Back in early April 2015 I welcomed with some enthusiasm Howard Williamson’s ‘magisterial and challenging traversal of the European youth work landscape,’Finding Common Ground : Mapping and scanning the horizons for European youth work in the 21st century’, written for the 2nd European Youth Work Convention held in Brussels later that month. Five years on with the 3rd Convention in the offing Howard has repeated the feat of producing an overview of the dilemmas haunting the European scene that begs to be read. His preparatory thoughts on implementing the European Youth Work agenda are to be found in ‘Cornerstone Challenges for European Youth Work and Youth Work in Europe: Making the Connections and Bridging the Gaps’.
Hopefully the following Executive Summary will encourage you to explore the paper in its entirety.
This paper seeks to capture and delineate the key challenges that continue to face youth work in the 21st century
Youth work in its many forms has always had to adapt to variable and changing contexts; the risk of ever attempting a precise formulation of youth work as a practice is that external expectations of its role – from young people on one side and those who support it through funding and advocacy on the other – may rapidly change. Nevertheless, certain principles have guided the diversity of youth work practice over time, even if they themselves remain subject to challenge and debate. The first part of the paper therefore considers not only the contemporary context of youth work policy development in Europe, notably through the 1st and 2nd European Youth Work Conventions and the political outcomes they produced (the EU Resolution on Youth Work in 2010 and the Council of Europe Recommendation on Youth Work in 2017) but also the many lessons that emerged from the History of Youth Work in Europe project that produced seven volumes of youth work knowledge and highlighted what might be called the ‘tension triangles’ within which youth work has to navigate with some skill. The history project identified twelve such triangles. The final, unexpected, context is clearly the Covid-19 pandemic that has been afflicting Europe throughout 2020, the outcome of which remains unpredictable but the impact of which – on youth work as much as on all other aspects of established life in Europe – has been dramatic and transformative in many different ways.
The second substantive section of the paper focuses on what are considered the nine persisting challenges facing youth work in Europe, and European youth work, today. First, despite the apparent consensus across the youth work community of practice that all youth work is simultaneously about providing young people with ‘spaces’ (for youth autonomy and self-determination) and ‘bridges’ (to support positive transitions to the next steps of their lives), that common ground remains disputed and contested. It needs to be strengthened further. Secondly there are at least five challenges that have always prevailed within the youth work debate: how to manage the diverse pressures and expectations placed upon youth work; where (in what kinds of spaces) youth work needs to operate; balancing the different rationales for the provision of youth work; establishing the balance in different styles of practice; and how to evaluate youth work – agreeing a basis on which to judge its value. Third, there are equally traditional disputes about the boundaries of youth work. Where does youth work start and stop in relation to age (very different forms of youth work operate across a broad age range of young people), target groups (what should youth work be ‘targeted’ on, if at all) and issues to be addressed (can, and should, youth work be engaging with all issues caused or experienced by young people)? Clearly, youth work does not cover everything that affects the lives of young people but, as that is the case, what are its parameters?
Fourth, there are important questions about the structural arrangements for the delivery of youth work, from the European level (and the concept of ‘European youth work’) to national and local provision. Fifth, there is the challenge of building rapport with other agencies, professionals and groups that work, in many different ways, with young people.
The sixth challenge relates to education and training for youth work, particularly as most youth work continues to be provided largely by volunteers, raising questions about professionalism if not professionalisation. Relatively little is known in detail about the diversity and delivery of youth work across Europe, even at the local level, which has inevitably invited questions, and criticisms, as to what exactly does youth work do? What kinds of outcomes and impact does youth work produce? This raises a seventh challenge concerned with the quality assurance dimensions of youth work. Proponents of youth work often talk about it as if it is a pervasive practice imbued with shared understanding and relatively uniform provision throughout Europe. A small scratch below the surface reveals this to be a patent myth. There are, as an eighth point, at least three striking missing links. The urban-rural divide is a huge fault line for youth work. The transnational divide conveys starkly that there is not yet any kind of level playing field throughout Europe. And there are still huge debates about the distinctions and (lack of) connections between European, national and local youth work. Understanding, traversing and bringing closer together these three, and other, missing links remains a significant challenge for youth work.
Finally, there is the perennial cry and challenge to do with winning recognition for youth work. If youth work was everything that those within its community of practice proclaimed it to be, it would not have to struggle to secure its place within political advocacy and youth policy development. But rarely, if ever, has this yet been the case. Winning hearts and minds beyond those already converted to the value of youth work remains the ultimate ‘political’ challenge for youth work.
The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly affected all aspects of societies. The third section of this paper considers the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on young people, on youth workers and youth organisations, and on youth work practice. Many negative consequences have been well documented but innovation and responsiveness, particularly through digital practice, has provided youth work with an opportunity to claim its stake in the process of rebuilding and refocusing Europe in a post-Covid world.
The paper, in conclusion, and in preparation for the development of a European Youth Work Agenda, proposes that attention needs to be given to four key strands of youth work. The conceptual challenges are, at one level, self-evident, yet their resolution remains elusive; as soon as some definitional consensus is reached by some, others are eager to dismantle it. There are challenges to do with the competence of youth workers: what kinds of knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and critical understanding are needed for the practice of effective youth work and how should these be engendered? Then there are the challenges around the credibility of youth work, in terms of its social and political recognition and the security of funding and occupational pathways that may flow from that. And finally there are the challenges of making appropriate connections, both vertically within youth work (from the ‘European’ to the local) and horizontally between youth work and other sectors.
Such challenges need to inform the deliberations of the 3rd European Youth Work Convention and contribute to the shaping of an emergent European Youth Work Agenda.