Youth Work Today


Youth work as we know it today has developed from a rich tradition that dates back, at the very least, to the latter part of the nineteenth century (Davies, 2008). It is argued, however, that these traditions which have helped to define the nature of the work are being lost. Consequently, the very nature of how we define youth work in the current context is being debated. Although there are different positions in this argument, all agree that the nature of the work is altering in response to changes in wider society.  The unchecked progress of globalisation (Giddens, 1999), the rise of market values (Clarke et al, 2000), the decline of the welfare state (Mooney et al, 2006), the dominant ideology of ‘individualism’ (Beck, 1992) and the rise of the ‘risk’ society (France, 2008) have all undoubtedly had an impact on youth work policy and subsequently, youth work practice. This has led to a number of writers suggesting that much contemporary practice has drifted so far away from these traditions, that what now goes under the guise of youth work can no longer be called so.

Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith are two such writers. They argue that for any work with young people to be termed ‘youth work’, five elements must be present:

For over 150 years, five elements have fused to delineate what we now know as youth work and to distinguish it from other welfare activities. It is distinctive only when all are present. Remove one and what is observed may possess a resemblance to, but is unquestionably not, youth work. (Jeffs and Smith, 2008: 277)

These five elements are:

  • That the young people choose to engage voluntarily
  • That the work has a focus on the education and welfare of young people
  • That the work focuses on the young people and the work remains agespecific
  • That the work encourages young people to come together, with a focus on association and relationship
  • That workers are friendly, accessible, responsive and act with integrity (ibid: 277-279)

Jeffs and Smith argue that these elements are being threatened by a variety of processes which are being given priority by government policy.

It is argued that the voluntarily principle is the defining feature of youth work and helps to delineate it from other welfare services, such as social work and teaching (Jeffs and Smith, 1999a; Davies, 2005; Davis, 2009). As Ord (2009) notes, it is perhaps unique amongst the welfare services that young people frequent that they can choose to leave at any point. The voluntary principle ensures that workers are forced to share a degree of power with young people, which in turn ensures that the relationship between adult and young person is reciprocal and terms of engagement have to be negotiated. This in turn means that workers are forced:

…to earn, through the sensitive use of self, the trust and confidence of young people, to become a meaningful agent in the life of the individual or group and then to build upon such relationships in order to maximise their effectiveness as educators. (Jeffs, 1991: 12)

Increasingly however, this principle is being threatened as youth workers find themselves working with young people whose presence is compelled – particularly in the spheres of employability and youth justice (Davies & Merton, 2009). This clearly shifts the power dynamic away from young people and results in work taking place which is driven by the requirements of the agency rather than the expressed needs of the young people. Resultantly, what they are doing is not ‘what has been historically defined as youth work’ (Jeffs and Smith, 1999a: 47).

Ord (2009) contests this view. He argues that:

Voluntary participation may be a very important dynamic…but it is not the ‘holy grail’ of youth work, and should not be used as the yardstick by which interventions and approaches are permitted into the realm of youth work. (p44)

Ord makes the convincing argument that young people can choose to be present but that does not necessarily mean that they will engage with whatever activity is taking place. Spence et al (2006) agree with this position and in their study found several examples of young people who, although present voluntarily, were choosing  not to engage with workers – with instances of dissent, ‘switching off’ and outright hostility. Instead, Ord (2009) suggests that what workers should aim for is to enable engagement. Youth work, he argues, can take place even when a young person’s attendance is compulsory provided the worker adheres to the values of youth work, which he defines as:

  1. Being rooted in conversation
  2. Extending Participation
  3. Working ‘with’ young people and not ‘acting on’ them
  4. Giving the young person a degree of choice in the work
  5. Focusing on the ‘process’ of the work and not the ‘outcome’

The capacity of workers to adhere to these principles, however, is gradually being eroded by the growth of the ‘contract culture’.  Agencies now have to compete with one another for finance which is tied to, and sometimes conditional upon, their meeting of prescribed targets (Jeffs and Banks, 1999; Spence, 2004; Poole, 2007). This means that providers are increasingly obliged ‘to provide ‘output indicators’, ‘qualitative criteria’ and ‘objective success measures’… to show how young people have developed’ (Jeffs and Smith, 1996: 87). The introduction of market mechanisms into the public and voluntary sectors, which began with the Conservatives in the 1980s and accelerated under New Labour (Beresford, 2005), has continued with the current administration in Scotland. This is evident in a variety of policy documents looking to youth work to provide prescribed ‘outcomes’ (Scottish Executive, 2006; Scottish Executive, 2007; Scottish Government, 2007):

The outcomes we seek from youth work are the same as we seek from schools, that is, that young people become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. (Scottish Executive, 2007: 12)

This has led to youth work being increasingly valued in instrumentalist terms, with a growing pressure for workers, particularly those carrying out work funded by the state, to meet targets which Jeffs and Smith (2008) argue fall under two broad categories – public safety and economic productivity:

[Youth work]…can engage in positive activities young people who might otherwise become involved in anti-social behaviour, alcohol or drug misuse, or who would leave school with few qualifications and skills, perhaps not progressing into education, employment or training (entering the ‘NEET’ group). (Scottish Executive, 2007: 6)

The result of this is that youth workers are finding it increasingly difficult to respond to the expressed needs of the young people. Instead of working with young people, workers are expected to work on them and provide evidence that they have moved young people away from ‘risky’ behaviour:

Growing pressures to formularise youth work…and produce Identifiable outcomes are slowly eroding the capacity of workers to structure communities of enquiry. Funders are seeking to impose conditions which require workers to show they have reduced offending, anti-social behaviour or risk activities in a given area. (Jeffs and Smith, 1999b: 100)

The problem with this approach for Jeffs and Smith (2008) is threefold. Firstly, rather than starting with the education and welfare of young people it instead begins with the requirement to move young people towards ‘pro-social’ behaviour. Secondly, rather than being age-specific, the work is primarily concerned with what young people will become, rather than their ‘here and now’ (Davies, 2005). And thirdly the emphasis on meeting targets and outcomes results in the ‘process’ of building meaningful relationships with young people being increasingly side-lined. It is the notion of process that is crucial to the ‘tradition’ of youth work.

Far from a focus on outcomes or performance indicators, youth work has been characterised by an emphasis on fostering relationships with young people and seeking to situate learning through conversation and experience (Smith, 1994; Doyle, 2001; Tyler, 2009):

Instead of aiming for particular changes in individuals, we look to the nature of the interactions we foster – we move from a focus on product to a concern with process and praxis. (Smith, 1994: 36)

Learning opportunities are identified through the process of relationship-building which itself is rooted in dialogue. Key to building relationships is creating a spirit of trust, openness, honesty, giving the young people space and time to express themselves and valuing their input. As Brookfield (1987) states, ‘it is important that we assure people – through our actions and our words – that we respect and value them for their own selves’ (p72). It is argued that a focus on outcomes, performance indicators and the like results in workers losing ‘relationship’ as a distinguishing feature of their practice (Smith and Smith, 2008).  And herein lies the paradox. It is for youth workers ability to build relationships that it is valued in policy:

Youth workers often develop positive relationships with young people and build useful knowledge of the needs of young people and the issues that have an impact on their lives and communities. (LTS, 2010: 11)

However, the focus on outcomes diminishes a workers ability to ‘start where the young people are at’. As such, Davies (2005) argues that youth work is being set up to fail. The process of building relationships with young people takes time – particularly as youth workers primarily engage with some of the most ‘disaffected’ young people in some of the poorest communities in Scotland. The problem is that workers simply don’t have the necessary time available to foster the relationships that make it attractive, as funding is typically short-term. Davies and Merton (2009) found in their study that ‘workers were sometimes required, all within six months, to move from a first encounter with very alienated young people, via building mutual trust and respect, to demonstrating ‘hard’ measurable outcomes’ (p11). By Jeffs and Smith’s (2008) definition, this way of working is led by the requirements of funding, not the young people’s needs and as such, cannot be called youth work.

The focus on targeting has also seen a shift away from the associational element of youth work, with many workers now expected to ‘keywork’ or ‘case manage’ young people who are identified as being in particular need. This has particularly been the case for those working in the employability sector:

One of the most valuable lessons…has been the importance of vulnerable young people having access to a trusted adult to advocate on their behalf, giving them one-to-one support to access the services they need to progress towards the labour market. (Scottish Executive, 2006: 35)

This way of working, it is argued, has become fashionable as it is appears to reflect the philosophy of the market in terms of being cost-effective, customer focused and publicly accountable (Britton, 1987; Smith, 2001). Jeffs and Smith (2002) suggest that policy increasingly views youth work ‘as a form of individualised case-management, and youth workers as specialists blessed with skills…uniquely fitting them to control…’develop’ and oversee ‘troublesome’ young people’ (p55). Workers are then assessed on their success in moving these young people away from NEET (Not in education, employment or training) destinations.

The problem with this approach is that it tends to reinforce the view that the ‘problem’ of unemployment lies solely with the young person. Working in this individualised way serves to distract from the social factors which have led to so many young people being disenfranchised from the labour market. As Wood and Hine (2009) note ‘such ‘pathological’ approaches to individual motivation and risk taking do not tackle deeply entrenched structural issues’ (p9). Working in this way, youth workers may be reinforcing the notion that the young people are deficient. Group learning, in contrast, allows young people to share their issues and allows them to see that they are not alone or ‘different’. Working together and sharing their experiences ‘their sense of who they are changes and they begin to re-create their identity’ (Tett and McLachlan, 2008: 667). Better still, it can allow young people to challenge the very structures that have served to alienate them in the first place. Britton (1987) argues that a casework approach can be a viable option provided that ‘It is casework by consent and is based on clear aims and objectives agreed by both parties and open to regular review and evaluation’ (p34). Unfortunately, the pre-ordained outcomes sought by funding preclude any chance of many young people having a say in what objectives they wish to achieve.  Again, this individualised way of working serves to shift many workers away from what Jeffs and Smith (2008) would traditionally call youth work.

Wylie (2010) contests this view, and much of what Jeffs, Smith and Davies suggest. He places them in the first of three traditions which he argues are evident in the current context –

  1. The Romantics – these, he argues, ‘adhere to the ‘old-time religion’ of youth work’ (p3). They extol the virtue of the voluntary relationship and convivial conversation and wish to find an alternative to government targets.
  2. The Technocrats – these go along with whatever managerialist agenda is in vogue and adhere unquestioningly to targets without evaluating their success.
  3. The Principled Pragmatists – Wylie places himself in this group, arguing that they ‘draw from the deep well of youth work values’ (p3). Although they don’t need numbers and figures to develop relationships, they realise that youth work has a responsibility to show in outcomes the contribution that they can make to wider society.

Davies (2011) makes a valuable point when he suggests that these three traditions appear very crude. Indeed, Wylie (2008) sails perilously close to sounding ‘romantic’ when he suggests ‘at the heart of excellent performance is dialogue and reciprocity… a voluntary relationship, yes, but one which looks towards growth and development.’ (p5).  It is exactly these concepts of reciprocity and voluntarism that the ‘romantics’ argue are threatened in the current context. As the studies by Spence et al (2006) and Davies and Merton (2009) reveal, workers in the field appear to straddle a ‘middle ground’ between pragmatism and romanticism – attempting to adhere to the principles outlined by Davies, Jeffs and Smith whilst meeting the outcomes and targets demanded by funding bodies:

…even in projects which were highly structured and goal-orientated, to be successful it was necessary for the workers to engage with immediate and personal issues as well as with the systematic conversation which related to ‘training,’ ‘challenge’ or ‘curriculum.’ (Spence et al, 2006: 73)

Equally, however, it is precisely for this reason that what some workers are doing should not be classified as ‘not youth work’.

There is little doubt that the changes outlined have narrowed the capacity for workers to engage in the traditional conception of youth work as outlined by Jeffs and Smith (2008). But as Davies (1986) noted in an earlier publication ‘of course, policy is not practice. It rarely, if ever, decides precisely what will happen when a worker meets client’ (p2). Tyler (2009) argues that workers have to balance the requirements of funders with their own values, and seek as far as possible to work with the needs and agendas of the young people, to build relationships through conversation, to empower the young people and expose them to new experiences and perspectives.  As the studies by Spence et al (2006) and Davies and Merton (2009) show, many youth workers are attempting to and successfully negotiating these competing priorities. To suggest that what they are doing is not youth work appears to miss the mark. Instead, I argue that there are different degrees of youth work. As Hogan (2003) suggests ‘success in such struggles is not an all or nothing affair. It is more a matter of degree, of fluctuating degree at that’ (p221).

As long as workers have a fundamental belief in the young people they work with, are friendly, accessible and look to relationship and conversation to underpin their work, I would suggest that they can be doing youth work. Unlike Wylie (2010) I don’t dismiss Davies, Jeffs and Smith as ‘chippy romantics’. In essence I believe they are correct to question the direction that youth work is taking and the elements they cite should, as far as possible, be adhered to. The more elements of the traditional facets which underpin youth work practice that we can incorporate into our practice, the closer we will be to meeting the needs of young people – particularly those that are on the fringes of society. Ultimately it is our unique ability to meet and prioritise the needs of the young people we work with that is at stake. As funding is cut and targeting is tightened our ability to work with young people in a way that sits well with our beliefs and values may become even more compromised. Perhaps the most important element in this debate is the debate itself. Because it is at the very core of what we do, how we do it and why we are doing it.


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