In a number of countries youth work definitions and missions recently have been under discussion and also on a European level the new EU framework for youth policy comes up with a new role for a more professionalised youth work. What lessons can we draw from youth work's history?

Youth Work in times of  change

Youth work has always played a role in broader social and pedagogical strategies but there is indeed a risk of instrumentalisation and youth work becoming a weapon for all targets. This ambivalent position of youth work practice lead to a discussion on youth work's identity and its essential features. Especially the reframing from a so-called passive welfare state into an active welfare state has re-emphasised the moral and pedagogical role of youth work and this has led to a revaluation of historical consciousness in youth work practice, policy and research especially in the UK and in Germany. This interest in youth work's history has recently been taken up by the EU-CoE Youth Partnership, finding its way to Belgium with the organisation of two expert seminars and the first European Conference on Youth Work History.

What we tend to think of as ‘the essential features' of youth work is carried by young people, policymakers, researchers, youth workers, parents and other social professionals. Youth work is group work, work in leisure time, based on informal learning, based on association and recreation, …These characterics have a long history. They sometimes structure our practices without being visible or questionable. Therefore it is useful to be aware of where we come from and where we think we are going. How did youth work principles evolve through history? Which evidences have been thrown overboard and why? Which policies have already been tried before, although they are now introduced as brand-new? History won't tell us what to do in the future, but it is a mirror in which today's practices and policies can be critically examined.

Different roots, from lifeworld to system

Youth work is known now as a social and pedagogical intervention in the third socialisation environment. It has its roots however in the school on the one hand and poverty relief on the other hand. The school formed a platform for young people to be together, celebrating autonomy, creating an own youth culture and cherishing an own, youthful perspective on society. In that sense school was the cradle of different youth movements at the end of the 19th Century, with the German Wandervögel as a well-known exponent. The Wandervögel were formed by some college students who resisted the huge social transformations (industrialisation, proletarisation, urbanisation, …) of the time. They did not want to uncritically follow in the footsteps of their fathers. They sang, hiked and camped and created a distinct youth culture.

In about the same period there were people that suffered from exactly the same huge transformations: working class kids who were unemployed or too young to work, spending their days wandering on the streets and often committing petty crime. Well-meaning people from bourgeoisie or church took care of these young people from the working class. They were brought together in what was called ‘patronages', ‘settlements' or ‘oratorio'. The Italian priest don Bosco is a famous pioneer here. In these youth care institutions children and young people could come to play and enjoy themselves. Adult counsellors certainly hoped that they also could motivate young people to pray and to learn. In that sense youth work also descended from social work.

Both youth work as social work or youth work as youth movement existed in about every European country. In these roots one can identify two powerful and often competing sources of inspiration: the social question and the youth question. The former started up as a  public intervention to deal with the integration of the lower social classes in mainstream society. The latter starts from a lifeworld perspective and is an attempt to change society so that it fits better the needs of young people, emancipating as a distinct age group. Depending on the perspective one takes, the integration efforts take into account either the social context, or the individual development of young people. Throughout history, youth work has always been oscillating between its two legs, showing itself as a ‘social' practice mediating between private aspirations of young people and public expectations from the established society.

Youth Work, a social practice

Out of these practices of ‘youth work avant-la-lettre' grew what we know now as youth work. There were different people in many countries trying to establish youth work as a practice that could merge the best of both worlds. A youth social work approach, emphasising the concerns of adults society would not appeal to young people. A youth movement approach is appealing to young people, but could potentially disintegrate young people from adult society. The story of famous youth work thinkers, who founded a movement that conquered the world, can illustrate these attempts to establish a youth work method appealing to young people and answering to adult concerns.

  • The British officer Baden-Powell was the founder of Scouting. Inspired by different educational thinkers he invented a method that ‘guided without dictation'; a method that gave young people a sense of self-government and that applied the longing for adventure and nature to learning different skills. The final aim was to install sense of citizenship, so that the social cohesion of society could be safeguarded.
  • The Belgian priest Cardijn on the other hand respected Scouting, but thought that the method focused too much on individual integration in prevailing society. He saw that working class kids did not take part a lot in scouting and founded his own movement: the Catholic Working Youth.

In this fragment one can clearly observe how the development of ‘youth work' was from the very beginning interwoven with questions on diversity and equality as well as questions on exclusion and inclusion. The approach of Baden-Powell can be called a transit-zone approach: youth work is constructed as an instrument for social education and citizenship training. The movement of Cardijn can be seen as fulfilling a social forum function: youth work is a social educational practice, bringing young people together discussing their needs, reflecting on their lives, preparing collective action to change social circumstances, … In both cases play, making fun, association and recreation are the features that make youth work effective and attractive.

Do we invest in youth work as a general provision aiming at the ideal individual development of young people in the public interest of social cohesion? Or do we aim towards a differentiated youth work field that connects to young people's lifeworld, needs and aspirations and consequently reaches out to different categories of young people? Which investment gives young people the best chances for empowerment? These are perennial themes that have to be brought to discussion, always against the background of a changing society and a diversity of situations in which different young people grow up.

In many youth work practices youth work was (and is) deliberately constructed as a transit(ional) zone between the private lifeworld and the public system, focusing on individual development and smooth integration into existing society. Policymakers, youth workers and researchers then find each other in the construction of ideal developmental trajectories and transitions for the young. And so, as other forms of social work (in a broad sense), youth work has increasingly been constructed as a tool to integrate individual young people in the prevailing adult society. It is striking how in many European countries ‘social inclusion' (or exclusion) has been constructed as an individual asset, not as part of the social quality of society.

In youth work practices that are inspired by their youth movement descent, youth work defines itself rather as a social forum. In this approach youth work is social work and is less concerned with imposing individual solutions to social problems, rather it is the task to engage with young people in defining problems. Social inclusion is not seen as the result of the harmonious development of an individual young citizen, but as a social learning process that takes into account diversity, but problematises inequality.

Youth work between system and lifeworld1

Keeping up the tension

History learns us that we can not escape the tensions, inherent to each social practice. Youth work has the duty to support young people in often difficult transitional periods, but yet the same, youth work has the power to give young people a forum to negotiate power relations, to get to know and understand each other and the interest of the others. Youth work is not merely a transit zone to adapt young people to public expectations, nor is it an instrument for young people to claim private rights.

History also learns us that there is a serious risk that these tensions would lead to a two track policy where relatively privileged young people can enjoy the forum function of youth work, adapting society to their needs, whilst disadvantaged young people are targeted in transit youth work, adapting young people to the needs of society. This counterproductive two track policy deals with the tensions by separating them from each other. The potential effect is that youth work (as the educational system all too often does) reproduces or even reinforces social inequalities amongst young people.

This is why a diversity of youth work practices and methods is valued in most countries, although new claims on accountability and efficiency risk to formalise the informal. A risk that is recognised in the recently adopted EU youth work resolution, but also in the agenda 2020 of the Council of Europe.


In some countries youth work is an established and to a large extent professionalised part of both the educational and social welfare system. In other countries youth work develops relatively separated from these systems and is a practice carried by volunteers. In most countries youth work is a mix of all these interventions. In any case, youth work also today has to find its place, positioning itself in relation to family and school (as a central part of the so-called third socialisation environment), but also positioning itself in between adult concerns and young people's needs and desires. History is a rich mirror to reflect on our actual and future policies and practices.

1 Coussée, F., Verschelden, G., Van de Walle, T., Medlinska, M. and Williamson, H. (eds.) (2010). The history of youth work in Europe and its relevance for youth work policy today. Vol. 2. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.