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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Published by Adam

For almost two decades, Adam F. C. Fletcher has led international outreach focused on engaging people successfully. Working with thousands of youth-serving nonprofits, K-12 schools, government agencies, international NGOs and other organizations around the world, his work spans the fields of education, public health, economic development and social services, and includes professional development, public speaking, publishing, social media and more. He founded the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement, SoundOut and CommonAction, as well as writing more than 50 publications and 500 articles. He has also established 150-plus community empowerment projects.

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