For over three decades neoliberal economics and ideas have undermined open youth work in the UK, especially in England. Why should this be so? For a start neoliberalism, the ideology of the free market hates free thought. Neoliberalism, the advocate of everything private, detests the public, the common good. Neoliberalism celebrates the possessive individual, whilst running scared of the active citizen. Its sworn enemy is collective solidarity. At its heart neoliberalism is a behavioural modification project on the grandest scale, desiring nothing less than our all-consuming embrace of its shallow self-centredness, symbolised by its icon, the ‘selfie’.
Hence it’s never been keen on the questioning, improvisatory and unruly world of open youth centres and projects. It fears a dialogue that fosters critical thought. It mistrusts a space, where young people create their own autonomous groups and agendas. It is deeply suspicious of an unpredictable process, which refuses to guarantee its destination. Above all it is impatient. It has no time for time, no time for the uneven pace of making conversations and relationships.
It fears a dialogue that fosters critical thought
Youth work’s task is to deliver the approved type of young person.
Thus neoliberalism through successive governments has led an assault on open youth work provision. According to the latest trade union research from 2010 to 2017 £413 million will have been cut from youth services across the UK, leading to the loss of towards 200,000 places for young people and 4,400 youth work posts, alongside the closure of towards 650 youth centres. Yet the Tory government has pledged £1.2 billion over the next five years to its National Citizen Service [NCS], an unremarkable ‘once in a lifetime’ four week programme of activities aimed at 15-17 year olds, delivered by private contractors and armed with £75 million to sell the brand. As an example of the pressure to privatise the government has also launched an £80 million ‘payment-by-results’ Life Chances Fund to tackle social problems, for which agencies will have to compete.
Contrary to the philosophy of open youth work neoliberalism has no doubts about the product of its work with young people. They ought to be ‘emotionally resilient characters’, able to cope with austerity and a precarious future. To this end neo-liberalism has imposed prescribed outcomes on targeted groups via structured, time-limited initiatives, deluding itself that these can be measured and pressuring workers to evidence the deception. Youth work’s task is to deliver the approved type of young person.
When it comes to making this happen we land on a terrain of contradiction. Neoliberalism views the professional, paid or unpaid with distaste. It is hostile to the idea of professional autonomy and the need for ‘phronesis’, the ability to make differing, insightful judgements according to specific circumstances. Its response is to regulate practice via imposing employer-led, instrumental and generalised frameworks of standards and competencies. Youth work’s reaction has been contrary and compromised, especially as the youth sector fragments and the unifying JNC structure of pay and conditions collapses. Youth workers find themselves in social care, in youth justice and schools. The emergence of an Institute of Youth Work, an embryo professional association, indicates a desire to rescue a collective identity with some arguing for the introduction of a restrictive licence to practice. Yet, out in the field, open youth work is surviving through the continuing efforts of the traditional voluntary youth organisations and the appearance of small independent projects. Ironically many of the workers involved are unpaid or poorly paid and, whilst professional in their practice, sceptical about the need for a graduate profession.
‘Blurring the Boundaries’ is the title of IDYW’s Autumn national conference. There is no doubt that we will once again be grappling with the difference between arguing for professionalism and arguing for professionalisation. For what it’s worth my view is that open youth work cannot be and indeed never will be the property of a profession.
by Tony Taylor (2016)
Tony Taylor is an experienced youth worker and one of the main figures behind the In Defence of Youth Work campaign in the UK.
Photo protesting young people © 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com