20th Century — International Context

The evolution of youth work as we know it today started in the mid 1800s as youth work organisations started developing in the United Kingdom (e.g. YMCA, Girls’ Union Club, Boys’ Brigade, Scouting). The form and focus of these organisations was strongly shaped by both popular and scientific definitions of adolescence. Hall, Freud, Erikson and others emphasised this developmental stage as one of trial, anxiety and awkwardness resulting from radical physiological development and sexual awareness. Youth work programmes and relationships therefore focused on strong discipline and boundaries.

Over the decades our experience, understanding of youth development, societal needs, and political priorities have shaped the development of youth work. Youth work organisations have diversified, adapted and evolved to better enhance the development of young people. For example, the 1950s saw youth centres throughout Britain employing youth workers, and the 1980s saw a huge shift towards youth participation.

Aotearoa — Post-colonisation

The journey of youth work in Aotearoa reflects both international trends and an understanding of Māori youth development practices. The earliest youth work organisations were uniformed groups, such as the YMCA, Guides, Scouting, Boys’ Brigade, and churches. The 1970s saw the introduction of youth centres. In the 1980s the public and the government were increasingly concerned about those considered to be at risk, and the high rates of unemployment. Responses to this included:

  • The development of a number of community-based youth trusts
  • The development of ‘parachurch’ youth organisations (eg. YFC, Te Ora Hou)
  • The detached Youth Worker Scheme
  • Youth Worker Training Forums.

Deficit to Strengths

From the 1990s and into the 21st century we have seen a major shift in the understanding of adolescence and youth development, both in research and in youth work practice. Starting with the work of Martin Seligman, we have now researched evidence-based models of positive youth development.

The best-known of these are:

  • The 5 Cs (Lerner, Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003)
  • The Circle of Courage (Brentro, Brokenleg, & Bockern, RAP 2002)
  • 40 Developmental Assets (Benson, Search Institute).

With the introduction of the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa, current youth work best practice prioritises working from a positive youth development approach.

Training of Youth Workers

Traditionally youth workers have tended to be ‘qualified by life’ rather than academically. As a profession we recognise the importance of allowing those who do not have a strong academic background the opportunity to have input into young people’s lives. This is held in tension with the fact that young people (and youth workers) deserve youth workers that are not just highly talented but also highly skilled.

We have now developed numerous pathways into accredited training (Workplace Assessment, Tohu, Capable) that reflect the variety of experience and learning styles in the profession. Both the Certificate and Diploma in Youth Work are well-established and recognised. 2011 sees the introduction of the Degree in Youth Work – an exciting advancement for our profession.

Professionalisation of Youth Workers

Core to the success of youth work’s development as a profession is the strength of grass roots youth work. Regions within New Zealand have had varying levels of success at networking and developing the sector (the strongest of which is in Canterbury). The most recent attempt at a national level to provide leadership for the sector was the National Youth Workers Network Aotearoa (NYWNA). This organisation received widespread support from the sector and had membership from all over Aotearoa. NYWNA developed this national Code of Ethics, established ITO recognised training and much more. A desire to see more achieved for the sector led to a decision to create a new national organisation (Ara Taiohi) within which youth work and the development of a professional association will sit.

Youth work, like young people, is resilient. Our next stage of development is one that we look forward to with anticipation.