What is youth work?

What is considered youth work varies considerably between countries. In some countries ‘youth work' is a relatively well-defined, distinct practice. In other countries (especially in southern European countries), the term is less known and there is no identifiable overall concept of youth work. The Council of Europe Recommendation CM/Rec(2017)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member States on youth work defines it as;

‘a broad term covering a wide variety of activities of a social, cultural, educational, environmental and/or political nature by, with and for young people, in groups or individually. Youth work is delivered by paid and volunteer youth workers and is based on non-formal and informal learning processes focused on young people and on voluntary participation. Youth work is quintessentially a social practice, working with young people and the societies in which they live, facilitating young people’s active participation and inclusion in their communities and in decision making. Despite different traditions and definitions, there is a common understanding that the primary function of youth work is to motivate and support young people to find and pursue constructive pathways in life, thus contributing to their personal and social development and to society at large.’

Further information to support youth work practice and research can be found in the Youth Work section of this website. This page focuses on youth work policy.

Contemporary issues in youth work policy

The development of policy or legislative frameworks for recognition of youth work and youth workers is an overarching issue for youth work policy. Many countries do not have specific national policy on youth work, or address it only as part of a broader youth policy. Policy approaches can include legislative acts to define youth work or initiatives to regulate youth work as a profession through mechanisms such as codes of ethics, occupational standards or establishment of professional bodies for youth workers. Linked to this is the importance of the training and education of youth workers, the establishment and definition of competencies for youth workers, and youth worker validation within the labour market. Such policy issues can be polarising amongst youth workers with some actors wanting to develop youth work as a regulated and formalised profession and others wanting to resist this type of professionalisation.

The quality of youth work is another key policy area and it is explored by the Council of the European Union 2013 Conclusions on the contribution of quality youth work to the development, well-being and social inclusion of young people. Developing quality of youth work leads to a range of approaches to monitor, evaluate or measure the youth work. Some such as those advanced by the EU Commission publication Improving youth work: your guide to quality development, focus on the development of quality indicators. Other approaches, such as the work to research the value of Youth work in the EU, focus on the measuring of the outcomes and impact of youth work on young people using research and evaluation techniques.

Finally, as young people's lives become increasingly focused online, the development of digital or smart youth work has also become a relatively new area of youth work policy. It is based on the assumption that youth work should operate in the online world as well as the offline world. This policy area can be seen in the Council of The European Union Conclusions on Smart Youth Work (2017) and the results of the EU Expert group on developing digital youth work.

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This page was last updated by Cristina Bacalso and Dan Moxon in December 2018.