Article: The Problem of ‘Work’ in Youth Work

Author: John Holmes | Tags: , ,

This article addresses the dilemma faced by youth workers in the importance to give to work and employment in young people’s lives. Arguments are stated on both sides about the relevance of work for youth work. Any conclusion either way depend much on defining work, its purposes and value, and how it has changed over time. My conclusion is that to talk about work should be central in youth work, but this is a political discussion involving choices rather than preparing young people for employment in terms of attitudes and skills. Current work should be analysed in terms of what is important both for society and the individual, and distinguishing this from work that is unnecessary. It is argued that youth work should have a key role in freeing up young people from unnecessary work, and from a future in unrewarding nonsense roles. However making such a distinction is always going to be contested and a basis for conversation.

In the spirit of avoiding unnecessary work I have not included references beyond a few names in the text. My thinking is informed by reading but the academic game of producing articles in which the bibliography is almost as long as the article no longer interests me, and seems an example of just what I am arguing against. My aim in writing is to stimulate thinking and discussion, whereas so much academic writing is to fulfil academic requirements, becomes an end in itself and is rarely accessible to many others. Readers are encouraged to do web searches linked to the name and point being discussed.

Since retiring from lecturing in Youth and Community work eight years ago I have had recurrent dreams about still being at work, in various university settings and at conferences. The dreams are sometimes pleasant, often when interacting with students and other staff but also involve frustrating situations often with the bureaucratic pressures of the job. In these negative situations I become aware (in the dream) that I am not being paid for what I am doing and have the sense that I must be a fool for doing this work.

What are these dreams all about? Frankly I don’t know but they suggest some insecurity and that I have not fully come to terms with retirement. Maybe work was of more importance in my life than I thought, and that even though being paid for difficult, frustrating situations (as happened during my work) that I should look for happiness outside work, being in the fortunate position of being able to afford it. The reality of my retirement has been one where I have been marginally involved in youth work on a voluntary basis, seeking meaning and happiness in these and in leisure pursuits. The central question would seem to be how to find meaningful work that is recognised as valuable, by oneself and others. In our society value has come to be defined by money and thus employment has become synonymous with work in much everyday speech. This has resulted in huge inequality and injustice, most notably in the work in households and in child-rearing, mostly carried out by women, which is unpaid or underpaid compared to other forms of employment.

My attitude towards work in the context of youth work has always been conflicted. On the one hand it was my role to encourage and cajole students to work hard on their course (and to penalise them if they did not!) so they could get qualified and get a job. Most students wanted the same thing, so this was not that challenging. However I do remember feeling relieved I would not have to do this in the context of a collapsing job market for youth workers in 2012. To encourage students to work hard when jobs existed (albeit in a wide range of jobs often not based on JNC pay and conditions) is one thing. To do it when it was unlikely they would get a job in any youth and community related work was another.

This generally positive attitude to my own work as a lecturer and to my students’ work was not only based on getting a job and holding onto it. The link between working, in the sense of study and research, and growth in knowledge and understanding was usually clear to me, and the growth of learners as people better able to do their work effectively. Yet this view of work did NOT extend to support for youth work to be centrally involved in preparing young people for work, especially when this meant ‘employability’ as the main aim of the work. Not only was my view that having pre-set agendas for youth work was dangerous in shifting the power away from young people and their voluntary engagement, but also employability was particularly negative for youth work. The shift to targeted from universal, open ended youth work around a host of agendas (single sex, diversion from crime, teenage pregnancy, drugs, gangs, housing, etc.) has occurred over many years and sometimes reflected the interests of youth workers and young people to respond to current issues. The danger was always that funding was short–term and dependent on narrowly defined successful outcomes, usually as defined by others. My real anger was directed at the last time there was significant investment in young people (outside formal education) by the New Labour government of over 20 years ago. Despite manifesto commitments to youth work in 1997 the main result was investment in Connexions, and an expectation that youth workers would use their skills alongside careers guidance. Reduction of NEETs became the mantra and eventually the undoing of Connexions as other structural factors led to an increase in NEETs. In youth work terms the pressure on youth workers to get young people to fit into patterns of behaviour and presenting skills made, in my view, the youth worker into a policing role. This line of argument could be justified in terms of the increasingly crap jobs young people were likely to get if targeted by Connexions. Low pay, poor conditions, part time, precarious, boring work became increasingly common. Was the government’s real agenda to keep young people employed, or more likely striving to be employed, so as to keep them quiescent? Once this line of thinking is developed it is easy to reject youth work having anything to do with employability.

Yet nagging doubts remained. Partly it was all too easy for those in employment to be critical when for many young people getting a job was on the top of their list of priorities, even if a crap job. I had been there in the past and knew how glad I was to get a job. The other main doubt was the link between employment and other aspects of life. Having enough money to live on, in the sense of food and shelter, is central to most people but is work of much greater importance? If being employed is central to developing a social life, to developing and maintaining relationships, to mental health, to avoiding a descent into drug or alcohol abuse then surely youth workers have a role. My contradictions were exposed in that I had observed my own frailties and observed the descent of others into chaotic life styles, and how employment provide a framework for a more fulfilling life. Did a successful transition from youth to adult require employment?

So what is really the importance of work beyond the means to achieve food and shelter? Is Youth WORK rightly named if it wants to exclude the employability agenda, as I was arguing? In the 1960s the term Youth Work rightly, in my view, replaced the term Youth Leadership but the term does beg questions. Not only is it often unclear what it means to those outside the area of Youth work so leading some to prefer informal education (notably Mark Smith and Tony Jeffs) or non-formal education, for many others are working with (or working on) youth, but it implies a close link to paid employment and away from unpaid voluntary relationships. Although this was helpful for setting up a profession, with JNC pay and conditions, alongside teaching and social work in the then growing welfare state it was a fragile arrangement and one that has increasingly come into question as governments demand public sector workers to serve their economic and political agendas.

More fundamentally is Youth work really work? Is it really a job? For the youth worker on a cold wet January evening when the heating in the centre has broken down (again), the Youth officer is on their back about submitting a set of meaningless statistics, part timers have rung in sick, and the young people are giving him or her grief it must certainly feel like work, hard work, pretty shitty work. But those times when things really come together and the relationships have blossomed, overcoming potential negative conflict between different groups of young people (or staff) it can feel that this is not just work but what a good life should be. Learning, growing, developing, interacting with humour and conflict that leads to reflection and growth, supporting each other when needed, mainly being in that space where all, including the ‘workers’ can be fully human. It is almost as if youth work (or community or play work) is modelling what is possible in human relationships. Of course relationships are key to many other areas of work. But teaching, social work, counselling can identify clearer outcomes (even if to do so diminishes the meaning of their role). Both the strength and the weakness of youth work is that its central value is in those times when a model of good relationships are demonstrated, yet no clear outcome is obvious.   It may not happen often and it is harder to achieve in different times of history (particularly difficult in modern times) but when it does it can be highly meaningful times both for young people and workers. A case can be made that this also happened on Youth and Community Work courses in universities more so than in other courses. My experience of teaching Youth and Community work was mainly in JNC courses but sometimes I taught other students and could not help being struck by the different experience. In many ways youth and community work students were more challenging. Many were older, had developed their views on a range of topics, they already had prior experience of youth work so were not about to just accept some academic’s views. Some were in difficult personal situations and many more just did not seem to accept the expectation they should turn up regularly to sessions and hand in work on time. Yet it was here that sometimes, not always, it was clear that real interaction was happening, and growth and learning was occurring. In short real education.

For this to occur in either youth work or on HE courses the boundaries between the professional and personal become blurred. Young people and workers (or lecturers and students) open up as people, so that their roles as young people and workers become secondary as they become fully engaged being together. Such times cannot be scripted, are improvisatory and destinations are unknown. Such times are risky in that there is the potential for roles to become too personal, and even for workers to identify their personal lives more with their ‘work’ than with their family lives. I have often wondered if this blurring of the personal and professional contributes to the common breakdown of marriages and other personal relationships of youth workers. Despite the anti-social hours and the undoubted pressures of the job that can lead to burn out was there also a feeling for some that the relationships within youth work settings were more meaningful than within their nuclear families? While this is unclear it does seem likely that the emphasis on equal opportunities and anti-discriminatory practice is related to the central reliance on relationships. Youth and community work has long been alert to issues around race, gender, class, disability, LGBTQ+, etc. and this seems to me to relate to the nature of youth work as much as the justice of the causes themselves. Without respect for others and striving for equality of opportunity it is impossible to develop the foundations of good relationships, so is absolutely fundamental to the process. This is different from the equity being sought in other settings such as job appointments by HR departments.

Some lessons from history are valuable to put any discussion of Youth work’s current relationship to work in context. It is important to remember that the origins of youth clubs, and other forms of youth work, were put in place explicitly for when young people were not in school or employment, for young people’s leisure time, and had no direct relation to preparing for work. In that young people started paid work at 14 years old prior to the raising of the school leaving age in 1944 this meant that many youth clubs existed primarily for young workers. This time reflected a clear division between work and leisure that no longer exists, as will be argued below, but begs the question of how youth work should be situated given the changing nature of work and employment.

Work and leisure as separate spaces came about with the growth of agricultural surpluses. In hunting and foraging societies people ‘worked’ to satisfy their needs but this was part of life generally, and it can be argued that these societies were both more equal and surprisingly there was more time for communal life and ‘leisure’ than exists today in our highly technological societies (James Suzman). With the saving and trading of agricultural surpluses came money and the growth of inequality as some became rich, those who controlled the surpluses and the labour force (often owned as slaves or serfs). This allowed the growth of both cities and culture on the back of hard manual work by the many, and new managing and creative roles by the few. Most important for this analysis it allowed work and leisure to occupy distinct spaces, especially for the majority of workers. The relationship is expressed in much religious thought in viewing work as a necessary evil, but one that leaves space for reaching out for higher meaning during the Sabbath, fasting or pilgrimages. The image of paradise in the after-life is often one of leisure. Industrialisation took this a stage further as workers were stripped of any use of land for growing food and so became wholly dependent on selling their labour as employees. The time for leisure was small and often represented an attempt to escape from oppressive labour despite the attempt of religious leaders advocating the value of work and to resist the temptations of the devil (e.g. drinking alcohol, taking drugs, gambling, sexual license).

More secular views also saw the evils of work as defined by industrialisation but offered other ways out of being wage slaves. Some wanted to destroy the machines that tied workers to drudgery and drew inspiration from the satisfaction derived from work that required human craft skills to create beautiful things. The trade unions rather saw the potential of technology and industrialisation to reduce poverty if workers could increase their share of the wealth generated, improve working conditions and reduce their working hours. I have often wondered when out cruising the canals about how the navvies saw their work. Looking back now at the amazing engineering including the tunnels, aqueducts, bridges and the canals themselves the workers, as well as the engineers, should feel pride in their work. I have wished I could say I helped to design or build that bridge (or whatever) rather than the rather transitory and uncertain benefits I hope I brought about in my educational interactions. But then my work was better paid and with better conditions than the hard and dangerous work carried out by those navvies 200 years or so ago.

The desire to have actually made something, or contributed to doing this, is not only based on our need for a sense of individual achievement. It is also linked to wanting to contribute to a community or wider society: to be seen to have value by others. Even creative work such as writing, painting, sculpture, music, although often a solitary pursuit, is an attempt to communicate and seeks recognition by others. Another hidden value of work is being able to be part of a group, of building social relationships, of acting, doing, achieving together. Today many social relationships derive from work situations. Also for many travel and seeing the world is possible through work.

In our current society it can be argued that ‘If you have no job you have no leisure’. If a jobless young person felt that way because of their limited money, and view of leisure as requiring considerable money, then the youth worker would have a difficult position in challenging their depression and anxiety about their situation. Their very identity can be threatened. Yet these additional values of work (additional beyond providing the means for surviving-food, shelter and health) do not have to occur through work situations, and will usually be better outside work. Friendships that start in work settings can usually only develop and blossom outside of work demands. Parties held at work are not usually as good as festivals or house parties. Travel to expand the mind and one’s horizons, and meet new people, can be very frustrating when stuck in work meetings. It is well known that creative ‘industries’ struggle to combine the interests of their artists and the commercial organisations that promote them. Clearly the profit motive leads to the exploitation of workers but it is also important to see how work in itself leads to relationships being subordinated to the ends of production. If food crops are going to be successful, if industrial production is going to be efficient, even if  leisure ‘industries’ such as hotels are going to meet their clients’ needs then agriculture and industry and service sectors  have to be organised in ways that achieve this. The extent to which the workers are subordinated to efficiency has increased massively with the rationalisation of production in industrialisation, and proceeds apace with the technology replacing workers through robots and artificial intelligence. The area of work has not only become increasingly differentiated from community and the public sphere but has come to encroach and subvert the space in which people can develop relationships free from the constraints of work (Habermas).

We need work, and we need work to operate efficiently, but how much work do we need? It has always been a source of puzzlement to me that working hours in the industrialised countries have not decreased as productivity in both agriculture and manufacturing has increased exponentially. Nearly 100 years ago John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, predicted that technology would not only reduce hard labour but also the hours worked. He argued we needed to prepare for a life of leisure. Yet hours worked have stubbornly averaged at about 40 hours a week for those working (higher in the US and UK than EU countries). The benefits of increasing automation to capitalism has meant that the costs of labour have been decreased, the power of trades unions decreased, and consequently the need for workers to maintain their working hours continues. Profits and inequality grow. The example of Amazon and other tech industries demonstrate this. The growth of State benefits and food banks even for those in work, as well as those not working, often the young, reflects the changing position of work. Yet even when people have had enough money to live a reasonably comfortable life without working long hours they often choose to work. The example of Kelloggs, the cereal manufacturer, in the 1930s USA is an example. They took the unusual step of decreasing average hours from 40 to 30 hours a week, whilst keeping the average take home pay the same. More workers were taken on so reducing unemployment during the 1930s depression. Kelloggs found that productivity did not decline so neither did profits. This continued until the 1950s when Kelloggs’ workers voted to return to the norm of 40 hours a week. The reasons were primarily the desire to be able to buy more consumer goods in the affluent society of the post-war US, but also they were unsure of what to do with their spare time at home.

A strange dilemma seems to increasingly exist. People cannot do without working, working that goes well beyond the need for keeping body and soul together. Yet, people are also increasingly dissatisfied with their work. The levels of ‘engagement’ or stimulation by their work are reported as extremely low, which is hardly surprising given the mind numbing nature of much work. Yet working hours remain high even when income is sufficient for the essentials of life. The pandemic and the lockdowns have for me brought this dilemma and related ones into stark relief. For the many who have been furloughed, and the many others already not working, they have been faced by a life of not working beyond their domestic work, and for those with children the demands of home schooling. With the drastic reduction of travel and socialising with others, spaces have been created that have been challenging to fill. For me it has emphasised the importance of work in terms of the essentials of material life AND of work that is personally meaningful. Like many others I have never felt more reliant or thankful for the key workers who have kept the health services running, for those who have made food available in the shops, the delivery drivers, or those who have kept houses equipped with essential services. The work that has been personally meaningful for me might not be called work by many but the craft activities and garden work has been essential for providing a pattern for the day and a sense of accomplishment (despite my limited but improving gardening and craft skills). The injustice of low pay for essential workers when many who are higher paid do work that seems increasingly unimportant is clear to me and many others-but not it seems to the current government!

For the many who like me have spent more time alone than in any other period of their lives the ability to live with both with oneself and with their environment has been crucial. The spiritual life, whether one is religious or not, has come to be both a greater challenge and source of solace. Talk of nature and the wider environment has increased and concern about how our consumerism is destroying the planet. Whilst the government wants people to spend, spend, spend once restrictions are lifted to save the economy the dilemma is how to do this without further environmental destruction. The obscenity of spending money on luxuries that destroy the environment while people are struggling just to survive is clear. One value of the pandemic for me has been the emergence of the view that ‘we are all in it together’ and that everybody has a right to live. The latter was in doubt as the government toyed with the ‘herd immunity’ idea and the former has not been a reality as some groups suffered more (particularly the BAME community) yet the principle of basic rights for all seems to have grown against the demonising of the ‘other’ trend of recent years.

The idea of universal basic income, UBI, is old but more discussed recently (e.g. Annie Lowrey). Basically this simple idea is that every adult should receive enough for the basics of life, say £1000 a month, which then could be topped up by work or benefits as necessary. Initially such a radical idea may seem totally unrealistic but even in the centre of neo-liberalism it has been tried (albeit in a form that provided an income floor of $500 a month in Stockton, California) and is gaining support in the US. There are many examples worldwide, including in developing countries, and closer to home Ayrshire are actively exploring it. It was found in the US experience that only 2% of the non means tested income was spent on so called vices of drink and drugs, the vast majority going on food and utilities.  UBI will only be accepted if ‘we are all in it together’ but the examples of furlough and other pandemic interventions is a step in that direction away from media fascination with ‘benefit scroungers’. It is an idea that becomes increasingly important as automation puts people out of work for those essential activities, and the need to not replace them with jobs that are both unnecessary and destroy the environment. One reason why UBI could come about is that it attracts supporters across the political spectrum from socialists to right wing libertarians to tech billionaires from California. Such unholy alliances may be necessary if change is to occur (Yanis Varoufakis). Even if UBI does gain credibility in coming years (almost inevitable in my view, even if mainly for reasons of social control) it may not help young people directly if the age of adult is defined as 25, which is the point at which UBI is received. Even if 18 years old is accepted it will not benefit young people in youth work directly but it should enable them to think more positively about their future choices.

Apart from having enough money to live on the other essential made clear to me by the lockdowns is social relationships. Although I have long been concerned about the increasing reliance on screens the ability to communicate through the internet has been very important, and literally a life saver for some. Yet the few face to face conversations when meeting people in the street or local park have also come to have a special meaning. The concern about lack of schooling, beyond home schooling, is justified but the main concern I have heard from young people is the lack of contact with their friends. Although much more active on social media than people of my generation I have heard how what young people most want is social interaction. Although contact through the internet is valuable it cannot replace the development of relationships face to face. It seems sometimes that the potential for relationships, good or bad, developing in ways that allow for growth and learning is distorted by internet relationships. Some relationships have ended that would not have done, others maintained when they would have ended, and others become stuck in a way that needed some progress and resolution of differences. The need for face to face contact, if others agree with me, is good news for youth work. I even wonder if some sessions could be designated phone free and this might be welcomed by young people themselves! Maybe I am a dreamer.

The basis for youth work justifying rejecting involvement in employability schemes post pandemic would be much helped by political decisions that provide at least a guaranteed income floor (or even maintaining Universal Credit at pandemic levels). Just as likely is a return to business as usual but with even greater inequality, poverty and homelessness. One also has to be realistic about the role of Youth work in changing the world. Whilst Youth work has a key role in political education any radical change in the perception of work and leisure will only happen with wider politics and community organising. Even to discuss UBI in youth work contexts sounds more like formal education (but should occur, in my view, in JNC qualifying courses in higher education). Yet it may be possible to get the point over in a fun way (and surely youth work should be fun) by talking about what is necessary work and what is not. When adults see themselves as so important because of their jobs maybe it would be interesting to look at what they do more closely. Are these adults bullshitting? David Graeber has identified a whole range of jobs as bullshit jobs including corporate lawyers, public relations executives, health and academic administrators and financial service providers. Note they are all well paid jobs. He also came up with a way of looking at jobs where people could essentially be seen as flunkies (people appointed to make the appointee seem more important), goons (people who are there to protect others from justice e.g. avoiding taxes), duct tapers (people who are there to solve problems that do not exist), box tickers (people collecting and analysing meaningless data), and taskmasters (people who are checking and controlling those who could do useful work better on their own). Plenty of youth workers could probably identify people in their own work situation who might fit into these categories but the point is this is a matter for debate. What is unnecessary will not easily be agreed on. Are youth workers themselves necessary? Do young people think they are? What about the police, the royal family, the betting industry, the fashion industry, the media? The point is to have conversation that hopefully leads to some recognition that not all work is necessary and that people should be valued for other things than their work.

During lockdown I have sometimes gone for walks in Birmingham with a couple who recently arrived in the UK. The woman comes from Argentina, works for a German company, dealing with customers from Italy. Everything is done online. I was curious how she managed her work life balance. She explained that it was difficult but she had 2 laptops, 2 mobile phones, and a work station with a chair that she only sat in when doing her job. She tried to separate out the two but was finding it hard especially as she was unable to visit her family in Argentina and may have to miss her sister’s wedding. What she found particularly hard was having to go on a screen (albeit a different screen) to interact with her family and friends after being on a screen all day. Such division between work and other life may seem obsessive but made sense to me. With difficulty she was trying to create a space for herself apart from work. For me Youth Work should remain a space separate from both the nuclear family and the pressures of work. It cannot divorce itself from either as young people bring their issues and concerns with them but it can provide a space that allows both a realisation of a different way of being and even possibly keeps open the potential for a better society in which work and leisure are in better balance.

Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.

Last Updated: 25 October 2021