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Challenge, Change & Collaborate: Tackling student stereotypes

Guest blog by TEDxBrayford Pool Youth 2022 alumni, Robyn Jackaman.

Students in the UK are facing a plethora of social, cultural, and economic pressures in the current climate. To name a few, the cost-of-living crisis has had detrimental impacts across the country for many; the aftermath of COVID-19 has further caused implications for study; the constant cuts to mental health services within and outside of universities; and the teaching and marking boycotts have undeniably shaped the learning experience for young people. One vital and binding element that all these issues possess is how wider society chooses to report, document and comment on these matters. Most notable, common examples include: “All young people do is complain about everything”, “Try getting a job in the real world then you can complain about money”, “Youths today think they have it bad, back in my day…”. These phrases have become customary responses to any affair relating to students and young people. Whilst the public is entitled to their own opinions, it is important to recognise and acknowledge that these reoccurring phrases do have a psychosocial impact on young individuals.

Students who consistently see these phrases and messages from the outside world, are more inclined to internalise these meanings and eventually believe that they are a “problem to society”, or that they are “good for nothing”. Because when the world categorises you in a black-and-white box, it is incredibly hard to fight for yourself and your own unique identity. Once a student believes that they are “lazy” or a “burden” they will then act out this assigned label, it becomes part of their fixed identity. In sociological terms, this cycle is better known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. First coined by Robert K Merton in his 1949 book, Social Theory and Social Structure, the self-fulfilling prophecy can apply to a vast array of socialisation, not just students. In Merton’s own words, the self-fulfilling prophecy is "at first, a false definition of a situation, evoking a new behaviour, which makes the originally false conception, true". In these trying times, students are becoming progressively affected by it. What will eventually happen (if the self-fulling prophecy goes unchallenged) is a generation of young adults struggling to recognise their self-worth and the power of their voices. They will not put themselves forward for great opportunities (such as their ideal job) because they are “lazy, good for nothing burdens” right? That’s what they’ve been led to believe.

So, how do students break out of this prophecy? Some manage to break out themselves; for others, it takes many years of self-reflection and resilience, but for many – they never do fully “break out” and this is why it is such an important topic to discuss. As a society and community, we need to start validating and listening to young people’s concerns; they are the next generation. Instead of belittling students for their struggles and tarnishing them with a branded label, we should acknowledge their experiences and enrich them with opportunities. Here are three easy steps you can take to ensure that you are opposing the negatives of the self-fulfilling prophecy.


Step 1: Challenge

In our media-saturated society, we tend to be bystanders in everyday life. We often consume content without questioning its plausibility, its coherence and logic. Often, news sources present consumers with biased views, they may twist stories in ways that are not necessarily true. We have seen this time and time again with news outlets, on a plethora of topics. This is particularly the case for young people when they stand up for their rights; newspapers tend to brand students as “lazy”, “whingy” and “whiney” when in fact, young people are standing up for what they believe in. The first step is to challenge. Challenge the media outlets that report on cases with a one-sided view. Are there other reports of the same story that portray students differently, in a more positive light? Diversify your reading on the subject topic, you’ll find that one media outlet won’t have the full picture. It doesn’t just stop there. Media is one area of our news sources, but we need to consider our in-person conversations.

Think and reflect for a moment. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who has used a label such as “lazy” or “whingy” to describe young people? Perhaps different words or phrases were used but the essence of the negative label was present. Now, think back, did you challenge this? Did you speak up and speak against what was being said?

Collectively as a community, we need to challenge these everyday conversations, no matter how small they may be. By challenging the stereotype, you are encouraging a break in the label and for the person to reflect on what has been said. Not only for the person who is stuck in their ways but for the student. That one, simple challenge can often spark the realisation for the student, that they are indeed good enough. Metaphorically speaking, the student begins to create cracks in the prophecy, that challenge has allowed the student to question the value of their input, for the better. The awkward pause in conversation can spark a change in thought, a change of way and this leads us to the next step.


Step 2: Change

Change. Change isn’t easy, and it can be a difficult, consistent process at times, but to progress in society, there needs to be continual changes. The need to change how we view young people isn’t a new topic, in fact, 1972 Bowie’s hit song “Changes” criticises society for its views on young people:

“...And these children […] are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through […] don’t tell them to grow up or out of it.” 

Over 50 years later, there still is a clear need for change in perspectives around students and young people. So, following the steps laid out – Having challenged the small conversations, and diversifying our media, we allow new ideas to grow and flourish. Once there has been a challenge in society, there tends to be change (usually for the better). In microcosm, this is the same for students and their labels. Whilst this may all be on an individual level, being able to challenge and change the ways an individual thinks about a topic can have a chain reaction on other’s beliefs and customs.

Consider a time when you have been challenged on an idea or belief. You may not have agreed with the other side, but you gave it some thought, maybe it played back on your mind long after the social interaction occurred. You may have been so frustrated by it, you spoke to others about said challenge. Maybe, over time, you began to change your original thoughts on the topic and actually, your best friend was right – Salt and vinegar crisps are not as bad as they seem!

Those small interactions with yourself, with your friends, family, and colleagues have all caused a chain reaction, some of them are now pondering on these new ideas, pondering on changing their customs for the better. Whilst the flavour of crisps doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the world, the analogy is still there. After the challenge is present, people begin to change their language, their beliefs, and ideas to better themselves and the society around them. You will begin to change the way you view students; you may become mindful of the language you use around them and about them. You may even change the way you run your business because you followed an insightful online tutorial from a young person.  

This change also helps students themselves. They can start to climb out of those categorised black-and-white boxes; they realise that they do have a voice worth hearing and that they are capable of great things. They begin to change from the “lazy burden” stereotype to a new blossomed self. That change, for them, is immeasurable for their future.


Step 3: Collaborate

Collaboration is the final step to success. By this stage, students and young people have been able to fight off the negative labels and become aware of the harms of the self-fulfilling prophecy, but they still need society’s help. Opportunities are often limited for young people, jobs often require advanced experience, volunteering often takes place during term time hours and it's not often employers give young people the benefit of the doubt. It’s understandable, why gamble on an 18-year-old at university with no experience when you can hire someone who has worked in the industry for many years? But maybe that 18-year-old has knowledge you and your organisation don’t have; maybe they know a better operating system or a quicker way to complete tasks. You might be able to learn a thing or two from them. Collaboration is key to providing young people with the opportunities to flourish. Be creative in your approaches– maybe it's collaborating with local schools, colleges, or universities, maybe it's providing volunteering work or summer internships. By whatever means you choose, collaboration could change a young person’s life, and who knows where it will take them next. 


Overall, actions need to be taken for our younger generation. We need to listen and acknowledge, challenge the stereotypes, change the narrative, and collaborate with young people, to create a generation full of new, promising ideas.


Robyn Jackaman is a PhD student and lecturer in Sociology and Counselling at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln. She is passionate about social change, gender and sexuality, intergenerational perception and challenging inequalities. You can watch her TEDxBrayford Pool Youth 2022 talk, "Lazy or lack of opportunity? Giving young people autonomy", by clicking on her image.



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