Radical youth work: what happened to the revolutionary potential of youth work?

When I was doing my undergraduate studies, I was very certain that, after attaining my marketable degree, I would lead the revolution that would bring capitalism to its final graveyard. My twitter handle read, ‘Karl Marx is my baby daddy,’ and I was determined to make him proud, although I still have not read the Capitalist Manifesto,*eeks!*, but a copy of it has a special space on my bookshelf.

Such rage was induced via a one-hour lecture on Marx I attentively listened to in my second-year social movements class.  I was, and still am, your typical rage-fueled, poorly informed, whiny millennial.

Disclaimer: since then, my views on capitalism have drastically changed. 

With a year of graduate school left, and the threats of actually having to start making payments on my student loan debt nearing, I realized the golden days of daydreaming about the revolution was coming to an end. I knew the revolution will not pay my debt or my bills, so I needed a “realistic career goal.”

While I absolutely adore sociology, the discipline is extremely broad. Without a specific focus, I was aware that I might end up at one of my most-hated corporate fast food joints inquiring, ‘would you like fries with that?’

So, I decided to focus my research on youth issues and wrote my graduate course thesis on youth empowerment and youth engagement for radical social change. I did not lose my initial radical vision for social revolution, so I thought.

What is radical youth work? 

At the basis of critical youth work is a call for challenging social inequalities that undermine the healthy development of young people and promoting collective critical consciousness for radical social change within the field of youth work. It calls on us, youth workers, to be the engines of social change to improve the lives of young people.

However, as we will see below, youth work has lost its grassroots origin since becoming immersed within larger neoliberal forces.

In my very short time working as a youth worker, I have noticed that most of the work we do is not radical, nor critical. There are many institutionalized forces that fail to support grandiose efforts to challenge structural inequalities. Furthermore, the precarity nature of the field adds its own sets of challenges and constraints that make it improbable for youth workers to participate in radical youth work pursuit.

What happened to radical youth work?

In a previous post, Youth citizenship: An intersectional analysis, I explored the economic-based definition of citizenship, which excludes young people from enjoying the full benefits of citizenship, including social, economic and political benefits, because of their inability to contribute to the economy. As a result, social policies have managed to keep young people out of the discussion on initiatives and community development strategies that have the most bearing impact on their lives.

In his article, Captured by Capital: Youth Work and the Loss of Revolutionary Potential, Hans Skott-Myhre offers a critical analysis of the influence of global capitalism has had on the youth service sector. Skott-Myhre argues that the field of youth work has lost much of its revolutionary potential as it has become diffused within the global capitalist framework.

Young people who fail to accommodate the evolving system of global capital, be it economically or otherwise, are labeled as “hyper-sexualized, violent, predatory, out of control, dangerous, and animalistic… due to defects in their mental or emotional hygiene” [2: p. 223-224], and youth workers become burdened with the rehabilitation of young people into acceptable citizens of the global capital. As a result,

many of its[youth work’s] most revolutionary ideas such as peer culture, street-based services, free shelter, community based programming, poverty programs, etc. have been appropriated as mechanisms of control and capture in which youth are seduced into contact with ‘helping professionals’ and then defined, diagnosed and rehabilitated as bourgeois citizens of late-stage global capital (p. 143).

Youth workers are complicit  in this ideological perpetuation of youth as “dangerous or damaged and in need of incarceration and escalating systems of control”[1: p. 225] as self-perseverance.

Many youth workers are shield by the privileges granted to us by the dominant culture, even if it is only by the category of adulthood. Personally, I am privileged enough to be educated, which grants me a certain level of protection in society, invisibility from the gazes of disciplinary institutions . Subsequently, as Skott-Myhre argues, we become implicit in upholding the status quo because we know that “it is dangerous to become visible within the diagram of power that constitutes the institutions within which we work” [2: p. 227].

We witness what happens when youth become vulnerable to institutional control when they are deemed unfit, dangerous or damaged to participate in the global capital system. Their vulnerability renders them to institutionalized disciplinary and manipulation tactics.

As youth workers, we do not want to become vulnerable to these same institutions by threatening the status quo, which in turn can threaten our employment and job security. So, we choose to remain invisible. We insist on turning a blind eye to dominant systems of control on the premises of the continuance of our invisibility and privilege.

EXAMPLE: YOUTH JOB PROGRAMS Skott-Myhre offers the example of youth job programs that 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 youthwork itself” [1: p. 143].

All in all, the distinguishing categories of youth and adults, on the basis of biology, political status, and so on, lead us to operate against our own interests to create a political force. We separate ourselves from the young people we serve and our “capacity to form communities that can challenge the dominant systems of control” [2: p227]. When we decide to remain invisible, we uphold the status quo that continues to marginalize the young people that we serve, that continues to marginalize us.

Instead, however, we should choose to “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: p.228]. We can choose NOT to perpetuate ideological systems that ignore the economic conditions of the youth and families we serve.

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

What are practical ways by which youth workers can work towards forming communities that challenge the dominant systems of control?


[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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