What is youth work?

For youth workers and youth work

‘For youth workers and youth work’ by Doug Nicholls

To mark National Youth Work Week here is an excerpt from For youth workers and youth work by Doug Nicholls

Youth work is vitally important within society’s commitment to lifelong learning, inclusion and democracy. It is where informal learning takes place. From the voluntary relationship established with young people a dialogue begins that develops through trust and mutuality into professional friendship and a form of educative and supportive accompaniment. In such a relationship the rights and voices of young people are primary. Youth workers have built a unique public service out of this relationship and it has always been difficult for the state to contain this approach in its wider endeavours to manage the market economy, creating youth unemployment and the necessary demonisation of young people.

Youth work has therefore offered an alternative human vision of the economy. It offers a vision of an economy with human beings at the centre which is greatly significant and much more than a form of benign philanthropy, or a soft sentiment. It is a glimpse today and at a micro level of what could be the possibilities tomorrow globally. Youth work signals the creation of a world of individual human potentialities authentically realised in new forms of social relationships. Just as a nationalised health service free at the point of need or a free education system from cradle to grave signal an advance in civilisation and social cooperation, so youth work represents an advance in social and educational commitments and practice.

Youth work has extended the scope of education beyond the classroom and into life. Importantly for current concerns, it has extended the prospect of education into the development of consciousness and political action.

These lofty descriptions and aspirations do not always fit with the suppressive restrictions on practice experienced every day. But daily practice must always be articulated in a wider context – what does it symbolise and how does it compare with prevailing values and realities? It must be politicised if the benefits of youth work are to go beyond the utopia of a perfectly realised moment in a set of perfectly enjoyable interpersonal relationships. We have to make those principles of voluntary inter-human engagement more universally applicable and also the principles on which the economy is organised.

What links the immediate with the bigger society are the thoughts and beliefs of those who practice in the service of youth. This is why the focus of this book is on the minds of youth workers, looking at how youth workers think about themselves and the world they live in and what they do.

Youth workers have made an empowering profession; now let them empower themselves a little more in these new circumstances. The conservative motto ‘Don’t think, obey’ was turned by some into ‘Obey, but think.’ Now it is time to move onto a real critical alternative, ‘Don’t obey, think, then act.’ If the state was once forced to recognise young people, why is it now demolishing the Youth Service? The answer resides in the new phase of capitalism known as neoliberalism and its failure to plan for the future.

For youth workers and youth work by Doug Nicholls is available to buy with a 20% discount here.

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