Following on from my last post, ‘Is anti-capitalist youth work next?‘ Gus John’s complementary, challenging perspective focuses in particular on the authoritarian threat to Black Lives Matter, whilst also questioning sharply what he describes as ‘the alternative provision industry’.
In this wide-ranging interview on the Institute of Race Relations web site, veteran educational campaigner Gus John draws connections between initiatives currently pursued by three government departments (education; children and families; culture, media and sport), and lays out what the government has in store for anti-racism, particularly Black Lives Matter.
Gus John: In summary then, this is the increasingly authoritarian state trying to tell BLM ‘we’re coming for you’. They are letting black campaigners know, we want to put you on the Prevent list and treat you as enemies of the state and of wider law-abiding society.
This, I fear, is the thin end of the wedge as far as the drift into totalitarianism is concerned. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but it would not surprise me in the least if at least 50 percent of the strictures that have been introduced as a consequence of COVID are not written into law to hem us in for all time, thus curtailing many of our hard-won freedoms, while civil society feels it has to be similarly authoritarian, snooping and snitching on neighbours and seeking to criminalise every single non-conformist behaviour.
So, we must never fail to be vigilant and to see the connection between these seemingly consensual things. Above all, we need to take collective action and demonstrate to Boris Johnson and his government that we will not stand by and let them harass and curtail the freedoms of Black Lives Matter.
Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.
I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.
Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history
Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.
Editorial – Mae Shaw
This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.
The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.
A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!
Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.
Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.
The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.
Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact email@example.com
Over the past few weeks I’ve made untold efforts to write something useful about the present virus-induced crisis. Amidst the ‘noise’ generated by a waterfall of articles arguing that neoliberalism, its ideology of the free market and self-centred individualism, has been exposed, I seemed to have little to add and have fallen silent. Indeed the only moment when at least some words came to my mind resulted in a piece for a special COVID-19 edition of CONCEPT, the Scottish Community Education journal, which should appear soon.
In closing I’ll propose that as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of impact. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.
At the risk of being melodramatic this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.
Obviously this sweeping, even pretentious contention needs more explanation and exploration, which I’ll pursue when the CONCEPT special comes out. In the meantime responses to the Citizen Enquiry explained below offer the prospect of gathering evidence from the grassroots about the repercussions of the crisis on young people and youth work. I have copy and pasted from the IDYW web site. I would urge folk to be involved if at all possible.
What is going on for youth work in these current circumstances? How are young people feeling? What challenges are youth workers and organisations facing?
Janet Batsleer and others (including members of our own steering group) have come together to call for a ‘Citizen Enquiry’ to find out – and document for the future – what is happening for young people and for youth work and youth workers in the current situation. They invite youth workers and young people to contribute diaries for one day per month, starting on Tuesday 12th May. The idea is to contribute these youth work diaries to the wider Mass Observation archive. More information will come out nearer the time, but for now, do get in touch with Janet (details below) if you are interested in contributing a diary, encouraging others to contribute, and / or joining a network of citizen enquirers willing to discuss and analyse the contributions. This is a bottom-up, citizen inquiry, not run by any university or institution, hoping to attract wide support from youth workers. We will be sharing more as the project progresses.
Call for a Citizen Enquiry: Youth Work and Young People Now
We propose to host a Citizen Enquiry through the community-based youth work sector concerning what is happening for young people and what is happening to youth work and youth workers now and over the coming months.
To do this we will need a) a network of correspondents in all parts of the United Kingdom and b) a network of citizen enquirers willing to join in discussing and analysing what is emerging. The main purpose is to find out What is happening here? And what is happening for young people? We do not only want to document youth work but get a snapshot into the lives of both youth workers and young people during this time and the coming months. So this can include the weather, the atmosphere, the food, the music, the emotions…whatever you want to include you can. We will be making a contribution to the wider picture of what is happening via Mass Observation (www.massobs.org.uk)
We will ask for diary entries each month for at least one day on the first week of the month (starting in May) from youth workers and if possible also with young people they are working with. We will also join the Mass Observation diary project on 12th May. In addition, we invite short reports (memos) on the following themes:
Vulnerabilities and Precarious lives
Who is missing? How is outreach work happening?
Crisis points and meeting basic needs
What is happening online?
Fears and hopes for the future of your organisation/youth project ?
Then a group of citizen researchers from the youth work sector will meet monthly to consider what has been submitted in their area, join a national meeting to see what is emerging and, after 6 months say , decide on what to enquire into further.
This will be an independent citizen led research project.
Those involved will be invited to submit their diaries via this enquiry to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex who are undertaking a record of everyday experiences of the pandemic. They will be invited to use the ethical processes associated with Mass Observation and guidance of this will be given when people join the project.
As I prevaricate as to whether I’ve anything useful to say about the present crisis, my old friend and once fellow youth worker, Roy Ratcliffe is on to his seventh response to COVID-19 and its implications. In this one in particular Roy introduces his analysis with an appealing and revealing reworking of an old nursery rhyme.
For the want of…..?
With each update of news since the Pandemic commenced, I have been reminded of a childhood story told to me about how a king lost a war against an invader. The story went something along the lines of; For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost; for the want of the shoe a horse was lost, for the want of the horse, the rider was lost, for the want of the rider, the message was lost, and for the want of the message the battle was lost. I also remember reading the story to my young children from a Ladybird book and then explaining its meaning to two four year olds. Later I reminded them of the moral when something occurred which illustrated the point from their immediate experience and not something only relevant to childhood fiction.
Surely this moral is, in one narrative form or another, a universal story based on many chains of cause and effect with costly negative consequences. If it was taught to at least two generations of working class kids in a moderate sized industrial town in Lancashire, surely it cannot have passed by the Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge trained elites, many of whom sit atop our governmental, medical and scientific institutions. Are we not informed that they are in receipt of jaw-dropping salaries, perks and pensions precisely because they are the most intelligent and far-sighted individuals we have on this sceptered isle?
Perhaps future children should be taught a more updated narrative based upon events and elite incompetence so far but making the same obvious points of the consequences of a lack of foresight and due diligence. Such as;
For the want of compassion – bush meat was bled. For the want of diagnosis – a virus was spread. For the want of restrictions – a pandemic was fed. For the want of protection – doctors and nurses were dead.
For the want of precautions – the contagion went wide For the want of hand gel – infection came like a tide For the want of testing – people were herded inside For the want of ventilators – weak patients then died.
For the want of hospitals – empty buildings were sought For the want of health workers – volunteers were taught For the want of truth and honesty – excuses were thought For the want of an alternative – a bailout was bought.
For the want of humanity – big-business came first For the want of a home – some were not nursed For the want of a carer – many victims felt cursed. For the want of a conscience – not much was reversed.
READ IN FULL ROY’s FURTHER ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION at
I’m pleased, even if the times seem dark, to have an article in this special edition of CONCEPT, the always challenging and diverse Scottish Community Education journal.
Entitled ‘The Decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England – Reflections of an actor in its demise’ its conclusion written a few months ago is not too far off the mark.
Let me finish, though, on a fanciful if melodramatic note. Given the present political turmoil, it is possible that by the end of the year we will be governed by either an authoritarian, right-wing, populist administration or by a progressive alliance [Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru] committed to a social-democratic programme of redistribution and renationalisation. In these contrasting scenarios, what price youth work, what price a Youth Service?
Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw, the editors explain:
This is a special issue of Concept which considers the changed and changing landscape of youth work in the UK. It includes contributions which take a backward look in order to locate present day developments, articles which reflect on contemporary themes, issues and practices, and interviews with current youth workers who are striving to manage the contradictions of politics and policy for young people, on the ground.
Sitting in my simple, but comfortable house set beautifully, even romantically on a Cretan hillside it is easy to turn in on myself, to indulge my narcissistic desires. And, yet with all its dilemmas my access to social media precludes my withdrawal from reality. Over the last few days harrowing stories of the plight of refugees on the Greek islands have emerged afresh out of the silence imposed by the mainstream media’s short-term attention-span.
Just the other day Symi, a small island in the Dodecanese, a haven of mine 30 years ago as I escaped every summer my paid labour, saw 400 refugees arrive. The mayor Eleftherios Papakaloudas at his wits end cried, “children are sleeping on the streets, wandering, crying. There is no doctor, there is no food. The people depend on the kindness of the local tavernas. The government is not interested.’
Whilst, feeling hopeless, easing my conscience by donating to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, I came across the latest piece to flow from the always challenging pen of Hans Skott-Myrhe, entitled ‘Homeless Young People under 21st century Capitalism are Disposable!’
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we are surrounded by reports and images of abandoned and neglected children worldwide. From images of drowned immigrant children in Europe and the U.S., to young people in cages at the U.S. border, and youth living on the street in barrios, favelas, ghettos and urban centers across the planet, the 24-hour news cycle presents us with a flood of images demonstrating, in the harshest terms, our social brutality towards the next generation.
We have great rhetoric about the importance of young people as the future, but just as we seem to have lost interest in genuinely caring for the future in ecological terms, we also seem to have lost interest in caring for the next generation. There appears to be a cynicism driving my generation that precludes taking the necessary material actions necessary for care of anything or anyone other than ourselves. We go on and on about the importance of “self” care, while abandoning any “other” to the whims and mercies of a rapidly deteriorating social and biological milieu.
Drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Hans ponders whether ‘in our current system of unbridled and ever-proliferating erosion of material care for living things, including young people, I have to wonder how many of us and the next generation have become “bare life.” – bodies that can be killed [or I would add, forgotten and utterly ignored] without transgressing the laws of 21st century global capitalism.
There are powerful hints that we have entered a new era of feudalism in which the wealthy decide who and what is valuable and worthy of continuance and support. As the late Toni Morrison said in a conversation with Angela Davis, we have moved from being citizens to becoming consumers and in that shift we have lost our sense of collective force and accountability to each other. Our worth is no longer measured in terms of our social contribution, but only in terms of our ability to generate wealth for the ruling class.
And what of those bodies that fall outside the parameters of wealth generation? What of those whose skills and inclinations don’t fit within the system of perpetual training and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of low-wage jobs? Those bodies whose families already face the social devastation of addiction, the corruption of generational care, the violence of endlessly deferred expectations? The young people whose hopes and expectations are bound to a world already past or a world that has not yet arrived?
These are our homeless children and youth. Some of them literally without a home, living on the streets or shifting from place to place without stable or safe shelter. But these are also those young people seeking asylum, bodies flowing across borders, forced into refugee camps and subject to the bullets and bombs of those who seek death for death’s sake. These are the ways that we treat the next generation as disposable bodies, as bare life. But they are not and never have been disposable or dispensable. They are valuable beyond measure. They are us and we are them and if we are to avoid extinction, we must affirm the living force we share together.
Hans Skott-Myhre is a professor in the Social Work and Human Services Department at Kennesaw State University, is cross-appointed to the graduate program in psychology at the University of West Georgia and holds appointments at Brock University and the University of Victoria.
I’m pleased to have played a part in persuading my dear friend, Bernard Davies to enter the world of blogging. Indeed I’ve lent a helping hand in setting up the blog, ‘Youth Work’s Living History’.
Find below the opening post, which outlines the reasons behind Bernard taking this step into the contrary world of social media.
Introducing the Blog
YOUTH WORK (DE)CONSTRUCTION – UPDATED
Doing the research for my book, ‘Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’; actually writing its 100,000+ words; and then waiting for it to find its way through the publishers various editing and production procedures – all that took well over two years. Given that the book’s main focuses are a constantly evolving educational provision and practice set within wider policy contexts which also change all the time, it’s hardly surprising that nine months after it was finished some of its content has been overtaken by events – by new facts on the ground, shifting ideas and priorities, re-considered analysis, revised perceptions and interpretations.
So… as an alternative to even contemplating a ‘sequel’ which would itself also soon fall behind the times, what follows is the first of (hopefully) a series of occasional pieces on one of the areas covered by book which in my judgement merits – needs – ‘updating’ and even perhaps extending. By the very nature of the exercise, how often these will appear is unpredictable since – a key defining feature, surely, of any ‘living history’ – researching and then writing them will depend not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.
Topics which however could justify and so would get similar attention might be:
Young people and their ‘condition’
Other youth policies and provision, including what I call in the book ‘gestures policies’
NCS and ‘youth social action’
The voluntary and community sector
Youth work training and qualifications.
As my plan is also from time to time to update the updates, critical feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or via the Comments facility is welcome and indeed needed – not least on gaps, new evidence (with sources) and examples (with where appropriate quotes and again sources).
It may be too that I begin to post some of my past writing, which seems to retain a measure of interest and relevance.
It’s perhaps indulgent, but a promise I made to myself in reviving this blog was that I would take the risk and unearth bits of my thinking from the past, which seemed still to be of relevance and interest. Thus below you will find the transcript of a contribution I made to an In Defence of Youth Work meeting held in Lewisham on September 9, 2010. I’ve resisted making alterations in hindsight, but now and again, in the light of shifting political circumstances, I insert a comment or two.
This morning I want to focus on the vexed question of Youth Work Values. Is this idea a slogan around which we can unite or rather is it a claim, which is potentially harmful and divisive?
The immediate irony is that the Open Letter, ‘In Defence of Youth Work’, never once mentions values. However this has not prevented commentators on the Letter in the pages of Children and Young People Now and The Edge (the paper aimed at local government) arguing that those of us in support of the Letter are calling for a return to core values. So too I know that the supposed exceptional significance of Youth Work values has been raised in one way or another at all of the In Defence meetings held across the country this year. Indeed at the launch meeting of the Letter held in Durham back in early March, I was taken to task for voicing my doubts about the very notion of a special set of Youth Work values.
Thus I will try to explain the basis of my concern as a contribution to the critical debate, which ought to be the lifeblood of our collective activity.
Let me begin by suggesting that ‘values’ are very slippery customers in our market-oriented world. It can be argued that under New Labour [and indeed succeeding governments] we have endured an obsession with values:
our common values
our community’s values
our historical values
our British values
our decent values
our democratic values
without ever seriously disentangling what any of this really means.
My suspicion is that the more politicians, commentators, bureaucrats and managers talk about values, the emptier their vision of the future. Talk of values becomes a smokescreen behind which hide those who wish to preserve the status quo. So for the moment, we have much ado about the problematic nature of greed, but little in the way of a recognition that this is, rather than an unfortunate individual aberration, a systemic ingredient of Capitalism itself.
Trying to find a path through this maze is not rendered easier by the fact that the values intoned so pompously mean everything, something and nothing.
RESPECT EQUALITY JUSTICE EMPOWERMENT
There is a sense in which everyone from Gordon Brown to Barack Obama, from Rupert Murdoch to Berlusconi, even can you imagine, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, can wheel on for their purposes these ideas, these values. [I suspect you can replace these with contemporary characters, May, Corbyn, Tsipras, Zukenberg, Orban and Farage. I’ll leave you to decide.] At this level it is all a matter of interpretation or cynical rhetoric. All is smoke and shadow as the Latin saying goes. The test of what these folk might actually mean by Justice can only be gauged in practice.
We are not helped either by the fact that where there is talk of values, there is also talk of principles, beliefs, norms and ethics . . . . . .and it seems that these words are interchangeable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Youth Work literature.
But I’ll resist getting bogged down in semantics. When is a principle a value, or vice-versa and so on. Especially as in documents I’ve perused from the National Youth Agency, from the Welsh Office and from a couple of local councils, nobody seems that bothered. Under the headings of ‘Principles and Values of Youth Work’ we find:
Respect for Young People Equality & Inclusion Involvement in decision-making Empowerment Support through the transition to adulthood Promotion of Young People’s Rights Welfare and Safety Social Justice Informed Choices/Fulfilling Potential Critical Reflection – and last but not least Voluntary Relationship (to which we shall return later )
Now if these are core Youth Work values (and they are repeated endlessly) I’ve some misgivings. As I have touched on earlier such a list of values, floating at the level of nice ideas in our heads, is likely to gain universal approval by everyone – councillors, managers, workers, young people and communities. Yet this nodding support is meaningless. For example, almost 30 years ago I worked in Wigan, which boasted proudly a Programme of Action, including a commitment to the fullest level of youth involvement in decision-making. When a few of us took this seriously an embryo Youth Council emerged, critical of both the Youth Service and the Local Authority. In the blink of an eye nearly everyone seemed aghast. The management closed it down and we were disciplined. Conspicuously the majority of our fellow workers ran away from us, crying that we had gone too far, too soon. And those were perhaps more liberal times.
How many of you in differing situations have experienced that sinking feeling within the staff meeting when you have sought to challenge your agency’s failure to live up to its values and found yourself attacked by management for being naive, whilst your fellow workers, who agreed with you utterly the day before, shuffled their feet and stared at the floor in embarrassed silence.
Our collective problem is that if Youth Work, if Youth Services were seriously seeking to implement these values in a consistent and committed way, we would not be sitting in this room worrying that Youth Work is losing its sense of self, its identity. We would still be sitting here but in defence of a Youth Service, whose integrity had earned it the respect of many and the wrath of New Labour. In rejoinder, you might well say that there would be nobody sitting in this room because we would all be out of a job!
And if we do for a moment set aside our concern about the gulf between words on paper and what goes on in practice, tell me where is the teacher or social worker who would not sign up at least in theory to:
The centrality of Equality and Social Justice Respect for Young People Helping Young People make informed choices Supporting Young People in a transition to adulthood?
Of course, a teacher or social worker works in different circumstance and under differing constraints, but to suggest that a belief in Equality is especially a Youth Work value doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now it is this very ambiguity which led us in the Open Letter to eschew talk of values. The Letter contends that we need to reaffirm our belief in an emancipatory and democratic Youth Work, whose cornerstones are:
The sanctity of the voluntary principle; the freedom for young people to enter into and withdraw from Youth Work as they so wish.
A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.
The importance of association, of fostering supportive relationships, of encouraging the development of autonomous groups and ‘the sharing of a common life’.
A commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and-now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions’.
An insistence upon a democratic practice, within which every effort is made to ensure that young people play the fullest part in making decisions about anything affecting them.
The continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality disability and faith remain central.
The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.
In this context what might be special about Youth Work (although I think Community Work and Adult Education walk hand in hand with us) is the voluntarily negotiated space, an educational setting within which the young person and youth worker are involved in a mutual critical dialogue about the world in which they are both living. It is a space upon which prescribed targets and outcomes ought not to be imposed. It is a space in which the youth worker is both privileged and astute enough to face up to its volatility. It is a space where the unexpected is cherished. It is a space with no guarantees.
This leads me to propose to you that what we are defending most crucially is not a cluster of values, but a distinctive place and space, a setting and site of practice founded on the voluntary relationship, where an unpredictable process, hugely rich in its possibilities unfolds at whatever pace seems fitting.
And this distinctive setting, if it is to be used for a democratic and emancipatory practice, does require youth workers of a particular kind, improvisatory educators who are capable of both seizing and letting go of the myriad of passing moments that are thrown up by simply being with young people.
This said I must acknowledge that this distinctive place has always been riven with tension. For what it is worth across almost 40 years from being a part-timer in 1970 I have always felt to be in a minority when struggling to be a democratic youth worker. And I’ve felt this even though the version of Youth Work presented in the Open Letter is in many ways a respectful if politicised acknowledgement of the practice promulgated by the training agencies since Albemarle. Indeed back in 1980, together with Roy Ratcliffe, I wrote a piece analysing the hostility to a piece of political education in which we were involved. We commented ruefully, “Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which has negated liberal theory.”
Nevertheless, over the ensuing years, many of us have ducked and dived to preserve that space, within which both conformist and radical approaches to the work argued with and suffered one another. The significance of the last decade has been the way in which this space has been policed. This sense of the increasing censorship within practice has been conveyed by practitioners’ responses to the Letter, which often paint a picture of an isolated worker surrounded by colleagues who have settled for obeying the diktat of Every Child Matters [the 2003 government inter-agency initiative on children and family services], whilst still mouthing their allegiance to Youth Work values. It appears that many in Youth Work are of the ‘both sides buttered’ persuasion.
My argument is that our defence of Youth Work should not be based on the supposed possession of a separate and unique set of Youth Work values, which is preposterous. It should be based on the defence of a distinct voluntary educational relationship and setting. That claiming a special relationship to what are universal and indeed contested social and political values divides us from those with whom we should be making alliances – for example, other education and welfare workers in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Frankly, it is pompous and pretentious.
We are running a workshop on the In Defence campaign at the Social Work Action Network [SWAN] conference in Bath. For my part, I will be criticising both the idea of an exclusive set of Youth Work values and the correspondingly unhelpful notion of a Social Work value base, which is promoted by SWAN. My stress will be upon the joint pursuit of a democratic practice by both youth and social workers. My concern will be to clarify the differing constraints experienced by youth and social workers in struggling towards an emancipatory practice. In doing so I will underline the ways in which the distinctive terrain occupied by youth workers has been increasingly closed down under New Labour.
As the Letter notes this squeezing of the space is seen in:
The shift from locally negotiated plans to centrally-defined targets and indicators.
The growing emphasis on identifying the potentially deviant or dysfunctional young person as the centre of Youth Work’s attention.
The increasing incorporation of youth workers into the surveillance of young people, perceived as a threat to social order.
The insidious way in which delivering accredited outcomes, even if only on paper, has formalised and thus undermined the importance of relationships in the work.
The distorting effect of identifying individuals as suitable and urgent cases for treatment and intervention, ‘to be worked on rather than worked with’.
The changing role of the youth worker, from being a social educator to a social entrepreneur, submitting plan after bid after plan, selling both themselves and young people in the market-place.
And finally, but not exhaustively, the delicate issue of to what extent professionalisation, hand in hand with bureaucratisation, has assisted the suffocating grip of rules and regulations upon the work and played a part in the exclusion of the volunteer, once the lifeblood of the old Youth Service [see Jeffs and Smith 2008: 277-283].
Our argument is that the struggle to defend a democratic Youth Work, to resuscitate a radical Social Work, to revive an independent voluntary sector,- amongst other things- are all part and parcel of a common battle against the authoritarian legacy of three [and now four] decades of neoliberal politics.
I know it’s easy to say this, to spout the rhetoric. I know that for many of you it remains difficult to express dissent and criticism. Whilst our masters and managers have had a rough time recently they are already regrouping to defend the status quo. But we have made a start and I hope we can maintain some momentum and gather strength from each other.
Of course, I’m not sure that we can. There are no predictable and guaranteed outcomes when it comes to social and political struggle. But if we do hang in together, play a part in reviving a collective commitment to the creation of an equal, just and democratic society then we will have something of which to be proud. And what, as youth workers, we might contribute is not some abstract set of values, but something far more intimate and meaningful. At our best, we offer an insight into a way of being with others, a way of making and sustaining relationships, which ought to be at the heart of all human activity.
I’m reminded as I come to this perhaps pompous conclusion of a dear friend of mine, a miner recently passed away, who would urge us to keep arguing and struggling. His favourite saying was: “Those who stand up and are counted, while the rest remain silent, they are the salt of the earth.” Let’s help one another to stay on our feet and to make our voices heard.
Thanks for listening.
Ratcliffe,R. and Taylor, T.(1981) ‘Stuttering Steps in Political Education’ in Schooling and Culture (9)
Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (2008) Valuing Youth Work in Youth & Policy (100)
HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING: AGENDAS OF COMPLIANCE AND CONTROL?
Notes of the opening contribution I made to the In Defence of Youth Work national conference in Birmingham on, March 22, 2019
Who could be against feeling happy and being well? Where to start?
Well, let me confess I got up this morning feeling sorry for myself, courtesy of painful sinuses. I suppose you could say I was unhappy, not so good, a bit off colour. However on arrival at the Wigan station, I bucked up, my spirits lifted on meeting my daughter Megan. We don’t see one another enough. Once aboard the train we had a wide-ranging chat, diving in and out of the personal and the political, in and out of family and work, grappling in truth with sensitive issues, given my 99-year-old mum’s funeral had taken place only a fortnight before, where we had experienced grief and relief in equal measure. Yet also we were rejoicing in the news that Logan, Meg’s 15-year-old son had been selected for the England Rugby League squad. I’m really pleased we had the chance to talk. Does this mean we were happy? I didn’t think about it at the time. I ask myself quizzically, perhaps we were? By the time though we had reached Birmingham and on our way to today’s venue, I was anxious, worried as to whether my opening to the conference was going to do the business. These fears were set aside on entering the Settlement, meeting friends and comrades – feeling that collective ‘buzz’, created by coming together in common cause. Certainly a morning of shifting emotions.
Enough of my self-centred thoughts. What strikes me is that in all its ordinariness (you will have your own versions of my morning’s ups and downs) it reveals that Happiness is an elusive character to pin down, along with its partner Unhappiness, who is never far away. This contradictory relationship is mirrored in other couplings of mood, emotion, feeling and thought – hope and fear; optimism and pessimism; excitement and anxiety (‘butterflies in the stomach’); pleasure and pain.
And, as individuals, sometimes as a group, finding ourselves in different situations, we experience these contradictions in differing ways and degrees that defy comparison, even as they are perhaps similar. We cry tears of joy. We smile through gritted teeth. I’m minded of an observation of William Blake, the visionary artist:
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.”
Happiness and Unhappiness weave in and out of our daily lives. Sometimes they seem to vie for our attention in the very same moment. Perhaps it is poetry that comes closest to unravelling the complex relationship. How can you experience happiness without unhappiness, joy without sorrow? W.H. Auden in a New Year letter suggested that poetry was “the clear expression of mixed feelings”. In a more down-to-earth moment, he wrote: “In times of joy all of us wished we possessed a tail to wag.”
Or, if not poetry, exploring what happiness signifies is a philosophical journey of judgement and interpretation, demanding what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’, a concept which Jon Ord utilises brilliantly in his criticism of the instrumental emphasis today on imposing supposedly measurable, prescribed outcomes on our practice. Not content with pressing us to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person who will put up with whatever society throws at them, the National Youth Agency in its Youth Covenant now proposes we should be rendering him or her ‘happy and positive about the future’. We will return to this bizarre proposal later.
The Happiness agenda is deeply individualistic and a child of its time. For now let me propose that happiness is both visible and invisible, provisional and never guaranteed. It is not an instrument of measurement. It cannot be coached or taught. Yet how we understand Happiness and the broader notion of Well-being are vital questions. Given the restrictions of time, I am viewing Individual Well-being in the same frame as Happiness, although this is contentious. I will focus on Social Well-being as potentially a positive concept towards the end of my argument.
The briefest of historical turns
Way back in Ancient Athens, Aristotle famously viewed happiness as flowing from a flourishing and virtuous life. Perchance he lived in unusual times. Centuries later, Hegel, the great German philosopher, observed, “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are the blank pages of history.” Indeed the majority of humanity has led a tough existence, often miserable and grim, much less flourishing.
Classically across the ages religion has sought to offer hope, purpose and consolation. As a church-going child I remember (or is it a trick of my memory) being struck by the similarity between the ending of fairy stories, ‘happily ever after’ and the heavenly promise ‘happy in the hereafter’. Evidently, happiness was not to be found in either real-life or on earth.
The capitalist class in recent times paid scant attention to the happiness of those, who laboured under its yoke. As Max Weber stressed its main concern was with the physical health and discipline of the working class. However, the emergence of social psychology, especially in the USA, was closely tied to the world of business, management and profit. On the back of this relationship, Happiness rose up the agenda. As Will Davies notes, one of its pioneering works was Dill Scott’s 1903 ‘The Theory and Psychology of Advertising’ – an exercise in the conscious manipulation of our needs and desires, their sense of what happiness should be. This transatlantic example aside, given that history suggests a lack of interest by the powerful in the happiness of the powerless, at what point does it become an increasing contemporary concern for governments, corporations and the Davos elite?
From social democracy to neoliberalism
To address this question is to visit the history of someone like myself, born in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, into a previous era of austerity. Except that through the 1950s to the 1970s what is often termed a social democratic consensus prevailed within which all parties supported government intervention and the creation of the Welfare State. I don’t know whether anyone from on high said we should be happy but Harold MacMillan, a Tory Prime Minister of the time did claim that, ‘we’d never had it so good’. I didn’t know any better. Despite rationing and an absence of luxuries, we lived in a comfortable, affordable council house. I went to the newly built primary school on the estate. As I grew older it seemed right and proper that my Higher Education was free and, given my parents’ low income, that I got the full grant, a princely £105 per year. After all, I would be repaying my debt to a caring society, to the common good, by becoming a committed teacher. As Liz Heron notes, quoted in Lynne Segal,
“Along with the orange juice and cod-liver oil, the free school milk, we seemed to absorb a sense of our own worth and a sense that the future gets better and better as if history was on our side”.
Ironically as I began both to teach and do some part-time youth work (a bit of money on the side) the consensus was unravelling as class struggle re-emerged. Symbolically Margaret Thatcher, the Education Minister in 1971, ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’, got rid of free school milk for Juniors and above, signalling that life was going to change. Less than a decade later Thatcherism was the name given to an aggressive neoliberal capitalism, hostile to the State, contemptuous of the collective, armed with a quasi-religious belief in the market, caught in Thatcher’s infamous quote that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families”. As for the Higher Education system which had spawned dissidents like me, she sneered, “the problem with HE is that it is equipping people to criticise and question everything’” Happy she was not, and determined to take her revenge.
If we are to sum up neoliberalism, now dominant for four decades, in one word it would be privatisation. Not just in the obvious sense of putting public services into private hands, but crucially in terms of our discussion about Happiness and Well-Being, wanting to privatise the way in which we see ourselves and others, turn us in on ourselves. It has been a behavioural modification project on the grandest scale, the attempted and singularly successful attempt to make of us possessive, egocentric individuals, for whom happiness is the ceaseless consumption of commodities, shopping the elixir of existence.
The Happiness Industry
Gradually as neoliberalism has become dominant the media presents its way of seeing the world as common sense, normal, even eternal, claiming there is no alternative. And a significant element in neoliberalism’s propaganda machine is what Will Davies dubs the Happiness Industry supported by the development of Happiness Science- a multi-billion pound project complete with an array of gurus, technocrats, research scientists, psychologists, physiologists and more than a few charlatans.
Crucially since its rise to importance in the early 1990s, it has reflected both neoliberalism’s insistence on the self-regulating and self-sufficient individual and neoliberalism’s reluctant recognition that all is not well; that its way of seeing the world is not necessarily a happy one. In this context, the financial bubble having burst in 2008, it is vital that we experience our unhappiness, our dismay as emanating from our personal inadequacies and not at all from the social inequality and injustice at the centre of neoliberal policies.
Within the Happiness Industry Will Davies points to psychologists and economists busting a gut to find a common measure of happiness; to neuroscientists scanning our brains to locate neural patterns related to our subjective feelings. One paper claimed to have found specific neural circuits, one dealing with pleasure, the other with price. How convenient! We witness physiologists focused on our bodily activity, aided by all manner of apps with fitness coaches urging us on. Evidently, you can now download Moodtracking, Track your Happiness or even Mappiness. We find doctors and psychiatrists, identifying and diagnosing growing conditions of unhappiness, prescribing drugs to resolve the anxiety. Hence the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (Version 5) has indeed indicated that to be unhappy, to grieve for more than 2 weeks after the loss of a loved one is to be considered a mental illness. A drug ‘Welbutrin’ will evidently sort your troubles out. Last but not least, the Industry’s marketing arm hosts a parade of publishers and a gaggle of gurus producing books, self-help manuals, organising life-changing courses, all in the service of our happiness.
Talking of gurus brings us to Martin Seligman, the creator of the brand, Positive Psychology, who having forged this step forward for humanity, patents his Authentic Happiness Inventory and runs multiple therapeutic conversations online at 2,000 dollars a touch. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, the positive thinking movement lays the blame for misfortune firmly in the mind of the unfortunate. According to the PosPsy mantra, Happiness is a personal choice and to be happy is to have an advantage in the competition for increased status, power and more money. Every success, every failure is down to willpower or the lack of it, to individual desire and effort. To be negative is almost sinful. The key to happiness is to master your mind.
In the workplace, once a site of collective struggle, the pissed-off worker is more likely to be sick than join a trade union or be present but disinterested, a condition now named ‘presenteeism’ as opposed to absenteeism. Into this alienating and oppressive environment, the Happiness and Well-Being consultants are summoned.
A friend of mine and an exceptional youth worker was a few years ago a critical voice as a Youth Service was dismembered. She was seen as a pain in the arse by management but refused to be silenced. Frustrated management forced her to go on a Wellness training course. As my friend spoke about her situation the response of the Wellness trainer was to refuse to engage with the issue of bullying and intimidation in the workplace. The problem was her attitude. This had to change not the institution.
Worried about the morale of its workforce Barclays Bank ( the outfit guilty of all manner of deceit in the 2008 banking crisis, but now rehabilitated and the purveyor via TV advertising of Barclays Life Skills) warns its disenchanted employees.
“Today’s brain-based economy puts a premium on cerebral skills in which cognition is the ignition of productivity and innovation. Your depression attacks that vital asset.”
Some positive psychologists suggest that lack of ‘engagement’ by workers is contagious and that workers not responding to well-being interventions should be sacked. Ehrenreich quotes from a motivational speech to a group of fixed-term contract workers, encouraging them to be good team players, to be positive, to smile frequently, not complain, but gratefully do as one is told …… so that employer and employee will be happy and competitive in harmony together.
However, I’ve chosen not to dissect the particular approaches taken in the eclectic Happiness Industry, e.g. Mindfulness with its debt to Buddhism. I have my doubts about this, that or the other, but my main point is that these techniques are overwhelmingly put into the service of the individualist agenda and ignore the social and political. It would be remiss though not to mention the widespread use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] in tangling with people’s anxieties and dilemmas. All the more so as the NYA is organising CBT training courses for youth workers this coming summer. Certainly, CBT, championed by such as Richard Layard, New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’ has been the cheap, go to therapy in the NHS with its tight structure and timescale. Focusing utterly on the present and refusing to deal with the past, it has had limited success in offering useful tips and cues in relation to the specific concerns but is in no sense a holistic approach. It desires behaviour that is predictable and is suspicious of complication and contradiction. Ironically you can now access computerised CBT treatment online, ‘Beating the Blues’ and dispense with the therapist [or indeed perhaps the youth worker?].
I could go on about the insidious nature of the Happiness Industry’s view of the human condition, but I’ll mark for now that we should not underestimate that this attempted science of human sentiment with its access to a mind-boggling amount of data that we ‘naively’ provide, aims to monitor, manage and manipulate our feelings. And we are complicit in our surveillance. Will Davies wonders if we are moving to a society designed and regulated as a vast laboratory, within which we are unavoidably imprisoned? The question emerges, to what extent are we already bit-players, part-time employees in this Happiness Industry? Certainly, teachers and lecturers are now on board, pressured to deliver a Happiness curriculum in schools and universities.
The National Youth Agency is very keen, taking leave of its critical senses in my view in its Youth Covenant, which promises amongst other things that we will render young people happy and positive about the future, underpinned by the deeply problematic theory of adolescent developmental psychology. Evidently, as Hans Skott-Mhyre suggests we are asked to be “the missionaries of development, spreading the good word of adulthood as salvation from the storm and stress of adolescence”. In the words of the NYA Covenant, we are the adults who know what is needed, a position utterly at odds with a Youth Work tradition, which seeks to negotiate a relationship with young people within which we don’t claim to know what is best. There’s more than a whiff in the NYA’s pretentious claim of the Happiness Industry’s emphasis on experts knowing better than us how we feel. It shares too the Industry’s utter unwillingness to ground its relations with people, young people, in their actual lived circumstances.
Facing the Future
For a moment let’s compare my generation’s optimism that the future was going to get better, that history was on our side, with the situation facing young people today. It’s utterly legitimate, sense-making and not at all negative for young people to feel things are getting worse and that history’s face is set firmly against them.
The future is precarious. It’s not for nothing that the ‘precariat’ has replaced the proletariat. Berardi, the Italian critic declares that the future has been cancelled. Young people experience a world of short-term contracts, low wages, mounting unmanageable debt, little or no access to affordable housing, asked to hide their insecurities by projecting an upbeat self, a commodity with a smiling face, forced to be part of a cult of compulsory happiness. Looming over them (and of course ourselves) are the consequences of neoliberalism’s casino capitalism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, where its inability to face the consequences of perpetual, unfettered production and ceaseless consumption threatens the future of humanity.
And let me make a crucial point, young people are not just young people, a homogeneous category. The precarious experience outlined above is experienced in general but also in specific ways, according to the mixture that is a young person’s identity, informed by class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Austerity has spawned rising prejudice and xenophobia. It has also fed growing misanthropy, a lack of trust in others.
What kind of illusion allows some to suggest that young people should feel happy and positive in this depressing scenario? Unhappiness is a legitimate and even necessary response to injustice and exploitation. Anger and indignation perfectly in order. In a spirit of critical negativity and resistance, I’ll outline some possible areas for us to explore. The prevailing view of Happiness and Well-Being is thoroughly individualistic. Rather than beginning with the body politic, it refers only to the body personal. We must turn this upside down.
Let me propose to you a way of exploring social well-being through a triangle of the Material, the Relational and the Subjective., drawing on the work of Sarah White.
For example, thinking about well-being at the level of a community, electoral ward, village, the catchment area of a youth club – what we often called the community profile.
The material would involve looking at income levels, levels of debt, quality of housing, employment opportunities, the presence of public services, the range of amenities, the quality of the environment. The relational would involve investigating the makeup of the community in terms of class, gender, race, etc.; the diversity of supportive organisations from churches, sports clubs to activist groups; relations with the law, with welfare agencies, with schools, with the youth club; and the history of collective action. The subjective would involve the community’s sense of identity; its hopes and fears; its sense of its place in the wider society.
This outline is sketchy but I think it has possibilities and my challenge would be to ask you to take back into your projects a willingness to embrace this larger picture of well-being as a prerequisite for exploring well-being at an individual level.
Political Well-Being and Collective Joy
What needs to be added to the triangle is a more explicitly political dimension. What sort of power has the collective, the demos, over the conditions of its well-being? The question brings us to the crucial issue of an authentic democracy. Interestingly Hannah Arendt talks of ‘public happiness’, which she sees as the active and enthusiastic participation of people in the creation of norms, laws and institutions which serve the common good. William Morris called for the liberation of the desire to question all existing values, knowing together we can create values most pertinent to the common good. Lyman Sargent and Ruth Levitas speak of the collective longing for an improvement of the human condition, of the need for utopian rather than dystopian imaginings. In drawing our attention to these radical democrats Lynne Segal argues for the revival of collective joy, that uplifting sense of being at one with others in struggling to prove ‘another world is possible’.
Some of us in this room have been privileged to share such moments. Forgive the personal recollection, I am talking about years ago now, for example, the startling impact of the Women’s Caucus on the Community and Youth Workers Union in the early 1980s (gendered collective joy?) or being together, men and women, freezing on an early morning picket line during the Miners Strike. Nostalgia aside I believe the young people on Climate Change Strike last week felt something of the same festive joy, all the more intense when in Goethe’s words, ‘the festival is not really given to the people, but one that the people give to themselves’. I suspect too the idea of collective joy can be much less politically explicit – making or listening to music, dancing together, being in a team together (although in sport where there is collective joy, isn’t there collective misery?) [Or as Janet Batsleer pointed out in the ensuing discussion what do we make of a collective joy inspired by fascist ideas? It would be good to explore this further.]
In Praise of Resistance
I want to argue strenuously that we should resist being incorporated into the Happiness industry, but should try to develop a politicised and collectivised sense of Social Well-Being. which ought to be at the heart of our relationships with young people.
I would suggest that the best of the open-ended youth work tradition has something significant to contribute to what ultimately is a struggle for democracy, what Castoriadis terms the struggle for the inextricably interrelated notions of individual and social autonomy, ‘taking control of our lives’ in concert with one another. Recently I’ve taken to suggesting that a young person-centred practice, within which listening intently is the bedrock, within which learning from one another in a critical dialogue is central, might be seen as a form of what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘intimate democracy’. Thus youth work produces a proliferation of intimate democracies important in and for themselves, but also a preparatory and essential ingredient in the flowering of direct democracy, Arendt’s arena of ‘public happiness’.
Lest I be misunderstood as a miserabilist, I hope that youth work is full of fun, play and moments of happiness – ‘the wild zones and free spaces’ lauded by Filip Coussee and Guy Redigand ‘the dancing in the streets’ recorded by Ehrenreich. Inevitably though there will be awkward moments of challenge, argument and tension too. There will be tears of joy and sorrow in any honest relationship.
Let me finish by remembering a meeting of a few years ago, a Social Work conference in Durham, where the final plenary was held in the church-like hall of the NUM Headquarters. On the platform was a diminutive woman in her late 70’s, she began sotto-voce asking us ‘were we sitting comfortably?’ Then as we shuffled our bums, the pews were hard on our posteriors, she posed the question afresh and then shook the hall to its rafters with a ringing ‘well you bloody well shouldn’t be!’, before cataloguing the misery inflicted on her community as a result of pit closures. Her heartfelt cry can be inspiring, but also off-putting. In the face of such a call to arms, we can feel overwhelmed. However, at the very least if we claim to be critically reflective practitioners committed to social justice we are obliged to scrutinise what we are up to, where we are up to in challenging the self-absorption of much of the Happiness and Well-Being agenda.
To paraphrase a classic humanist concern:
‘I cannot feel well unless you too feel well’. ‘I cannot be happy if you are not happy too’.
Thanks for listening.
A glaring omission in the above is the lack of attention paid to the need for love and sexual intimacy in the pursuit of happiness, which in itself poses the question of to what extent is this discussed in youth work? As to its significance across history, it’s only necessary to point to the tradition of love songs traced in Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia.
POSSIBLE READING – hopefully I’ve indicated sufficiently my debt to these writers
The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies, Verso 2016
Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal, Verso 2018
Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2010
Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2007
I’ve got a half-written, critical response to the National Youth Agency’s announcement of a Youth Covenant-cum-Promise with its other-wordly notion that our task is to render young people ‘happy and positive about the future’ – tell that to the young people out on the Climate Change Strike a few weeks ago. Hopefully, I’ll post my specific reply to the Happiness agenda in the next week. However much of my unfinished piece focuses on the NYA’s confident assertion that adolescent developmental psychology, aided by ‘teen brain’ speculation is to be the theoretical underpinning for our relations with young people. It’s not clear who is party to this very significant shift in how we choose to understand our practice. For instance, are the training agencies on board? Is developmental psychology now a central feature of the curriculum in Higher Education?
The Nationa Youth Agency argues:
“Youth” is the adolescent developmental phase between childhood and adulthood that brings significant physical and emotional changes. It requires particular skills to support young people at an important time for making significant life choices, to safely explore risky impulses, form new relationships and take on new challenges. Adolescence starts around the beginning of puberty and finishes in the late teens, but with critical stages of transition from 8 years old and as young adults typically up to 25 years in particular for vulnerable or marginalised young people.
Where help and investment in early years and older people is well-recognised and reflected in public policies, the Youth Covenant helps ‘make the case’ with a clear narrative in support of adolescence as a period of life that brings significant physical and emotional changes; the latest neuroscience tells us that the teenage brain undergoes huge physical changes during adolescence which impact on behaviour, self-image, social interactions and decision-making. It is also an important time for making significant life choices and decisions, increasingly complex social interactions and dealing with an online world.
Whilst I sort myself out, given I’m still told to grow up, I recommend as an antidote to NYA’s embrace of an abstract, generalised young person going through stages and transitions, who in reality doesn’t exist, Hans Skott-Mhyre’s provocative and moving, ‘I am the Young Person Who Impacts Me’ to be found in CYC-Online, March 2019.
Here are a few extracts to whet your appetite.
To take on adulthood, as the defining characteristic of our identity, is to resign ourselves to an encroaching irrelevance to the lives of the young people we encounter in our work. Immersing ourselves in adulthood, as a way of life, consigns us to a gradual ageing out of the world of lived experience that is at the heart of Child and Youth Care as a relational practice. It is, in a way, a kind of betrayal of our faith in the young people we encounter. To insist on being an adult is to say that being young is never enough. One must move on to something more. In a quietly arrogant way, it is to assert that the something “more” is represented in us as the adults. Perhaps, it is to suggest, with a moderate degree of narcissism that, as adults, we can guide and mentor young people out of the phase they are in and into “reality.”
At one level, we are asked to be missionaries of development, to spread the good word of adulthood as salvation from the “storm and stress” of adolescence. At another level, we are to be youthful but not youth.
[Erica] Burman notes that we internalize development as a set of markers by which we determine our “healthy” progress through life. The world of Child and Youth Care is saturated with this logic in our assessments of ourselves, the young people we encounter and their families. The fear of being developmentally outside the norm is a prominent feature of family life, driving parents (and CYC workers) to constantly assess appropriate developmental trajectories into adulthood and beyond. Developmental truths have a profound influence on social policy, legal statutes, the organization of child welfare systems, as well as agency policies and procedures. Because developmental ideas are so influential, it is sometimes hard to remember that they reflect the values of a particular culture and society.
The idea that I don’t leave a certain aspect of my life behind me opens the possibility to think of myself as a collective. I am not a series of stages, but a composition of everything I have been. Society would have me believe that at my age I am a senior who had passed through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and so on. In that version of me, I am relatively alien to young people and can’t really relate to them because I have passed beyond those stages of life. I am no longer a child, youth, middle-aged and so forth. I am supposedly more mature, wise and so on. If I put those ideas aside, then I begin to see that I am not so different from people who have spent less year on the planet. The perceived differences that create young people and elders as alien to one another are largely socially constructed.
Perhaps, one of the most egregious effects of developmental ideas is the way they divide us against ourselves. We are put in the position of denying our childishness if we are to mature, to abandoning our adolescent explorations, if we are to be an adult. We are asked to put our lived experience of different stages we have “passed through” into our history. They are relegated to memory and often only revisited to uncover childhood trauma or for the purposes of nostalgic reverie. I would argue that this is a truly unfortunate loss of an important element of who we are now. All that I am and have been is now. Finally, it is this respect that I can say that I am the young person who impacts me the most.
In the spirit of collective, reflective practice I’m minded to buy and send Leigh Middleton, the Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency a copy of Erica Burman’s ‘Deconstructing developmental psychology’ , Routledge.