What happened to radical youth work?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The field of youth work has lost much of its revolutionary potential as it has become diffused within the global capitalist framework.

In a previous post, Youth citizenship: An intersectional analysis, I discussed the economic-based definition of citizenship that excludes young people from enjoying the full benefits of citizenship because of their lack of ability to contribute to the economy.

Young people who fail to accommodate the evolving system of global capital, be it economically or otherwise, are labeled “hyper-sexualized, violent, predatory, out of control, dangerous, and animalistic… due to defects in their mental or emotional hygiene” [2]. 

Subsequently, youth workers have become burdened with the rehabilitation of young people into acceptable citizens of the global capital. Youth workers, directly or indirectly, are complicit in the ideological perpetuation of youth as ‘dangerous or damaged and in need of incarceration and escalating systems of control‘ [1].

Youth workers uphold the status quo because they know that “it is dangerous to become visible within the diagram of power that constitutes the institutions within which [they] work” [2].

.   .   .

Many youth workers are shielded by the privileges granted to us by the dominant culture, even if it is only via the category of adulthood. These privileges grant us a certain level of protection in society and invisibility from the gazes of disciplinary institutions.

Youth workers witness what happens when young people become vulnerable to institutional control when they are deemed unfit, dangerous or damaged to participate in the global capital system, rendering them to institutionalized disciplinary and manipulation tactics.

In order to avoid becoming vulnerable to these same institutions, by threatening the status quo which in turn can threaten our employment and job security, youth workers remain silent and invisible.

We insist on turning a blind eye to dominant systems of control on the premises of the continuance of our invisibility and privilege.

Youth job programs offer job skills training without educating young people on the exploitative nature of youth employment by global capital multinational corporations. In doing so, we are complicit in the continued exploitation of youth in the global market. However, youth workers also face their own challenges while performing within the apparatus of global capitalism: “the very working conditions that youth workers would be training youth to challenge exist within the conditions of youth work itself[1].

.   .   . 

The distinguishing categories of youth and adults on the basis of biology, political status, and so on has led us to operate against our own interests.

When we choose to remain silent and invisible, we inadvertently uphold the status quo that marginalizes the young people we serve, which in turn marginalizes us. We separate ourselves from the youth we serve and undermine our capacity to form communities that can challenge the dominant systems of control [2].

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The solution?

Youth workers can choose to NOT perpetuate ideological systems that ignore the economic conditions of the youth and families we serve.

We can, instead, “work towards a system of youth-adult relations that has no center, but rather a proliferation of mobile and productive intersections: a youth work of imminent and constant becoming, of youth and adults on a common course of liberation for us all[2]

We can choose to practice authentic youth engagement that goes beyond token membership and actually work in collaboration with young people. By critically examining our privileged status as adults, and otherwise, we can come together to radically challenge the dominant system.


[1] Skott-Myhre, Hans A. 2005. “Captured by Capital: Youth Work and the Loss of Revolutionary Potential.Child and Youth Care Forum, 34 (2):141-157.

[2] Skott-Myhre, Hans A. “Radical youth work: Becoming visible.” Child and Youth Care Forum, 35(3): 219–229.

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