The problem of ‘youth’ for youth work

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The problem of ‘youth’ for youth work. Full text of the article by Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith published in Youth and Policy.

Contents: introduction · control · so where does youth work come in · youth work? · ‘youth’ · the problems with ‘youth’ · implications · the counter-case · references · how to cite this piece

Surveys have shown that one in five of the workforce plans to take time out to watch the game against Tunisia, with or without permission. Daily Mail 15th June 1998

The government is setting up a task force to tackle truancy. An estimated one million pupils missed at least one school session without permission last year. Sue Lloyd-Roberts News at One 16th June 1998

The Cross of St George tattooed on his beer belly, this is a ringleader of the thugs bringing shame to the England World Cup campaign. Far from having an underprivileged background of deprivation, James Shayler (32) has an £80,000 house, an expensive car, a common-law wife and three children, and the money to support them. … other English supporters were remanded in custody Benjamin Sharpe (25), Peter Bray (28) and Philip Bryan (37). Daily Mail June 16th 1998

Politicians and policy makers in Britain and Northern Ireland currently tend to talk about young people in three linked ways – as thugs, users and victims. As thugs they steal cars, vandalize estates, attack older (and sometimes, younger) people and disrupt classrooms. As users they take drugs, drink and smoke to excess, get pregnant in order to jump the housing queue and, hedonistically, care only for themselves. As victims they can’t find work, receive poor schooling and are brought up in dysfunctional families. Yet so many of the troublesome behaviours associated in this way with young people are not uniquely theirs. As the opening quotations indicate truancy may indeed be a ‘youth problem’. After all to be a truant one must be absent from school. However, if it is more correctly seen as absenteeism (unauthorized absence from work), then it becomes merely another example of a phenomenon that crosses ages, classes and backgrounds. Likewise, the classic linking of youth with soccer hooliganism does not make sense when we examine the profile of those appearing in court for ‘soccer-related’ offences. Yet a view of ‘youth as a problem’ continues to drive policy discussion and, in the UK at least, is linked to notions of social exclusion. Certain groups of young people are seen in deficit, as a problem – and the ‘answer’ to this behaviour is to impose more control on the one hand (Jeffs and Smith 1995), and, on the other, to direct ‘remedial’ resources and interventions at those deemed to be in need.

In this article we argue that ‘youth’ has limited use as a social category and that it characteristically involves viewing those so named as being in deficit and in need of training and control. We suggest it is the similarities and continuities in the experience of different age groups that is significant, rather than the differences. It follows that if ‘youth’ is disappearing as meaningful social category, then the notions of ‘youth work’ or ‘services for youth’ are of little use. In its place we need to look to informal education and to reclaim and extend those traditions of practice that stress association and education. We will return to this in the conclusion.


The perception of youth as a threat has produced a range of policy initiatives during the last decade concerned with extending control and management. Some have involved increased surveillance. In shopping areas and housing developments there has been the growing use of close circuit television specifically programmed to identify groups of young people. The use of cameras and security patrols has also spread to school playgrounds, corridors and, in parts of the United States, even classrooms. In addition, the use of continuous assessment has narrowed the curriculum and enables closer monitoring of what they are allowed, and not allowed, to learn. Homework clubs, the use of summer learning programmes (particularly for young people in ‘deprived areas’), proposed reductions in the length of holidays, and up to two hours a night compulsory homework are further examples of the way in which surveillance may be expanded.

This ‘new authoritarianism’ can also be recognized in increased levels of incarceration. Here we can focus on three examples. First, schools and colleges have become fortresses surrounded by fences. This is often justified in terms of keeping danger out, but more usually employed to keep young people in. Only recently Quinton Kynaston School in west London spent £300,000 on fencing explicitly to contain students. Such visible restraints are augmented in a number of institutions by technologies such as swipe cards which record arrival and departure at every lesson. Second, there has been a significant increase in secure provision for young offenders and a lowering of the age of imprisonment. Third, and what is potentially a massive attack on the civil rights of children and young people, there have been moves toward the use of generalized curfews. Individual curfew orders (incarceration in the home) are already in place. Now there is active exploration of using general orders, such as those that can be found in many US towns and cities (Jeffs and Smith 1995). In Hamilton in 1997 the first steps towards this were made with the development of a policing initiative focused on removing from the streets at certain times any children or young people who do not have a ‘good reason’ to be there. More recently, the Government has circulated English local authorities to recruit participants in a wider curfew initiative.

There has also been an increased emphasis on control within education and training. The use of surveillance and incarceration in schools and colleges has already been noted. When we then turn to the nature of the curriculum we can see these trends represented in more subtle forms. How much better it would be, goes the argument, if we could teach children and young people to control themselves rather than having to spend money on costly external constraints. Let’s look at what we can do in the National Curriculum. Let’s think up schemes so that young people are forced to develop less anti-social forms of behaviour. Let us target specific activities such as drug usage, smoking, and sexual activity, and employ workers and programmes to promote ‘healthier’ practices (see Hendry, Shucksmith and Philip 1995).

In noting this we are not arguing against a concern with control. Communities require ways of curbing anti-social behaviour if they are to be places where people can flourish. Individual young people do sometimes behave as thugs, users or victims, but it is not the young who solely need to be restrained. There can be no acceptable reason for controlling people on the grounds of their age any more than on the basis of their race or gender. It is even unacceptable to restrict the movements of young people and children on account that they are in greater risk of becoming victims. Those who perpetrate the crimes should lose their freedom, not potential victims. Overall our interest in control must always be balanced with a concern for democracy and justice.

So where does youth work come in?

Unfortunately, the view of youth as a problem has been taken up by many of those who want to rebuild youth work and the youth service. ‘Give us the money’, the argument goes, ‘and we will develop provision for young people that deals with and prevents anti-social and destructive behaviour’. An example of this came in the United Kingdom Youth Work Alliance’s manifesto:

For some young people the paths to adulthood may be blocked, for example, the absence of jobs or by their own lack of social skills; some are tempted into crime. Effective youth work, statutory and voluntary, intervenes to help young people to deal with such roadblocks, to develop their potential as valued individuals and to become responsible citizens. (1996: 3)

A similar cry could be heard in the late 1950s and early 1960s (and, indeed, during most of the history of youth work since the late eighteenth century). At times when there is a crude emphasis on control and private gain, those wishing to protect and promote youth work tend to fall into the trap of making extravagant claims. This is a trend exacerbated by the general withering away of distinctive youth services in many parts of Britain and Northern Ireland. Their non-statutory nature and continuing problems concerning a relative lack of attention to theory, purpose and practice, have combined over time to make them a sitting target for cutbacks (Jeffs and Smith 1988; Smith 1988). In this situation workers and managers have, understandably, responded by trying to sell youth work to funders on the basis of its potential contribution to solving the latest moral panic or policy ‘problem’. For all the talk of ‘empowerment’, the underlying pitch has been around young people as victims, thugs or users.

But something rather significant has also been happening. Young people have been staying away from youth work provision in their droves (Hendry et al 1993: 46; Maychell et al 1996). In many areas youth workers have given up attempting to work with those over 18 (Fitzpatrick, Hastings and Kintrea 1998). Partly in response to demand, but also in order to survive, ‘youth workers’, clubs and centres have provided more and more ‘adult-led organized leisure’ for those below 14, as well as hiring out their premises to community groups and commercial organisations. Acceleration of this movement has coincided with a radical shift in the funding arrangements for overall welfare provision, youth work included. Agencies have been obliged to bid and compete for cash from a variety of state, charitable and commercial sources, most of it allocated for specific time-limited interventions. As a consequence youth workers have become Janus-faced. When pleading for funds they tend to emphasize both the dangers posed by unmonitored youth as well as the failings and inadequacies of young people. They have often embraced the concept of ‘underclass’ and exaggerated the negative, conjuring up a collection of euphemisms for inadequacy such ‘status zero youth’, ‘at risk’, ‘disaffected’, and ‘excluded’ (Jeffs 1997). The face offered to young people and colleagues is different. Here the talk is of empowerment, engagement and participation – not control and inadequacy.

New funding mechanisms have eroded many of the historic characteristics of the work, in particular the need for continuity, the educational base and autonomy. Paradoxically this has meant workers recognizing the extent to which these funding mechanisms have provided a lifeline at a time when young people are losing interest in clubs and centres, while at the same time bemoaning the need to respond to the demands imposed by the new funders. The reason for the fall in numbers is not simply demographic, it reflects fundamental changes in the opportunities for leisure; in particular the expansion of home entertainment and the development of the commercial sector (Jeffs and Smith 1990a; Smith 1991). However, the decline also reflects something more – the very basis for youth work, the concept of ‘youth’, is slipping away.

‘Youth’ work?

For over 150 years, three elements have fused to delineate youth work and thereby distinguish it from other welfare activities. It has been distinctive only when all these ingredients are present. Remove one and it becomes obvious that what is being observed may possess a resemblance to, but is unquestionably not, youth work. These three characteristics, as we have argued elsewhere, are that:-

  • the relationship between the client or participant and the worker remains voluntary, with the former invariably retaining the right to both initiate any association with the worker and more importantly to terminate it.
  • the work undertaken primarily has an educational purpose.
  • the focus of the work is directed towards young people.

Historically the first two of these have been perceived as problematic. Indeed, workers have felt obligated to ‘guard the perimeter’ lest their professional identity was eroded and the raison d’être for their existence removed. Regarding the first, at a macro level, problems generally emanate from the state’s desire to manage the public behaviour of young people (Jeffs and Banks 1999). The most comprehensive example of this occurred during the 1939-45 War when compulsory registration with an approved youth organisation was introduced for those under 18. As a consequence relationships between ‘members’ and ‘leaders’ often changed dramatically. Many workers found this difficult to enforce and professionally disconcerting. Post-war retention of registration would undoubtedly have ensured generous funding and a defined role within the emerging welfare state for the youth service, but no organisations advocated it. Compulsion was viewed as incompatible with youth work practice. In the 1960s similar resistance to compulsion meant existing agencies refused to dispense Intermediate Treatment for young offenders – resulting in the creation of discrete social services provision. Currently the introduction of the ubiquitous New Deal for the young unemployed has posed an analogous dilemma for youth workers and organisations. However, so complete appears to have been the triumph of Thatcherism that accommodation with popularist authoritarianism is now virtually unquestioned. This has allowed advocates of collaboration with the New Deal an almost unchallenged supremacy, signalled by the absence of any sustained published critique of the programme from with youth work. The absence is marked when compared with the response to youth training proposals in the late 1970s (e.g. Davies 1979; 1981).

Inevitably dilemmas concerning voluntary affiliation also occur at a micro level. Youth workers have, for example, consistently asked whether or not they can in good faith operate in settings where attendance is compulsory. School-based work has, at times, fudged this issue by conjuring up concepts such as ‘negotiated programmes’ and the use of an agreed ‘contract … at the start of the project’ (Hand 1995: 32). However, much current school-based work is funded to target ‘truants’, the ‘at risk’ and ‘disaffected’ referred by teachers, social workers, parents or education welfare officers. In such cases implicit and explicit coercion makes a mockery of claims that involvement is voluntary. It is not, but in a very real sense it does not matter. For what we are witnessing is the deployment of ‘youth workers’ as teachers, social group workers or counsellors. It is an example of professionals stepping out of role and using their skills within a different context; a mirror image of a school teacher operating ‘like a youth worker’ to create an environment where informal education can be encouraged, for example, by organising a trip, activity programme or simply cruising the corridor and playground to engage young people in conversation (Hazler 1998). No immutable rule exists which forbids youth workers from operating as formal educators, trainers, counsellors or advice workers but it is important to recognise that when they are doing so they are probably not ‘doing’ what has historically been defined as youth work.

The second defining characteristic, educational purpose, has distinguished youth workers from others working in similar ways with young people. Commercial providers of leisure facilities and entertainment want to make a profit from their customers; sporting coaches want to produce winners and top athletes; police officers want to reduce crime levels or secure useful information; and religious or political zealots want to make converts. These ‘providers’ often operate in ways barely distinguishable from those employed by youth workers. Indeed, many like youth evangelists and youth ministers, may take on the title of youth worker (presumably as they work with ‘youth’) but their orientation and purpose sets them apart. It is not always easy to see the dividing line, particularly when such providers hire those trained as youth workers to operate on their behalf.

Glib, simplistic clichés which argue that youth work is about ‘process not product’ are dangerous nonsense. Process is important but it can never be divorced from ends. All educational interventions relate in some way to either the sort of individual or world that those undertaking the work wish to achieve. Interventions that do not pay attention to ends, but merely process, cease to be educational in intent.

Historically the first two characteristics of youth work have been seen as problematic. A great deal of the literature has focused on debates around these. The third, a concentration on the needs and experiences of a specific group, has not been systematically questioned apart from discussions around the most appropriate age at which intervention should commence and end. However, we argue it is increasingly difficult to approach ‘youth’ as a meaningful way of categorizing a set of experiences or qualities. It is now the very concept of youth that poses some fundamental questions. Inevitably this raises the possibility that if something called ‘youth work’ appeared at a particular historical moment – so it may wither away at another. That is what we may well be witnessing at the moment.


Terms like ‘adolescent’, ‘teenager’, ‘youth’ and ‘young person’ are often used interchangeably. ‘Adolescence’, as we know, tends to be linked to notions of personal, private and psychological identity. Thus, we talk of ‘adolescent behaviour’, ‘adolescent angst’ and ‘adolescent identity’. In so doing we focus on supposedly age-specific developmental problems, and upon insecurity and uncertainty. ‘Teenager’, however, is more up-beat and often bracketed with what are seen as age-specific forms of consumption. It is linked to words like ‘fashion’ and ‘magazines’. ‘Youth’ is largely employed where the discussion is centred on the behaviour of young people in the public sphere. As such, we find it commonly linked to words such as ‘crime’, ‘policy’ and ‘culture’. Lastly, ‘young person’ tends to be used as a way of denoting status (e.g. ‘Young Person’s Railcard).

These words can be linked to different professions and social groupings. Psychologists and psychiatrists have tended to employ the term ‘adolescent’ since G. Stanley Hall’s (1904) path-breaking work. Politicians, policy analysts and sociologists orient towards ‘youth’; and those affiliated to the entertainment and fashion industry since the 1950s have more frequently talked about teenagers. Within youth work, ‘young person’ has tended to be used to indicate clienthood.

Male dominance in the public domain, aligned with the assumed heightened threat young men posed to social order, has meant that ‘youth’ has acquired a predominately masculine connotation (see, for example, McRobbie 1994; Tinkler 1995). Further, welfare provision and services pre-fixed by the term ‘youth’ have historically been male-oriented. Similarly, terms like ‘youths loitering’, ‘youth crime’, ‘marginalised youth’ and ‘disaffected youth’ summon up images of groups of young males on street corners or behaving in some unacceptable way. Teenage, by contrast, has a more ‘feminine’ set of associations. We discuss ‘teenage pregnancy’ never youth pregnancy. Also, when topics such as ‘teenage magazines’, ‘teen pop’ or ‘teen fashion’ arise we can be fairly certain the emphasis will be on products directed at both a specific age group and young women in particular (McRobbie 1994). It is important to stress that when examining contemporary debates, the application of these terms frequently carries important implications. An examination of the Times Educational Supplement, for example, shows how positive images are linked to the use of terms such as ‘pupil’, ‘student’ and ‘young people’. With the exception of the occasional article on the ‘Youth Service’, ‘youth’ is almost exclusively employed to signify discussion of a social problem or behaviour being portrayed in a negative light.

However, before we get carried away with difference, we need to acknowledge what these notions share. First, each implies that what is being discussed is more transient and, usually, of less consequence than the adult counterpart. Adolescent loss, teenage love and youth crime, for example, are generally assumed to be more shallow, less serious and more fleeting than adult equivalents. Youth culture, likewise, is seen as lacking the profundity or longevity of the alternatives. Attaching ‘teenage’ or ‘teen’ to anything is virtually synonymous with triviality. Even when affixed to something as important as pregnancy or motherhood, irresponsibility and a lack of maturity are implied.

Second, these three ways of describing young people signal that a contrast is being drawn. Each is relational, standing against notions of ‘adulthood’ and ‘childhood’. They are transitional states located between the two and imply a deficiency. For example, they warn us that we are about to encounter behaviour or attitudes which are ‘less than adult’. Each is, somehow, a detached stage during which the individual focuses on preparation. As such they reinforce ‘the idea that young people are marginal members of society’ (Wyn and White 1997: 13). These authors highlight the supposed contrasts in the following table:

Perceptions of youth and adulthood
Youth Adult
Not adult/adolescent Adult/grown up
Becoming Arrived
Presocial self that will emerge under the right conditions Identity is fixed
Powerless and vulnerable Powerful and strong
Less responsible Responsible
Dependent Independent
Ignorant Knowledgeable
Risky behaviours Considered behaviour
Rebellious Conformist
Reliant Autonomous

Source: Wyn and White 1997: 12.

Third, implicit in the terminology is a belief that growing-up is a one-way journey, a process of moving on from adolescent ignorance to adult wisdom; from teenage trivia to adult seriousness; from youth training to adult employment. The adult, we are being told, is the finished product, the young person the incomplete prototype. This essentialism built around age, like the equivalent discourses constructed around, for example, gender or ‘race’, provides a foundation for almost all the literature which comprises the sociology of youth and youth work.

From this brief review we can see that the basis for ‘youth’ work appears to be entwined with a view of young people as being in deficit. Indeed, it is a state that young people themselves aspire to leave behind. The evidence we have is that most ‘young people’ want to be treated as adults, and have the opportunity to engage in the same or similar activities to those older than themselves (see, for example, Hendry et al 1993). Youth work was based upon an assumption that adults led young people through a period of ‘storm and stress’ and danger toward the stability of adulthood. The sociologists of youth tended to work on the basis that youth was problematic and adulthood was not. However, the notion of ‘adulthood’ needs to be viewed as being as enigmatic as ‘youth’.

Adulthood which once seemed an uneventful predictable time of life, has more recently come to seem problematic and mysterious, We find ourselves asking whether adulthood is a period of stability or of change, whether adults “develop” or only drift, whether there are patterned stages of adult development or only less successful responses to external pressures. (Swidle 1980: 120)

Adulthood is no longer an identifiable destination. Many struggle to hold onto what they see as the positive characteristics of youth into middle and old age – to retain ‘youthful’ appearance, hobbies and activities. In some cases this will entail behaving in ways that signify the supposedly negative aspects of youth, for example around football support, drug use and clubbing. For Bly (1996) and others, this has been perceived as signalling a growing rejection of adulthood itself as being an essentialist concept by significant segments of the population. Such rejection involves the individual in a set of complex negotiations around appearance, behaviour and relationships. This occurs alongside teens seeking to adopt certain characteristics of older groups. The result, according to Bly (1996: 44) is that we ‘are now living in a culture run by half-adults’. While not necessarily sharing all this analysis, what is clear is that the once ‘fixed’ notion of adulthood has become fluid.

Problems with ‘youth’

However, we can’t leave this as it stands. There are further, major, problems with ‘youth’ and these can be quickly illustrated in relation to the three, central, traditions of the sociology of youth. These traditions are characterized by Wyn and White (1997) as youth transitions, youth development and youth subcultures. The first looks at the way in which youth is ‘constructed and structured through the institutions that “process” the transitions to adulthood’ (ibid.: 5). The classic processes here involve schooling and the movement into further and higher education and the labour market. In the literature, youth development is often tied into a notion of ‘troubled youth’ and draws upon psychological understandings of youth. The focus is then on developmental stages, individual differences, moments of stress and risk-taking behaviour. In respect of youth subcultures there tends to be a defining interest in ‘the production and consumption of culture and the process of identity formation’ (Wyn and White 1997: 4 – 5). Much of this work has its origins in studies of groupings such as mods, rockers and skinheads that appeared in the 1970s.

Transition. The first problem we encounter is that the concept of transition to adulthood seems to be fast-fading in northern countries. During the last few years in order to keep it alive the notion has undergone constant revision. We have been asked to use the concept of transition in an array of re-constituted forms. ‘Delayed’, ‘broken’, ‘highly fragmented’, ‘elongated’, ‘extended’ and ‘blocked’ transitions have been paraded before an increasingly confused, dare we say irritated, audience. What they each share is a desperation to hold fast to notions of an imagined mainstream in which the majority of young people neatly go forward in a uni-directional way towards some magical moment when adulthood is conferred. As such they are aligned to a predominately economistic view which, particularly for young men, sees full-time employment as the pivotal signifier of adulthood (see Irwin 1995). A good but somewhat grotesque example of this approach argues that to become adult it is necessary to have a job and to make money’ (Morch 1997: 259). Thus, those who postpone ‘life decisions typical for adulthood, such as taking a steady job or building a family’ (du Bois-Reymond 1995: 79) are perceived as less than adult, less than mature.

It appears that whether we are discussing employment, education, family status or housing there is no longer (if there ever was) a point where ‘final choices’ are made. While we may have questions around Beck’s (1992) influential thesis, that individuals are becoming less constrained by traditional social forms and his talk of ‘risk-biographies’, what cannot be denied is that people in northern countries increasingly blend work, leisure and education. For example, they move in and out of educational systems – exploiting modular course structures, credit accumulation and transfer schemes, new forms of assessment (such as the accreditation of prior learning) and distance learning to construct a more individualised educational experience. In so doing they package learning to better suit their needs, home circumstances, employment or finances (Ainley 1997: Scott 1997). All this results in a mixing of full-time and part-time study, work and leisure in way that can extend the sphere of autonomy of the individual. ‘Transitions’, that were previously linked to youth are frequently no longer the sole property of a particular age group. Backtracking, re-visiting, revising and the reversing of earlier decisions regarding life style and content are a growing feature of life.

Youth development. When we start visiting notions of youth development we hit similar problems. There is, initially, an issue with the sort of ‘stage theory’ that is involved. People are seen as making systematic progression in a certain order through a series of phases. Step by step they move closer to some form of adult status. This movement can be seen as involving developments in intellectual and physical powers (for example around changes in intelligence, expertise and ability to reason); and the impact of life events and experiences. Aristotle proposed a three stage model; Solon divided life into nine seven year stages; Confucius identified six stages; The Sayings of the Fathers (from the Talmud) contain fourteen stages; and Shakespeare proposed seven stages (Tennant and Pogson 1995: 69).

There are a number of issues with such theories. The first arises from the sheer scale of their endeavours. By seeking to be universal theories, by looking to explain some aspect of all our development, they over-reach themselves. While there may be some universals of growth, when we come to examine the individual life, things are rarely that straightforward. Second, as Rutter and Rutter (1992: 2) comment, by concentrating on stages such theories imply ‘a mechanical predictability that is out of keeping with the dynamics of change, the extent of the flux over time and the degree of individual variability that seems to be the case’. As we have already seen, with regard to transitions, the movement through our lives is not so clear cut, there are all sorts of stuttering steps forward, steps back, and pauses. Third, our biographies are likely to show significant deviations from the path laid out by the theories. ‘Stages’ may be missed out, other ways of naming a phase or experiences may be more appropriate. The reality is that in any of these domains there is no one universal path, nor is there some fixed end point – ‘normal maturity’. Detailed studies of socio-emotional development show that children ‘take a variety of paths, and that adult outcome cannot sensibly be reduced to differences in levels of maturity’ (Rutter and Rutter 1992: 2).

There are major problems in attempting to define adolescence in relation to traditional developmental criteria. With regard to youth and physical development then the key moments appear to be pre-teen or early teen (and then they are significant only for a small minority of people) (see, for example, Coleman and Hendry 1990). With respect to emotional development, age is no particular predictor of ‘storm and stress’. ‘The great majority of young people seem to cope well and to show no undue signs of turmoil and stress’ (ibid.: 201). Classically such stress could be seen as arising out of attempts by individuals to resolve two relational processes – attachment and identity. Whether these processes are more problematic during adolescence is a debatable point and requires answering in relation to different cultures and situations. Significantly, neither attachment theory nor social identity theory were developed specifically for the adolescent age period (Cotterell 1996: 4-5) and are potentially applicable across the life course. If we then turn to learning (which is key concern for educators), then we encounter no significant differences between the processes engaged in by young people (those between 12 and 18) and those labelled as adult. Notions of distinctive patterns of learning associated with adult experience such as that of andragogy have been thoroughly discredited (Tennant 1997). Indeed, Jarvis’ (1987: 11) concluded that adult learning may be no different from child learning, given the same social situation.

Here we come to a central question – are the various social situations experienced by young people distinctive? If it is possible to establish that young people encounter a unique set of situations and social experiences, then there may be a case for treating youth (or adolescence) as a helpful category on which to base specific intervention. In part this takes us back to the discussion around transitions. Many of the activities associated with youth – taking part in education, entering the labour or housing markets, cohabiting and so on, occur across a wide age range. What is arguably unique is that these things may be encountered for the first time – and that as a result young people are more likely to engage in risky behaviour.

The literature is full of discussions of the various risk-taking behaviours that young people are allegedly more prone to, for example, with regard to drug usage and sexual behaviour. There can be no denying that some young people experience problems, but in these areas the question is whether the ‘problem is better approached as a ‘youth question’ or as an experience shared by people across a span of ages. When we come to look at ‘teenage pregnancy’, ‘youth homelessness’, ‘youth drug-taking’ and so on, few of the pertinent dimensions of the experience relate to any inherent qualities of ‘youth’. Some are policy driven, such as the denial of income support to the vast majority of 16 and 17 year olds to reduce expenditure, some are social and others economic. Once people experience significant problems around areas such as these then the case for specialist provision focused on the issue, rather than their age, is strong. It may be that some activities are first encountered between, say, ages 14 to 21 years. However, many of the highlighted areas of risk, for example around drug and alcohol usage, and unprotected sexual activity, are according to the evidence, in most cases first encountered either earlier or later (see Jeffs and Smith forthcoming). Furthermore, when we examine the nature of welfare services specifically offered to young people these, almost invariably, heighten stigmatization. For example, all the evidence indicates that young mothers, although more likely to be poor due to discriminatory employment and income maintenance practices, are in no way inferior parents (Phoenix 1991; Simms and Smith 1986; Speak et al 1997). Yet separate provision sustains a view of them as inadequate. Discrete services for young people, whether in education, health or care, are likely to be less well-funded, involve lower expectations and apply more stringent conditions upon users.

This still leaves the question of how people are to be prepared or forewarned of potential risks and problems. Education around issues associated with drug usage and other ‘dangerous’ encounters must surely, if it is to be effective, ensure maximum coverage. This means working with those of all ages, partly to help them to manage their own risk-behaviour, but also to equipment them to be the educators of others. The justification for generic provision is strong. As Hendry et al (1995) point out in their review of health education for young people, there is a need for approaches to take into account the diversity of experiences and cultures. They stress the need to avoid the over-professionalization of health (and other) teaching and to increasingly locate health education within family and other local social networks (Hendry et al 1995: 191-2).

Youth subculture. Another set of questions is posed by debates around youth subcultures. If there are distinctive cultural forms and behaviours associated with youth – then the case for specialist intervention is strengthened. Workers would be needed who are able to engage with those cultures/subcultures, and who have detailed knowledge of, for example, the language, behaviours and clothing associated with the various forms. Much of the youth work literature of the 1960s is shot through with this assumption. The ‘blurb’ on Morse’s (1965) book The Unattached provides us with a flavour of this:

Resentment, apathy, mistrust – the dead-end job, the Beat sound, and a rejection of the values of adult society. These are the kind of words with which journalists have tried to catch and understand the unattached – the teenagers who don’t belong to anyone or anything. What kind of people are they? What are their attitudes, needs, aims or resentments? How can they be approached or understood?

In 1960 the National Association of Youth Clubs… (sent)… three young social workers…, each to a different town, under concealed identities, to find and scrape an acquaintance with these particular teenagers. Over three years, the three, one of whom was a young woman, eventually became the trusted friends and confidants of the bored, the apathetic, the rebellious and the defiant.

This is reminiscent of the sort of attitude that fuelled the activities of Victorian anthropologists, philanthropists and ‘social explorers’. Young people are another country – to be visited, understood and, if we follow the imperial tradition, colonized. There are echoes of this approach in the current government’s ‘New Deal for Communities’ programme introduced by the Prime Minister with a reference to his aim of ending the existence of communities with different ethical and moral values from those found in mainstream society (Hetherington 1998).

Concerns such as these were triggered in part by the appearance of vibrant youth cultures in the United States during the 1940s and the United Kingdom a decade later. Their emergence was closely related to profound social and economic changes. In particular, youth subcultures arose from a long term trend towards far greater age segmentation within western society. A move away from ‘an age integrated society’ towards an age-segregated one’ (Chudacoff 1989: 27). The pace of these changes quickened during the post-war years as a greater affluence trickled down to young people – leading to the creation of specialist leisure, music and fashion production designed specifically to cater for their ‘needs’.

These developments fed into a lively sociological discourse that produced a number of significant explorations of groupings of young people (usually young men) (e.g. Hall and Jefferson 1976; Willis 1977) and a vibrant debate as to the extent to which lifestyles, attitudes and life chances were determined by class as well as age (see, for example: Marsland’s [1993] defence of adolescence as ‘a real and unavoidable condition’). Later contributions to the debate looked to the degree to which youth subcultures were gendered and determined by ethnic origin. Here we do not want to go into an exploration of the shortcomings and possibilities of this tradition of theorizing, but simply to note that throughout this debate the protagonists held fast to the concept of ‘youth’ as a meaningful category. If look at contemporary empirical evidence, the reality in most northern countries today is that:

1. The vast majority of young people do not belong to distinctive subcultures. There has been a ‘splintering’ whereby people of all ages are much less likely to adopt complete packages, but rather to ‘pick and mix’ various elements (Roberts 1997: 9).

2. Those ‘youth’ subcultures that could be said to exist e.g. around clubbing embrace a fairly wide age span (see Thornton 1995). Arguably the significant breakpoints in musical and in social tastes come around 10-11 years of age, and then somewhere in people’s 30s.

3. Youth cultures may well act as bases for proto-communities rather than expressing membership of pre-existent groups. In other words, the bond lies in the leisure taste or activity: the camaraderie and sense of belonging that can be generated in a sport, activity or event (Roberts 1997: 9)

4. Despite the impression gained from an encounter with much of the sociological literature ‘most young people tend to be fairly conventional in outlook and lifestyle, and to merely dabble in the subcultural realm’ (Wyn and White 1997: 84).

Recent British surveys such as the 2020 Vision research programme (Industrial Society 1997) confirms this picture. It shows a commitment amongst the overwhelming majority of young people to family life, the work ethic, the inherent value of education and existing social arrangements. Their concerns about the stability of their communities, future employment prospects and the quality and availability of educational provision dove-tail neatly with the views of their parents’ and grand-parents’ generation. Similarly their perspective on child rearing, crime and penal policy appear to be remarkably close to those of their parents. They do appear to be, however, far less censorious of the working and single mother than their parents; to overwhelmingly ‘support equality between the sexes’ (Wiggins, Bynner and Parsons 1997); and to believe that household chores – cooking, shopping, washing and ironing – should be shared between the sexes, although a gap between men and women on this issue still persists (Smith et al 1996 :26). Finally, the ways in which leisure time is enjoyed is far less diverse amongst different age groups than might be expected. Young people certainly watch more television than preceding generations. However, they are a difficult audience to pin down and generally ‘spend less time watching television than people over 25 or under 12’ (Croft 1997: 179). For them and their parents watching television remains the most popular form of home entertainment. Outside the home the co-terminosity between those aged 16 to 24 and those between 25 and 60 is remarkable. The percentages participating in visiting a public house, going out to a restaurant, taking a drive for pleasure, going for a short break holiday, visiting an historic house, attending a sporting event and going to the theatre varies little. Not surprisingly going to a disco or night club and the cinema are the exceptions, but the crucial element is the similarity (Trew 1997: HMSO 1997: 220). Above all, among all classes, and to a large extent all age groups, the ‘home is the main site of leisure and self-expression’ (Twigg 1997: 228) – even for the consumption of alcohol by under-age drinkers (Goddard 1997).

The idea that there are distinctive youth cultures or subcultures is open to considerable doubt. The emergence of ‘pre-teens’ as major buyers of fashion, music, video and computer games; the involvement of people well into their thirties (and beyond) in music and club cultures; and the spread of consumer cultures to all age groups (Roberts 1997: 8) has brought about a major shift. For those concerned with marketing, ‘youth’ is more of an aspiration or orientation, rather than an age group. Great care is now taken not to market goods in a way that denies adult status and confirms immaturity. The recent failure of alco-pops is a case in point. These were produced to hook young people onto alcohol at an age when they might opt for cannabis and other drugs. However, they failed to catch on because they were seen as being ‘for kids’. Guinness, on the other hand, have been successful in their re-marketing by carefully seeking to combine the image of maturity with vibrant youthfulness (The Economist, September 11, 1998: 33).

The sociology of youth. Accounts of different practices linked to ‘youth’ have a substantial historical and anthropological standing. However, at different times and within different cultures the relative significance of ‘youth’ as a signifier of status and identifier of behaviour in the public sphere changes. At some points it may be a useful category, at others it may mystify more than it informs. At this moment it is likely that the substantive changes in the social and economic structure, which have, for example, eliminated the ‘youth labour market’ in the space of a couple of decades, will have a similar impact to those that Musgrove (1964) wrote about. That just as adolescence was created by social and economic changes wrought two centuries past so we might now be witnessing its demise. Comparative studies increasingly show changes in the sequence and pattern of transition to an extent that the rationale for its use is being rapidly eroded (Jeffs and Smith 1998). As du Bois-Reymond argues we are encountering is a world in which

Status passages are no longer linear but synchronical and reversible. The life-course of modern young people does not necessarily follow the model of finishing school, completing professional training, getting engaged to be married, and then beginning an active sex life; instead a sex life may commence while still at school, and a trial marriage may take place rather than an engagement (1998: 66).

Over a decade ago Frith (1986) identified the absence of any significant developments in the sociology of youth during the first half of the 1980s. Little has changed. This field of study has produced little of substance, and certainly almost nothing fresh or original for nearly two decades. It has become more inward looking. As a sub-discipline it is unlikely to disappear (although perhaps it should) as too many have invested too much in it. It will linger on – not least because governments continue to be concerned about ‘troublesome youth’ and require people to research into the topic. Despite regular injections of research funding it is likely to become increasingly irrelevant. Exhausted, reduced to picking over the minutiae of young peoples’ lives and re-working its own tired models it will stagger on – as a scan of journals such as Youth and Policy testify. Indeed, we can find articles on ‘youth’ that don’t explore young people’s experiences in any sustained way (e.g. Gayle 1998). As people seek out difference rather acknowledging commonality, youth as a meaningful concept continues to slip from view.


Karl Mannheim, exploring the sociological problem of generations ten years after the end of the First World War, argued that:

The fact of belonging to the same class, and that of belonging to the same generation or age group, have this in common, that both endow the individual with a common location in the social and historical process, and thereby limit them to a specific range of experiences, predisposing them for a certain characteristic mode of thought and experience, and a characteristic type of historically relevant action. (1952: 291)

Certain cataclysmic events such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima or Cherynobl can change the way those who witness them view the world. This is not merely a youth phenomenon as the example of the First World War demonstrates. It not only changed one group of young men who fought in it but also their families, friends and subsequent generations. The impact of such events can fade, but their shadow lingers – and informal educators do a great disservice when they ignore this. However, the experiences we have been mapping in this piece show that we can not assume that people belonging to the same generation or age group will have a characteristic mode of thought or behaviour. This, again, undermines the notion of ‘youth’ work. We need to look to the possibilities of building upon shared experience rather than tapping into an assumed generational response. For example, post-1970s mass unemployment had a profound impact on many, young and old. That said, it left large swathes of the population relatively immune to its effects. Rising house prices, the growing spread of inheritance, the appearance of new industries and the shift in the basis of taxation ensured many experienced the time as one of rising living standards and growing opportunity. The job of the informal educator is to explore this with a proper regard to both commonality and difference.

If, as we have argued, there is little intrinsically unique about youth as an age-related process or age state, then what is the basis for intervention? Why have youth workers, if young people learn in the same way as adults, have similar aspirations, and encounter similar problems? Writers like Coles (1995: 6) stress difference, arguing that young people are treated neither as children nor adults. They are, according to him, ’regarded, in part, as both independent choice-making human beings, but also as dependent on other people (especially their parents) for care, guidance and support’. There may be some mileage around this, although we do not believe this to be the case. Dependency is not specifically a ‘youth’ problem. Many young people do not see the world in this way (and would be insulted if it was suggested they are inferior and dependent), whilst others of all ages may see themselves as only partial citizens – as the current advocates of the concept of social exclusion argue. Those concerned with children’s rights and participation might want to dispute the distinction drawn between youth and childhood (hardly surprising given that the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any person under 18 years of age). In part, the problem is the cultural specificity of many of the arguments – after all most people in the world have entered the workforce by 15 years of age. The issue here may not just be the exclusion of young people, but the position of both children and young people. Both are excluded from fundamental rights and opportunities around, for example, voting, income (support and minimum wage) and the expression of their sexuality. Work around such exclusions is a possibility – but it only makes sense when linked to wider questions. After all, childhood and youth are escaped with time. The struggle must be to extend and universalize rights and to make connections between the experiences of different groups. If this is the route educators wish to take, and some are highly sceptical of such extensions, then those rights (many or few) must be applicable to all. There may be rights that relate solely to those exceptionally dependent on others for their material needs. However, these should not be linked to age but rather to condition. For example, we can see commonalties in the experiences of all with regard to living in residential care or access to medical treatment. The strength of the children’s and youth rights movements lies in their capacity to expose inconsistencies in treatment on the basis of age. Their weakness consistently flows from a flawed desire to secure privilege on the basis of age (Franklin 1986, 1995). Youth workers have historically often made the same mistake – pleading for special treatment for those they identify as their clients, while overlooking the more acute needs of others – as currently exemplified in the debate concerning the supposed benefits of having a Minister for Youth. Our concern here is to argue for the elimination of inconsistencies of treatment on the basis of age, and to avoid the creation of privilege. If we are seriously interested in addressing questions around exclusion, citizenship and power then we must look to the general as well as the specific and this means moving beyond the experiences of one group.

Furthermore, and linked to the earlier points, there are few aims or objectives for working with young people that are peculiar to that group. Just about all of the social problems that have been identified with respect to young people (crime, drug usage, housing need, pregnancy) are also shared by older people. Whether by accident or design, this view appears to be shared by those centrally concerned with the UK government’s current interest in social exclusion. When looking to work specifically with young people around crime, for example, the result can all too easily be to stigmatize all those characterized as young in a community. It isolates, and casts a spotlight upon, specific forms of crime and behaviour and presents these as deserving special treatment. Alternatively, it can encourage the creation of ‘privileged’ victims who on account of age are seen as more deserving of sympathy and the attention of professionals than others. Both are highly divisive. Perhaps, therefore, what we need to do is examine crime within communities.

All this adds up to the need to come to terms with the fact that the notion of youth work has a decreasing usefulness. Those seeking to hang onto it as an operating idea appear to be harking back to understandings that have more to do with the 1950s and 1960s and before than with contemporary experience. ‘Youth workers’ need to unhook themselves from a focus on ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ and instead look to people’s experiences and aspirations in the totality. This entail coming to understand themselves, first and foremost, as informal educators. This is not a dramatic shift, it means simply connecting with the two other defining dimensions of youth workers’ earlier experience. It means looking to voluntary association, democracy and the nature of associational life (see, for example, Elsdon 1995; Jeffs and Smith 1996); and exploring and developing understandings of informal education; of fostering learning in life as it is lived (Jeffs and Smith 1990b; 1996). Current concerns with lifelong learning offer one possibility in this respect, interest in linking formal and informal approaches e.g. around health, another. This is a trail already blazed by many outdoor educators who have moved away from a narrow focus on capturing young people and inducting them into the joys of a Spartan life. Realizing the futility of this and the limited potential it offered for their own development, there has been a shift to notions of ‘personal growth through adventure’ wherein a strong focus on age-specific activity has been abandoned (Hopkins and Putnam 1993). A similar trend is emerging in arts work (Matarasso 1997) and in counselling.

The counter-case

In the course of discussing these themes critics have raised six main points:

1. ‘Youth’ remains a useful sociological concept.

2. Failure to highlight youth will lead to a further erosion of resources for not just for work with young people but also community education, leisure and other welfare services.

3. Moving away from ‘youth work’ involves abandoning rich and productive traditions of practice.

4. A focus on informal education will remove an incentive to make provision for ‘difficult young people’.

5. Young people want to be together and we have a responsibility to respond to that need.

6. There are practical difficulties around organizing and administrating services presently included under the umbrella ‘youth work’.

In response to the first of these, we would simply point to the problems of the ‘sociology of youth’ literature that we have already identified. If the concept does have some vibrancy one would expect to see this reflected – but it is not there. There is an increasing obsession with minutiae, an exaggeration of difference and a conscious blurring of boundaries between youth and adult, and youth and child.

Regarding the second objection, we have to be honest. Denigrating young people and over-playing the supposed threat they pose to order and social stability has in the past and, undoubtedly in the future, will pay dividends in terms of funding (although not necessarily to a substantive degree). However, this has to be set against the extent to which such funding strategies add to the difficulties already faced by particular groups (through stigmatization, for example). It also ties funding to moral panics (and so effectively excludes the many) and its Janus-faced nature heighten tensions in practice for the educator. Honesty is a risky strategy in politics. However, even politicians beginning to realize that investing in specific youth services furthers disjointed and faulty provision, with people falling in and out of entitlement and obliged to negotiate a maze of competing agencies as they age. The current move in the UK away from notions of youth service toward ensuring substantive forms of provision (e.g. around housing, education and crime) address social exclusion fits in with this concern. There is, also, a further question of social justice here. If a case cannot be made for the specific needs of an individual (as against others) why should resources flow their way on the basis of age?

The third objection, the abandonment of a rich and productive tradition, does not stand up to examination. We are arguing that the concept of youth, once so helpful, now is deeply flawed in terms of organizing, and thinking about, practice. It now constrains, rather than fosters, the creativity of workers. Historically youth workers have been at the forefront of the development of informal education. Increasingly the tie to ‘youth’, however, has led them away from education into other traditions of control, management and organized leisure. Quite the reverse of abandoning a particular tradition, we are seeking to reclaim it and extend it.

In respect of the fourth objection, we need to begin by saying that youth services have consistently avoided sustained work with ‘difficult young people’. They have generally been left to the tender mercies of social workers, prison officers and the police. As before, we do not want to see the continued isolation of young people’ who present problems to their communities and to service providers. When we come to examine specific cases it quickly becomes clear that people’s difficulties rarely flow from age but, rather, from poverty, family circumstances, health and the like. Once this is recognized the inappropriateness of age-specific provision becomes apparent. Their needs are often long-term and the causes of their difficulties deep-rooted. They can only be tackled in the context of comprehensive and on-going action. Short-term, age-specific intervention may make a bad situation worse.

The fifth critique can be answered simply. We are not arguing that we should not work with people in particular age groups. Groups of people may well define themselves as ‘young’ or ‘old’ and organize around that. Informal educators need to respond accordingly. Similarly, people will find themselves in systems such as schools where they are managed according to age. Informal educators have to work with that experience creatively, and not try to impose unhelpful categories upon people. Those operating in the school setting, older persons centre and student hall often recognize and seek to undo the damage of isolation, to build bridges with the world beyond, and offer ‘inmates’ the benefits of conversation and association with those of a different generation and background.

Lastly, there are always ‘practical difficulties’ standing in the way of reform. Some organizations and forms of provision may disappear. Indeed, people who have consistently and simply defined themselves as youth workers may well have difficulties shifting from such a mindset. Certain organizations likewise. We have to recognize that changes in social attitudes and processes lead to the decline and disappearance of certain activities and jobs. Youth work, much like whaling or lamp-lighting, is no longer required as a discrete activity.

As informal educators we need to reconnect with a concern for democracy and association. We cannot provide instant solutions to the current moral panics around crime, drugs, sexuality and schooling. But by fostering conversation, building communities and encouraging people to open up the opportunities for learning in daily life we can do something that is of a more lasting significance. We may actually help people to live more fulfilled and connected lives. And here we see the incredible folly of policy makers who cutback such work. In pursuit of an extra-ordinarily narrow idea of what education is, they turn their back on community and on association. We need to work alongside people so that they may learn and organize things for themselves – so that all may share in a common life. This was the vision underpinning the Albemarle Report on the Youth Service: ‘To encourage young people to come together into groups of their own choosing is the fundamental task of the Service’ (HMSO 1960: 52). The resulting development of provision singularly failed to address this. We need to ask whether ‘youth work’ hinders the emergence of a common life. It is our belief that it does. Jettisoning the obsession with age-specific activity allows us to focus on education and association and, in so doing, helps all to create for themselves, in the words of Margaret Simey, ‘a life worth living’.

Acknowledgement: this article draws on some material from an earlier review of developments in the sociology of youth (Jeffs and Smith 1998) edited by Michael Haralambos.


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Acknowledgements: Picture: The Street (Carnaby Street) by  Garry Knight. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.

How to cite this piece: Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (1999) ‘The problem of “youth” for youth work’, Youth and Policy 62, pages 45 – 66. Also available in the informal education archives,

© Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith

First published July 1999.