Young people need more support than ever, but COVID-19 is also crushing youth workers

| October 30, 2021

Young people have been among the worst hit during COVID-19, and we won’t know the full impact of the pandemic on their mental health, social connections and life prospects for some time. Yet during this critical time, youth work has also taken a hit.

In a 2020 survey by the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, researchers found that 89% of youth work services had experienced increased demand and 26% had to reduce or lay off staff. The outlook is similar internationally, with a UK survey showing that 88% of youth work services were reduced, 30% said redundancies were likely and 17% were likely to close altogether.

A culture of cuts to the sector

The 2008 credit crisis saw major cuts to youth work in other countries. Government reforms have seen a shift from a holistic service of practical, emotional and psychological support to one that focus on minimum, basic needs.

Far from reverting to a more personalised and effective approach, COVID-19 has provided a cultural and political distraction to further imbed economic and neoliberal ways of thinking.

Neoliberalism as a way of organising our economic and social lives had already come under heavy criticism prior to the pandemic. The prioritisation of individual property rights and competition for services has been described as ‘eating’ young people in a system that fails them.

The first week of November is internationally celebrated Youth Work Week. While youth workers and service providers will celebrate efforts to care for young people at a time when they need it more, hopes for sustainable investment by the government will once again go unfulfilled.

More than ever, young people need the support

Early reports suggest that, among the wide range of impact COVID19 is having globally, young people who were already vulnerable are being overlooked.

The numbers of vulnerable children and young people where already on the rise before the pandemic with research from the Australian National University finding poverty rates in Australia in the last 30 years for children of single parents has risen from 25 per cent to nearly 40 per cent.

A recent report by Anglicare Tasmania highlighted the impact of Stay-at-Home orders on homeless children; this group of young people simply ‘went missing’ from services and from public view.

In a report by the South Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People, participants reflected on the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and grieved the loss of connection with trusted adults outside of their family such as teachers, sports coaches and – notably – youth and community workers.

How to fund quality care

Youth work in Australia is often funded through competitive grants and government tenders. This results in youth work being tied to short term – often political – outcomes. It requires youth work agencies to spend significant (unfunded) time applying for and acquitting funding, rather than delivering services.

Research from Swinburne University of Technology and Flinders University shows that competitive funding forces youth work services and practitioners to focus on process rather than care.

As neoliberal ways of thinking creep into the structures and cultures of youth services, it shifts practitioners from being highly skilled professionals who provide a relational response to people experiencing complex issues, into being process-driven automatons managing and reporting on risky individuals.

Caring for people cannot be funded by a marketplace designed for the competition of the fittest. The marketisation of care places youth services at great risk during times of crisis, like the pandemic.

As we celebrate International Youth Work Week, we need to think about how the kinds of support young people need now and into the future. We need to ask what kinds of supports can meet these needs and how organisations and practitioners can provide them when young people need them the most.

This article was written by Ben Lohmeyer of Flinders University and Joel McGregor, a Lecturer in Criminology at Swinburne University of Technology.