What will youth work look like in 2013?

It is with great pleasure and a sad heart that we come to our final guest post in this series. We have heard from a number of truly inspirational and well qualified youth work professionals as to what they believe youth work will look like in 2013. Over the last three weeks we have had Shae and Stephen from youthworkinit.com, Professor Dana Fusco of CUNY and author of “Advancing Youth Work: current trends, critical questions” and fellow blogger and youth work professional Sam Ross the teenage whisperer. This week we have the distinct pleasure to hear from Professor Howard Sercombe of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

Howard has researched extensively in the area of youth studies, including studies of the future of youth, young people and public space, and community development with young people. He is interested in how we think about young people, and is currently working with colleagues from neurophysiology and developmental psychology on the implications of the brain architecture research on our understanding of young people. Professor Sercombe has had a major role in the development of youth work as a profession. His scholarship around this area includes writing the Australian Code of Ethics for Youth Work which has been adopted or adapted in three Australian States and the Australian Capital Territory and is under consideration nationally. He also wrote the Code of Ethics for the profession in Scotland. He has lectured extensively across the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Zambia on professional ethics and professionalisation, and his book Youth Work Ethics (Sage, 2010) is a milestone in the field. He is currently developing approaches to research methodology that take seriously the ethical commitment to justice and development.

So Howard what’s your take on the future of youth work?

Realities, as always, are contradictory.  Mixed.  From the perspective of the UK,  things look grim. The fiscal crisis has hit the traditional funding sources of youth work hard.  For the last fifty years, local government has had a statutory responsibility to make provision for youth work, though local authorities have had a lot of latitude about how, and to some extent if, they carry this out.  Austerity measures have required significant cutbacks in local funding and this has carried through, often disproportionately, to youth work services.

But this picture is mixed.  Some authorities have actually increased funding to youth work, in recognition of the impact of the recession on young people.  Others have cut provision completely.  As a generalisation, however, cutbacks have been widespread and often deep.  In Scotland, where I live, cutbacks have been worrying but not catastrophic, at least not everywhere. 2013 may well be the year when the expected decimation actually happens. The real concern is that this fiscal crisis is not a temporary adjustment, and future cutbacks look like coming on top of the existing ones. Even when the recession is over, we face the fiscal time bomb of an ageing population. Some are proclaiming the death of youth work as we know it in the UK.

Some of us have been here before, however. Political economists in the 1970s talked about the contradiction between accumulation and legitimation: the need for the State to continue to guarantee profit and private accumulation, while reassuring the general population that the system was still working in their interests.  It is typical in the early phase of a fiscal crisis for the State to pull back from areas of expenditure it sees as optional, in order to support capital in its restructuring and rebalancing.  Youth work is politically lightweight, so we tend to fall into that category.  Then, two years in, the entirely predictable spectre of youth unemployment starts to raise its head.  That is followed by a crime wave, or a moral panic about one, and there is a panic reinvestment in youth work to deal with it.  I’m expecting the same pattern.  The London riots came too early in the process to have that effect, and was able to be dismissed by the political class in terms of a cultural moral deficit and individual criminality.  A repeat may not be as easily dismissed.

But all recessions are different, and this one different to most.  Most come on the back of an economic boom, leaving the State with at least some financial capacity to manage the recession.  The need to bail out the banks right at the beginning of the crisis meant that affected governments hit the recession already broke.  That means that the capacity of the State to reinvest is limited.  Youth work will continue to be done, but we might see a significant return to voluntary labour to get the hours in.  In fact we already are!

Youth work education is in a difficult place as well.  Youth work found a place in professional education in the universities from the 1960s, with real growth in the 80s and 90s.  In the last decade, however, the situation has shifted.  The focus on research has diminished the respect for practice wisdom in professional education, and youth work (along with other professional areas like teaching) has not kept up with the research agenda. Corporatisation in the university sector has meant more aggressive pursuit of objectives that promote the university as a corporation rather than the objectives of public service: and that means either high status or high earning activities.  Youth work is not a natural contender for either.  The poorly thought out introduction of fees in England has meant that training for low-earning professions like youth work are charged at the same rate as high earning professions like law, with a significant impact on demand.  The number of universities who have decided to close youth work courses is still a trickle rather than a flood, but some of those courses (including my own) were strategic and long-standing.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Beyond the question of funding and institutional support, there is a growing level of maturity in the youth work profession in the current environment, and a clearer assertion of identity.  Paradoxically, even while the funding base contracts, for example, the Scottish Government continues to insist that community learning and development, which embraces youth work, sits at the centre of its anti-poverty and inclusion strategies. The House of Commons Education Committee inquiry into youth services also provided a ringing endorsement of youth work, though noted the lack of a credible evidence base for its effectiveness.  The Irish and South African government has a very active division working on the professionalisation of youth work, government does too.  Several governments have established youth work in law, with more heading in that direction.

The consolidation of youth work practice through codes of ethics and other core constitutive documents has been progressing across the globe in the last decade. Professional organisations for youth workers are springing up everywhere.  Globalisation has meant an international community of youth workers, with more international conferences, policy conversations, research and collaboration.  There are more books published on youth work, by major commercial publishers, than ever before. Routledge has just commissioned a new series of books on youth work practice. Sage has taken over the locally-published Learning Matters series.  For the first time, I can run a course for youth workers using a selection of books on youth work written by youth workers. This is mirrored in journal and on-line publication as well.  Youth work is moving beyond the parochial, and is recognising its common core beyond local expressions of it.  It is becoming an international profession.

And there is a bigger picture.  The modern category of youth is an artefact of modernisation itself. At other times and in other places, young people were much more integrated intergenerationally, and had a clear role.  Modern industry required fewer workers, and more educated, literate and disciplined workers.  What happened was the quarantining of people by age into educational institutions, their isolation from the relations of production and from contact with adult social institutions and the subsequent emergence of a (now global) youth culture.  This creates a youth population which is significantly, but incompletely contained by the school and other educational institutions.  There are also key developmental processes around people becoming autonomous and self-directed which total institutions like the school are not good at facilitating.  Youth work exists in all modern societies, under whatever guise and however resourced, because it is socially necessary.  It emerged during the Industrial Revolution, and has a continuous presence ever since.

The industrialisation and modernisation process is spreading apace throughout the world: particularly in the new economic powerhouses: the  ‘BRICS’ countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).  All of them have huge, underemployed youth populations, and are very aware of the political time bomb that involves.  In the next decade, all of them will need to make decisions about youth policy, and divert resources towards young people.  How youth work positions itself within that process remains to be seen.

Howard Sercombe

Professor Sercombe is an experienced youth work practitioner, trainer, consultant, analyst, media commentator and researcher in the youth studies area.  He has primary experience in street-level youth work with homeless and street-present young people as well as a developed academic profile with expertise ranging from social policy analysis to adolescent development to professional ethics.  He has worked in urban settings as well as remote outback towns, with Aboriginal and mainstream young people, and across a range of methodologies.

Notwithstanding his current position in the university, Howard sees himself as first and foremost a youth worker, as he has for the last thirty years. His current work is focuses on how youth workers can understand their role and their work, how conceptions of young people shape their practice, on the peculiar ethics of youth work as a profession, and how truth is created and translated between policy, research and practice.  He is also working on the implications of the adolescent brain research for our understanding of young people and the practice of youth work.  He rides a Yamaha 1200 VMax motorcycle with a sidecar, is married to broadcaster Helen Wolfenden, and has three sons.

Aaron Garth

Aaron Garth is the Executive Director of Ultimate Youth Worker. Aaron has worked as a youth worker in a number of settings including local church, street drug and alcohol outreach, family services, residential care, local government and youth homelessness since 2003. Aaron is a regular speaker at camps, retreats, & youth work training events and is a dedicated to seeing a more professional youth sector in Australia. Aaron is a graduate of RMIT University and an alumnus of their youth work program. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Jennifer & their daughters Hope, Zoe, Esther, Niamh and son Ezra.

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  1. Howard’s sweeping analysis is provocative and timely. There is much, with which to agree and disagree. However, for the moment, whilst thanking him for drawing attention to our In Defence of Youth Work web site, we need to set the record straight. As a campaign we do not proclaim the death of youth work. Indeed the piece in question is headed, ‘The Youth Service is dead :Long live youth services? A Sorry Tale!’ Its focus is the conflation of youth work, youth service and youth services within the so-called ‘youth sector’ to the extent that any form of work with young people gets called youth work as it suits. Indeed the brief polemic closes by stating, ‘of course democratic youth work is not really extinguished, but it needs all our efforts to keep the flame alive’.

    For what it’s worth, in 2013, we’ll keep on trying.

    Best wishes

    Tony Taylor [Co-ordinator IDYW]

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