people’s lives, means it’s vital that the improvements introduced to improve the processing of benefit claims (young people are at particular
risk here) and increased support in parts of the system are built upon to ensure the relevant support is in place for all groups. This includes those facing a temporary income shock, but also groups who risk facing longer-term and more severe economic detriment. The need to act becomes all the more critical as the existing measures introduced to protect people’s finances gradually come to an end.
In Northumberland, from March to August, 2020, 15 to19-year-olds raised 252 issues, despite overall enquiry figures falling considerably. This was up over 42% for the same period the previous year – Universal Credit being the big topic for both years. However, the single largest enquiry concerned employment and, in particular, dismissal which went up from 5  to 35  – a 600% increase.
The 20-24’s raised 1385 enquiries in 2020 – up 32% for the same period the previous year. Most increases included employment queries about pay, entitlement and dismissal. Queries about food banks and other charitable support more than trebled between 2019 and 2020.
The comment of one youth worker may well encompass the general consequence of COVID-19 on young people – ‘their entire routine has been tipped upside down’. At the very least, many have been absent from school or college for months, social activity may have been brought to a halt, contact with close companions was relegated to a phone or laptop screen, and family relationships may have been stressed to breaking point. In addition, the gloomy news of continued job losses and reduction of opportunities for work provides a bleak vision for young people seeking a stable and financially secure future.
These are the young people the world can pass by. These are the young people whose life experiences and potential abilities are unlikely to be brought to the attention of a Parliamentary group normally.
The impacts of COVID-19 within a deprived area can be seen in the references to lack of motivation and the digital divide; the latter a concern of particular interest to Citizens Advice Northumberland. Many of the young people have, since pre-COVID days, lacked engagement with the education system which results in low attainment and few, if any, qualifications. Although recorded in transcripts, but picked up by separate engagements with youth workers, some Year 11 students, so convinced of their own failure, did not return to school to collect their GCSE grades. In addition, youth workers believe they have seen early
signs of negative mental health issues. But, the behaviour of others may have followed a different path – as seen in overnight activity which is strongly suspected to have criminal motives. Other reports indicate an increase in the use of illegal substances, easily purchased on the street. As some of these young people adapt to the changes in their lives, drug and alcohol use is at risk of increasing among the 16 to 24’s.
Silx is aware it might be facing problems in attracting some of these young people back once things become more ‘normal’ and has already restructured itself in order to overcome this challenge. It will probably succeed in reconnecting with most. But, some of those young people may turn against seeking employment support when they believe they have no hope of getting an eventual job – they have already judged themselves to be failures. These are the young people Silx needs to engage with.
Youth workers and advisors spend much of their time guiding young people through basic aspects of personal money management. The need to do this may well increase in the coming months. Both organisations know young people in zero hours contracts who may be facing impending unemployment. or who are already unemployed. Now and in the future trying to find employment is that much harder. There will definitely be greater competition for fewer jobs. Low educational attainment, lack of motivation, and even possible mental health issues, will lead to a tougher search for work. Silx youth workers reported that many young people no longer felt obligated to job search while still receiving benefits and may have developed a ‘so what?’ attitude.
Whichever way their lives develop, it may not be all doom and gloom for the young people living in this one small part of Blyth. Most, we hope, will bounce back. For others, there may not be such a positive outcome.
Although Silx can provide invaluable, focused, support to young people, Citizens Advice Northumberland can help with the wider range of advice throughout their lives. Beneficially different, both organisations are now considering closer working and ensuring young people in Blyth, receive the best possible support and guidance.
Many of these young people are millennials – most have never known a time other than the 21st century – and, like most young people, [from an adult’s perspective] seem to adapt easily to changing technology, whether it’s an Xbox or an iPhone. The experiences of working through COVID-19 has helped both organisations grasp the expanding
advantages of online communication with their users. In neither organisation does this detract from the long-term benefits of face-to-face conversation, but provides an extra avenue of engagement. It enables future users’ easier and more secure accessibility to their services, in times of need. The common ground created by greater use of technology is already proving its worth. Silx switched to a digital path within days of closing its doors and now is in daily contact with several hundred young people. Citizens Advice Northumberland was already developing this way of engaging with ‘remote’, geographically hard-to reach clients, and has already seen a noticeable increase in online contacts through lockdown.
None of the young people taking part in this research gave any impression the situation was hopeless. At its worst, just difficult. But, general observation by youth workers and advisors with Citizens Advice Northumberland indicate issues such as increasing drug use, lack of motivation, impending mental health concerns, fractured relationships (particularly between young people and their parents) and major damage to personal and family finances, may pose serious problems in the months to come, both for them and the community as a whole. These are of particular concern in an area known for high levels of deprivation.
Above all, we see a vulnerability in young people which can be masked by their behaviour and our adult perceptions, which may impact markedly on their view and experience of Life Beyond COVID.