Jack Parsons, CEO, The Youth Group On The Challenges Facing Young People Following The Coronavirus Pandemic

With 90K social media followers as well as a mouth-watering network of corporate contacts, Jack Parsons has the ear of both young people and their employers. CEO of The Youth Group, he’s been recognised by Lloyds Banking Group as Young Digital Leader of the Year and ranked one of the 50 kindest leaders by the Financial Times.

Still in his 20s, Jack’s rise has been meteoric, although not without setbacks; he’s learned the hard way and talks proudly about the mental health challenges that he’s faced in the past. After having a tough upbringing and lack of career support from school, his personal mission is to knock down doors for others to walk through.

In this exclusive interview via Zoom, from his home with a panoramic view over Westminster (he’s neighbours with the boxer David Haye and bumps into the singer Lily Allen in the lift), Jack opened up about how he’s managed his own mental health during lockdown. He also shared valuable tips for young people and their employers, struggling to navigate the months of change and uncertainty ahead.

You’ve suffered from mental ill-health in the past. How have you managed through lockdown?

I’ve lived on my own for the past four years, so I’m used to isolation. Spending so much time alone you get to know yourself pretty well. There were a couple of things that I’ve found really helped.

The first was becoming a conversation starter. When I’m feeling lonely or down, even if I have nothing to talk about, I will randomly contact people to ask them how they are. The first couple of conversations might be a bit awkward but then the people I’ve contacted start to ring me.

The other thing has been going from having all the answers to all the questions. I thought I knew what triggered my episodes of poor mental health. But then I started to ask my friends how they could tell I was having a bad mental health day. One friend told me that he knew I wasn’t feeling well when I deleted WhatsApp, which was an interesting insight. I thought I’d deleted it because I didn’t want to be on it anymore.

Moving from having all the answers to all the questions has really helped me to become more self-aware.

With furlough ending and the threat of unemployment looming, some of the worst hit are likely to be the young. What’s your advice to young people and their employers?

Going into lockdown, the average young person (aged 18-30) had £20 in savings. Many young people are part of the gig economy; there are over a million freelancers who live pay cheque to pay cheque. So, a big part of young people’s mental health challenges has been linked to finances but they’ve also found it difficult to get exercise and eat healthily, so all of their pillars of wellbeing have been undermined.

For young people, there’s anxiety around ‘what does my future look like?’ and fear that they’ll be squeezed out of the labour market. There are financial pressures, health pressures and then loneliness too. All at the same time.

My advice to anyone in this situation, who doesn’t know if they’ve got a job at the end of furlough, is to remember that you’re not the only one in this position. When you’re struggling it’s natural to think that you are the only person with this problem – but you’re not. There will be many, many others in the same boat as you.

Find out who else is on furlough. Check in to see how they’re feeling and what their action plan is. You may be closer to working out a game plan together.

How does this link to your thinking about mentoring?

We’re experiencing so much change and uncertainty. I think it’s really important that anyone who’s feeling stressed or anxious about their future reaches out and connects with a mentor.

A mentor doesn’t have to be in the same job as you. They don’t have to be a superstar. Older colleagues have a wealth of experience to share. Reverse mentoring could work for you too if there’s a lot of digital transformation going on in your work and you need to speak with someone younger who’s got a better understanding of the digital world.

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During lockdown we launched a Mentor Me programme. We’ve already set up over 2000 mentoring sessions. We match young people looking for mentoring up with an expert from Microsoft, Accenture, Google, all sorts of companies.

To access it you have to be aged between 18 and 30. You can be unemployed, employed, stressed or you might want money advice. It’s open to anyone aged 18-30 who currently has a professional or personal blocker in their life that they just want to sense check with someone who has been there and done it.

People submit their burning questions to us. We cross check them against the mentors that we have on our list. Then we normally set the mentoring session up within 48 hours.

But you don’t have to go through us. There are many mentoring programmes around. Type ‘mentoring in Manchester or Newcastle or wherever you are’ into Google, see what comes up and reach out for help. It doesn’t have to be about mental health issues – it can just be around challenges that you’re facing and need help with. I’m a big believer that everyone should have a mentor.

The Mentor Me initiative is going so well that we are now scaling it across the Commonwealth. Anyone can get access to an international mentor. And I hope this will encourage young people to travel to the Commonwealth countries. It will really help to get them out of their bubble and change their environment.

It certainly helped my mental health when I went to New Zealand. Their Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a model leader and it’s such a calm, pleasant and open country.

What else have you got planned to support young people?

Talking of New Zealand, we’ve been working in partnership with the New Zealand Government to get the young Māori community into work and to help employers get more youth ready, which is really exciting. You can get a young person ready but if the employer isn’t ready it’s like putting a duck into a mucky bath. So, it’s about educating both parties.

Companies like Microsoft, L’Oreal and Dell are already using the programme that we launched to help employers better serve youth.

Some advice that our employers’ toolkit covers are tips like:

  • Communicate clearly, simply, frequently with young people.

Employers need to communicate with their young employees far more often than you may think is necessary. Frequent communication can reduce fear and uncertainty as well as ensuring that your employees have heard the message and understood.

While leaders may indeed experience fatigue from repeating core messages, it is important to realise that your team members need to hear these messages multiple times. Different individuals may need to hear these messages in different ways and through different channels in order for them to understand effectively.

  • Remember that being accessible means more than simply being reachable with youth

Being reachable by phone, email, or any other platform, or keeping regular office hours, is vital to your accessibility as a manager. Being present is also just as much of a requirement. If your employee comes to see you about something, you should provide them with your full, undivided attention. Learning to deal with one person and one issue at a time will allow you to become a much more successful leader and manager alike with young people.

We’re doing some more work with the New Zealand Government with a big announcement coming. Proof I guess that even though the pandemic has created challenges on multiple levels, there are opportunities out there if you go and look for them.

About the author

Claire Farrow is the Global Director of Content and Programming for the Mad World and Make a Difference Summits. She also drives the content for Make A Difference News. Claire is on a mission to help every employer – large, medium and small – get the insight, inspiration and contacts they need to make real impact on workplace culture, mental health and wellbeing in their organisation. She has been freelance for more than 15 years. During that time, she has had the honour of working with many leading publishers, including the New York Times.


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