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SOCIAL FABRIC

Great British National Service

How national service could develop skills, improve mental wellbeing, and increase a sense of belonging among Britain’s youth
François Valentin, Adam Hawksbee
August 30, 2023
Great British National Service

"A clear, bold essential idea - provocative and important - and if done with conviction and energy a wonderful gift to young people and for the country."

The Government should reintroduce national service to tackle the UK’s growing youth crisis.

Young people are unhappy, unskilled and unmoored. Over one million people under 18 were referred to mental health services last year. Suicide rates amongst 15 to 19-year-olds are the highest in over 40 years. One in five 18 to 24-year-olds are economically inactive. The same age group is three times more likely to distrust their neighbour than the over 65s. Most young people (57%) say they are less patriotic than previous generations.

But there is cause for hope. Young people are the most likely to want to volunteer in their community: two-thirds of 18-34-year-olds say they want to help out in their area, ahead of half for 35-54-year-olds and around a third of people aged 55 or older. During the pandemic, three in four 16-24-year-olds were either already volunteering or wanting to volunteer to support the nation’s recovery. 

This is the motivation for revisiting national service. In the past, it served an important societal role. A study of Denmark’s draft lottery found it improved numeracy and literacy ten years after service, with the largest improvements for men with the lowest previous skill level. Studies of US college students who participated in military training and British army veterans found increased psychological resilience. 

Today, many other developed countries use civic national service initiatives to help grow and develop young people. France introduced its voluntary scheme, the Service Nationale Universel (SNU), in 2018 and the vast majority of participants say the experience gave them a greater sense of civic engagement and taught them new personal skills. Switzerland, the USA, and Germany also have national civic service schemes.

New opinion polling commissioned by Onward shows that 57% of British people support national service versus 19% who oppose it. The most popular model included civil and military activities, with 53% more likely to support such a mixed programme. Crucially, three times as many young people support the idea than oppose it. But the majority of people oppose a mandatory scheme, including nearly two-thirds of young people.

The UK should learn from other developed nations and reintroduce national service to help young people develop skills, improve mental health, and forge patriotism.

The Government should create a new Great British National Service for everybody aged 16. As many as 600,000 could participate by automatically enrolling young people unless they opt out. This system would ensure more people from all backgrounds signed up, avoiding the low take-up of the UK’s existing National Citizens Service, which only saw 13% of its target age group sign up in its best year despite a 45% target.

Delivering the scheme for this many young people could cost up to £1.3 billion. As Switzerland does, the Government could fund it by asking public and private organisations to contribute to recruiting participants. It could also address intergenerational inequality by reforming the pensions triple lock and channelling the roughly £2 billion of savings to young people.

Francois Valentin, Senior Researcher at Onward, said:

“With so many younger people feeling lonely, ill-equipped for the workplace and disconnected from their community and nation, it’s time for a bold idea to stop a generation from falling further into crisis.

National service can be a unifying experience, teaching people the skills they need to succeed. It is not an outdated idea from history, but a modern solution more and more countries are using to help young people. 

Creating a new Great British National Service would be a popular answer to young people’s challenges. It would help them develop the skills, mental resilience and national pride many lack.”

Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons, said:

National service is an old idea, but today, the centre-right think tank Onward has unveiled its proposal for a modern version. I can understand its motives for doing so. They hope to harness young people’s goodwill and community spirit, tap into the energy and imagination of an exciting new generation, and promote good mental health and resilience. I applaud these objectives.”

Dan Jarvis MP,  former Mayor of South Yorkshire, said: 

“Franklin D. Roosevelt was right when he said, ‘we cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future’. A national civic service would develop skills, improve mental wellbeing, and enhance a sense of belonging among Britain’s young people. I would like to see all young people offered the opportunity to participate in a voluntary national scheme.”

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