Young people and the structural barriers to kindness

March 14, 2019

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by Matthew Jordan, Programme Officer for the Health Foundation’s Young People’s Future Health Inquiry

Why care about kindness? It’s certainly nice to experience kindness, especially in unexpected places, but is it something we can truly put our finger on; something concrete and measurable? I’m interested in what the structural barriers might be that prevent people from acting kindly because barriers to kindness are barriers to human connection. A lack of human connection for individuals becomes an issue of health and wellbeing, and when these barriers are systemic this compromises the health of the community as a whole. Framed in this way, it’s hard to deny the importance of kindness.

In Quantifying kindness, public engagement and place, when residents across the UK and Ireland responded to a set of statements on kindness in their communities, those in England consistently scored lower than those in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Low scores predominate in London, with only 23% strongly agreeing that people in their area are generally kind, compared to 36% across England and the 60% in Ireland (the highest of the five nations). I have to say that, sadly, as someone living in London, this does not come as much of a surprise, and at one time, I would have found it hard to agree with any of the statements. But when I think about why this might be, the root of this is found squarely in the housing insecurity that I have experienced. It’s hard to feel a strong sense of community when you move five times in two years and are only in an area for a matter of months at a time.

I’m not alone in my negative outlook, young people between the ages of 15 and 34 consistently scored lower than people in other age groups in their experiences of kindness in their communities. Worryingly in England, only 19% of young people between the ages of 15 and 34 strongly agree there is someone in their area they can turn to for emotional support; this rises to 34% for those over 55. The same pattern emerges when asked whether they have someone they can turn to for practical support and advice, with only 31% of 15 to 34-year-olds strongly agreeing that they have this in their community, compared to 49% of those aged 55 and over. That young people have limited access to emotional and practical support is concerning. Through the Health Foundation’s Young people’s future health inquiry, we have seen that these are integral to helping a young person achieve key milestones of adulthood such as entering the world of work; and without them, this could diminish their prospects in the short and longer-term, compromising their capacity to thrive as healthy adults.

The reasons for someone acting kindly, or not, or being open to perceiving kindness are complex. It’s encouraging to see that this was acknowledged in Young Scot’s Conversations with young people about kindness.  Among other factors, social anxiety, tiredness, stress and worry were raised by young people as things that could cause a person to be less kind. This self-reflection on how internal feelings translate to how they relate to the external world, and vice versa, is important in itself. If we want people to act kindly, it can only be achieved through a combination of an internal and external environment that is conducive to kindness. Fostering these internal conditions is one step but we also need to create the structural conditions that enable people to be kind, things like greater availability of safe and affordable housing. It can’t be achieved through greater self-awareness alone.

I have just moved into a new block of flats in London and I hope to be there for the foreseeable future. For the time being, my housing insecurity has settled down and I’m beginning to question the hostile label I had attached to London. People there are kind: simple things like smiling and saying hello as I walk by and holding the door open for me as I come into the block. I can’t necessarily pinpoint how this culture of kindness arose, but I agree with what one of the young people involved in this work said, kindness is contagious.