Building Forward, for the Future: what can a wellbeing approach achieve for young people and generations to come?

June 5, 2020

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by Hannah Ormston, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

The Carnegie UK Trust works to improve personal, community and societal wellbeing. Many of the issues that we work on, and the partners and groups who we work with, are deeply affected by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a series of blogs with reflections and questions across these different aspects of wellbeing. We are interested in learning from others, so please get in touch to share your reflections on how communities, networks and organisations are responding.


Over the past few months, national wellbeing has been on the agenda in new circles.  During unprecedented times, we have seen the power of radical kindness; of localism; of true participation and of communities coming together. As restrictions are gradually beginning to lift across the UK, we are starting to feel a sense of collective hope. But how can we use this energy to improve our future wellbeing? And what have we learned from the crisis so far, that might support the younger generation who will experience the impact of the virus for the longest and safeguard the wellbeing of generations to come?

Social wellbeing

The Carnegie UK Trust has worked for over 100 years to improve the wellbeing of people in the UK and Ireland. Over the last twelve weeks, we have seen many of the key concepts we know are fundamental to our wellbeing in action: in the media, in our daily conversations, and in our collective response to the situation. The crisis has taught us all about the importance of connection, and of the value of access to spaces and places that facilitate interaction, both on and offline. We know that it is those with reduced access, space within their homes and opportunity that are the most vulnerable to rising inequalities. Many of these individuals are young people.

Research in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales has outlined the concerns that young people understandably have about the impact of Covid-19 on their future; their mental health; their relationships and their education.  And with the strong likelihood that technology will become ever more vital in the future, in Building Forward Better, we need to find out who was – and continues to be – left behind by the crisis, and adequately address the digital divide.  And along with ensuring everyone has what they need to participate in online spaces, we need welcoming and open physical places to come together. For our emotional wellbeing – when the time is right – we will need better access to indoor and outdoor spaces that are stigma and agenda free. Places that enable relationships and interactions to flourish, to change the fundamentals that govern our everyday behavior.

Economic wellbeing

The circumstances created by Covid-19 have seen Wales, Scotland and New Zealand – who are each members of WeGo – put national wellbeing alongside the economy. Building forward for the future should involve a more holistic measurement of society’s progress, and a review of what constitutes ‘growth’. Measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP) does not sufficiently tell us about quality of life, relationships or health. Nor does it capture the detail.

The detail, for example, that around one third of 18-24 year olds are currently on furlough, or are now completely without work. Many of the younger generation have been affected to a greater degree than most. The crisis has demonstrated our reliance on temporary workers and people on zero-hours contracts: to deliver our food and essential items and care for our loved ones. And there is growing evidence of the relationship between ethnicity, precarious work and poor mental health.

Environmental wellbeing

Our green and blue infrastructure has been a lifeline to many over the past months, and if we didn’t before, we now appreciate the value of green spaces for our wellbeing. Forced to keep our physical distance, we are rethinking and reimagining: reallocating road space for walking and cycling and Zooming over to conferences, rather than driving or flying. Our collective response to Covid-19 has demonstrated the ability of us all to change our daily habits and practices.

Recovery from Covid-19 offers a new space for the UK to go further towards its target of cutting emissions to net zero by 2050. Green Recovery is likely to be the focus of COP26, the UN Climate Change Summit which will now take place in 2021. COP26 aims to bring governments, businesses, civil society and the scientific community together to think strategically and for the long-term about climate change. And for the wellbeing of future generations, we need a plan that takes our younger populations concerns seriously.

Democratic wellbeing

Democratic wellbeing involves citizens both having what they need to participate, and being in control of the decisions that affect their lives. Covid-19 has necessitated strict limitations on movement and behaviour, creating a need for more communication and transparency between citizens and the state. Affecting individuals and communities deeply and personally, many want more opportunities to understand government decisions, suggesting a need for more deliberative methods, or better public engagement in the methods that already exist. In Derry and Strabane, youth are making it happen with a planned new participatory budgeting project that puts them at the centre of spending decisions about their local area.

Before Covid-19, there were many unheard voices and people left behind, particularly by demand and budgetary pressures facing public services. And in trying to look with optimism to the possibilities of the future, it is vital not to leave these people out of the conversation. In thinking about a more inclusive way forward, we need to seek out and listen to the voices of those we have not heard and provide different mechanisms for sharing views that work for more people. We need to be bold and brave in our approach and not only invite but listen to a broad range of perspectives, including those of young people. We also need to advocate for the unborn generation as our collective decisions will ultimately impact their lives too.

What can a wellbeing approach achieve?

Of course, our social, economic, environmental and democratic wellbeing are not mutually exclusive. Each impacts the others. The Trust’s work to date has shown a number of potential benefits to approaching wellbeing in the round, and achieving a wellbeing approach in public policy. This is the aim of Lord Bird’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill and Today for Tomorrow campaign, which is currently making its way through the House of Commons.

From supporting new narratives on social progress, to deepening citizen participation, the circumstances created by Covid-19 have made us reflect collectively on our shared future. But in building forward, we need to start with the premise that the future is now.