In a digital culture, is youthwork stuck in the dark ages?

The days are gone where youd just pull up a pool table and have this kind of open space where there was chaos’

This was a reflection to me, from a community member, recently when talking about young people in a community in the north east. In a way, i could see the persons point, in a ‘digital age’ what point would table tennis be in an age of facebook, snapchat and other entertainment?. In another way, it also kind of revealed that to many people and this person included youthwork was the youth centre. Youthwork is the mobile youth centre that goes into the community. Youthwork is the facility. And though that missed the point, youthwork being the approach that uses the table tennis, or space for conversation. The persons reflection raised the question;

Has youthwork got to leave the dark ages, to have a future in a digital age?

In their recent statements of intent, the campaign group In defence of Youthwork made public their 16 point proposal for the future of youth work in the UK, a link to their post is here: It is about re-imagining the new future for youthwork, and states the following:

  1. Youth Work’s fundamental aspiration is profoundly educational, political and universal. It seeks to nurture the questioning, compassionate young citizen committed to the development of a socially just and democratic society. It is not a soft-policing instrument of social control.
  2. YouthWork as an integral element in education from cradle to grave should be situated in the Department for Education.
  3. The rejuvenation of a distinctive, state-supported Youth Work focused on inclusive, open access provision needs to be based on a radically different and complementary relationship between the Local Authority and a pluralist, independent voluntary sector.
  4. The renewed practice needs to be sustained by statutory and consistent funding, the purpose and allocation of which ought to be determined locally via accountable mechanisms, such as a democratic Youth Work ‘council’ made up of young people, youth workers, voluntary sector representatives, managers and politicians.
  5. Collaborative work across agencies is vital, but youth workers need to retain their identity and autonomy rather than be absorbed into multi-disciplinary teams.
  6. Youth Work should be associational and conversational, opposed to oppression and exploitation, collective rather than just individual in its intent, unfolding at a pace in tune with the forging of authentic and trusting relationships with young people.
  7. Cornerstones of practice should include the primacy of the voluntary relationship; a critical dialogue starting from young people’s agendas; support for young people’s autonomous activity, for example, work with young women, Black and Minority Ethnic and LGBTQ+ young people; an engagement with the ‘here and now’; the nurturing of young people-led democracy; and the significance of the skilled, improvisatory worker.
  8. The informed focus on young people’s needs flowing from open access provision is more effective than imposed, targeted work in reaching ‘vulnerable’ youth.
  9. Youth Work does not write a script of prescribed outcomes in advance of meeting a young person. It trusts in a person-centred, process-led practice that is positive and unique, producing outcomes that are sometimes simple, sometimes complex, often unexpected and often longitudinal. Practice must be evaluated and accountable, but not distorted by the drive for data, the desire to measure the intangible.
  10. Training and continuous professional development, particularly through the discipline of supervision, via the HE institutions and local providers is essential for full-time, part-time and volunteer workers in ensuring the quality of practice.
  11. JNC and other nationally agreed pay scales and conditions need to be defended and extended. However, a respectful engagement with the differing cultures and employment practices of voluntary and faith organisations, with the contradictions of professionalisation, is required. The emergence of independent social enterprise initiatives cannot be ignored.
  12. Closer links need to be renewed and created between the Youth Work training agencies, regional Youth Work units and research centres.
  13. Youth Work needs advocates at a national level, such as the NYA and Institute for Youth Work, but these must be prepared to be voices of criticism and dissent.
  14. Irrespective of Brexit, Youth Work ought to embrace the Declaration of the 2nd European Youth Work Convention [2015] and be internationalist in outlook.
  15. The National Citizen Service ought to be closed or curtailed, its funding transferred into all-year round provision, of which summer activities will be a part.
  16. The renaissance we urge hinges on a break from the competitive market and the self-centred individualism of neoliberalism and the [re]creation of a Youth Work dedicated to cooperation and the common good.

In case you hadnt noticed, there is nothing here about the ‘good old days’ of the open youth club, the table tennis table or the tuck shop with over priced mars bars. There is a sense that re-imagining is what needs to happen. In my previous post here, I reflected on how other service providers are now using the language of youthwork, without the relationship or philosophy of it, in their work with young people, such as teachers and police, and many voluntary groups and churches have been part of the ‘youthwork’ scene for a while, and at least they have had some training in its philosophy. However, critically, whilst the approach and philosophy of it remains crucial, there is a sense that as youthworkers the methods of how it is done may have to be re-imgained out of the dark ages.

But that doesnt meant that we avoid the dark spaces, the places in between, where no other organisation fears to tread, and i dont mean the streets, or the night time, necessarily- as it may even be that there are fewer young people out on the streets that there used to be. (i think in pockets this is changing, as young people are rejecting indoor technology). And so, the time, the place, the space and the method might indeed cause others to worry, but that may be where we have to go.

That place might be the afterschool time, the before school time, the lunch break or other time, it neednt just be the late evening.

Bubbling around for really only the last 10 years is the digital connections youthworkers make with young people. And the ethics of these are not to be repeated here, but in some way we might want to find a way of developing connections with young people that are consistent with the philosphy of youthwork practice, somehow, that isnt deemed unsuitable, grooming or something else. Could there be a ‘digital youth club’ a space for young people just to be in with a range of other young people? How might that work or be realised? How might it retain the safety and informality of the public space and the full humanity of that space too? Just a thought an idea. If that space doesnt exist in the normal apps and programmes, then maybe its in need of being created. But what else might be needed, if youth work is required to ‘leave the dark ages’?

What if it doesnt? What if the future of youthwork is not that different from the strengths of its essence, the purpose of its intentions and its dream for a better world for young people to be participants within. That doesnt seem dark to me, its hopeful and promising. The only thing, in reality that needs to leave the dark ages is the prejudice that people have of young people and the youth workers themselves who represent and stand up for them. Youth work is naturally futuristic, we need to think that change can occur and keep dreaming the possible. Yes, the methods may have to keep adapting, the practices creating space in the new times for the magic of it to occur, and the environment to be realised that causes it. But leave the dark ages?

The problem is less that youthwork needs to leave the dark ages, is that what the open club did was create the space for participation that this persons was asking for. In the dark ages is a perception of what youthwork is all about, the non-descript open youth centre that was a haven for poor behaviour. It is that perception that needs to be resigned to the dark ages, what this person and what youthwork is all about it is nothing other than bringing a perception about young people right up to the future, the cooperation, creative and participative potential that young people, and a political endeavour that this is. It is continues to be futuristic and youthful to continue to believe in the ideas and possibility lying dormant in every young person. In the dark ages is the seen and not heard, the voiceless or the consumer young person, and resigned there, to rot. In the digital space, much that positively young people do is create narratives, create community and contribute, thats what we all probably want, significance. Young people are finding it online, like many of us are, and this same significance might be what youthwork is about.

Does youthwork have a future in a digital age?  It might need to harness what young people find and do online, but ultimately its not what it believes in needs to be resigned to the past, as young people in the future need youthworkers more than ever (its just being ‘covered’ by other organisations, see linked post above) – what needs to be resigned to the dark ages is the attitudes about young people, and also the perception of the old battered youth club. That old battered youth club fostered the kind of conversations that forged youthwork relationships. And those relationships hosted and fostered the potential of young people. And that is timeless.

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A response to: ‘At nearly ___, arent you too old to be relevant to young people?’

The lesser spotted youth worker faces persecution from many angles, sometimes its about the changing job, sometimes its from poor management, or misunderstandings about the role itself. It goes without saying however, that the ‘age’ of the perfect youthworker question comes up frequently, especially when you’re coming up to a certain special age, 50, 40, or for the very youthful trendy church, even 30 might be seeming to be ‘too old’. Because, after all, there is a certain age to be a perfect youthworker isnt there?

the time is ticking then when you get to a certain age……

The other angle of this question, is from those around who dont view being a youthworker as a ‘proper job’ – so it is maybe an infantile role to do before growing up to something proper – like being a teacher, a vicar or proper ministry. So behind the question is less about being the wrong age to be a youthworker and being no good at the job (because young people care about how old their youthworker is), but that the youthworker role isnt for someone who is ____ old.

No one questions the age of the teacher, clergy or doctor, social worker, probation officer or police officer. Yet because youthwork isnt seen as education (often) but entertainment, then this is the task only for the highly trendy, captivating and fresh and new. From a youth ministry mindset, it buys into the relevancy narrative. It also buys into the desire for youthfulness mindset. Churches would be brave to employ youthworkers over a certain age – especially as the youthful narrative dominates. It wouldnt seem authentic to employ an ‘old’ youthworker would it?  or a youthworker that was older than the clergy.. (;-) )

So, no, the lesser spotted youthworker has a perceived shelf life. I do wonder if this is changing, and i guess an average age check at the 1000 youthworkers going to the National Youth Ministry weekend in November might be a bit of a yardstick on this.  Inevitably, though, other research is that the qualified youthworkers tend to be older, and also tend to be those who avoid this kind of event, going once. As they are managers, coordinators or academics.

The third problem with the age-old, (or old-age) problem, is that theres a perception that the little darling young people are fixated by having a youth worker as a role-model, which is possibly half true, but what can often happen is that churches have an idea not of the perfect role model for young people – but the perfect youth worker who is going to ‘pied piper’ their way into a young persons community and lead these young people to church. So, ultimately it is not about a role model who might be a person of experience, integrity and be older, gentler or compassionate – but be youthful, attractive and exciting. Every post in church ministry is about being exciting nowadays.

But thats the assumption. The reality is something vastly different.

Young people dont care about the youthworker. Not much, not enough to bothered about their age. They are more bothered about themselves. They are more bothered about being listened to, being given space to develop opportunities, being given a healthy space to be, to think and to participate. The age is less important that the approach. Young people want us to be interested in them. and their age, their hopes, dreams and concerns. They barely give two monkeys about us. And if they do, take it as a bonus.

So there’s a conflict. The church is looking for youthful youth leaders, but isnt always prepared for the church to become youth friendly, or become youthful as a whole congregation. As the church gets older, and training for youth ministry becomes smaller in the UK, then we’re going to have to think differently about age and youth workers.  We have a task to help the UK church to think about being meaningful with young people, not think that relevancy for them is the way forward. The attraction mindset is the one church is stuck in a loop of. And whilst this is the case, young people somehow just need youthful attention and entertainment. In the middle of a dilemma is a view of young people which should be of thinking of them as theologians in their own right, now the church of the future (ive written on this here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-Z7 ) And if young people are theologians in their own right – tell me now how old is a good theologian for a group of young people to be – someone who is going to explore theology with them?

(oh i forgot thats the vicars job…ha ha)

and yes i am feeling just a tiny weeny bit sensitive after receiving this question in the last few weeks.

Fuller Youth Institute have just written this piece on a similar theme, check it out – why we need the voice of experience with young people: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/blog/your-voice-matters