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Young people’s wellbeing
Young people’s wellbeing

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2.2 The holistic model of wellbeing

In the UK, the ‘State of the Nation 2020: children and young people’s wellbeing research report’ by the Department for Education (2020) states that ‘The wellbeing of children and young people is central to Government policy and is central to achieving the aims of the Department for Education’.

Two young children studying at a table. A teacher is helping one of the children.

‘Recent reports have shown that the wellbeing of children in the UK, and England specifically, remains relatively low compared with other countries and with decreasing trends over time’ (Department for Education, 2020, p.11).

As with the WHO definition, many people's first response to the government's policy will probably be to see it as a progressive movement away from defining young people's health in negative terms, and as an advance on an individualised model which overlooked the impact on young people's health of other aspects of their lives, such as education and work.

However, the model of the healthy young person that lies behind the Government’s approach is also open to criticism. For example, this vision represents a move away from a traditional welfarist model of health in which responsibility rests with society to provide the conditions that promote young people's wellbeing. As Shah acknowledges, a shift to a focus on wellbeing often entails an emphasis on ‘promoting self-efficacy’ rather than viewing people as ‘passive recipients of welfare’ (Engel et al., 2019). There is very little role for the active state in this vision, but a major role for the active, achieving, enterprising individual. Although economic disadvantage is mentioned, economic wellbeing is less about the right to basic resources, as in traditional social democratic welfare policy, and more about supporting individuals to achieve economic wellbeing for themselves.

Nikolas Rose in her seminal paper has charted the ways in which the ‘private self’ has increasingly become a focus of government intervention in late modern societies. Under neo-liberalism, a political philosophy associated with free markets and reduced government intervention, policy is directed towards the promotion of the enterprising individual:

The theme of enterprise that is at the heart of neo-liberalism certainly has an economic reference … But enterprise also provides a rationale for the structuring of the lives of individual citizens. Individuals are to become, as it were, entrepreneurs of themselves, shaping their own lives through the choices they make among the forms of life available to them … The political subject is now less a social citizen with powers and obligations deriving from membership of a collective body, than an individual whose citizenship is to be manifested through the free exercise of personal choice among a variety of marketed options.

(Rose, 1999, p. 230)

It can be argued that recent policies aimed at promoting young people's wellbeing have sought to encourage the notion of young people as ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’, largely responsible for their own health and happiness. Another consideration should be that policy and initiatives seek to impose a particular model of wellbeing on all young people and deny the viability of alternative ways of being young. Critics might argue that there is little room simply to ‘be’.

Activity 3 Defining wellbeing

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

How would you define ‘wellbeing’ as applied to young people? What does wellbeing ‘look like’? And what factors contribute to this?


Wellbeing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’. However, it is important to realise that wellbeing is a much broader concept than moment-to-moment happiness. While it does include happiness, it also includes other things, such as how satisfied people are with their life a whole, their sense of purpose, and how in control they feel.