Youth Work: Recognising Potential for Individuals and Society

Posted: 2017-11-02
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: youth work young people unemployed germany europe eu crisis

Young people have been hit very hard by the economic crisis and many young people feel that in their country they have been marginalised and excluded from economic and social life.

Youth unemployment rates are still high and one in four young people (under 25) is unemployed in the European Union. In January 2017 4.017 million young persons (under 25) were unemployed in the European Union, of whom 2.826 million were in the euro area. In January 2017, the lowest youth unemployment rate was observed in Germany (6.5%), while the highest were recorded in Greece (45.7% ), Spain (42.2%) and Italy (37.9%).  


Despite progress over the last years, early school leaving remains at unacceptable levels for example the highest level has been recorded in Spain(26.5%) and Portugal (23.2%). Young people have left school, seeing no space for diversity of learning preferences. Their self-confidence is often characterised by phrases such as, “I am no good at learning”. Others might find learning boring, difficult and painful.

Indeed, education is often about power, which may end up in learnt powerlessness in the context of learning. Attention should be focused on the development of entrepreneurial skills, because they not only contribute to new business creation but also to the employability of young people. Literacy, numeracy and basic maths and science are key foundations for further learning. These skills are nonetheless being redefined by the ongoing digital revolution. In a world of international exchanges, the ability to speak foreign languages is a factor for competitiveness. Languages are more and more important to increase levels of employability and mobility of young people, and poor language skills are a major obstacle to free movement of workers. So it would come as no surprise if the word ‘learning’ did not elicit positive feelings and enormous excitement among young people. Education needs to drive up both standards and levels of achievement to match this demand, as well as encourage the transversal skills needed to ensure young people are able to be entrepreneurial and adapt to the increasingly inevitable changes in the labour market during their career.


Businesses also require the language skills needed to function in the global marketplace.Increasing transversal and basic skills alone will not be sufficient to generate growth and competitiveness, and there is still too much distance between the educational environment and the workplace.  The share of 15 year olds in Europe that have not acquired basic skills is around 20%, while five countries have over 25% low achievers in reading. As we know, many young people have been almost literarily traumatised by formal education systems.


The economic crisis has increased risks of social exclusion of young people to unacceptably high level.


The younger generation is currently faced with a situation where there is not only a lack of jobs, many jobs are simply inaccessible to many, especially those who live in deprived areas and who may not have access to adequate education and training. This situation dramatically changes a young person’s ability to plan their future and their general outlook on life. The share of youth which are neither in employment nor in education or training in the youth population the so-called “NEET rate’’  in the European Union from 17.6 % in 2006 to a relative low of 16.5 % by 2008, but then jumped to 18.5 % the following year, after the onset of the global financial and economic crisis.

Youth need the opportunity to develop their skills and competences which help them to find their place in the labour market and in society as a whole. Youth consolidation into the labor market is a significant goal all over the world and a key policy issue of the European Employment Strategy. The European Employment Guidelines stress the need to build employment path for young people and to diminish youth unemployment. “Europe 2020” plan pays notice to youth labor and education problems, aiming particularly at an increase of social capital. In the European Union, youth unemployment rates are overall more than twice as high as the adult rates, with significant differences across countries and regions.


It is important  to invest in young people by creating  the conditions for learning, opportunity and experience which ensure and enable young people to develop their knowledge, skills and competencies to be active members of  the labour market and in society as a whole.


Real world experience, through problem-based learning and enterprise links, should be embedded across all disciplines to all levels of education. In this context, there is an increasing need  to promote active participation and to recognise the full range of an individual’s knowledge, skills and competences acquired not only at schools or universities, but also outside the formal education system  to release the full potential of young people and country economies.

Youth work helps young people to learn about themselves, life and social processes. The term ‘youth work’ is used to describe a diverse range of activities, topics and measures provided by a range of actors in assorted fields and settings. Not all countries have a formal definition of youth work and amongst those that do, there is a variety of definitions. However, there are three core features that define it as youth work distinct from other policy fields:

● a focus on young people,
● personal development,
● voluntary participation.

The history of providing youth work for young people varies depending on country,  and the landscape of youth work continues to evolve. Although youth work has greater recognition and visibility today in comparison to the past. Youth work takes place in a wide range of settings: youth clubs and youth centres, youth organisations, youth counselling units, outreach and detached projects, youth groups etc.
The exact population of youth workers in the European Union remains unknown, though estimates show that the number of volunteers greatly outweighs the number of paid youth workers in the sector. Calculations on the basis of a select number of countries in the European Union estimate over 1.7 million youth workers with this figure likely to be higher for the whole European Union. Fundamentally, youth workers typically carry out the same roles and functions regardless of their status as volunteer or paid.


The combination of an increasing demand for youth work activities, and the growing expectations of youth work to deliver successful outcomes and evidence of that success means that organisations providing youth work have to find a balance between:

● responding to the individual needs and interests of young people;
● meeting the priorities set out in policies and funding mechanisms with an increasing trend for youth work practice to be more target-group based;
● maintaining the core principles that form the foundation of youth work practice.

The status of youth workers is increasingly becoming understood as a distinct profession but professionalism is not only about formal qualifications. Volunteer youth workers also integrate a professional approach to their work with young people. Youth workers are often qualified and/or specifically trained to carry out the activities they are involved with. Whilst there is evidence of some government support through training opportunities, recognition and validation of learning for youth workers, most commonly it is the youth work organisations themselves which are active in offering training or development opportunities for youth workers.


There is still much to be done as there is a need to recognise youth work for the contribution and value it has in the lives of young people.


There are numerous  programs providing  mobilities and training for young people and youth workers for dialogue and joint projects on citizenship, volunteering and youth exchanges. International mobilities help to to develop key competences while teaching tolerance and an acceptance of different cultures enabling young people and youth workers to experience mobility in international environment making their world more open and diverse place for personal and professional development.  During mobilities beneficiaries are able to spend a period of time in another participating country gaining valuable experience of life, study and work with the aim of increasing the opportunities available to them in the future. However, international mobilities often fail to receive the recognition it deserve, given their vital contribution to society.


Working on better recognition of youth work and non-formal education is advocacy work that often aims at changes in relevant policies and decisions. Having an understanding of policies from other sectors may also help to find  the ‘common language’ and establish inter-sectoral partnerships at local and national levels.The combination of  knowledge + skills + attitudes = competences. Competences demonstrate the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to carry out a defined function effectively.

By taking part in youth work and non-formal education, we learn and develop competences which we use to shape our future. Most of the time, it is difficult to name clearly what we have learnt when participating in a particular youth work activity. An interesting paradox is that we spend most of our lives learning, either consciously or unconsciously.  More often we think about what we have learnt, but rarely about how we learn. Very often, we are not aware of the learning process, thus increased awareness of our own learning process is one of the cornerstones of developing the ‘learning to learn’ competence.

Learning to learn  is a very important competence in today’s society. Being aware of learning enables young people and youth workers to steer that learning in the desired direction. Youthpass is a tool for youth workers to make the value of their work visible and it supports the future career and personal perspectives of the young people.  Youthpass learning process encourages young people  to take responsibility for their own learning and do it step by step focusing  on young people’s strengths and successful learning experiences.

Youth work empowers young people to shape their own future through providing space for the development of their competences.


The educational aspect of youth work lies within its principles and practices which empower young people  not only through non-formal education  gaining knowledge but also building up skills for personal development and social interaction. Non-formal education includes a cognitive learning process and encircles it with emotional and social learning processes. Young people are also able to develop certain attitudes towards themselves as well as in interacting with others.

In the long-term, investments in young people and youth work are  essential to boost  economic growth,  innovations and competitivenes,  as well building  diverse, tolerant, inclusive societies,  promoting peacebuilding and conflict prevention and to defeat violent extremism and radicalisation.

Sintija Bernava
International Program Director, Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’ (Latvia)
Non Governmental Organisation ‘’Donum Animus’’ is the only  organisation from Latvia holding Special Consultative Status of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations


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