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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

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Why youth work should campaign more

This opinion piece is over 10 years old

Dr Lisa Whittaker outlines some of the challenges facing the youth work sector over the next five years.

Lisa Whittaker, community engagement manager at Columba 1400
Lisa Whittaker, community engagement manager at Columba 1400

As YouthLink Scotland gets ready to launch its five-year National Youth Work Strategy, those working with young people should consider whether it is our young people who lack aspirations or our politicians who are failing to provide opportunites.

One ambition of the strategy is to make Scotland the best place for young people to grow up. The focus on listening to young people, respecting and valuing them and encouraging them to make positive choices. However, this does not account for socio-economic factors which impact on young people's lives. Choices require opportunities, yet we currently have record levels of graduate unemployment and underemployment, leading to questions about how youth workers can best support young people to deal with the precarious labour market when, often, they are in a similar situation themselves.

Late last year, Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to have said “young people from working class families do not get ahead in life partly because they have low aspirations”. However, research has found the opposite to be true: aspirations are high and are no different than in previous generations. I am part of a team working on the (Re)Imagining Youth project. Building on landmark sociological research from the 1960s, the study will analyse youth leisure in Scotland and Hong Kong.

Young people are being hammered by austerity in Britain. Today, 18.6% of 18- to 24-year-olds are now unemployed, rising to 35.5% among 16- to 17-year-olds

In the 1960s it found that young people’s aspirations did not differ much from those of their parents, with young people speaking in terms of marriage, a set number of children, a nice home and a secure job.

During my PhD research, I asked a group of young, working-class Scottish women aged 16 to 18 where they would like to be in five years’ time. Jenni replied she would like to be “pregnant, with a good job and maybe putting a mortgage on a house”. Jenni’s reply was typical of many of the young people I spoke to, who all described aspirations of work, family and stability. The issue is whether or not young people like Jenni have the opportunities to realise their aspirations.

In my previous role at The Prince's Trust I met young people who were interested in starting their own business. Rather than having a burning desire to be their own boss, however, the reality for many of these young people was that self-employment was a last resort in their long struggle to find a job. Many young people I met talked about the need to create their own jobs and wanted to give jobs to other young people once their own business was established.

Young people are being hammered by austerity in Britain. Today, 18.6% of 18- to 24-year-olds are now unemployed, rising to 35.5% among 16- to 17-year-olds. We have seen a sharp rise in zero-hour contracts and for many young people having a job does not mean stability, security and a regular living wage. However, being in work is still the favoured position and it is expected that youth workers will support young people to find and sustain employment.

However, youth workers often face the same situation, with cuts to funding and sessional, short-term contracts. The survival of the youth sector in recent years has meant cutting jobs, reducing opening hours, charging fees, not buying new equipment, fewer trips or merging with other organisations.

Perhaps, therefore, one of the aspirations for the National Youth Work Strategy should be for the youth work sector to rediscover its campaigning zeal and work with young people to campaign for positive opportunities not just choices?

Dr Lisa Whittaker is the community engagement manager at Columba 1400. Tweet @LisaWhittaker02

This blog was originally published on the YouthLink Scotland blog site. Read more blogs from YouthLink Scotland.