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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It’s been a busy, often enjoyable, if frustrating few weeks.  Given the  latest crisis of capitalism [weren’t these irritating occurrences supposedly a thing of the past?] the neo-liberals have been in headlong retreat. Their sycophants within the political class and its bureaucracy, symbolised by Gordon Brown, tongue glued to his cheek, have embraced the new  would-be Olympic sport, Ideological Gymnastics.  Daring somersault after another allows him without a hint of embarrassment to chastise the rich and greedy and to introduce regulation into the market. Times are evidently a-changing.

If this is the case, what price the fate of ‘new managerialism’, the servant of neo-liberalism, which has burrowed its way deep into all spheres of our lives, including youth and community work and the voluntary sector? Given its suffocating grip on practice and the sense, promulgated by our bosses, that there is no alternative, is there now a chance to turn back the tide? This question haunted  all three of the events we’ve attended this November.

Bernard Davies opens the debate

Bernard Davies opens the debate

On November 7 in London we hosted jointly with the National Coalition for Independent Action [NCIA] a meeting, ‘We Won’t Roll Over’, which brought together a diversity of people from across the voluntary sector – Social Action for Health, Community Action, Advice Centres,  Black Parents and Teachers Associations and the People in Common group – as well as a youth work contingent. In the morning Bernard Davies, almost now the guardian of the  post-Albemarle liberal and radical tradition, explored as a case study the suffocating impact of neo-liberalism upon Youth Work. Following Bernard’s exposure of the way in which neo-managerialism seeks to standardise and regulate the unpredictable, Andy Benson from the NCIA pursued how this self-same ideology threatened independent action and the capacity of communities to get what they need for themselves. I’ll return to the content of the animated discussion in the summary of this contribution. However it’s important to stress that the final session of the day focused on practical collective activity, ‘what can we do now to start making a difference’ – more news to follow on how this is working out.

Andy Benson responds

Andy Benson responds

The masses cogitate

The masses cogitate

A few days later in Wigan I submitted the relationship between Neo-Liberalism and Youth Work to further scrutiny at a Critically Chatting meeting, which drew support from Derbyshire, Manchester, Liverpool and London! Thence I ran two workshops under the title ‘Neo-Liberalism Implodes: Time for Youth Work to Fight Back’ at the energetic and stimulating Federation of Detached Youth Work Conference. I’ll do a separate post on this event, especially as the Federation’s new web site, stuffed full of videos, photos and comment, offers a direct glimpse of what was going on.

Throughout  these various encounters between workers and volunteers in the youth, community and voluntary sectors a number of questions and concerns consistently emerged:

– overwhelmingly the anecdotal evidence emphasises the apparent stranglehold of new managerialism on practice, the suffocation of critical debate and the acceptance, albeit reluctantly, by many workers of an agenda of social control;

– for those hardy souls still battling, it is difficult struggling against a culture of conformity and even fear, but there are splendid examples of cussed creativity;

– and,  on the optimistic side of Gramsci’s famous couplet, there are promising signs. The political and economic crisis itself throws up turmoil; rumbles of discontent and resistance are rolling around education and welfare as a whole; oppositional groups are on the rise.

It’s all muddy and messy, but just as much as ever we need to remain critical and collective. As a small example it was heartening to see detached workers taking away the NCIA’s flyer to give to the community groups on their patch. The struggle certainly does continue.

Tony Taylor

Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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