During an active life he was instrumental in shaping Labour Party thinking. When secretary of the policy committee of the Labour Party he was responsible for drafting "Let Us Face the Future", Labour's manifesto for the 1945 general election, was a leading protagonist on social reform, and founded or helped found a number of socially useful organisations. These include the Consumers' Association, Which? magazine, the National Consumer Council, the Open University, the National Extension College, the Open College of the Arts and Language Line, a telephone-interpreting business.
Young was born in Manchester, the son of an Australian violinist and music critic, and an Irish Bohemian painter and actress. Until he was eight, he grew up in Melbourne, returning to England shortly before his parents' marriage broke up. He attended several schools, eventually entering Dartington Hall, a new progressive school in Devon, in the 1920s. He had a long association with the small school, as student, trustee, deputy chairman and historian. He studied economics at the London School of Economics then became a barrister when he applied to be called to the Bar in 1939.
During the Second World War, Young served as director of the Political and Economic Planning think tank and became director of research for the Labour Party where he wrote the manifesto for the 1945 general election and the vast speakers' handbook. He served under the Labour Party government led by Clement Attlee, but left in 1950 claiming the party had run out of ideas. He called for the establishment of a Social Science Research Council and became its first director 17 years later.
He began studying for a PhD at the London School of Economics in 1952. His studies of housing and local government policy in East London left him disillusioned with the state of community relations and local Labour councillors. This prompted him to found the Institute of Community Studies, which was his principal vehicle for exploring his ideas of social reform. Its basic tenet was to give people more say in running their lives and institutions. Butler argues that it drew upon existing bodies of research in social psychology and sociology to highlight the relevance of the extended family in modern society and to offer a model of socialist citizenship, solidarity and mutual support not tied to productive work. Young promoted the supportive kinship networks of the urban working class, and an idealized conception of the relationships between women, to suggest that family had been overlooked by the left and should be reclaimed as a progressive force. The goal was to strengthen the working-class family as set it up as a model for cooperative socialism.
He also founded the Mutual Aid Centre at this time. Young co-authored with Peter Willmott Family and Kinship in East London, documenting and analysing the social costs of rehousing a tight-knit community in a suburban housing estate (known affectionately by sociologists as Fakinel and invariably pronounced with a cockney accent).
In 1958, Young also wrote the influential satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, originally for the Fabian Society, which refused to publish it. In it he coined the word "meritocracy," to which he gave negative connotations, and he became disappointed with how the concept came to be seen as an achievable concept worth pursuing.
Young's social research also contributed to the change in secondary education that led to widespread abolition of grammar schools and their replacement by comprehensive schools between 1965 and 1976, as well as the abolition of the 11-plus.
In the 1950s and 1960s Young helped to found the Consumers' Association and the National Consumer Council claiming that "politics will become less and less the politics of production, and more and more the politics of consumption", presenting the ideas in a book The Chipped White Cups Of Dover.
In 1960 he started the Advisory Centre for Education the National Extension College and, with Peter Laslett, a dawn university on Anglia Television, which became prototypes of the Open University which Harold Wilson launched in 1964, building on his vision.
In the mid-1980s, Young co-founded International Alert, together with Leo Kuper and Martin Ennals.
In 1987 he founded the Open College of the Arts, confounding critics who maintained that the arts could not be taught by distance methods. He also founded Language Line, a telephone interpreting business, to enable non-English-speaking people to have equal access to public services. He fostered the work of many younger researchers and "social entrepreneurs", and founded the School for Social Entrepreneurs in 1997. Aspects of Young's work are being developed by the Young Foundation, created from the merger of his Institute of Community Studies and his Mutual Aid Centre, under the direction of Geoff Mulgan.
Throughout his life, and particularly in later life, Young was concerned for older people. In 1982 he co-founded the University of the Third Age with Peter Laslett and Eric Midwinter, and Linkage, bringing together older people without grandchildren and young people without grandparents. In 2001 he co-founded the charity Grandparents Plus to champion the role of the wider family in children's lives.
According to his friend Eric Midwinter, "All his thought, all his incisive writing, all his brilliantly conceived schemes, all his astutely handled initiatives were guided by a salient method. He was a utopian socialist. His thinking stemmed from the views of 19th century radicals like Robert Owen, Saint-Simon or Charles Fourier, with their hatred of massive institutionalism, be it in the hands of the public authority or of the large commercial company."
Young was a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, from 1961 to 1966, and President of Birkbeck, University of London, from 1989 to 1992.
Although an egalitarian, Young accepted a life peerage on 20 March 1978, taking the title Baron Young of Dartington. His many projects required frequent travel to London and the peerage offered free rail travel and attendance allowance at a time when he had run out of money.
Young married three times. In 1945 he married Joan Lawton, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. They divorced and in 1960 he married Sasha Moorsom, a novelist, sculptor and painter with whom he had a son and a daughter. Young and Moorsom worked together on several projects, including in the townships of South Africa. Moorsom died in 1993 and in 1995 Young married Dorit Uhlemann, with whom he had a daughter.
Toby Young, Michael Young's son with Moorsom, is a journalist and writer.Institute of Community Studies, 1954 (director 1954–2002, now part of the Young Foundation)
Consumers' Association, 1957 (chairman 1957–65, president 1965–93)
South African Committee for Higher Education, 1959 (founding sponsor)
Botswana Extension College, 1959
Lesotho Distance Teaching Centre, 1959
Advisory Centre for Education, 1959
Bethnal Green Exports Ltd., 1964–66
Social Science Research Council, 1965 (chairman 1965–68)
Thameside Research and Development Group, 1967–69
National Consumer Council, 1975 (chairman 1975–77)
National Extension College, 1962 (chairman 1962–71)
Open University, 1964
National Innovations Centre, 1968–74
Institute for Social Studies in Medical Care, 1970–94
International Extension College, 1971–2006
Social Audit, 1972
Mutual Aid Centre, 1977 (now part of the Young Foundation)
Commuter Study Clubs, 1980
International Alert, 1981
University of the Third Age, 1982
Tawney Society, 1982–88
College of Health, 1983
Association for the Social Study of Time, 1983
Argo Venture, 1984–95
Open College of the Arts, 1987 (chairman 1987–91)
Centre for Electoral Choice, 1987
Centre for Educational Choice, 1988
Open School, 1989
Language Line, 1990
A Secondary Education Curriculum for Adults (ASECA), 1991 p35
Adult Basic Education Programme (ABEP), 1991
South African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE), 1991
Education Extra, 1992
National Association for the Education of Sick Children, 1993
Tower Hamlets Independent News Service (THINK), 1993–94
National Funerals College, 1994
Family Covenant Association, 1994
The School for Social Entrepreneurs, 1997
Phoenix Education Trust, 2001