Fred Milson – Growing with the job: youth worker’s progress

infed archives

Picture: Fred Milson - sourced under an open government licenceIn this popular pamphlet from 1968, Fred Milson makes the case for attending to the growth and development of workers – and the special setting in which they are working. Youth leaders either learn to deal with the problems they encounter by the development of their own resources of ‘patience, understanding and ingenuity’ or they find things too much and lose stature as both leaders and human beings.

contents: preface · introduction · what are some of the signs in the youth organisation that the leader is growing with the job? · what is happening to the leader who grows with the job? · what can the leader do to help his own growth as a leader? · conclusion · how to cite this piece

Part of the girls clubs and youth clubs collection
When he wrote this pamphlet Fred Milson was close to the height of his fame and influence. He was a Principal Lecturer at Westhill College, a member of the Youth Service Development Council (chairing the sub-committee on youth work that contributed to the report: Youth and Community Work in the 70s), and had already written a number of influential books. Growing with the Job proved to be popular and was reprinted a number of times. It makes a very simple point: youth workers need to grow with the job if they are to offer the ‘respectful comradeship which lays at the heart of the work.

The most common form that youth work takes, Milson argues, is a voluntary association of young people.

There is no captive audience for the worker who must maintain the interest of the group and rely for continuing membership upon the satisfactions which are gained by the individual members. In other words, a youth group aims to be a democracy and this is one of the reasons why it can be a place of human happiness and at the same time a place of challenge and difficulty.

As a result all sorts of issues and difficulties arise and faced with them ‘the youth leader either learns how to deal with them by the development of his own resources of patience, understanding and ingenuity or he finds them too much for him and loses stature as a leader and as a human being’.

Fred Milson sets out what might be involved in ‘growing with the job’ and how it can be facilitated.

links: Fred Milson and the making of youth and community work · Youth and Community Work in the 70s (The Fairbairn-Milson Report) · Methodism and youth work · Fred Milson – why am I a youth worker


[page 3] By common consent, Franklin Roosevelt was one of the dominating figures of the first half of the twentieth century. He came to the Presidency when the U.S.A. was in the throes of an economic crisis with millions unemployed. He offered the nation a New De& and by dint of his energy, magnetic personality and fertile imagination he was able to carry through many of his ideas. Roosevelt died towards the end of his third term of office with the Second World War not yet won. By the American Constitution the Vice-President succeeded him at the White House. It would be not unkind or untrue to say that in 1945 Harry S. Truman was in most people’s eyes a small-time politician: the office of Vice-Presidency at that time called for a high degree of self-effacement. Truman himself confessed his own feelings of inadequacy to step into the shoes of the Great Man of whom many had said:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a huge Colossus.”

Most modern historians would agree however that Truman in office proved to be a bigger, stronger and more decisive leader than was expected. In fact he grew with added responsibility: the weight of authority increased his stature as a man.

The example of President Truman illustrates a truth about leaders of all kinds, not merely about political leaders. Some grow under the weight of responsibility; they profit by experience; they learn even by their mistakes. Others fail under responsibility. They find themselves unable to accept the challenges of their position. Several possible consequences may follow. They may lose their freshness and conviction of the value of what they are doing. They may become slipshod, complacent, perfunctory or even cynical.

There are few places where this truth about leadership is better illustrated than in Youth Service: here, without becoming hypercritical, we may observe those who [page 4] grow with the responsibility of working with youth groups and those who do not. But before examining this proposition in detail, it is worthwhile looking at the social situation in which the youth worker usually operates.

The commonest feature of Youth Service in this country is that it is a voluntary association of young people. There is no captive audience for the worker who must maintain the interest of the group and rely for continuing membership upon the satisfactions which are gained by the individual members. In other words, a youth group aims to be a democracy and this is one of the reasons why it can be a place of human happiness and at the same time a place of challenge and difficulty. As to the first, most people who work in youth organisations will admit that they enjoy it and in fact it is unlikely that they could continue if this were not so. But difficulties arise in a democracy simply because people are not ordered about but account is taken of their free choices; they are appealed to, persuaded but not commanded even for their own good! As every youth worker knows, this can give rise to frustration. The members may be unresponsive and irresponsible; they may sign up for the activity or the outing and not turn up on the night. In despising opportunities for their own enrichment and enjoyment, the members may often seem to be their own worst enemies. Faced with these problems, the youth leader either learns how to deal with them by the development of his own resources of patience, understanding and ingenuity or he finds them too much for him and loses stature as a leader and as a human being.

The same point may be made in another form by asking what is the primary purpose of youth work (Cf. Youth and Community Work in the 70s (H M.S.O.)). Since the term is not common it merits a short explanation. The ” primary purpose” of an organisation or service is that which justifies its existence and without which it has no right to be. This does not mean that secondary purposes are wrong but that they only exist as a by-product of the primary purpose. A hospital is [page 5] built to cure illness and relieve pain. The fact that romances develop between nurses and doctors is important, delightful and interesting but it could not of itself justify the expense of a hospital. A college could not justify its existence by referring to a fine record of successes in sporting events: the criterion is the successful academic and practical education which the students receive. The efficiency of any organisation or service is tested by the extent to which it fulfils its primary purpose.

The effective youth worker will be engaged in many different activities but he will have one over-riding goal, which he will not of course keep constantly and self-consciously in mind but by which, in moments of reflection, he will test his efforts. What is the primary purpose of Youth Service in Britain today? In previous generations the answer might have been to keep young people off the streets, to teach them to read and write, to provide clothes and shelter for them or to teach them what is right and wrong. Many things have changed in the twentieth century and appropriately Youth Service has changed, too. Teenagers have grown up in the Welfare State, where there is a wider spread of both wealth and educational opportunity. But it is a time of rapid social change where the behaviour of the individual is less and less defined by public opinion. This is what is meant by describing our day as the “Permissive Age”. Our youngsters -unlike almost every other generation of adolescents there has been – can no longer look for clear guidance from adult sources on important matters of belief and conduct. This state of “anomie” gives them more freedom but it offers them less support. If they cannot always learn from their elders, they need to learn from each other. Youth Service exists to promote this “peer culture” as it is called. The primary purpose of youth workers is to facilitate the social education of the young in a time of rapid change, to help them to find their place as young adults in the community.

It may, of course, be said that “social education” is a vague and general term. Admittedly it is not as precise, definite and unambiguous as appropriate [page 6] descriptions of youth work in previous ages. Yet it is possible to list some of the specific aims which would be included in the total goal of social education:

(1) Being able to enjoy more things and more ways of spending leisure time.

(2) Learning to accept appropriate responsibility; being aware of one’s duties as well as one’s rights.

(3) Learning to discriminate among the goods, services and views which are offered to one and neither accepting all nor rejecting all.

(4) Discovering one’s own gifts and not being held back from their exercise and development by feelings of inadequacy or shyness.

(5) Learning when it is right to follow a lead and when it is right to give a lead.

(6) Being able to develop a whole range of different personal relationships-friend/friend, husband! wife, employer/employee, and many others.

This list represents a formidable testing of the skill, patience, resources and personality of the youth worker. It may in fact be said to make or mar a man who undertakes the task. As he trains himself for this service, using opportunities as they arise, he will find that he is growing as a leader and as a person. If they are altogether too much for him or if he cannot grow at all, then he will find that he becomes progressively unsuited to the responsibilities. It must have been with such workers in mind that Dr. Macalister Brew included unreliability, slipshodness and untidiness” among the ” seven deadly twentieth-century vices of much youth work” (Youth and Youth Groups, Faber, p. 177).

What are some of the signs in the youth organisation that the leader is growing with the job?

Many factors contribute to the success of a youth group. One of these is the quality of the leadership and in many instances it appears to be the most important, [page 7] counting for more than premises, equipment and neighbourhood in which the club is situated. Other things being roughly equal, it may be said that if the leader grows with his responsibilities, his development will be reflected in the life of the group.

We may not say that this will necessarily show itself in an increased membership. Whilst it is, true that a happy youth organisation will attract others and may require no other advertisement than the recommendations of the members, yet numbers themselves are not a reliable guide either to the success of the enterprise nor the progress of the leader. There are many factors which govern the popularity of the club. One is the number of other youth organisations that are available in the neighbourhood. A large membership may simply tell us that there is not much competition.

The signs of the leader’s development must be sought in the social education of the members and that is hard to measure. It is easy to count heads: it is less easy to say whether John and Mary are growing into mature adults partly through the opportunities provided in the youth group. And for the leader it means assessing a situation in which he is involved, perhaps deeply, and therefore it will be a subjective assessment that is guided by his own feelings as well as by the facts. The leader-helped by colleagues and friends-has to try to be as objective as possible.

Dr. James Hemming provided a fourfold test of a good youth group situation (in a paper read at the council of Europe Conference of full-time youth leaders at Leicester Training College in 1962): it describes the features of a voluntary association which gives a youngster the emotional support he may need and also helps him to accept the challenge of adulthood.

(1) A good youth group is a place where the member feels valued for his own sake, as a human being, for what he is now not for what he may do or become. Behind their brashness, many teenagers want a warm climate of appreciation in which they can find self-confidence.

(2) The members should have a hand in the running of their own show. If the club is merely done [page 8] “for them”, then this may even encourage regressive tendencies and leave them with the childish attitude which life is asking them to abandon: if the club, to some extent, is done “by them”, then this not only recognises their status as young adults but prepares them for further responsibility.

(3) In a good youth group the members are constantly tempted, though never coerced, to take up new interests and activities. Adolescence is the watershed of the human experience whose purpose, according to Stanley Hall, is to irrigate old age. It is overwhelmingly likely for most members that never again will the mind be so open to new ideas and interests or the heart to loyalties.

(4) Counselling should be available for those who need it. In a good youth group there is an attentive and sympathetic adult ear for those who want to talk over a personal problem. All the available research evidence-for Britain and the U.S.A.- suggests that the majority of teenagers feel the need at some time for this kind of service.

Hemming’s fourfold criterion represents a high standard and no youth organisation would score full points. But it provides a useful framework into which the leader can mentally fit the group where he is working, thereby measuring both his own and the group’s progress.

In addition, there are more specific tests by which the leader can measure progress and these include the following:

(a) What is the relationship between the leader and individual members? Is he coming to treat them more and more as young adults who must be trusted to make decisions for themselves within a wide area of possible mistakes? Are the members themselves able to develop a relationship where they are relaxed, co-operative, independent?

(b) Looking back over the past twelve months would it be true to say that more suggestions for [page 9] programmes and policy have come from members themselves than in the previous year? Are they in this and other ways – for example, discipline- accepting more responsibility for the running of the show?

(c) Are the colleagues of the leader growing perceptibly in skill, understanding and tolerance? For example, are they less inclined to say “Johnny is a bit of a nuisance, always causing trouble” and more inclined to say “I wonder why Johnny behaves like that”?

(d) Has the club programme changed to meet the changing needs of the members? What new things are in the present session and what has been dropped from the old session? Are new ideas constantly discussed with colleagues and members and sometimes put into practice?

What is happening to the leader who grows with the job?

Youth workers who grow with the job change profoundly as people. That is what experienced leaders mean when they say that their work with young people has been a “liberal education “. This change can express itself in many ways but a few of the commonest effects may be described:

(1) There has been a development in his own character, since youth work makes demands upon our personal qualities. All attempts to describe the youth leader as a technician whose own character and personal values do not matter have broken down. In the end, what a man is will affect the process of social education in the club. Leaders find that their own attitudes and values are constantly challenged in the youth group. Possessiveness, for example, will ruin a leader’s best efforts. Selfishness will make it impossible for him to put the needs of the members before his own. Emotional immaturity and instability, personal insecurity and touchiness will be formidable barriers to his success. [page 10]

A leader who has grown with the job has grown as a person: he may have more understanding, patience and tolerance. Years ago a young woman with very narrow and exclusive religious views began voluntary work with a youth group. She was frank about her motives. It would bring her into touch with young people who could be converted to what she saw as the only truth. Months later, a friend asked her how she was enjoying the work and had she made any converts. Laughingly she replied,” It is a funny thing. I have come to like the young people so much as they are that I am not sure now that I want to see them converted.” Her new experiences had taught her to be a more tolerant person.

(2) The leader increases his skill in working with youth groups. Some of his work is organisational- answering letters, keeping records-and he may learn to do this better. Some of his skill may be in taking an activity and here also he may learn to do it better. Some of his time will be spent in personal exchanges with members, giving advice, listening to personal problems. But chiefly the youth worker is a group worker, that is he seeks to operate in such a way that every member of the club profits by association with the rest. Members may have something to learn from the leader: they have even more to learn from each other. Group method is a particular and satisfying kind of skill and with practice and thought we can improve our effectiveness. [Cf. Professional Skill, Joan E. Matthews (N.A.Y.C. pamphlet); Working with Youth Groups, Joan E. Matthews (London University Press); Social Group Method and Christian Education, Fred Milson (Methodist Youth Department)]

(3) The leader learns to use more of his resources both inside and outside the club. Leadership is often at its weakest and least effective when it is isolationist and individualistic. For example, in some cases where leaders have been heard to say “No one works as hard as I do for less” (Brew) it has been found on investigation that these are the same people who hesitate to delegate responsible jobs to the colleagues they work with. And usually they are also found to devote little or no time to sharing their skills with those same [page 11] colleagues or encouraging team work through discussion. Similarly there are leaders who seem reluctant to build bridges between the club and the outside world. They adopt insular attitudes, perhaps because of a latent possessiveness. They do not use to the full the resources in the community as allies in the cause of the social education of their members-voluntary organisations, statutory services, special interest and activity organisations. By contrast, the leader who develops finds himself living on a larger map. He uses more and more resources to help him in his task. The club is not for him a closed society but a window out of which the members can look on the world beyond.

(4) The leader who grows develops flexibility. This means he can appreciate more and different needs of members: he can play more roles for them. It is as though his personal radio has a bigger wave-band.

A youth leader, of course, since he is a human being, will find that some members appeal to him more than others. He may feel drawn to those who remind him of himself. If Johnny has a dominating father and so had the leader, he may find himself specially sensitive to Johnny’s needs and eager to help him. Similarly, there are particular activities for the club about which he will have an enthusiasm usually because he enjoyed them in his own leisure time. Leaders have their own way of doing the job. Usually we find that their style is related to the kind of people they are and the social experiences they had, especially in the family in their early days.

In a recent research project, full-time leaders in a certain region agreed to be under observation in their clubs. It was found that there were roughly four types or role-styles:

(a) Welfare leaders were best at a friendly approach: they were not strong disciplinarians nor were they enthusiastic for activities. But they knew everybody’s name and circumstances.

(b) Ideological leaders had a particular enthusiasm they wanted to communicate to members. They were inclined to value members in terms of their [page 12] response to their favourite activity whether it was mountain climbing, boxing, drama or religion.

(c) Educational leaders saw themselves as teachers, who were not concerned to push one activity or interest but a variety.

(d) Permissive leaders were concerned to let the members decide things for themselves. They aimed to interfere as little as possible in the decision-making of the group.

Further investigations looked more carefully at these leaders and asked what kind of people they were outside the club. Were they forceful characters or relaxed? Were they involved in religious or political organisations? It was found that the way in which they carried out their duties as leaders was closely related to their personality traits. Welfare leaders were interested in people rather than movements or machines. Ideological leaders were more ambitious than others. Further enquiries revealed a correlation between styles of performance and social experiences. For example, those who had strong dominating mothers were more likely to be welfare type leaders.

This is to say no more than the obvious. Leaders use their own personality in their work and their personality has been fashioned partly by their social experiences. And this is not wrong, of course. But our own personality restricts as well as empowers us. Youth leadership calls for a sensitivity to many needs, the ability to play different roles, [For a convincing account of the different roles that can be played in the life of the teenager by the adult cf. Human Behaviour and Personal Relations, J. Klein (N.A.Y.C. booklet)] the skill to provide varied opportunities and the flexibility of many approaches. Leaders who grow, find themselves doing more things and making more responses than what is natural” to them. Increasingly their leadership is shaped by the needs of the group as well as their own personality.

What can the leader do to help his own growth as a leader?

Most of us do not like criticism from other people. We may even resent it. But if we criticise ourselves, [page 13] this may lead to self-improvement. Here lies the secret of the growth of the leaders. We must discover a way of judging objectively what we are doing. Then we shall be ready for the training which will improve our performance. In this sense, all training may be said to be “self-training”. People do not learn until they see their need to learn, nor does training make sense until youth workers realise that without it they are inadequate for the task.

Below are some practical suggestions for helping the process of self-improvement. It is not intended to be a programme which everybody can carry through, but a youth worker should look at this list and ask “Which of these are right and possible for me?”

(1) The royal way to improvement is through” recording and supervision “. (For a fuller account of both of these see Joan Matthew’s chapters under these headings in her book Working with Youth Groups.)

“Recording” is putting down on paper as soon after the club as possible one’s impressions of the main events of the evening. Some of this is fact-numbers attending and activities for example; but some of it is impressions of what was happening in this human situation-to the club as a whole, to sub-groups, to individuals and to the leader himself. The leader can make a note of things he has to do. Thus the recording becomes a tool for the job as well as a tool of training. Then he looks at his recording and reflects upon it. How much recording he can do of course will depend on how much time he has and how tired he is when club is over.

“Supervision” means finding somebody who has the skill to help us to see what the recording means. The supervisor does not speak a lot except to ask “And what happened next? “” What did you make of that? or even “Are you sure you were right when you. . . .?

(2) Belonging to a training group which meets at least once a fortnight is helpful. This might be the team of adult helpers in the club. Here the advantage is that we are talking about people and situations with which we are all familiar. If we meet with a group of workers [page 14] from other centres we have more variety and wider experiences. What is important is the development of the group itself. Do the members come to trust each other? Are they willing to talk about their failures as well as their successes, their perplexities as well as their certainties? (Cf. Learning Through Group Experiences, by A. K. C. Ottaway, Routledge & Kegan Paul, for a good example of what is meant here.)

(3) But in any case, we ought to be meeting and comparing notes with other youth workers. Not in the sense that we want to copy their ideas but learning what others are doing will stimulate thinking about our own opportunities.

(4) We can encourage the visitors to the club who can discuss with us from an experienced point of view what we are doing and what further resources are possible. Such visitors might be the local youth officer or the organising secretary of the local association of youth clubs. We ought not to feel that we have to” put up a good case” to them: we think of them as colleagues in the social education of the young.

(5) Leaders should find time for at least a little reading on the subject of youth work. This frightens some people off and there are books which are difficult to understand. They leave us saying, “What does the author mean by that?” But other books seem related to our work and experience, They leave us saying, ”I’ve always felt like that but I have never been able to put it into words “or “Yes, I see that now and I’ve never noticed it before.” [The Young Pretenders, by J. B. Mays (Joseph); The Unattached, by Mary Morse (Pelican) ; The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe (Pan); Absolute Beginners, by Cohn McInnes (Penguin)]

(6) The developing leader keeps in touch with what is happening in Youth Service by being on the mailing list of one of the agencies sending out regularly information and pamphlets – the National Association of Youth Clubs. [page 15]

(7) Training is an on-going process which is never completed. There is not only always more to learn but the growing leader wants the opportunity to extend his practical skill and the power to interpret his experience with the group. Fortunately there are more training courses today than ever before and there must be few parts of the country where they do not exist. They vary in quality and the programme should be carefully examined. Courses which depend on lectures are not usually as rewarding as those which call for more active participation by the student in discussion, role-playing, seminars and projects.


In modern societies, there is a continuing interest in young people though there is no longer a consensus of expectations about their behaviour. Hence there are a variety of social attitudes to the young. As well as being cared for, they are bribed, cajoled, blamed, wheedled, imitated, feared, exploited and neglected. They need above all to meet adults who offer them a respectful comradeship in which lie possibilities of social education. But these adults cannot be casual labourers. They have a skill which keeps on-growing with the demands of the situation.


How to cite this piece: Milson, F. (1968) Growing with the Job. Youth worker’s progress, London: National Association of Youth Clubs. Available in the informal education archives:

uk youth



This piece has been reproduced here with permission of UK Youth.
First placed in the archives: April 2003.