In such a high expectancy culture – young people are in deficit of empathy more than ever

Think about all the expectations thrust upon a child or a young person:

youll grow up to be like your mum

work hard and youll get good results

what will you do when you grow up

you need to get to university

you need to just cope

you must fit in

you must be different

you must conform

you must look a certain way

you must be busy every night doing something, at a club

you will be deficient without this (the advertisers message)

We expect you in this school to do well (so our league tables look good)

We expect you to behave in this youth club

We expect……………………..(fill in the blanks)

We expect you not to have sex, we expect you to have sex

we want you to fit our agenda, our expectation of this club, this group, this church

Youll make a mess if you do this…


And then theres the generational stuff

Millenials ‘X’ and Generation Z ‘Y’ – expectations of the guava shaped cheese straws thatll be ruining snack time for everyone. Or something else. Expectations that as a millenial  you will be like this or that or the other.

Expectations that technology is ruining your life,  and on that technology stuff

do something photo worthy

compare yourself

be likeable

be popular

be successful

sound interesting


Pressure to expect, expectations of pressure.  I wonder in youthwork and ministry whether theres been the same tendency of expectation

‘come on this trip, you must attend this, ‘weve done something amazing – we think youll like it’

‘what did you think of the mega exciting thing we spend doing for you?’ – expectation to conform, to please. To keep the work or ministry going.

If Shakespeare did say this and it isnt an internet meme, he wasnt far wrong:

Image result for expectation

Hang on for a moment – whatever happened to empathy, respect, listening, compassion? When was the last time we heard or used those words when thinking about working with young people, when starting ‘a project’ or a piece of work. 

Is anyone taking the actual time, to actually listen to young people at all. Take them seriously. Take them respectfully. Be empathetic. Realise that there is a real person inside.

One of my greatest pleasures of being a youthworker was to have time for young people, in a busy organisation with sessions and programmes, I could be the person in between, the one to play pool with or share a coffee, the one who wasnt about expectation or pressure, about programmes, but was about the deep stuff of struggle, of questions, of help. But theres no money in being a youthworker in between anymore. Theres also no money in the mental health provision young people need, because theres no money in being someone who might be able to listen to young people anymore. It does significantly feel as though talk of empathy in youth work and ministry has gone. Replaced by ‘active listening’ but listening that might not go deep enough. But has even professional youthwork got time for empathy? probably, just.

Of course all of this could just be me, and my reflection on where I am at, having managed, supervised and trained a whole load of people to be youth work/volunteers over the last 2-3 years, It also feels like its been a while for me to have sat down, listened and genuinely felt that kind of connection to empathise with a young person. So it could be me out of touch.

But it could also be me, looking at the many 100’s of job losses in youth work. It could be me looking at the 100’s of job losses in teaching and schools struggling as organisations to cope. It could be me looking at youth ministry vacancies, it could be me hearing of 6-12 month waiting lists in mental health queues, it could be me knowing that only communities with high crimes get any attention from statutory youth provision, it could be me in seeing various youth ministry organisations make sweeping generalisations of young people, it could be me when Theresa may says ‘nice try’ when theres a question about cuts to youth provision and its effect on young people. I have written before about how young people have stopped being cared for in the UK, and having no compassion – at least from policy makers and the government. Closer to the ground, do they get any empathy either?

The oft quoted Carl Rogers suggests that empathy requires a number of factors, and non judgementalism is the first thing, stating that it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of anothers inner world if we have formed an evaluative opinion of them (Rogers 1960: 154), because in that judgement we will fail to be accurate of another, understand the other and listen to the feelings, body language and responses by another.

I think we get this, but even a non judgemental approach seems thinly veiled nowadays. Almost old school. And not really said because we want to empathise, more that we dont want to lose out on funding. But what would empathy look like anew in youth work and ministry? What would an empathetic government policy on young people look like? What does non judgement look like when data is used to predict not only class sizes but also educational achievement and ‘predicted grades’ even before a primary school offer is accepted. Where is the empathy then? Where is the opportunity and chance?

Rogers also suggests that students might find themselves in a more appropriate climate for learning when they are in the presence of an understanding teacher.

Being empathetic involves being sensitive, moment by moment to changing felt meanings which flow from the person, from rage, or fear or both. It means temporarily living in anothers life without making judgements, sensing feelings they might not be aware of, communicating senses and pausing to check for accuracy. It involves time, and involves laying aside own views or judgements and values to enter their world without prejudice. (Rogers)

Empathy of this level undoubtedly requires significant effort, significant time, is complex and demanding. It maybe a direction where a shift need to start in, and I know empathy isnt everything, and Rogers is a bit of a dreamer, but maybe we have to dream at least in a compassionate direction. Image result for empathy

And there are many occasions where culture is driving empathy lacking policies, processes and practices in the direction of young people. Empathy isnt everything in the relationship we might have with young people, as youthworkers, teachers or health care, but its pretty clear that the ideology of neo liberalism that places value for money and competitiveness over human dignity and creativity, squeezing time to ensure only the efficient matters, does not stack in the favour of empathy. Neither does the media, generally.

Empathy, isnt just about the soft stuff. In 1972 Carl Rogers also wrote the following:

‘Will the school psychologist be content with the attempt to diagnose and remedy the individual ills created by an obsolete education system with an irrelevant curriculum; or will he insist on having a part in designing an opportunity for learning in which the student’s curiosity can be unleashed and in which the joy of learning replaces the assigned tasks of the prisons we now know as schools?’

It feels as though when young people need it the most, empathy has been sucked out of society like an particularly tarte lemon. Replaced by higher and higher levels of expectation. Replaced by less and less avenues of support, replaced by greater levels of competition, replaces by being the pawns in competitive organisations. Compassion fatigue yes, empathy removal almost certainly. No wonder those who know what youthworkers did in schools found them valuable (but not always valuable enough to pay them to be youthworkers) because, between the gaps there was a space for conversation, reflection, time and listening, and sometimes even empathy.

What steps might be needed to make an empathetic culture that young people grow up in? Am I dreamer… yes, but we’ve got to start a new from somewhere. How can we expect young people to thrive when expectation and pressure is the driver?


Rogers Carl, A way of Being, 1980

The Carl Rogers Reader, Kirschenbaum/Henderson


Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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