Icelandic history heavily and positively focuses on the Vikings when in fact for much of its history the nation struggled with poverty and lived under harsh conditions. It isn’t until 1900 that Iceland starts to prosper. After this there are rapid societal changes and for the next 90 years Icelandic society changes from simple rural farming society into more sophisticated urban society. In the year 1900 20% of Icelanders live in urban areas, whereas in 1990 this number has increased to 94%.
To grow up and be raised in a society focused on farming but then raise children in an urban area turned out not to be an easy task.
The parents could not use their childhood experience and pass that on. Instead they found themselves raising their children in modern settings that they themselves were just learning to navigate.
Around and after 1900 there is an increase in the number of young people joining youth movements such as the Scouts and the YMCA. The work carried out by these movements was very important and helped bridge the gap between the experiences of parents and their children, especially for the first few decades after 1900.
At the end of the Second World War it was first discussed in Iceland that there was a need for youth centres. Especially after the country became occupied in 1939 which affected social activities of the youth. By July 1941, there were over 25,000 British soldiers based in Iceland and the number of soldiers in Iceland increased to 60.000 at its peak. The population of Iceland was then 120.000.
In 1940 Sigmundsson, a pioneer when it came to matters of the youth and a chairman of the youth association UMFÍ Ungmennafélag Íslands, National Federation of Rural Youth, suggested that a youth hall should be built in Reykjavík. It wasn’t, however, till many years later that the first youth centre in Iceland was built in 1957 on a street called Lindargata. Consequently it was simply referred to as the Youth Hall at Lindargata.
It is then around and after the mid-sixties (1960-70) that youth clubs open in other parts of Iceland. In 1986 the Association of Youth Clubs in Iceland SAMFÉS was founded. Today around 95% of all youth clubs in Iceland are part of this association and SAMFÉS itself is part of the Icelandic Youth Council.
An Association of Sports Youth and Recreation officers was founded in 1985. The purpose of the association was to promote professional open youth work. Organizing meetings and conferences on open youth work and promoting cooperation between local authorities in the field. In regards to the history of youth work, the sixties in Iceland were dedicated to work on the legal framework concerning Icelandic youth work.
Most municipalities have created their own youth work guidelines and policies as both laws and governmental policies in this field have been lacking.
In 1970 the first youth bill was passed as law by majority vote in the parliament. The work on the bill had taken part over such a long timespan that by the time it was passed it no longer addressed what needed to be addressed. In addition, not enough funds were agreed upon, making the implementation difficult. The most important part of the law was that youth workers should take short courses in youth work. In 2007 the law was changed again and it was made possible for municipalities to start junior youth councils. It was also stipulated that youth workers should undergo criminal record checks. This law on youth work is therefore not very extensive and does not address matters that should be addressed or act as a thorough guidance for good practice. Most municipalities have created their own youth work guidelines and policies as both laws and governmental policies in this field have been lacking.
In the year 2000, both the University of Iceland and the Icelandic Teachers University started courses in Youth and Leisure Studies. In 2008 the Teachers University merged with the University of Iceland and the education benefited, drawing on the strengths of these two courses. Today what is on offer is two courses, one on an undergraduate level another on a master’s level. Few students are studying at a PhD level. The undergraduate course is more aimed at preparing students for practice in the field. This education aims to equip students with amongst other things specialised knowledge on groups and group work within the framework and theories of youth and leisure. An Association of Professionals in Leisure was founded in 2005. To qualify for membership one needs to have Youth and Leisure Studies education or extensive field work experience. In 2012 a union was founded that is specifically for youth workers that have completed the Youth and Leisure Studies university course.
Even though the Icelandic government did not emphasise strong legal frameworks and was very limited in their policy making in regards to youth work this did not characterize what was happening in the whole of Iceland. All bigger municipalities in Iceland have aims and policies when it comes to youth work in their area. The youth worker work force is becoming more qualified and specialised after an increase in enrolment in Youth and Leisure Studies at the University of Iceland.
Youth Club attendance is high in Iceland. In Reykjavík for example 50% of teenagers aged 13-15 attend their local youth club once a week or more often (ICSRA – The Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis 2007-2016). Theories on group work are one of the most important theoretical underpinnings of Social and Leisure studies and with increased education levels of youth workers this part of the work has become stronger and more targeted.
When compared to other countries the situation in Iceland is unique in terms of how professional and advanced the work in the field has become, considering the lack of a legal framework and synchronised policies for the field. It can be stated that the policies and laws are not in synch with the actual work being conducted and this is an area in need of improvement and work. That will hopefully be the next task on an agenda in Icelandic youth policy?
Read also our interview with Ingigerður, a young person frequenting youth work in Iceland in Logbook Issue 3 here.
by Arni Gudmundsson (2017)
works now as an expert, teacher and former program manager in the Department in leisure studies in the Faculty of Sport, Leisure Studies and Social Education in the University of Iceland. He also was one of the founders and first chairman of SAMFES Federation of Youth Clubs in Iceland.
Photos: © Arni Gudmundsson
Video: © poywe/Alexandra Beweis