Prospects for a distinctive youth work practice in 2016 are not immediately promising. The slide to dubbing as youth work any and every form of work with young people continues. Youth workers become increasingly resourceful Jack and Jills of all trades. Contributors to discussions on our Facebook page use the term social work-lite to describe their practice, dealing as they do with referred case-loads of labeled individuals. A youth development model, a structured and planned, time-limited intervention into young people’s lives with identified and intended outcomes, threatens to engulf an improvisatory, unpredictable, process-led youth work approach. Indeed in a recent e-mail an outstanding youth worker of my acquaintance was moved to conclude, “youth work, as I understood it, was educated by it, and educated others by it no longer exists.”
This is not to be dismissed as an isolated cry of despair. Whilst they might see matters differently the key stakeholders in the so-called youth sector are also anxious about the future. This is hardly surprising, given the message conveyed by the Employers’ abandonment of the Pink Book and the JNC, namely, that they are not interested in youth work as an entity with its own identity. At present we are witnessing two consultative exercises. The one initiated by NCVYS/Ambition/UK Youth ran up to the end of 2015. Its final invite-only event, of which we were critical, was entitled, ‘Changing the Trajectory – Charting a New Course for Youth Services’. We presume its conclusions will appear in the near future. Meanwhile TAG [ The Professional Association for Lecturers in Youth and Community Work ] is entering the fray with an ambitious series of conferences in March under the banner of ‘Shaping our Future – Where Next for Youth and Community Work?‘ complemented by a wider gathering of evidence from the field. In the next few days we will be encouraging IDYW supporters to be involved in this dialogue. Watch this space.
It remains to be seen what arguments are brought to bear supporting the implication that the past has run its course and that a new direction needs to be found. From the perspective outlined in our founding Open Letter we believe it’s impossible to shape the future without an informed understanding of both the past and the present. Specifically this means facing frontally the impact of neo-liberal ideology over the past three decades upon youth work practice. It means facing up to the cymbalic clash between a commitment to an anti-capitalist critical pedagogy founded on the common good and an incorporation into a neo-liberal pedagogy, within which the mass of people know their individualist place. This is not going to be easy. Understandably, given the pressures, many will prefer to be pragmatic, adding on later a reference to principle. The great danger is that talk of the new becomes but a smokescreen for accommodation to the status quo. Let’s remember neo-liberalism has preached incessantly that there is no alternative.
In this light the well-known quote attributed to Antonio Gramsci, ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ comes into its own. This said the advice is not without its contradictions, not least that thinking and doing are not separate, but inextricably intertwined. However my own reading of the exhortation is that we must confront soberly the constraints of the present circumstances, whilst at one and the same time refusing to be handcuffed by them. For example, if we are serious about youth work’s rhetoric of social justice in a world, which becomes evermore unequal, a renewed, radical praxis has to work within and against the dominant discourse. With its feet on the ground it has to blend common-sense with a critical sense. Yet it will be utterly compromised, if it is not optimistically involved, at one and the same time, in the creation anew of social movements, from which it will derive its strength and integrity. The struggle for Social Justice is collective or it is mere posturing.
Of course we might not be seeing the wall for the bricks and therefore look forward to a challenging dialogue in the coming months about what the future might hold.