Youth Policy & Young People

Neoliberalism & Youth Policy - “The last thing they want is people realising they can change things”

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This paper will focus on the developments within youth service provision in England, post 2000, culminating with the introduction of the Youth Matters legislation. This has interested me as a professionally qualified youth worker who has worked within the field for 20 years and seen the differing emphasis and practice within work with young people as the social policy objectives have changed and political ideology has shifted.

As youth work practitioners we have to have an understanding of the values of youth work which provide the framework and guidance for us as educators in a changing social environment as Jeffs and Smith explain,

“Educators need a setof values to inform and shape their work - otherwise theywill be rudderless.”

- (Jeffs and Smith, 2001, p96)

Held describes Neoliberalism as a political programme that extends the market into more areas of life and the creation of a state which has no involvement, in both the economy or in the provision of opportunities (Held 1990). This is further reinforced by Dasgupta’s characterisation that Neoliberalism extents the virtues individualism, free trade, privatisation, deregulation and less state interference in citizens’ lives (Dasgupta 2004). I will present the argument that this agenda is opposed to the values of youth work, that theimages (1)social policy shift from state supported youth services The Big Society is a Neoliberal marketisation of provision based on competition for scarce resources in which the most vulnerable, difficult to engage and challenging will be excluded, as organisations focus on their ‘business and income generation’ rather than individuals and communities. In effect I will argue that the Big Society is ‘Trojan Horse’ for the ‘rolling back of the state’. Kalhan reinforces this point by summarising the Neoliberal vision as where,

“[the local population’s] claims on the states resources were treated as an unfortunate burden on the grand designs of global economic growth”

- (Kalhan, 2002pg 21)

It concerns me that this de-professionalisation of the youth services, under the auspices of the Big Society, will lead to a largely disengaged population, with the consequence that young people will be influenced by volunteers with no professional value or ethical base. As a baseline for professional youth work, Jeffs and Smith 2001 and Batsleer and Davis 2010 explain Youth Work Values as,

Fairness and equality.
Respect for persons.
The promotion of well-being.
Tipping the balance of power and control.

Historical Perspectives on Youth Work

Youth Work has been developed over the last few centuries from being administered primarily by church groups and volunteers during the time of large scale industrialisation of major cities in the 1800s (Smith 1988), to the early steps towards professionalisation which can be traced from the Service of Youth 1486 Circular in 1939. This was connected to massive displacement of young people due to the Second World War (Infed 2004). The Albemarle Report;report in 1959 which linked the end of National Service, and the large groups of young men who were perceived by society as no longer getting the two years of discipline that the Armed Forces instilled in them (Batsleer and Davies 2010).

images (2)

Transforming Youth Work 2001and the New Labour agenda to reform public services, led to monitoring,administered and delivered by the Local Authority (Davies 2010). This paper will focus on the later developments of the Youth Matters legislation 2006 which had four elements and in particular the last point, the ‘need for reform’; these were:target setting, non-profit and voluntary provision of youth work developing alongside state provision

  • a growing recognition of failures in the Connexions Service
  • problems around perceived quality in state-sponsored youth services;
  • the development of children’s and youth policy - in particular the formulation of policy following Every Child Matters(DfES 2003) and extended schooling, and the emergence of initiatives around ‘yobbish’ behaviour - meant that existing arrangements didn’t make sense;
  • anda desire to push ahead with the remodelling of public services and workforce reform.

(Smith 2005)

The first three points can be linked directly to historical perspectives on youth provision within England; for example, new services are established to deal with the problems of a ‘feral youth’ to monitor and promote personal adjustment into societies rules and norms and, more importantly, to find employment (Smith 1988). The last point is in a differing arena and widens the discourse to a new perspective that is outlined below, but is again an added pressure on contemporary youth work provision.

The overarching dynamic within the arrangement of public services, which includes the youth service post 2000, is the role of the financial markets and large scale globalisation of nation states. The rise of Neoliberalism, globalisation and deregulated free trade has led to a reduction in state sponsorship and a hope that the markets will increase production, generate wealth and that this will then ‘trickle down’ to the to all sections of society (Dasgupta 2004). This example provides us with the central context for all developments in the social policy and youth sector within England in the last decade, from the need for social control during the industrial revolution to transforming youth work and therise in the perception of anti-social behaviour in the early 2000s. The constant moral panic and knee jerk reaction to developing social policy in relation to young people pre 2000 now has a new dynamic - not just the moral panic of ‘middle England’ but to appease the market and reduce cost, is the central theme of the Neo Liberal ideology. As Harris explains;

“Those with good jobs live in a nice community, with excellent schools, safe streets and polite police and politicians who return there calls. Those without jobs live in projects, with run down schools, abusive police and politicians who make them the cause of every problem in society. One is a citizen the other is criminalised”

- (Harris 1999 pg 31)

This paper cannot suggest that the high profile cases of failings within the provision of statutory services, such as the death of Victoria Climbie which led to the Laming Report (2003) and the development of integrated services, has not been driven wholly by the best interests of the child. However, to analyse fully the impact of social policy changes on society we have to acknowledge the fundamental societal structures in which youth work in England operates.

Social Policy Framework for Youth in England

Further analysis of this discourse highlights the on-going critique of the shape and culture within our capitalist society. As Gramsci suggests, this leads to the development of ‘hegemony’ and the growth of a dominant ideology (Gramsci 1971). The reduction of the state and emphasis on free markets has become intertwined into the fabric of our societal discourse, with only lone voices questioning this rhetoric and the effects on the most vulnerable. This is evidenced by the reshaping and shrinking of the welfare state, the movement to cut benefits from the poorest and removal of support from those most in need. It is a Neoliberal perspective that became popular within the 1980s in the UK and America and has it origin in nineteenth century laissez-faire liberalism dominated by thinkers such as Adam Smith and Pierre DuPont (Midgley 1995). The belief is that excessive state intervention in the economy must be avoided and redistribution of state resources will interfere with the operation of the free market. The dominant discourse has become one of deserving and undeserving poor, the belief has its historical inceptions in the 1834 poor law reforms in which the concept of undeserving poorwas established with the removal of parish support and the notion of ‘national welfare’ created. The argument can be made that as Britain moved away from a feudal economy to an industrial one, it required workers to move into cities in order to receive support (the workhouse), but also attain employment. Support would normally be given at the parish level and parishes had responsibility for their own poor. Under the new industrial empire economy changes would be needed and to manage the growth there was a need for cheap unskilled labour brought in from the rural areas of England. This was is an attempt to manage the population to support the needs of industry of the time. This is not a concept we are unaware of in recent times when in the 1980s, politicians like Norman Tebbit suggested workers should ‘get on their bike’ to find work.

imagesThe Neoliberals are developing a mind-set that allows the movement of labour now on a global scale, reduction of state support and imposition of low wages to be normalised, and the need for economic growth to be achieved at any cost, with the removal of social justice as an aim; as Bill Clinton so aptly appraised in his affection to Neoliberalism and the third way political movement - ‘It’s the economy stupid’. This is further inflated by the ever compliant media as highlighted by Owen Jones in his book ‘Chavs’,

“The baby P horror fuelled what the Shannon Mathews affair had sparked in earnest: an attempt to dehumanise people living in poor working class communities.”

- (Owen Jones 2011 p23)

With the reduction of services across the country, particularly within working class communities, and less state support, the need to relate difficulties directly on the individual and not society has become paramount. This has developed into a social construction or schema which acts as a filter to remove information inconsistent from the prevailing theme (Aronson, Wilson, Akert 1997). The prevailing theme or ideology is less state support and more individual responsibility. Anti-oppressive practice, as a value, is a core element of youth work and it has become evident that a reduction of state support will lead to greater inequalities within society. This fundamentally changes society and creates a process of dehumanisation as Freire suggests,

“Dehumanisation, which marks not only those humanity is stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it”

- (Freire 1972 pg26)

Youth work and youth workers are not abstract from the realities of everyday dialogue within our society. They are subject to the very same typification and meaning as society as a whole and are subject to the dominant ideology (Berger 1965). The essence of a professional qualification is to allow workers to explore the relationships between individuals and the powerful, and to empower the individual to challenge the ‘natural order of things’ with an ethical value base. This critical analysis of the status quo is not required or wanted within the current social policy agenda.

The Big Society in England

To explain the Big Society in England is to understand the central theme of Neoliberalism in its context and as it relates to state support for the most vulnerable within society. It has at its heart that the reduction of state support is good and communities can better serve themselves by providing services that were previously administered by the state. This is a shift away from seeing government as a ‘universal provider’ and was started by the Conservatives in the 1980s under Thatcher. (Gamble 1988) The origins of this political mind-set can be traced back to Adam Smith’s book the Wealth of Nations when he speaks of government intervention being kept to a minimum, and the role of the state to provide only services that the market cannot deliver. In today’s climate the dominant discourse has become that the market can deliver everything more efficiently and is evidenced as more and more Local Authorities explore ways of outsourcing services in order to meet budget pressures. This has two main effects; it will reduce the power of unions and in turn reduce real wages for workers. In reality the Big Society is Thatcher’s policy of the reduction of the state and had led to reduced or abolishedprofessional youth provision across the country. As David Davies, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for the parliamentary constituency of Haltemprice and Howden and former Conservative leadership candidate, explains,

“The corollary of the Big Society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you’re Attila the Hun. If you talk about the Big Society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.”

- (David Davies 2010)


Using the Big society as an template for developing youth services across the country will provide regressive services to young people which link back to the traditional models of provision that appease ‘middle England’ and protect them from the working class feral youth and prepare young people to assume a role within the workplace. It will also allow the Neoliberal agenda of less state support to be achieved. However the strengths of good professional youth work are aligned with its ability to transform people lives, to challenge the status quo and empower communities and individuals to challenge. It allows young people and communities to acknowledge the oppression they face and critically transform their world. It is the professional youth worker that can act as a catalyst for this transformation as young people move through different stages of personal development, Erikson highlights in his psychosocial stages of development that adolescence is typified by role confusion and questioning (Erikson 1995), professional workers with an ethical value base can start the process of critical understanding with young people as a planned process of self-discovery as Friere suggests,

“A mere perception of reality not followed by critical intervention will not lead to transformation of the objective reality”

- Freire, 1972, pg34

The Neo liberal agenda neither requires this transformation nor wants it to happen; the values of economic growth and appeasing the markets remain paramount and supersede the professional values of Youth Work. The last thing they want is people realising they can change things.


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Featured Image Credit:Guillaume Paumier