Choosing your freedom: research into youth self-employment

Mar 2, 2023

Choosing your freedom: research into youth self-employment


New research sets the foundations for deeper understanding of self-employment for young people from marginalised backgrounds. The team at Youth Futures Foundation and The Social Innovation Partnership explore what we can learn from our newly published report, ‘Choosing your freedom’.

Throughout the second half of 2022, Youth Futures worked alongside The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP) and Word on the Curb (WOTC) on a piece of ‘discovery’ research, aiming to find out more about why young people from marginalised backgrounds are driven to pursue self-employment. The research also asked what makes self-employment ‘good quality’ and what support is available to create and maintain good quality self-employment. Young people were placed at the heart of this research as paid co-designers and peer researchers, interviewing other young people and organisations working in this space. This participatory approach enabled the young people to explore their shared experiences in a way that we could not have done otherwise. We then brought the young people, stakeholder organisations and the project team back together for a roundtable discussion on the findings in February 2023.

What did we find and what did the young people and other stakeholders think?

Firstly, the young people we spoke to emphasised that quality self-employment is about freedom, ownership and the ability to put values into practice. Our roundtable highlighted particular pressures for young self-employed people around mental health and well-being, and the different motives and needs around work for different young people. However, many emphasised that good quality is found in the freedom of working for themselves.

“You get to set your own boundaries, you get to your own ideas, you get to push your own ideas forward. You’re obviously in charge, it’s your thing and you can be proud of your things instead of saying – oh yeah, I’m connected to this. It’s more this is my thing”

Few of the young people that we spoke to had engaged with support to start or sustain self-employment. Our research mapped 21 support interventions from 17 providers, offering a variety of support. However, our peer researchers hadn’t heard of the majority of these providers and our work found that support for young self-employed people is under-evaluated, with no publicly available external evaluations of support for self-employed young people.

Our roundtable emphasised the diversity of support that could help young people from marginalised backgrounds to secure good quality self-employment. Participants focused on information – particularly, improving access to personalised, place and sector-specific advice and guidance.

Our research also highlighted that it is essential to carefully pitch targeted support for young people facing disadvantage and discrimination.

“[Targeted support] implies that people from certain backgrounds don’t have the ability to work things out for themselves without the extra support. You know what I mean? Which I don’t think is true… I think it should be a case by case basis and it should be based on merit rather than purely on background”

Roundtable participants were struck by this finding, which emphasises the importance of engaging directly with young people with lived experience to design high-quality, relevant support. They highlighted the importance of designing services and programmes with young people, reflecting the emancipatory and insightful participatory approach taken by the research.

How can I find out more?

We’ve published the full report from this research: it’s available to view here. The report gives more details about our approach and the insights we’ve generated, as well as our main recommendations. The recommendations address the need for more evaluation of support initiatives, further research and co-design of resources and support with young people.



“I’ve found the entire experience really enlightening. It’s been amazing to be surrounded by so many young people ambitious about their self-employment and their plans for the future, and it’s made me re-evaluate and take on a more positive outlook. The interviews were a great way for me to get a feel for the type of support already out there through the words of the people working at these organisations. This project in itself is very nuanced and realistic in its approach, and I appreciate the candid discussions my peers and I could have.”  Peer Researcher, Anon

“My journey to being self-employed has been somewhat difficult. Engaging in this research project made me see through the lens of other young self-employed people and what other support interventions or networks are doing to assist with this journey. It’s nice to know that there is so much support out there and multiple people experiencing the same beginner problems – I don’t feel so alone.” Peer Researcher, Tabitha

“This important research into the experiences of young people from marginalised backgrounds in self-employment has brought to life an issue that is often overlooked. The report lays the groundwork for a better understanding of how diverse young people define self-employment and begins to explore how they get into and stay in quality self-employment. The findings make it clear that young people have a significant interest in self-employment. In particular, young people from Black, Asian and other minoritised ethnic backgrounds, who have been underserved by the system and for whom the need to find routes into sustainable work is more pronounced, are drawn to the freedom and ownership they see in self-employment opportunities. We will continue to explore the ways in which self-employment can provide high-quality work, whilst addressing the risks and pressures that come with being self-employed. We’ve been delighted to work with TSIP on this research, and to explore the topic through the lens of young people with their participatory approach, working alongside a variety of stakeholders and young people throughout this project. We are looking forward to continuing the conversation on self-employment and seeking to deepen our understanding of the ever-changing landscape, putting young people and stakeholders at the heart of this important topic.” Barry Fletcher, CEO, Youth Futures Foundation

“Self-employment for young people is ever-increasing, yet it remains vastly under-researched. We recognise this research only scratches the surface of the experiences of young marginalised people within self-employment – but its findings are crucial to inform further conversations around how best organisations and service providers can support young people build positive futures. TSIP’s participatory approach was critical to unearth key insights and data that are absent from national data sets. Training young people with interview and research skills also ensured a reciprocal knowledge-sharing relationship between ourselves and the peer researchers. The power of this approach was clear in the positive engagement and feedback from the organisations and young people involved. It was a pleasure to collaborate with Youth Futures Foundation on this research. We are excited to see the resulting recommendations come to fruition through participatory research and design methods that amplify the experiences and voices of self-employed young people.” Katie Fowler, CEO of TSIP


Read the full report.

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