Radical Youth Work in Wales – Youth Workers Stand Up!

Darrel Williams, UWTSD.

There is lots of excellent social policy for young people in Wales, as a society we want the best for young people. However, the reality for many young people in Wales is that times are harder now than at any time since the 1980’s and more worryingly, they lack any real hope for the future. Some of these hardships originate in the same places as in those dark days, rapid social change; the frantic pursuit of modernisation and the impact of continuing welfare reforms for example. Further changes have taken the form of massive tax cuts for the rich; the crushing of trade unions; deregulation; privatisation; outsourcing and competition in public services (Monbiot, 2016) which have resulted in young people being very poorly served by the society of which they are members.

We are members of the fifth largest global economy. As a society, Wales is letting down many of its young people, resources are clearly not being distributed to best effect. The well-being of our young people is being compromised with unprecedented levels of anxiety, unhappiness and mental ill-health! Our decision makers in government and local authorities need to look again at the outcomes of successive legislations and their impacts and learn from evidence across the World about the ingredients of young people’s happiness and well-being!

The impacts of recent social change have been significant, including instant communication, changes in employment patterns, education, escalating property prices, and a revolution in the funding of Higher Education. The costs of building a good life continue to escalate at a rate which outstrips the current minimum wage of £5.90 of an 18-20 year old. This means that many young people in Wales are excluded from activities which others take for granted; this social comparison is one of the drivers of the anxiety malaise affecting so many young people today. This situation must be challenged. It is the role of the professionally qualified youth and community worker to go back to first principles, to put young people first and to be tenacious and visible, not passive and apologetic.

A recent UK study found more than half of young people (54%) said money worries were among their top three causes of anxiety, next stressors were school, and health (Varkey Foundation, 2017). Money worries and the failed ideology of austerity are ruining our communities. Poignantly, at the same time as the UK has been at the top table of global economies, some of its most vulnerable citizens are hungry and homeless. In relation to spending on the youth service in Wales, our local authorities have imposed a reduction of 30% between 2010 and 2017 (Welsh Government, 2018) with 23% less young people involved. This situation must be challenged, it can continue no longer!

Public spending for children and young people has become dominated by a paradigm which depicts them as threats, as jobless, feckless, lazy and thoughtless. These stereotypes, perhaps unknowingly, appear to guide the judgements of our policy makers. This state of affairs is no longer acceptable, we cannot leave investment in our young people so late that we have to overspend to rescue them from mental ill-health, from criminality, from joblessness, we must invest in decent universal services and a commitment to a clear vision for young people as a matter of urgency. Young people’s leisure time is worthy of investment, a demonstration of our commitment to them and their happiness.

Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that our spending on children and young people is high and our outputs low. The message to policy makers in Wales is: we need to look again at how and why we make the spending decisions we do. The UK spends more on each child than most other OECD countries, more than £138,000 from birth up to the age of 18, compared to an OECD average of £95,000 (OECD, 2011). Despite this spending, we consistently place towards the bottom of the OECD league table in relation to education, health and happiness. It is clear that a national debate is needed on the place of young people in Wales today and the need for a radical, transformational social contract between society and young people to demonstrate our commitment to them. The question is, how can this debate be brought about?