Spot On

Spot On
The Netherlands

Professional open youth work in the Netherlands can be characterized as a very diverse profession: there are no national guidelines nor is the profession determined on a national level. This has to do with the fact that community welfare belongs to the responsibility of the local municipalities.


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The development of professional open youth work has been going up and down since the 1970ties, very much related to economic and social issues.

Around 1980 there was a revival of interest in professional youth work which meant more investment in training, education and the development of methodology as well as more budget at local level.

Then in the nineties there was a serious cut back which meant less youth workers and almost no budget for training, development of the profession, counselling for youth workers and investments in scientific support.

Around 2004 youth work became a serious profession again: some cities started to invest in the training and professional development, on national level the National Association of Professional Youth Work the Netherlands was founded;

Around 2005 especially in the major cities the emphasis on youth work became safety and the reduction of nuisance: due to the upcoming of right wing parties, problems with criminal youth groups and the individualisation in society people didn’t feel safe anymore in their own environment. Local and national politics used these gut feelings of their voters as their most important election item. After the murder of a well known and very popular politician Pim Fortuin in 2002 and the murder on film director and commentator Teo van Gogh in 2004 the polarisation grew fast and mutual tolerance diminished. Young people hanging out on the streets became more and more threatening end detached youth work was seen as the answer to that problem. Thus youth work was seen as an extension of the repressive safety tasks of the police. After 9-11 the polarisation expanded even more.

The upcoming of Islamic State and the radicalisation of young people linked to that development is the hot issue for youth work in the last two years (see also the interview with Co van den Berg in this same issue)

If you take a look on youth work in de different parts of the Netherlands you see a kind of kaleidoscope. The interpretation of youth work, the main goals and the focus differ per region and even per municipality. You can make a rough distinction between youth work in the west of the Netherlands, the main cities and youth work in rural areas.

In the main cities youth work is almost everywhere incorporated in bigger welfare organisations, also including social work, elderly care, youth care and sometimes domestic help.

As a result of the new political impulse for free market on welfare most major cities changed their policy from working with local organisations into working with tenders. This means that municipalities write down their specifications, conditions and budget for welfare. Organisations can write a tender in order to get the mandate. The ratio between offer and cost are crucial in the decision which organisation will be the winner. Since labour costs are far out the main part of the expenses understandably this is where organisations try to save money. In practise this means to work with relatively cheap personnel ( not too much education, not too much experience) and to skip the budget for education, counselling and training.

Professional open youth work nowadays

This system also means that the offer of an organisation is based on the wishes of the local politics. If they want youth work as a repressive tool they will get it. If an organisation does not offer this, they will simply not get the mandate (and no income).

In the end only big, generalist organisations, mostly with a special department or specialists to write the tenders, will maintain. Smaller organisations are not allowed to join a tender, are to specialised (for instance youth work organisations) and/or do not have the means to write a tender.

For youth workers this development has several drawbacks. Every two to four years a tender expires and the organisation has to compete again with other organisations. Therefore it is a serious business risk to offer personnel a permanent contract. The gradient of youth workers who leave the profession entirely is big, due to the uncertainty and to the changes of focus.

Furthermore the possibilities for building up a career and grow in this profession is low and the educational possibilities are limited since there is no specialised youth work education and the educational institutes tend to offer very broad curricula for the wide range of professions in the social domain.

In the more rural parts of the Netherlands you still find youth work as it was meant to be some thirty years ago: based on offering a meaningful leisure time with a pedagogical background in youth clubs, although it is mostly combined with outreaching youth work.

In de South (the province of Limburg) and in the North (Friesland, Groningen) you can distinguish developments almost contrary to those in the West: here welfare organisations and educational institutes work together in order to improve the quality of the profession, the tendency for municipalities to work with tenders is minimal and the position for both youth workers and youth work organisations is much more stable.

A recent development in Dutch open youth work is the change in the system of youth care. Within youth work itself there was a development form focussing entirely on leisure and informal learning to moving more and more towards youth care (due to the focus on repression and cure instead of prevention).

On national level youth care used to be the responsibility of the province councils but since the beginning of 2015 this responsibility was transferred to the municipalities (who are also responsible for the policy on youth work).

At the same time the overall policy on welfare and care has changed. Under the label “welfare new style” the main goal for professionals is to urge clients to take their own responsibility for changing their situation by using their own social network. If for instance you are not able to clean your house you will not get house care but a professional will support you in finding family, neighbours or your children who help you.

Since this transition of welfare and care is also a way to cut the budgets with approximately 15 to 20% the priority of financing goes more to youth care then youth work. Due to those new links with youth care, youth work will probably get a professional registration system, partly based on the system within youth care.

This description of open youth work might not sound encouraging. But of course there are still possibilities for youth workers with ideals, enthusiasm and passion. Because you deal mainly with the local municipality (and thus the local community) it is easier to influence the policy by showing good practises and results and by keeping explaining what you are doing, why you are doing it and what you want to achieve for the benefit off all involved.

Another advantage is that due to the lack of a strict definition on youth work there is room for innovation: New projects that combine aspects of youth work, youth care and education based on the knowledge of youth workers on the life and perception of young people combined with urgent social issues can result in new offers for the benefit of young people. Examples of such projects are Job Ahoi (AT) and Werkt! (NL).

But of course there are still possibilities for youth workers with ideals, enthusiasm and passion.


by Dick Smit (2015)

Dick Smit has been working for Stichting Young for over 20 years as trainer and coach. Currently his function is manager detached youth work in the city of Gouda.

Photos: Cover © Alexandra Beweis, all others © Paul Posse

Video Werkt!: © poywe/Alexandra Beweis


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