Empowering young people in the NHS

Posted by: Danielle Thornton - Posted on:

What would your reaction be if I told you I was born in the 1990’s? In the Manchester United dressing room is Matt Busby’s quote, “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” but unfortunately, that particular philosophy doesn’t seem to have made it far outside the world of professional sports. 

I joined the NHS a year after graduating and nine months later, at barely 24, took on my first formal leadership role. Within that time, I coordinated national projects and events and experienced great successes within an environment that inspired, encouraged and supported me.

The transition from peer to manager is, and was, notoriously difficult and I spent much of it waiting to be found out for the fraud that I felt like, crediting my success to sheer luck and being in the right place at the right time. As a young woman, this feeling was intensified by the realisation that my career progression to date was not the norm among other under-25’s. According to the statistics:

  • 12% of England’s working population is under 25
  • However only 6% of the 1.3 million strong NHS workforce is
  • The majority of these under 25’s are currently a band 4 or below.

And it’s not just the NHS where young people are at a disadvantage as 40% of all unemployed workers in England are under 25. In a struggling economy and aging population, where the number of graduates has doubled in the past two decades, young people are finding that they are outnumbered and out-experienced, increasingly unlikely to secure meaningful employment, and more likely to accept roles that are unskilled and underpaid just to make ends meet.

To make matters worse, young people also frequently find themselves the victims of misplaced perceptions of young workers as we become further marginalised, stigmatised and generalised. Under the Equality Act 2010, age is a protected characteristic. However, the term ‘ageism’ was created solely with reference to seniors and is still today predominantly used in relation to the treatment of older people.

That said, the Attitudes to Age in Britain study in 2010 found that 47% of those under 25 felt that age discrimination was a very serious issue, with under-25s being at least twice as likely to have experienced age discrimination than all other age groups. It seems that even if we are to be successful in securing work, there are still barriers we must face.

I am endlessly grateful for the opportunities and support that I’ve had in my early career, but am equally saddened that these opportunities are not available for other young people. Since joining the Academy, I have felt empowered to express my views and my own voice, free from judgement and ageist rhetoric. I have been encouraged to push the boundaries, and trusted to use my judgement and experience, however limited. I have succeeded and I have failed, but I have always had support, and I have grown.

As managers and peers, we need to think honestly about how we recruit into roles and create equal opportunities for all, working with young people like me in a way that encourages and empowers us, not belittles or patronises us. We need to remember that quantity of experience does not equal quality, and regardless of age or background, everyone deserves to be listened to.

If the NHS truly belongs to the people, regardless of their age, then we must ensure that our workforce reflects this. If we are to succeed in creating a health service that is technologically literate and works at the limits of science, in a world that is increasingly connected but difficult to navigate, then we must embrace our diversity and the value this brings.

To achieve even our most modest ambitions, we need to invest in tomorrow’s leaders today.

4 replies on “Empowering young people in the NHS”

  • Truly inspiring! Onwards and upwards and a well deserved well done to you.

    Emily dolphin
  • Excellent! From the first time that I met you – I was 25 years older – I thought you would go far. And you have and you will still further. Many congratulations on this excellent personal piece which I am sure will inspire and encourage people of ALL ages to follow their dreams.

    Mark Bailey
  • Thank you for sharing this Danielle, as a degreeless under 30 I understand the feeling of waiting to be found out as a fraud which I think for me normally undermines the trust I have in my own knowledge and experience and it’s easy to start from a position of believing everyone else knows more than you.

    Chris Witham Administrator
  • Hello Jane,
    This was an interesting article.
    I do agree with you that there is strong bias and prejudice within the system, but it’s not limited to those who “look young” or are of the age bracket which might be considered “young” by some.
    Yes indeed “quantity of experience does not equal quality” of output or performance (which I think we can easily evidence in the NHS System). But isn’t experience (i.e. by definition evidence of quality outcomes) a more likely indicator of future quality of performance and outcomes, rather than zero experience?
    The term ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ is one that is used in the NHS so often that the gravity and true meanings have been lost. Most of us are followers, some of use demonstrate leadership behaviours sometimes, but we are not all leaders, nor are we all in leadership positions – doing our jobs and being proactive– is just part of all our jobs.
    I have worked in the NHS System/NHS Leadership Academy for a number of years. Whilst you experience ‘ageism’, the reality for others is ….. “young or old enough, have the right number of years’ experience (i.e. evidenced by quality outcomes for a said number of years), and the right qualifications etc. etc… – IF you are a BAME, disabled or have qualifications higher than those on the hiring panel – then you are still NOT GOOD ENOUGH”.
    So, yes I also agree with you that “as managers and peers, we need to think honestly about how we recruit into roles and create equal opportunities for all”.
    I have seen brilliant candidates with excellent capabilities relevant to the role and the NHS being turned away from the academy and the system due to poor, biased and prejudiced hiring practice. Is the NHS so over skilled, that we can turn candidates away for being “over qualified” or “not been in the NHS before”, or “have come from private sector”, or “didn’t demonstrate passion”…. really???
    I could go on, but these are the casual ways in which prejudice is demonstrated so that people are prevented from even accessing the opportunities you have enjoyed … and the academy, the system, we all accept these excuses.
    Your experience of prejudice is certainly not unique, but consider a young BAME, LBGTX, Disabled person’s experience….your own reports evidence the depth of the problem.

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