Youth work is multifaceted practice. This makes it difficult to identify the defining features of youth work. In this piece we offer an overview of some central characteristics of youth work.

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. In all countries however we observe a distinct, but diverse field of social and educational practices shaping a so called ‘third socialisation environment', next to family and school.

Regarding the target group of youth work it can be observed that in a number of countries youth work is restricted to the work with young people (15-25 years), in other countries (e.g. Belgium, Germany, …) there is no strong distinction between children's work and youth work. The same differences are to be found regarding the distinctions between cultural work or welfare work with young people resulting in a number of countries in strong dividing lines between what could be called ‘youth work working with young people' and ‘youth work working on young people'. In most countries however there is a clear tendency to take a broad perspective on youth work integrating differentiated practices, with different target groups and varying aims.

In the resolution on a renewed framework for European co-operation in the youth field (November 2009) youth work has been defined in such a way: ‘Youth work is a broad term covering a large scope of activities of a social, cultural, educational or political nature both by, with and for young people. Increasingly, such activities also include sport and services for young people. Youth work belongs to the area of  ‘out-of-school' education, as well as specific leisure time activities managed by professional or voluntary youth workers and youth leaders and is based on non-formal learning processes and on voluntary participation1.

This broad definition reflects the huge diversity in methods, areas and target groups. It informed a recent Europe wide study on the socio-economic scope of youth work in which definitions, legal frameworks and youth work aims and target groups are compared across 10 countries. It is now felt by many key players that the diversity of youth work practice should be celebrated as was clearly stated in First European Youth Work Convention, recently organised under the Belgian EU-Presidency.

Youth Work, a powerful practice full of tensions

A common feature of all these practices is the use of methods of non-formal education (educational activities outside the formal educational system) and the emphasis on voluntary participation. These two characteristics distinguish youth work from other educational interventions, be it interventions in the private sphere of the family or interventions in the public, formal institutions like schools. Youth work starts where young people are and does not have to bother with pre-structured programmes or predefined learning outcomes. At the same time – as stressed by Peter Lauritzen - youth work is committed to the social inclusion and integration of young people.

Therefore youth work is a polyvalent and powerful, but ambivalent, practice. Youth work is a form of informal education, which has an  ambivalent position between private aspirations and public expectations, thus it is not possible, to impose a single concept of youth work. As a social and educational practice youth work intervenes in situations with a history of their own. Nevertheless, it seems clear that youth workers and youth policymakers across all countries do have a shared knowledge base when discussing youth work. There seems to be a shared set of values and methods in youth work practices all around Europe:

  • Voluntary participation of young people 
  • Listening to the voice of young people
  • Bringing young people together
  • Connecting to young people's lifeworld
  • Broadening young people's lifeworld

Especially in the last points we clearly see why youth work is a field of tensions. Connecting to the lifeworld of young people is not the endpoint of youth work practice. This would mean that young people then are virtually enclosed in their lifeworld. Therefore youth work also aims to enrich the lifeworld of young people and to broaden their horizons. This ambition to broaden the life world of young people is often transformed into social inclusion strategies in which exclusion is supposed to be caused by a lack of participation in prestructured activities. Accessibility is then the main topic in the youth work discussion.

That is the reason why the relationship between youth workers, policymakers and (especially vulnerable) young people is often a troubled and tensioned one in which youth work looses its appeal to young people if practice is dominated by external, adult-driven expectations. Especially socially excluded young people or those young people living on the margins of social exclusion seem hard-to-reach. The more society imposes external expectations and outcomes on youth work to increase the efficiency, the harder it becomes to reach vulnerable young people. It is captivating how other rather informal practices like sports are struggling with the same counterproductive effects when instrumentalised for externally defined outcomes2.

There is yet another paradox that stems from one of the other shared youth work values: voluntary participation. It is generally assumed that youth work contributes to young people's social and democratic skills and attitudes. At the same time, however, it is noticed that youth work seems to draw dividing lines between young people. There are few practices where black and white, poor and rich, low-skilled and well-educated, religious and non-religious, disabled and non-disabled, left-wing and right-wing, disco freaks and metalheads, … are brought together. This is a huge challenge for youth workers: making young people feeling at home, belonging to a group and at the same time building bridges between different groups.

In conclusion, despite its value and power, youth work is a vulnerable practice. Both the power of youth work and its vulnerability are due to its inherent contradictions and ambivalence. Thus it somehow reflects the condition of being young in western societies nowadays, endowed with the greatest freedom ever and at the same time subject to an ever-growing pressure to fit in a market driven world of competition.

1 This definition is based on the work of the late Peter Lauritzen, former head of the Youth Department and Deputy Director at the Council of Europe's Directorate of Youth and Sport, who has left us an all-encompassing definition of youth work
2 Kelly, L. 2011. Social inclusion through sports-based interventions? Critical Social Policy 31(1): 126-150.