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Handbook of International Social WorkHuman Rights, Development, and the Global Profession$

Lynne M. Healy and Rosemary J. Link

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195333619

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195333619.001.0001

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(p.265) 41 Youth
Handbook of International Social Work

Lincoln O. Williams

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that youth work and social work share a common value base and that the basic problem confronting young people is their lack of participation in the decision-making structures of their societies. The critique of the categorical definition of youth implies that social workers need to undertake a thorough sociocultural and historical analysis of the individual or group of young people they intend to work with. The chapter concludes with guidelines for effective intervention strategies for working with the majority of youth as well as the significant minority who could be defined as youth at risk.

Keywords:   youth work, social work practice, social workers, at-risk youth, young people

Youth work shares a common value base and practice approaches with social work. Both professions are anchored in the democratic paradigm, and in terms of practice and approaches, both professions actively deploy the ecological, empowerment, and advocacy perspectives when dealing with their client groups.

Youth Participation

The critical problems facing youth in both traditional and modern societies are their lack of power to influence the policies and institutions that shape their lives, their voicelessness in the sense of adult society’s refusal to create the structures through which their voices can be heard, and their exclusion from society’s main decision-making processes. The lack of participation by youth is a central concern of global agencies such as the United Nations, World Bank, and Commonwealth Youth Programme (Cunningham, McGinnis, Verdú, Tesliuc, & Verner, 2008; Danns et al., 1997; UNICEF and UNFPA, 2002). For example, participation in decision making is a central plank of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which establishes participation as a basic right for all children and young people.

The voice of young people in issues that affect their lives has a transformative effect. For instance, 200 youth in the Inuit community of Kugluktuk held demonstrations in 2007, appealing to their parents to stop drinking, taking drugs, and killing each other and to start looking after their children. The demonstrations were such a shock that a decision was made to control liquor sales, and violence began to decline (www.studentsonice.com/blog/?p=76).

The social upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa offer recent cogent evidence of the transformative effect of youth activism. In a region where 60% of the population is under 30 years old, it is not surprising that young people would be in the forefront of social change. The rallying cry of protesters in Bahrain was the words of the Tunisian rapper, El General. The basic demand of the young people was to be treated as citizens with a voice and not as subjects of a despot.

However, for the vast majority of youth in vulnerable situations, participation requires assistance. It is true that many adults also face these problems as they transition from one life stage to another; hence the need for the assistance of social workers. My contention is that young people are discriminated against in these ways because they are young; it is for this reason that both social work and youth work have a vested interest in adopting a participatory practice approach in dealing with their clients. Clients are encouraged to challenge the oppression that confronts them so that they can take charge of matters that affect them, define their own needs, and participate in the decision-making process. Social workers aim to improve clients’ personal capacities to exercise power by, for example, developing their confidence, self-esteem, assertiveness, knowledge, and skills. It is also recognized that these problems are generated not only from the individuals or groups that make up our clientele but also from the social institutions they interact with.

It is incumbent on both social workers and youth workers to ensure that their own institution or agency is open to participation. In this regard, Roger Hart (1997) has developed the concept of a ladder of participation as a tool that organizations can use to assess levels of participation. The ladder starts at the bottom rung with manipulation and moves upward through seven more rungs as follows: decoration, tokenism, youth being assigned and then informed, youth being consulted and informed, adult-initiated programs but shared decisions with youth, youth-initiated and -directed programs, and finally youth-initiated and shared decisions with adults. Applying these practice theories with adults is difficult enough; applying them in working with young people is extremely problematic because it is often not seen (p.266) as legitimate to extend the democratic process to them, perhaps because, in many countries, a sizable section of the youth population does not have a vote.

Defining Youth

The United Nations defines youth as young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four years. There are approximately 1.2 billion young people, constituting 18% of the world’s population. Age categorizations of youth vary across the world: In Malaysia it is ages fifteen to forty, in the Caribbean ages ten to twenty-nine, and in Malawi ages fourteen to twenty-five. In Malawi, the National Youth Policy recognizes that “youth is not only a chronological definition,  but a term commonly used to describe roles in society ascribed to the young. This policy, therefore, will be flexible to accommodate young people under 14 years and over 25 years depending on their social and economic circumstance” (Williams, 1998, p. 44).

These examples highlight the problem of trying to categorize or define youth. There are several ways of defining it: as a physiological phase, usually denoted by the start of puberty and finishing roughly when the body stops growing; as a psychological phase of transition between childhood and adulthood in which successful negotiation of psychological crises enables individuals to make it to the mature adult stage of the life cycle; as a social category framed by particular social institutions such as school and legislative definitions; or as a phase that is culturally understood by an interplay of musical, visual, and verbal signs that denotes what is young in relation to that which is interpreted as childish or adult.

It is the complex interplay between these various aspects that makes the categorical definition of youth inadequate, because it fails to take account of the specific race, gender, class, or cultural context in which young people experience and negotiate their youthfulness. It ignores the problems raised by the assumption that there are clear and absolute differences between childhood, youth, and adulthood. For an excellent refutation of this assumption, see Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood (1994), in which he argues that modern communication technology is not only causing childhood to disappear but also is changing the social construction of what it means to be an adult. Finally, the categorical definition encourages the view that youth is a biologically determined process that is neutral, universal, and ahistorical. The implication of this analysis is the recognition that youth is not homogeneous.

The starting point for developing social work practice with youth therefore is to analyze the historical and social forces that have contributed to the context in which young people find themselves. For example, in the United Kingdom, services for youth originated in the Victorian era as an attempt by middle-class interests to save working-class children from the brutalizing effects of industrialization and urbanization (Williams, 1988). Vestiges of these forces are at play today in the social education, intermediate treatment, and life skills remediation programs that are characteristic of UK youth services. This is in contrast, for example, to programs in France, where youth services are directed to stimulate young people’s interests in an open and exploratory manner.

In the Caribbean, young people played a significant role in the modernization of their societies in the last century, but today they face a considerable level of exclusion. It is this exclusion and the reasons for it that social workers have to comprehend in order to work effectively with young people in their own context-specific work situations. The Caribbean is a useful example to explore further not only for practice in developing countries but also for practice in urban areas of developed countries that are affected negatively by globalization.

Youth in the Caribbean

In the Caribbean eighty years ago, it was young people who were in the vanguard of constructing postcolonial countries through their participation in labor and fledgling political movements playing an important role in the birth of the politically independent Caribbean (Lewis, 1995). Later, in the 1970s, young people across the region responded to the Black Power movement, to Bob Marley’s call to emancipate themselves from mental slavery, and to the aspirations of the Grenadian revolution in 1979. Young people were also active in the attempted coup in Trinidad and Tobago in 1990. Factors such as the unavailability of appropriate opportunities for their development or the denial by adult society of young people’s search for personhood were identified as driving their participation in these significant social events that helped shape the modern Caribbean (James-Bryant, 1992).

A lack of opportunities for youth is characteristic of independent Caribbean countries. The inability of postcolonial governments to meet the high expectations—expectations that the politicians themselves helped to build—was due mainly to the adoption of inappropriate models of development, such as capital-intensive industries rather than labor-intensive ones (p.267) and urban development over rural development. Thus postcolonial youth found themselves in societies in which “the rhetoric of self-reliance, of new visions for youth, of education as a vehicle for democracy, of youth entrepreneurship, all these promises did not materialize in viable amounts” (Deosaran, 1992, p. 66). They also realized that there was not much hope of change because they were not living in societies that had developed a culture of change. They had come to realize that they were living in a political culture where “nepotism crowns geriatric politics” (p. 66). Indeed, young people found that “in large measure, the politics of colonialism have given way to a political independence which provides its own entrenched elites, leaving a blockade against change and youthful succession. The Caribbean is yet to develop a culture of and for change” (p. 67).

Postcolonial Caribbean societies have not only failed to deliver economic security and opportunity but have also failed to imbue the young with an ideology of Caribbeanness that could help them to withstand the materialism and individualism embedded in the culture beamed in from the Global North, principally from the United States. The message for many Caribbean youth is that they will have to migrate—if they can—if they are to achieve their personal and material goals. For those at home who see that they have little opportunity of achieving success through legitimate means, a significant minority will attempt to use illegitimate means to achieve their goals. The growth of the underground economy (euphemistically termed the informal economy) assists in the erosion of traditional values and thereby sends the signal to young people that the end justifies the means. The exclusion of youth from the mainstream of Caribbean societies and the powerlessness that youth feel are identified by the major youth organizations in the Caribbean Region, such as the Commonwealth Youth Programme (Danns et al., 1997) and UNICEF and UNFPA (2002). Youth are only recognized seriously in the areas of sport, entertainment, and crime. One of the most significant indicators emerging from a number of studies is a sense of hopelessness, despair, and powerlessness. There clearly exists a crisis of confidence and disillusionment among Caribbean youth.

Youth Culture Globally

On a global level, there are those who argue that youth subcultures are no more than a youthful reflection of the dominant parent culture, which is largely determined by reference to class position. In these youth subcultures, young people often attempt some magical solution to problems confronting the parent culture. In the United Kingdom during the 1980s, for example, the violent confrontation between various soccer firms was interpreted by some radical youth commentators as an attempt by working-class youth to hang onto the territory that their working-class parents had lost due to the closure of factories, mines, and docks.

Some writers (Beck, 1992; Furlong & Cartmel, 2007) argue that in modern societies, a young person’s life chances are still largely determined by the unequal distribution of wealth. “Like wealth, risks adhere to the class pattern, only inversely: wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom. To that extent, risks seem to strengthen, not abolish, the class society. Poverty attracts an unfortunate abundance of risks. The wealthy (in income, power or education) can purchase safety and freedom from risk” (Furlong & Cartmel, 2007, p. 4). Other writers (Adam, Beck, & Van Loon, 2004; Giddens, 1991) argue that modern society is characterized by uncertainty, contingency, complexity, fragmentation, and turbulence and that life is full of risks that are not seen as things that happen to social collectivities such as class, race, or gender but to individuals. People increasingly feel that setbacks and crises are the result of personal shortcomings and not the result of forces that are outside their control. Thus if young people leave school or university and cannot find jobs, they are much more likely to blame themselves for not studying the right courses that the market demands. However, as Beck (2000) reminds us, “No one can say what you must learn in order to be needed in the future” (p. 3).

Such an analysis of a specific historical and sociocultural context enables social workers to appreciate young people’s attitudes, behaviors, and values, and it helps them to plan appropriate and effective intervention programs. The starting point for any youth intervention is to recognize that the vast majority (80% to 90%) of young people successfully negotiate the storm and stress of adolescence. After conducting research around the world, Coleman and Hendry (1990) conclude that what youth studies needs to explain is why so many young people make the transition to adulthood so smoothly and without mental crisis—why the majority are so normal, so to speak. They argue that what is needed is a theory of normal youth. Their hypothesis is that young people actively stack their stressors so that they can deal with them one or two at a time. Longitudinal research in the United Kingdom suggests that a young person can usually cope with two risk factors simultaneously, (p.268) but when three or more are present, the outcome almost always results in some emotional or behavioral problem (Department for Children, Schools and Families [DCSF] & HM Treasury, 2007).

Studies in the Caribbean and in the United Kingdom, for example, show that the vast majority of young people are normal. In the Caribbean, they are generally patriotic, have values similar to those of their parents, feel that their parents are in a position to guide them, feel able to withstand negative peer pressure, have a positive self-image, are not overly materialistic, and highly value their future jobs and careers (Richardson, 1999). In the United Kingdom, the proportion of young people leaving school with good qualifications is trending upward, with 90% of sixteen-year-olds continuing on to some form of further learning, 71% of nineteen-year-olds progressing to a higher qualification, and 50% of sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds providing informal help within their communities. Of those young people who do have crises and need professional intervention, conduct disorder is the most prevalent problem (at 7%) affecting young people between eleven and fifteen years of age (DCSF & HM Treasury, 2007).

Thus, in working with the vast majority of young people, our objective is one of prevention and seeking to build their resiliency. Program evidence in the United Kingdom, the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean shows that what young people do in their leisure time—out of school, out of work, or during periods of non-income-generating time—has significant outcomes for their adult lives. Positive outcomes include improved attitudes toward drugs and alcohol use, decreased delinquency and violent behavior, increased knowledge and practice of safe sex, and increased skills for coping with peer pressure. There is also evidence of decreased behavioral problems and improved social communication skills, self-confidence, and self-esteem. It is also interesting to note that the research evidence seems to indicate that structured activities—such as sports, the arts, and volunteer work—are far more effective than unstructured activities. These are further elaborated in Box 41.1.

(p.269) There does seem to be growing consensus in the youth literature that there are certain underlying principles characterizing successful youth intervention programs. These are briefly explained in Box 41.2.

At-Risk Youth

For a minority of young people, those deemed to be “at risk,” programs and interventions need to be well targeted and sustained (Barker and Fontes, 1996). In a sense, all youth are vulnerable to being at risk simply by being young. It is in these years that the foundational factors that lead to long-term inequality are laid. Particularly risky behaviors include leaving school early without formal qualifications; being jobless; engaging in substance abuse, including tobacco and alcohol; behaving violently; initiating sex at an early age; and engaging in unsafe sexual practices (Cunningham et al., 2008).

It is in these years that young people are most subject to peer pressure, suffer the storm and stress of establishing an individual identity, and try to establish their social and economic independence. Such pressures make it more likely for young people to engage in impulsive and thrill-seeking behavior; even biology is working against them in that the part of the brain that controls impulsive behavior is the last to develop. Socially, young people lack the experience to make the most effective decisions and be able to calculate the possible future impact of their actions. It is surprising, then, that so many young people manage not to succumb to these risks and transit this stage of the life cycle so successfully.

The number of young people at risk varies enormously across the world. There can be no complacency even if numbers are small relative to the population of young people as a whole, because a small percentage can result in social turmoil and the loss of economic (p.270) production. Although young people at risk are generally poor, no causal relationship has been statistically identified between poverty and risky behaviors. What is more evident from the research is that the odds are stacked against poor young people through lack of adequate education, health, housing, and economic opportunities. The correlations enable us to use poverty status as a means to target programs to those who are most at risk.

Effective Interventions

The practice implications for social workers working with at-risk youth of course depend on which category of risk the particular young people are in. The literature, however, gives some useful general guidelines that should be helpful for practitioners and policy makers. The data from longitudinal studies in the United States and the Caribbean suggest that two micro-level protective factors are of great significance, namely school attendance and school connectedness together with the sustained presence of a caring adult in the young person’s life. The policy implications of these findings point to the importance of investing in keeping young people in school and making schools attractive and productive for them. These investments should be a priority in areas with a high concentration of at-risk youth. The evidence also suggests that special attention should be paid to programs that can increase school attendance, improve the connectedness of students to their school, and foster strong families, parenting, and mentors in the lives of young people. Boxes 41.3 and 41.4 provide additional details on these important factors.

Although it is preferable to set up programs that tackle multiple risks, even those programs that focus on single risk factors can influence multiple risky behaviors. Cunningham et al. (2008) highlight twenty-three elements of a policy portfolio for at-risk youth, of which the following three are of particular importance to social work practice.

(p.271) Secondary School Completion

Completing secondary school is perhaps the most important strategy for reducing all types of risky behavior. These programs not only keep young people off the streets (and thereby reduce the risk of them being arrested) but also buy them more time to mature and thereby to make better decisions. Programs for teenage mothers to complete their secondary education are of critical importance here.

Access to Education Equivalency and Lifelong Learning

For those young people who have dropped out of school, the provision of a second chance of getting a high school equivalency diploma can be critical to reintegrating them into the labor market.

Access to Youth-Friendly Health and Pharmaceutical Services

Many young people know how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but they often have difficulty accessing such services, particularly ones that recognize their need for confidentiality. This is especially true in small island states such as those in the Caribbean, but it is also a problem in small towns and villages in developed and developing countries. Outreach programs, mobile services, and health-care staff sympathetic to young people can help to break down geographical and psychological barriers to accessing advice and support.

Social workers should be cautious about deploying strategies that get tough on at-risk youth. There is no evidence that such strategies work. Zero-tolerance programs, shock incarceration programs, and boot camps have not only been shown to be ineffective but can actually lead to an increase in delinquent and criminal behavior (Cunningham et al., 2008; Furlong & Cartmel, 2007). Further, abstinence-only programs have not been shown to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy or the transmission of sexually transmitted  diseases. When a society is in full moral-panic mode and the government has to demonstrate that it is taking tough action to stop the complete breakdown of society, then there is a temptation to introduce such tough measures as increasing custodial sentences for youth convicted of certain crimes, trying young people in adult courts, and placing convicted young offenders in adult institutions. These strategies produce hardened criminals, not young people able to overcome risk.


This chapter argues that youth work and social work share a common value base and that the basic problem confronting young people is their lack of participation in the decision-making structures of their societies. The critique of the categorical definition of youth implies that social workers need to undertake a thorough sociocultural and historical analysis of the individual or group of young people they intend to work with. The chapter concludes with guidelines for effective intervention strategies for working with the majority of youth as well as the significant minority who could be defined as youth at risk.

These strategies rely on social workers who care for young people and who “serve as role models for them, who advise, mentor, chide, sympathize, encourage and praise” (See Box 41.2 above). They require social workers to establish a positive and strong relationship that is committed to the young peoples’ best interests. Whether in a client–social worker relationship or in a youth service program, it is essential for the social worker to negotiate with the young person to build a structured and agreed-upon framework within which a young person can develop. Furthermore, support for the critical transitions from home to school and from school to work requires follow-up and continual support, sometimes over years until the young person is established in adulthood.


Bibliography references:

Adam, B., Beck, U., & Van Loon, J. (2004). The risk society and beyond: Critical issues for social theory. London: Sage.

American Youth Policy Forum. (1988). Some things DO make a difference for youth: A compendium of evaluations of youth programs and practices. Washington, DC.

Barker, G., & Fontes, M. (1996). Review and analysis of international experience with programmes targeted on at-risk youth. LASHC Paper Series No. 5. Washington DC: World Bank.

Beck, U. (2000). The brave new world of work. Cambridge: Polity.

Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage.

Blum, R. (2006). Youth development. Youth Development Notes, 1(4), Washington, DC: World Bank, HDNCY. www.worldbank.org/childrenandyouth.

Blum, R. W. (2005). Protective factors in the lives of youth: The evidence base. Youth Development Lecture Series. Washington, DC: World Bank, HDNCY. www.worldbank.org/childrenandyouth.

Coleman, J. C., & Hendry, L. (1990). The nature of adolescence. London: Routledge.

(p.272) Cunningham, W., McGinnis, L., Verdú, R. G., Tesliuc, C., & Verner, D. (2008). Youth at risk in Latin America and the Caribbean: Understanding the causes, realizing the potential. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Danns, G., Henry, B., & LaFleur, P., et al. (1997). Tomorrow’s adults: A situational analysis of youth in the Commonwealth Caribbean. London: Commonwealth Secretariat.

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), & HM Treasury. (2007, July). Aiming high for young people: A ten-year strategy for positive activities. London: DCSF.

Deosaran, R. (1992). Social psychology in the Caribbean. Trinidad and Tobago: Longman.

Furlong, A., & Cartmel, F. (2007). Young people and social change: New perspectives. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Oxford: Polity.

Hart, R. (1997). Children’s participation: The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care. London: Earthscan.

James-Bryant, M. (1992). Challenges facing Caribbean youth as the region approaches the 21st century: Survival or destruction. Submission to the West Indian Commission, Time for action. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press.

Lewis, L. (1995). The social reproduction of youth in the Caribbean. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Institute of Social and Economic Research.

Postman, N. (1994). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Vintage Books.

Richardson, A. G. (1999) Caribbean adolescents and youth. Contemporary issues in personality development and behaviour. Brooklyn, NY:Caribbean Diaspora Press.

UNICEF and UNFPA (2002) Meeting adolescent development and participation rights. The findings of five research studies in Jamaica. Kingston, Jamaica.

Williams, L. O. (1998) Youth and Society-Module 2 of the Diploma in Youth in Development. London: Commonwealth Youth Programme, 1998.

Williams, L. O. (1988). Partial surrender: Race and resistance in the youth service. London: Falmer Press.

Useful Websites

Commonwealth Secretariat: www.thecommonwealth.org

United Nations: www.un.org.

World Bank: www.worldbank.org/childrenandyouth.