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Michael Young's legacy

I gave a talk this week at the centenary event to celebrate the work of Michael Young.

He was a unique figure – the world’s most successful social entrepreneur from the 1950s to the 1990s, a highly influential policy maker, creator of commercial businesses as well as public institutions, author, inspirer and constructive troublemaker.

Many of his creations are household names like the Open University and Which?, and lots of his ideas have entered the mainstream, such as the (much misunderstood) word ‘meritocracy’.  

I worked quite closely with him in the 1990s, and after his death, merged two of his charities to create The Young Foundation, which hosted this week’s conference. At the event I commented on the relevance of his methods to the present and the future. Below is summary of what I said:

I first got to know Michael in the early 1990s. I was very nervous about meeting this iconic figure who I expected to be grand and remote. Instead I found him to be shy and engaging, laughing a lot and quirkily diffident. I later learned about his unhappy childhood. It’s possible he never lost his fear of being abandoned, which contributed both to his shyness and to his remarkable drive.

Michael had some saintly qualities though he wasn’t a saint, and beneath the diffidence there was an evident steel. I early on encountered his breadth of interests. A good example was a discussion he organised, far from his own comfort zone, on the implications of evolutionary biology that brought together psychologists and social scientists. He commented that he was an eternal student, and when appointed Chancellor of Birkbeck College almost immediately enrolled as a student.  

His interest in learning was also evident in another comment I remember – that you should seek out your severest critics because they may be the most useful people for you, not because you’ll be persuaded by them, but because they help you sharpen up your arguments.

The other topic I encountered was Michael’s plan to create the School for Social Entrepreneurs. His initial aim, I think, was to clone himself and potentially generate a stream of people to take over his projects. The great Daniel Bell had called Michael the greatest entrepreneur of social enterprises in the world. But like him, most social entrepreneurs wanted to do their own projects, and the many people who came out of the SSE and around the world were hugely diverse in their interests and motivations.

Six of Michael’s qualities seem particularly relevant to the world a century after his birth, and may be more obviously mainstream qualities now than they were a generation ago. In some respects Michael had the attributes of a 19th century Victorian social reformer, striding out across the East End to do good. But in other respects his approach prefigured much that has become mainstream in the 21st century.

1. Move between the macro and micro

The first was an approach to change that combined the top down and the bottom up. His own life followed an arc that took him from the grandest of grand projects, the creation of a new welfare state after the war, to the most micro projects in Bethnal Green and then to all points in between.   

He embodied the spirit of social entrepreneurship – that if you see a problem you should attempt to create the solution rather than tell others to act, and ideally embody that solution in a social enterprise. And in his life he embodied the idea that you can best achieve change if you are able to work at multiple levels simultaneously, rather than just dreaming up paper policies.  

Iterating between the macro and micro may seem obvious (and it’s certainly core to my current role at Nesta). But it’s opposite to the approach of universities, think-tanks and of one strand of social entrepreneurship, which only focused on the micro solutions rather than the need to influence the environment in which these may flourish.

2. Listen to experience, not just numbers

Michael was a great listener – on buses, in cemeteries and in interviews in people’s homes. His own vulnerabilities gave him the empathy and awareness to care about lived experience of family, community and love. This has generally been a blind spot for states, that tend to see people as abstractions, or only as statistics. Yet many hundreds of firms and governments now employ ethnographers and recognise that they need some of the insights that only observation and conversation can bring.

3. Build institutions

Michael believed that ideas often grow best through taking institutional form. These then become pressure groups, champions and attractors. His own creations were of course very diverse, some dependent on governments, some on philanthropy and a few on commercial investment. I took some time to understand the power of the point. But I’ve often tried to follow it more recently. For example, in the face of failing education and education policies for teenagers my colleagues and I could have written a book or a TV programme. Instead we created a new institution – the studio school – and then helped it to grow, to nearly 50 now and hopefully many more in the future. That takes time, just as it took a dozen years for the OU to get from the drawing board to launch. But this method can be far more powerful in the long-term.

4. Grow people

Michael recognised that change ultimately depends on people, and so paid great attention to how people could be nurtured and grown. The Open University, Open College of the Arts and University of the Third Age are well-known examples, as is the School for Social Entrepreneurs. More recently, other creations of the Young Foundation kept that spirit alive – including the Social Innovation Exchange which now links thousands of social innovators around the world (and held its summer school in Mumbai a few weeks ago); and Uprising, which is cultivating young leaders from diverse backgrounds in many of Britain’s big cities.  

All try to cultivate some of the qualities so essential to change: the persistence that carries you through inevitable setbacks; the habit of taking no as a question and not as an answer, since you’ll undoubtedly be greeted with many ‘no’s’; and the vital importance of self-awareness and ethics, as well as practical skills.

5. Feed the spirit

Michael was from a very secular background. But his background in the arts and music, and his upbringing at Dartington, a progressive school, meant that he always had a feel for the role of the spirit. Late in life he became more interested in the insights of other traditions.   

A photograph of him with his dead wife Sasha consciously adapts Buddhist ideas, and his work on what constitutes a good death, prompted by his own nearly fatal illness, brought questions of spirit back to institutions and even policy.  

I hope he would approve of one of the other offshoots of the Young Foundation – Action for Happiness – which recently hosted the Dalai Lama. It has tens of thousands of supporters around the world, and has attempted to fuse a mix of spiritual and secular traditions along with evidence about what makes people happy.

6. Have fun along the way

I will never forget being driven home by Michael. He was a terrifying driver. He took corners as if they were curves, and drove the narrow streets of London as if he was on a race track. But there was a certain joie de vie in his driving style which was characteristic. Even though many people found him maddening and stubborn, they also always found him fun to be with. Even when pitching a proposal to some po-faced foundations, there would always be jokes and lightness amidst the serious substance.

These six attributes are, to my mind, pretty good ones. He lived them out. But he would never have wanted to become a statue, an edifice or to be remembered as a saint. Instead he was a rare example of someone who transformed his fears and vulnerabilities into strengths and sowed innumerable seeds that will continue to blossom long into the future.

Image courtesy of The Young Foundation


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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