The Rise and Demise of Neo-Liberal Youth Work?

Back in late November I responded to a request from Andy Hillier at Young People Now to provide a possible Opinion piece for the January issue.  I had only 420 words to play with – a challenge for the verbally voluble?! So I had a crack at something on the relationship between Neo-Liberalism and Youth Work, written with the present economic crisis in mind.



Neo-Liberalism totters, drunk on hubris and greed. The unbridled market has failed. There must be another way. As the ideological somersaults continue, what price the future of Neo-Liberalism’s bureaucratic creation, ‘new managerialism’, which has inflicted such damage on Youth Work?

With New Labour at the helm Neo-Liberalism is determined to discipline Youth Work, to make it toe the behavioural line. It imposes the discredited and inappropriate discourse of indicators and outcomes, the endless pursuit of the completed ‘paper trail’. Fearful of uncertainty it introduces the dead hand of the standard and routine. It seeks to police both young people and youth workers, stifling spontaneity and criticism. Possessing no vision of a different world it is obsessed with the micro-management of what it sees as problematic youth. In turn this contributes to a climate of misanthropy, a mistrust of humanity, which informs a uniform agenda of social conformity. Thus it consigns to the scrapheap of history the idea that Youth Work should be volatile and voluntary, critical and collective – a conversation without guarantees.

It may be that this view is now too entrenched to be moved. Obviously as well a significant number within Youth Work have always cooperated with the familiar ruling class programme of social control, dressed today in Neo-Liberal garb. On the other hand to borrow from J.S. Mill, is there a chance that we might be waking from ‘the deep slumber of decided opinion’? To pinch from the new managerial lexicon, is there now a window of opportunity to think otherwise?

Because, of course, there are still brave, often isolated souls pursuing a practice based on young people’s not the State’s terms. And there are promising signs. Organised, dissident resistance is growing. Adult Education, devastated in the name of vocationalism, is reviving at the grassroots. The Social Work Action Network is debating the renaissance of a radical practice. Closer to home the Federation of Detached Youth Work describes its members as neither social entrepreneurs nor social spies, but democratic educators. The National Coalition for Independent Action campaigns to reassert the autonomy of voluntary groups. Indeed such initiatives offer the chance to ‘join up services’ under our own steam.

There is a strong case within Youth Work for an open and independent gathering focused on the unifying potential in Bernard Davies’s eloquent ‘Manifesto for Our Times’. This is not a moment to abandon fundamental principles, although such tenets should always be questioned. It is a moment, perhaps brief, to challenge the dire legacy of Neo-Liberalism. It is not a matter of lagging behind or moving with, but of changing the times.

Tony Taylor [Coordinator, the Critically Chatting Collective]


In the event the piece did not pass muster. The initial response from the magazine was framed as follows: ” I really like the arguments in the piece but I think our readership will struggle to follow the theme in its current form. I think the argument would need to be simplified to be accessible to the majority of our readers.” A touch patronising  to the readers methinks.

There followed a few editorial alterations in respect of the opening few lines that skewed the piece and could not have been written by me. I was understanding and simply said that these were unacceptable – indeed the proposals made the piece less accessible – and that we would have to agree to disagree. In reply YPN commented pleasantly that they recognised I wouldn’t want to ‘dumb down’ my style. And thus ended the dialogue.

Obviously this dismissal of the submission may reflect my lack of tone and style and perhaps my failure to grasp the simplicity of affairs. Ironically though others were far angrier than me about the ‘rejection’, which may be of some interest. Given the article’s brevity, they thought it was literate, accessible, stimulating  and appropriate in the present climate. And they felt the piece may have  been blocked for other reasons than its evident difficulty.

Fair enough, this is no big deal, except that its concluding argument  intimated that there might be mileage in an Open Letter along the lines of the Social Work initiative of a couple of years ago, which itself has led to a significant agitational response from this much maligned part of the Welfare State – see

In this context we hoped that our thoughts  would reach out  to a wider audience if carried in Young People Now.  This is not to be.  Of course we’re not giving up.     Thus we’re venturing the following course of action:

– if you think it’s worth it, please circulate the Neo-Liberal piece as widely as possible.

– in the meantime we hope to put out for comments a possible call-to-arms, a draft succinct Manifesto, which will attract criticism and support.

– if this process is promising, we would be looking to a mini-launch of the Manifesto at Youth and Policy’s History conference at Durham in early March.

From thence, of course, we’re in each others’ hands. For now your comments and indeed encouragement are most welcome – send to

TT on behalf of the Critically Chatting Collective

Published in: on December 15, 2008 at 6:15 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Hi Tony – that must be frustrating having taken time to write and not to get published – at least you’re able to publish it online though. I have to confess I struggled a little to understand as I’m not particularly politically savy.

    I started youth work in 1997 and my thinking at that time was that Youth Work was too concerned with solving problems, rather than preventing them. I also thought statutory youth centres were too lacking in young people given the resources they had compared to voluntary groups who mostly provided less structured activities but had better attendance.

    I wrestled with the kinds of provision I thought the centre I worked at should provide and in the end just went along with what young people in the area said they wanted (against the wishes of management). I wasn’t happy just providing activities though and so developed training/developmental programmes within these activities and used a model of getting some young people to run these activities themselves in the hope they would set the good example for others to inspire to (compared to the previous provision which just seemed to be for the handful of problem kids). It worked out pretty well – all of a sudden when there were meetings about stats and attendance figures we were leading, despite doing the stuff that management didn’t see any value to. Ironically we then spent a lot of time providing services at some of those other centres who wanted to do something similar themselves. As for those “problem kids”, for some it did work having a positive example to inspire to, for others it didn’t – I saw that as a success though on the basis that I think this would have been the case whatever the approach for those particular young people.

    Later I went on to develop a national programme based on what I’d learned – that it was possible to provide purposeful, structured activities based on young peoples interests. Of course its not that simple – we also need to widen horizons and introduce new experiences, but I think my point is, that in my view the strongest work starts from those interests of the young people – not from broader higher up motives, be they politically driven, government driven or by personal beliefs.

    I found it very frustrating when we ran training courses and young people in groups would choose community activities and projects they wanted to organise but youth workers wouldn’t follow through with them because it didn’t fit with their professional agenda. Generally I saw this as laziness and a crap attitude but maybe this was harsh and there were too many other pressures on those workers.

    So I do agree with the need for more flexibility, more allowance for activities and work that is determined and driven by young people. At the same time though I do think these things should be structured and they should always be developmental (genuinely not just a loose claim that they are just by nature of doing them) – I also do see a place for standards and targets but I think the current use of ‘accreditation’ is a very poor method for doing this – much more effort should be put into developing measurements and methods that can be as creative and flexible as the approach of the work itself.

    I’m not so sure about the place of politics in any sense within this work though – although that may largely be more to do with my own political ignorance (I have been told before that politics isn’t always about party politics but can’t say I was too convinced!)

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