Seeing Neoliberal Youth Work for What It Is

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Seeing Neoliberal Youth Work for What It Is

It is important to understand the realities within the youth work. Since beginning my career in youth work in the 1990s I have been exploring its theoretical and social underpinnings throughout my career. Wiggling its fingers throughout my efforts has been neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is the belief that young people are a commodity to be produced, manufactured, bought and sold throughout society. It makes inequality a necessity, creates unfair and unjust outcomes for youth and communities, and relies on the pain and suffering of some to benefit others.

Defeating the values of democratic society, neoliberalism actively teachers young people that their intuition is wrong. Values including Truth, Democracy, Fairness and Equality, Respect for Others, The promotion of Well-Being, and Tipping the Balance of Power and Control are not just irrelevant, but are actually negative.

Neoliberal youth work relies on broad political, economic and social force to drive it. Youth programs around the world have been assaulted by neoliberal forces hellbent on destroying the imaginations of children and youth and the democratic empowerment they were supposed to inherit. It replaces democracy with money-making through authoritarianism and certainty.

In youth work, neoliberalism takes many forms:

  • It is obvious in ways many programs are designed by looking at young people as incomplete, unformed and in need of adult direction;
  • The treatment of young people as disposable populations that should be removed from mainstream society and fed pre-determined programs, purchased from corporate publishers and refused roles throughout their communities and families;
  • Program funding reveals the exchange of money for production, as children and youth are taught certain skills, led in particular activities and directed through specific pathways in order to produce finite outcomes that are needed by businesses in order to make money;
  • Neoliberalism is also plain to see in the way youth programs communicate with parents, communities and young people themselves. Talking about “youth at risk,” “opportunity youth,” and “high risk youth” directs young people to act needy, helpless and incapable, and;
  • In youth work, decisions made by adults for young people without any intention, desire or designs to engage young people in making the decisions that affect them most are neoliberal to their core. They are removing the public, democratic function from society and replacing it with authoritarian beliefs.

Of course, neoliberalism is most obvious throughout society at large. Young people are clearly and deeply affected by the family settings, schools and other places they spend their time. However, youth programs should be a haven for young people to rest and recuperate from the onslaught of vicious opportunism haunting them.

Instead, many youth programs view youth as opportunities to make money, either on purpose or by accident. Undoing generations that said, “Youth are the future,” program after program and organization after organization simply gives up on that idea, let alone the radical notion that “Youth can be the leaders of tomorrow, if we procrastinate.” Instead, young people are simply seen as potential funding magnets for many nonprofits, and potential profit centers by the elected officials who ensure funding, support and evaluation for youth work.

Neoliberalism forces youth workers to go backwards in our thinking about youth: Instead of being a collective bunch of possibilities, we start seeing them as fixed to their identities, positions and roles in societies. This means limiting choices, reeling in perspectives and discouraging hopefulness among youth as well as our peers.

As a result of neoliberal youth work, young people today are growing up believing:

  • The welfare state — which created youth programs originally, ensured young people had food, shelter and healthcare, and allowed youth to be seen as future citizens — is not worth maintaining;
  • There are forces working deeply within communities to ensure youth are looked down on while cynically using language that sounds empowering;
  • Democracy means being able to make all the money you want to without any regard for the people around you, whether they are in your family or neighborhood, within your culture or society, or on the other side of the world;
  • Money invested in youth must be obviously beneficial to the donors who gave it; in the same way, money invested in the public must benefit every taxpayer directly or it wasn’t worth paying;
  • Surveillance through closed-circuit television, adult supervision, internet snooping and countless other ways should be an expected, normal part of life that isn’t questioned, challenged or otherwise looked down on;
  • Widening gaps between wealthy people and everyone else are okay and to be expected because of determination and rights, not because of white supremacy and indoctrination;
  • The rights of children and youth rights are only what adults are willing to extend to young people in certain circumstances, and not inalienable or unable to be taken away, and;
  • The public no longer believes in the future of our society, so their investment in children and youth should be squeezed and squeezed away until there is no more.

The results from these perceptions are terrifying, both for the individual well-being of young people today as well as their families, communities and our world. Democracy is on the ropes, with double- and triple-blows socked to it from crass consumerism and runaway capitalism. All of this leaves young people in the cross-hairs of politicians, executive directors, funders and evaluators, each of whom is ready and eager to pull the trigger. By doing this, they lay waste to the present as well as the future, sacrificing children and youth to line their own pockets, perpetuate their missions, and dismantle society as we’ve known it.

Seeing neoliberal youth work for what it is means taking off the rose colored glasses and addressing this scourge for what it is: The rapid, holistic and undeniable effort of a few to make money from the masses. Unfortunately, the few are winning.

Youth work is much more than a site for workforce development; public health promotion; community service completion; or athletic competition. It is the place where we foster democracy in its most obvious forms, where young people and old can find allies and abilities they didn’t know they had; and where the fiery caldrons of disruption and imagination are borne to fruition, with unquantifiable youth engagement and social change emerging en masse throughout society and across futures we have yet to imagine.

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Adam F.C. Fletcher is available to consult, speak, and write.

Unpacking #Youthification

PhrenologyThere’s a conversation afoot about “youthification,” which means acting younger.

Apparently, moms do it, businesses should do it, neighborhoods are doing it, and entire cities want to do it more.

After reviewing several articles about this term, I have identified several assumptions in the conversations about “youthification”:

  • All Youth Are the Same: This conversation about youthification generally revolves around the idea that youth act certain ways, do particular things, believe unique beliefs and feel specific emotions.
  • “Youth” Is A Product: So far, youthification is largely a topic of interest to marketers, whether in the form of urban planners who want to grow cities or businesspeople who want to sell products and services.
  • Youth Will Stand Still: Ironically, youthification seems to be fixated on pinning down static representations of young people in order to attract older people to what younger people like, want or do. Its ironic because youth cannot be seen as a static station; similarly, its consistently shown in adult development studies that fixing perspectives is a behavior of adults; ergo, we’re applying adult beliefs to youth in order to get adults to aspire to be youth.

 

The most interesting piece I’ve found related to youthification comes from an author who connected it with neotony, which is the physiological act of staying younger longer. Applying this concept to youthification may be akin to phrenology though, and I don’t advocate anyone taking that analysis seriously.

And from there comes my conclusion: “Youthification” is a manufactured reality that’s designed to help sell things to gullible people by preying on adults’ fear, denial and naivety, much the same as phrenology was a century ago.

The idea of “youthification” is part of the adultist notion of the monolithic youth, which is driven by adults’ belief that, “Because I can observe all youth doing one thing, all youth must be one way.”

This denies the consideration other factors that shape the identities of youth, ie socio-economic backgrounds, race, gender, etc., as well as individual personalities, private beliefs, and non-adult approved ways of being in the world.

Youth don’t need the approval of adults to exist in their own ways, and adults don’t need to act like youth, either.

Similarly, adults don’t need to act like youth, live like youth, be like youth, and youth don’t need to act like adults, either.

Consumerist to the core, I believe the intent of this marketing ploy is to reinforce “in” behaviors and “out” behaviors throughout our society by reinforcing particular ways of being that can be marketed to, and ignoring or denying ways of being that cannot be marketed towards, packaged, bought or sold.

Here are my conclusions about “youthification” so far:

  • “Youthification” is Manufactured: The term “youthification” is being promoted to sell people things.
  • “Youthification” is Derogatory: The concept of “youthification” is largely demeaning and belittling to youth, since it dumbs down their identities and makes them into statis, ascertainable, replicable robots.
  • “Youthification” is Irrelevant: Any serious discussion about trends in sociology will avoid or dismiss the concept entirely, and its to be taken with a grain of salt.

What are your thoughts about “youthification”?

Selling Ourselves

Tonight on Facebook, my friend Lilian Kelian shared her sadness about people who relate to each other through interpersonal hegemony. I thought about it a while… Is the growing phenomenon of interpersonal hegemony the deep impact of neoliberalism on our personal and collective psyche?

The word hegemony means dominance; interpersonal hegemony is when we try to dominate others with our selves, our sense of what makes us us. 

The word hegemony is mostly used to talk about cultures, economics, educational practices, and social relationships. But the idea of interpersonal hegemony sticks in my craw, mostly because I see it and practice it myself!

 

It’s as if we are all trying to sell ourselves to each other, including our ways of being, feeling and experiencing the world. We do this inadvertently, pitching our ideas and sharing our problems and rallying our celebrations all through social media and in person and with family, friends, colleagues, and sometimes anyone who will listen. This heightened egotism reflects our own insecurities, showing others how, in order to feel better about ourselves, we have to make others see our superiority and power.

I think we do this as a mere echo of the dominate cultural hegemony all around us, all the time. There’s a reason why companies use logos, why restaurants use the same designs in their construction, and why all magazines are laid out the same. They do it because we crave familiarity and likeness. We do the same thing by surrounding ourselves with people who are like us and do the same activities, listen to the same music, and follow the same trends we’ve always followed.

Our practices of interpersonal hegemony make others look at our ways of being and doing and feeling and thinking, and want to do the same. It is like we’re selling ourselves to each other, instead of having genuine human interactions.

Adults do this all the time with youth – and I say that from experience! Giving a youth I worked with a CD of my music was pure interpersonal hegemony, as I tried to get them to like the things I liked. When young people start showing up wearing the style of clothes we wear; when they use the phrases we use; and when they talk the ways we talk its not just flattery. Its interpersonal hegemony and the worse kind of dominance, intentionally or otherwise.

Hegemony does not have to be explicitly forceful, either. The most well-meaning, kind and intentional people can be accidentally hegemonical. The question rises of how to defeat it, and that I cannot answer well right now. The answer surely lies in a pedagogy of freedom, and the need to learn, teach and lead in freedom.

Thanks again, Lilian.

 

My Questions

  • Where does suggestion become dominance?
  • How can we promote personal freedom in our relationships with others?
  • With the dominance of hegemony throughout our lives, is there anyway to escape perpetuating it?