Hope for the best, fear the worst – Grandma, Gramsci and Youth Work


If you’re looking forward to a chirpy, uplifting post welcoming in the New Year, sorry, you probably need to go elsewhere. Someplace where the present and future seems always to be exciting and amazing.  The UK Youth website might be a good start. The charity, which has now absorbed the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services and Ambition, is full of itself. Preening with corporate confidence under the slogan. ‘We Build Bright Futures’, it claims to be uniquely placed to tackle low levels of social mobility amongst young people. And without pausing for reflective breath, without a hint of embarrassment, it quotes approvingly the government’s approval of its fantastic work. Being awkward I find myself thinking, surely praise from the latest in a line of neoliberal parties from New Labour via the Coalition to the Tories, whose policies have widened social inequality, is at the very least to be treated with a touch more caution.



I can hear some folk muttering, ‘Taylor must have fallen out of bed the wrong way on New Year’s morn, the miserable old soul. Too much alcohol, far too much neoliberal this, neoliberal that, too little in the way of acknowledging the efforts of the youth sector’s leadership, too few thanks to the grassroots’.  In my immediate defence, I can vouch that the Taylor household did not venture out on New Year’s Eve, preferring to consume traditional Lancashire hotpot with mashed carrots and turnip in front of the fire, fueled by only a few glasses of the local red. Indeed we were in bed before midnight, which, I allow, is pretty miserable. Hence, walking the dog on the first day of 2018 found me in sober mood, thinking of a grandma, whose favourite homily was ‘hope for the best, fear the worst’. Now she spoke only in dialect and had never read the dialectics of Antonio Gramsci, but it struck me her message didn’t seem all that different than the Italian Marxist’s argument for ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’.



Granted, though, my grandma’s advice is passive, ‘what else can we do but pray for the best?’, whereas Gramsci implies that it’s necessary for us to struggle to achieve the best, ‘what else can we do but act to bring about the best?’ In this context, UK Youth might understandably ask, ‘why are you giving us a hard time? We are ‘doing hope’, doing our best’.

Whilst this is a fair point it begs the question, how are we to understand hope? For twenty years or more hope in its neoliberal guise has been thoroughly individualistic and competitive. New Labour’s version stressed the need for young people to be aspirational. For the Conservatives the emphasis continues to be rooted in a notion of self-improvement via which the young person will deserve to climb the ladder of success. Absent from this way of seeing things is the social, which makes it all the more ironic that the term social mobility has such wide currency.  Thus UK Youth can make the remarkable claim that it can increase young people’s social mobility with apparently no sense of contradiction.

I don’t think it’s out of order to ask UK Youth if it considered the following dilemmas before announcing it was ‘tackling social mobility’? After all youth work is supposed to be a bastion of self-reflective, critical thought and practice?

  1. As touched on above the discourse of social mobility is individualistic, linked to the revived myth of meritocracy – you get what you deserve. It ignores utterly structural constraints on young people’s opportunities, underpinned still by class, gender and race inequality, expressed in poverty, inadequate housing provision etc.
  2. As Patrick Ainley has pointed out, ‘the Tories have dramatically increased social mobility. However, it is general, absolute, DOWNWARD social mobility that has increased, whilst the limited, relative, upward social mobility of the post-war, welfare state period is nowadays so statistically insignificant as to be exceptional.’
  3. Social mobility itself is a deeply problematic concept. It is at odds with social equality and social justice. What does it mean to suggest that a working class young person ought to better themselves? How many young entrepreneurs and vloggers as opposed to care workers and gardeners does society need? On what grounds are these socially crucial working class jobs paid less and given less status? The youth sector hosts many a seminar on becoming a competitive entrepreneur. I’ve yet to see a parallel series of workshops on becoming a cooperative public servant. To paraphrase John McLean, the great Scottish socialist, ‘why not rise with your class, rather than out of it?’

Noam Chomsky Neoliberalism

Of course the issues I’m raising go far beyond UK Youth. They express the way in which neoliberal ideas are the common-sense of our times. Despite the fact that the neoliberal economic model is broken they express the way in which its individualist, ‘dog eat dog’, market-driven ideology has been insinuated deep into the soul of youth work – so much so that is hardly ever questioned. For my part I’ll carry on banging on about its destructive consequences for youth work. I’ll pursue further the way in which it has incorporated and distorted concepts such as empowerment and social justice. That’s my New Year’s resolution, tempered by the recognition that I need a few more jokes.

Let me end with the first part of a proposal from William Bodrick, which has resonance, in my opinion, for youth workers of all persuasions.

We have to be candles,
burning between
hope and despair,
faith and doubt,
life and death,
all the opposites.
That is the disquieting place
where people must always find us.

[Thanks to James Ballantyne for the link to Brodrick]




The problem for poor, white kids is that a part of their culture has been destroyed : Paul Mason muses.

Challenging piece from Paul Mason. To what extent does this resonate for  you, as youth worker and critical citizen?


KES – Ta to ayup.co.uk

The problem for poor, white kids is that a part of their culture has been destroyed

Some excerpts

Let’s confront squarely what this means. If the country is populated with low-achieving, inarticulate white kids it is something that happens between the year they stop being toddlers and the year they start being Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training).

So what is it? In short, it is their lives.

The detailed ethnic breakdown in the report makes for depressing reading. The worst performers are white Irish traveller children, then “white gypsy/Roma” children – both of which school fails by a long chalk. They are followed by mixed-race children with Caribbean backgrounds, then white British. These are the only groups who collectively go backwards in the two years researchers have been crunching the numbers. By contrast, black Caribbean, and white Irish children go forward a bit, and Chinese and Indian children a lot.

……. the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of free-market capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.

It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980’s. Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions: alone that would not have been enough to produce this spectacular mismatch between aspiration and delivery in the education system. It crushed a story.

To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.

If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.


Education has become like running up a down escalator

An excellent succinct summary of the changing relationship between educational qualifications and social mobility from Martin Allen and Patrick Ainsley. Whilst aimed at teachers it demands the attention of youth workers. This is especially the case, given the increasing and problematic use of youth workers within schools on the grounds that we will contribute ‘magically’ to improvements in social mobility.

 ‘On the other hand, it’s argued that young people have been largely ‘pushed’ into staying on as the sorts of jobs that used to be open to youngsters have disappeared. Rather than there being major skills shortages in the economy, there is a ‘jobs queue’ for employment. Gaining particular types of qualifications, or ensuring that you attend certain universities allows you to move further up the queue.


 At the same time, the education system is increasingly like trying to run up an escalator that is going down. Just as you have to move faster and faster to stand still, in schools, colleges and universities, you have to work harder and harder, simply to keep up with everybody else! Far from upward mobility, many fear losing their place in the jobs queue and ending up worse off than their parents.


 So it’s not that education has failed the economy, as politicians and business leaders constantly assert, and more that the economy has failed education. Thus, many young people find that after spending years in full-time learning, they are ‘overqualified and underemployed’. Despite increases in tuition fees, young people are still applying for universities in large numbers because they understand that even if many jobs don’t require degrees to do them, with more and more graduates in the labour market, employers increasingly ask for them.’


Read in full at Education has become like running up a down escalator


Unleashing Aspirations: Shackling Youth Work

George Hope in the comments section has posed the following pertinent question:

In light of the now released Unleashing Aspirations Report and its damning indictment of careers advice nationally and its recommendation that “the current Connexions service be broken up, leaving a residual specialist service free to focus on young people not in education, employment or training” I was wondering what, if any impact, you feel this will have for youth services who are now part of IYSS alongside Connexions.

I must confess to a wave of nausea on being told by Alan Milburn that ‘socio-economic inequality’ impedes social mobility. It’s all the more head-spinning when the author of this stunningly obvious statement is another of those former Marxists, who have matured – in their own words – into unashamed advocates of free-market capitalism and who have all signed up to the official New Labour declaration that class politics is dead. Yet, perhaps, I should put aside my bile. This report, although in essence a classic set of neo-liberal managerial recommendations, allows us perhaps to revive the debate about the underlying structural causes of socio-economic inequality or more accurately the economic exploitation of the majority by a minority.

As for the impact of this report upon Youth Work it would be illuminating to hear the views of those of you closest to the turmoil of Connexions and Integrated Youth Support Services. From a distance it’s difficult to know whether this is but the latest in the long line of  ‘suggestive’ reports beloved of New Labour. The paper exercise’s completion is its raison d’etre.  It’s arguable, given the dire proclamations that public services face decade of pain , that the report will be shelved. On the other hand many of its proposals could be pressed into the service of  restructuring and cost-cutting.

Chatting about future scenarios in our house led us back to the situation in 1977 when I was a District Youth Worker with the Wigan Youth Service and Marilyn worked for the Careers Service as a Special Measures Assistant. The NEETs of the day were called YOPs. In both cases the complexity of a young person’s life is reduced to a patronising acronym. As it was the Special Measures Unit in its early days tried to negotiate individual packages for its young clients and liaised with youth workers if appropriate. All this soon collapsed as the numbers of young people needing support escalated. And, whilst as a Youth Service we maintained that our job was not about preparing young people for employment, a new workforce of YOP and later YTS instructors grew apace.

I’m uncertain whether this little cameo has anything to say about the present situation. But if a  generalist Careers Service is to be revived with the underclass of those not in Employment or Training assigned to a specialist Service, who will be the workers employed in this ‘residual ‘ Taskforce? Are they likely to be the very youth workers, who have been shifted out of universal provision into integrated and targeted services; who are familiar with the prescribed discourse of employment-oriented, accredited outcomes? Certainly the task of defending an open emancipatory and democratic youth work practice – in the service of young people rather than the market – is not going to get any easier.