An ingenious take on national service

It's funny how, whenever anyone mentions "broken Britain", we think immediately of teenagers. Or perhaps we think of David Cameron, and then of teenagers. The second route has the advantage of making us look favourably on teenagers for a time, but soon they present themselves to us in their natural element: hooded tops, leering, sideways glances, random foul-mouthed abuse, the smell of two-stroke engines and fear.

I know quite a few non-imaginary teenagers, and nearly all of them are much brighter and motivated than I remember myself or my contemporaries being. Where I was content with either listening to Wagner or examining my looks, thoughts and actions from the perspectives of imaginary females whom I never met because I was at an all-boys' school, the teenagers I know now all seem to want to do things, whether that be making music and films or merely trying to change the world.

That said, I can't go to my nearest newsagent any more for fear of a gang of teenagers to whom I once refused to give a cigarette. One of them has me pegged as having stolen his scooter. These are the teenagers I think of when people say "broken Britain".

But the teenagers didn't break Britain. They're far too young to be anything but victims. If anyone broke it, we did; especially those of us who are older than me.

What is worse, though, is that we broke it in a manner calculated to be as hard to fix as possible by adopting bad-loser psychology and applying it on the biggest scale possible: when someone loses, it's society's fault (or nature's, when it comes to reality TV); when someone wins it's because – to adopt a familiar phrase – they've got talent. The chapter on the thing that actually separates winning from losing – hard work – doesn't really get a look-in.

Genuine proposals for a fix don't come very often. So when a new report from Demos comes with strong recommendations for implementing a social national service programme for the young, designed to restore a link between community service ethos and the motivation for personal gain, we should take it seriously.

Nobody would expect a 21st-century proposal for national service to comprise a simple recommendation for two years on minimum pay in the military (which is not to say that most of the people who did military service before it finished in 1960 thought their time there was well spent), and readers will be glad to learn that Service Nation, published yesterday by Demos and written by Sonia Sodha and Dan Leighton, proposes nothing of the kind.

Also unsurprising is that the model proposed by Sodha and Leighton is clearly much more attractive than the one currently being peddled by the Conservatives. The latter, the brainchild of Cameron's director of strategy, Steve Hilton, suggests a three-week programme for 16-year-olds. That would be far too limited to make a difference, probably because someone did a cost-benefit analysis and found the results rather terrifying. According to Sodha and Leighton, however, the Demos scheme can actually run at a net profit to society.

While this would remain to be seen, the element of continuity central to the Demos proposal is ingenious. Starting with the introduction of "service learning" in primary and secondary school curricula, the idea is to incorporate various schemes that combine active work in the community throughout the early careers of those in sixth form and higher education, incorporating initiatives for jobseekers and even encouraging employers to fund community service leave.

The last point sounds may sound strange. Why after all, should employers pay for their workers to go and work for someone else? But if you think about it, employers – and Whitehall not the least of them – spend millions of pounds each year on training and team-building workshops. While the acquisition of specific skills and working relationships is usually the nominal aim of these, most would admit that the general purpose is one of regenerating motivation in the workplace – mostly, if we're honest, by sustaining an illusion of personal development.

If anything is genuinely surprising about the report it is that the model for the policy-led generation of public service ethos comes not from state-centric countries like Sweden but from the US where, all too often, allegiance to the flag has been mistaken for entitlement to do just what the hell one wants. But the AmeriCorps programme – introduced early on in the Clinton administration and pushed, among others, by the late Edward Kennedy – has proven to a marked success and Sodha and Leighton are clearly right to see its potential for use in the UK. The other surprise is the pamphlet's inscription – "We are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims for itself one part of our birth, and our friends another" – from Cicero's discourse De Officiis. Surely this must be the first publication from the Athens-inspired Demos to adopt a motto straight from the heart of republican Rome?

We think of community service as resulting from the fact that our prisons our full. Maybe it's time to remember that it's actually the other way around? Our prisons are full, and our newsagents off-limits, because we somehow forgot that communities need servicing.

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