At the end of March I left my post as Director of Workforce Development at the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services (NCVYS). It was a hugely instructive three years, giving me much insight into youth work, the time to reflect on its importance and the platform to respond to questions like how we ensure its contribution is effectively valued and resourced in the future.
Now, before we start you should know that I’m not a youth worker, youth support worker or even a volunteer with young people. In fact to tell you the truth, I’m not even sure how much I like young people. They’re a confusing and inconsistent bunch, often both aggressively confident and painfully insecure. I find their music atrocious, their views mostly nauseating, their culture shallow and derivative. Unashamedly I reach for the cliché that ‘everything was better in my day’ because now, at the comparatively distant age of 36, I know that it’s Definitely True.
Don’t get me wrong. I like some young people – at least three – but to have a generic, unqualified love of young people, to like them as an entity, per se, seems, frankly, complete madness.
What I do care about – and what ultimately saved my professional career from a close call with moral compromise – is disadvantage. It’s why I work in the voluntary sector. And when it comes to the Top Trumps – The Disadvantage Edition, our current generation of young people hold some of the best cards ever seen.
Generational disadvantage: a bluffer’s guide
Though working at NCVYS afforded me many opportunities to see great youth work in action, it is to the bleakly excellent Jilted Generation – how Britain has bankrupted its youth by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik (2010) that I am indebted for framing the necessity of youth work for me so clearly.
In it, the authors systematically expose all the advantages, resources and opportunities exploited by previous generations that are now closed to those born in recent times – free higher education, access to affordable housing, job security, universal public services and natural career and wage progression.
And in their place what young people get is responsibility for a national debt five times the size of GDP that they’ll be shouldering for the rest of their working lives, all to keep an asset-rich generation of post-war baby-boomers in comfortable retirement.
One of the more toxic consequences of this meze of disadvantage is to create what the authors call an ‘engine of inequality’ amongst young people, where those from more affluent backgrounds manage the poor jobs and expensive housing with parental support, whilst those less fortunate incubate poverty and lack of opportunity in their early years of adulthood.
The result is young people with no narrative, no certainties, their homes and jobs all short-term, their ability to form stable relationships and shape their own destinies heavily compromised.
But enough about young people, back to me
Thus with the help of Howker and Malik I was able if not entirely to lose my distaste for young people, but at least to contextualise it within a broader narrative of social justice, one consistent enough with my personal values to render my paid employment worthwhile and, I sincerely hope, productive. Well done me.
This rationalisation also had one crucial additional advantage – it gave me an outsider, perhaps more objective view of the problems facing youth services, uncorrupted by what seems to be a permanently unresolved academic discourse, and uncompromised by any practical service within the traditional youth work delivery structures.
As you can imagine, such a perspective often brought me into conflict with The Youth Work Establishment.
Remind me again, why are we here?
Which is, I must say, a position I entirely understand. Youth Work in 2013 is in a very defensive place. Though its history is long and proud, it’s present is a mess. In policy and funding terms its outside the tent, and its narrative, much like the young people it serves, is confused and inconsistent.
With universal services disappearing and many paid roles going the same way, those working for and representing the profession of youth work seem frozen between stick and twist, angry at the abandoning of the industry’s conventions and standards, but weak and impotent in forging a new path of their own.
What’s not yet really happening – and this is the responsibility of everyone involved in youth services – is any grand, strategic, cross-sector effort to push for a brighter future.
Consider the following questions, largely absent from the current debate:
Why is the value of youth policy and services within government so low, that centrally they appear to have no fixed home, and locally are so easily disposed of?
If employers have such a good idea of the qualities young people in their workforce are lacking, why aren’t they doing something about it?
What is our youth work contract in 2013? That’s to say, what’s the minimum level of youth services we all expect to be available to all young people, wherever they live and whoever provides them?
Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions
Efforts are being made, but much more is needed.
Those at the professional end of the sector need to recognise they are enablers, not gatekeepers. They should welcome and facilitate the wider use of youth work methodologies in non-youth work settings, commercialising their expertise, on their own terms, before it happens without them. This is by far their best hope for continued relevance and survival.
And those coping better with the changing zeitgeist – those organisations who have successfully adapted their narratives enough to secure what remains of the state funding, or have figured out how bat their lashes at corporate partners – they need to avoid getting precious about ‘their’ young people and ‘their’ impact, and collaborate with others to build the ladders big enough to help young people climb out of their generational slums.
The good news is there are plenty out there who recognise they have a stake in young people succeeding, and are coming around to the idea that they might have do something radical about it.
Voluntary youth organisations can be The Indispensable element of this supply chain, and there are ways to do it without diluting standards, drifting missions or compromising the values base. You just have to be open to them.
Gethyn Williams is now a voluntary sector consultant specialising in radicalisation (the good kind).