The ghosts of youth work’s past

One of the things that oft strikes me is the tendency of my fellow practitioners to constantly reflect upon our past glories and successes. It becomes an almost sorrowful period of mourning – a constant lamentation of the ghosts of our past, which after a while, becomes somewhat destructive.

For someone who embodies the metaphorical ‘product’ of transformative, progressive youth work, it pains my heart that I have to echo these words and face the sad reality that we are never going to have another ‘golden generation’ of youth work, let alone vested public interest or substantial political backing. Youth work has had its time to shine – particularly during the late 1960’s and 1970’s following the publication of the Albemarle report – as well as renewed interest in the early 2000’s under the Labour administration. There were murmurs of a revival – a ‘defense’ if you will, from 2009, but where the sector failed was the opportunity to shine when the flaming torch of opportunity doth beckon.

To progress in the current climate, we have to stop looking back at the past and start looking toward the future.

The issue of sustainability has become a hotly contested topic within the sector; something I became preoccupied with during my University years. For some, the future of youth work is incredibly bleak in regard to austerity and thus instability, but consider this – if youth work was so sustainable, why was it so easy for services to be cut? Such a point certainty provided food for thought during our seminars…

I think it is time for us to start being honest with ourselves and begin to deliver youth work practices in a climate that demands innovation and progression, for a generation who demand the need for transformative youth work now more than ever.

Look, we know of the potential and impact of positive youth work. I am a firm believer that “good youth work works” but I fear that some within the sector have sauntered around with a false sense of naivety for too long, operating under the pretense that the sector would survive as it stood, when actually they should have been carefully planning the next steps to safeguarding our sector’s future.

I attended the Creative Collisions conference in November 2013 and sat in on several sessions before co-facilitating one of my own. From a practitioner’s point of view, it was rather refreshing to see the National Youth Agency (NYA) pick up the mantle and begin flying the flag for the youth work of the future. The creation of an ‘Institute’ demonstrates an ideological and professional shift toward the centralisation of agencies and services. Where we have come unstuck in the past is our inability to open effective dialogue with our fellow professionals and services, operating under an almost ‘bunker’ mentality; staying confined to our trenches whilst the turmoil of political and ideological war erupts around us.

Let me not digress, the youth work of the future encourages us to open channels of communication and work together more productively to deliver services. Rhetoric like ‘co-production’ is starting to become commonplace, and there is a growing need for the modern practitioner to approach the changing atmosphere with a renewed sense of vigour. We have weathered the storm, it is now time to act. Let us not become engulfed in rhetoric and bureaucracy, I can sit here and bemoan our lack of communication or periods of solitude, but what we actually need to consider is how we go about delivering innovative services.

Much like the ever-changing rhetoric, we have to be pragmatic in our approach to service delivery.

I bill this era of youth work as one for ‘social pragmatism’ – for the nature and acceleration of young people and the culture by which they operate under requires us to think on our feet and make a visible, tangible and positive impact, at a time where reinvestment in the front-line is as common as the presence of youth services in local authorities. The youth work of today and of tomorrow places great emphasis upon accountability, and the services we provide have to reflect such.

I speak from a new generation of youth workers – the ‘modern professional’; qualified through University education – a cohort who have to operate under such troubled times and still willingly provide that beacon of hope to many a young person’s life. It is important to continue demonstrating that optimism, but doing it in a way that will encourage us to work together more and reinvest our passion into credible services.

This is by no means a definitive list, merely a few suggestions. As we move toward the future it is worth us grasping the following:

  1. Get involved in policy discussions and contribute to the development of the sector for the future
  2. Join the Institute for Youth Work and share resources and ideas with your fellow practitioners
  3. Develop new resources, toolkits and activities to deliver your work rather than looking to the work of the past
  4. Collaborate with other services rather than duplicating workloads and services within a local area
  5. Embrace new political ideas rather than shying away from them

So, as we approach the new year, let us stop flirting with the ghosts of our past and begin to dance with the spirits of our future. For the very least, do it for the lives of the young people we so strive to change.

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9 Responses to The ghosts of youth work’s past

  1. broongirl says:

    Wylie’s article in youth & policy back in 2010 (youth work in a cold climate) gives interesting thoughts on discussing such issues. There is a difference between the romantics who are stuck in the past ways of working and the technocratics, who in his own words adopt ‘whatever new managerialists ideology’. It’s the principled pragmatists who don’t compromise, but rather stay true to youth work professional values, but find new ways of working in a contemporary society. Sadly we appear to have a growing number of technocratics in our profession.

    • blakecw says:

      A fair point to make, change has brought with it a growing case of bureaucracy and ‘managerialism’, but there was a need for accountability. Then there’s the danger of youth work becoming consumed with outputs, outcomes… a myriad of data.

      We have a growing number of technocrats but it’s all about balance – there needs to be a blend of practitioners, but all need to share a common focus around progression and innovation.

      That is where we have become stuck – complacency. We need to move forward in a manner that not only allows us to demonstrate the tangible impact of youth work to appease those above, but in a way that keeps the very heart of youth work still beating. A difficult task, I’m sure you can imagine, but nonetheless we have to move with the times and approach the future ready for action.

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  3. A really thought provoking blog. I agree with most of it – I’m in my early 30s, so I think I fit the ‘modern professional’ you refer to. I can see that in the past there may have been issues with complacency amongst youth workers – a sense of untouchability that has now been torn down, with even the NYA seemingly turning it’s back on traditional forms of youth work.

    But, at the same time, I read this blog and think some things are missing. What happened to collective action and association in youth work? What about standing alongside the marginalised and oppressed (and who is more marginalised through the news media and government policies than young people?). What about our commitment social justice?

    Maybe the problem with the previous generations of youth workers isn’t that they weren’t doing enough, but that they were creating too many waves, and created too many problems for too many of the political classes. The lesson to us, I think, isn’t so much how can we fall into line with the power that wish us to see young people as the problem, rather than the structures in society that seek to silence them. Instead, it’s to consider how we can conscientize young people in a more subtle manner.

    I would also suggest we embrace the tradition on which youth work is based, even if not the practices, because the values on which we create our modern practices need to have stronger foundations than the current neoliberal agenda that assumes the market it the best guide for young people’s future. We are but the next chapter in a long narrative of youth work – and as an anonymous philosopher once said “there’s nothing new under the Sun”.

    • blakecw says:

      Agree in principle. Elements of collective action and association occurred throughout history but there’s also a very solo mindset – especially when working with local authorities, larger organisations and even within the voluntary sector. My intention was not to disregard such, merely that it does not always serve everyone’s best interests. Ego perhaps?

      I agree about championing the marginalized and oppressed and advocating their voice. My next post touches upon it so please keep an eye out.

      Yes, youth work has gone through waves (one of the problems when trying to establish a foundation) and our ambition to work with young people to develop a critical consciousness of the world can never be faltered. Between now – 2015 will be the most testing time for us. The unrest and disengagement from the political processes will lead to young people challenging and questioning everything. Even the most hard to reach young people have an awareness of the murmurs coming out of Westminster.

      During my dissertation period one of my interviewees stated that youth work is a cyclical process – we go from the traditional – modern – traditional again. Rather than a cycle I see it more as a stepping stone – I’m not disregarding the importance of the work of our past, merely that as our generations and societies have changed, we too have to move with it. We need to get out of the mindset that the past was ‘best practice’ and see it as a stepping stone – one of the many catalysts toward progression.

    • blakecw says:

      Forgot to add…

      “When it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me.”

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