Is youth work being watered down?

Vanessa Rogers is a qualified teacher and youth worker with over ten years’ experience both at practitioner and management levels. Prior to becoming a nationally acclaimed youth work consultant, Vanessa managed a wide range of services for young people including a large youth centre and targeted detached projects in Hertfordshire, UK.

Vanessa Rogers

Vanessa Rogers

What is youth work?

Today I realised that I have been a youth worker for most of my working life, yet I still struggle to explain exactly what that means, especially to someone outside of the profession.

Then it dawned on me that the sinking feeling I get whenever someone asks me what I do for a living is not merely personal apathy, but because I have had the conversation too many times. The sense of justifying what youth work is, why it matters and the unique place it has in supporting young people through adolescence – not only to friends, family and funders but also to other professionals – has become habitual.

It hasn’t always been so difficult, although I am in no way harping back to some mythical golden age of youth work. I am simply pointing out that if you had asked me back in the day what I did my answer would have been pretty easy – an area youth worker for the Youth & Community Service responsible for developing girls work, work with young parents and managing a large and busy youth centre in an area described as ‘deprived’. So far, so clear.

Fast forward and my role, but not my professional title, has changed so many times that writing a CV can be a daunting thing. What constitutes ‘youth work’ has changed so many times that it can now be tagged on to virtually any service that works with young people. But is this a good or bad thing? Is the increase in those using traditional youth work skills to engage with young people something to celebrate or lament?

Barnardos graffiti girl

One issue for me is that so many people now describe themselves as doing ‘youth work’, whilst working in areas more traditionally associated with social worker or youth justice. I have even spoken with police officers that say they do ‘youth work’. Really? Have the professions become so completely enmeshed that they are now interchangeable? Please note this isn’t about professional qualifications, or the lack of them, more a questioning of how the core ethos of voluntary participation and the gradual process of building positive relationships with young people to support their personal, political and social education fits within a law enforcement or social care framework.

Good youth work may look as if it just ‘happens’ but trust me, there is much more to it than just turning up and looking approachable. Effective youth work offers young people the opportunity to meet, socialise and have fun, but it also supports them in developing new skills, exploring the world around them and understanding their role in it. I want young people to question and challenge what they see and to believe that they can (and do) achieve their goals.

Young people can be innovative and visionary, with energy and enthusiasm to shape and change the world. To do this they need to find ways to get their voices heard and be able to see that their participation in things like youth councils, forums and consultations actually makes a difference. Too often I think young people are let down because although they are told that their opinions count, when it comes to money and budgets, they don’t. True empowerment is more than a paper exercise or a way to ‘tick boxes’.

So I think it is time for youth workers to stand up and reclaim youth work by celebrating how different it is to other work with young people. It should be seen as a whole, not as a useful pick’n’mix to compliment other services. We need to define youth work in our own terms – before someone else does it for us.

I don’t want to keep ducking the question, ‘what do you do for a living?’ – I want to be able to say (with pride), ‘I am a youth worker’, and for that to mean something.

Vanessa’s website can be found at Logo


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