Youth work practice (what youth workers do) in each country can be understood as a function of the cultural-discursive, social-political  and material-economic contexts in which it is situated. In countries like Ireland and Wales, as the status, recognition and demand for youth work has grown, policy interest in the sector has also grown, as has state involvement, funding and regulation. In Estonia, the long history of state involvement in youth work (under the Soviet socialist regime) has been reconstructed and directed to new aims, while, as section 5 explores in more detail, in North Macedonia the long history of state involvement (under the Yugoslavian socialist regime) fell away following independence, creating space that the non-governmental sector colonised with the support of external funding.  Now, after years of relative neglect and privatisation of the sector, state involvement and interest in the sector is increasing again. 

This growing interest and state involvement has gone hand in hand with increases in policy makers’ expectations about the outcomes the sector should contribute to (with concerns that youth work’s “mission” and values risk becoming distorted as it moves to deliver in new areas), and in state scrutiny of the sector. This interest has also contributed to the expansion of education and training and professionalization of the sector, which has increased its status and contributed to improvements in quality (Dunne et al., 2014) but, as the experiences of Ireland and Wales illustrate, also risks widening divisions between salaried (paid) and volunteer (unpaid) youth workers (see e.g. Devlin, 2010).

In the early 2000s, economic growth enabled increases in funding and the expansion of youth work in Ireland and Wales. However, despite increases in expectations and demand, in countries like Ireland and Wales (unlike Estonia, where cuts were modest) funding was cut sharply following the economic crisis of 2008 (Devlin, 2010). Levels of funding from national governments and the EU remain a significant determinant of practice and, as funding increases or decreases, youth work practice tends to expand or shrink. 

Legal frameworks, governance structures and policies are another key determinant of both youth work practice and education and training. They have, for example, contributed to: the increasing focus upon measurement and accountability, more targeted, issue-based youth work, and the professionalization of youth work (Dunne et al., 2014). They have supported the growth and strength of the sector in Estonia, and in Wales in the early 2000s, and helped sustain the vitality of the sector in Ireland, despite funding cuts after 2008. Nevertheless, as examples from Ireland and Wales illustrate, even in the face of funding cuts and top down policy direction, the youth work sector has shown creativity in developing new ways of working in new settings.  

Government policy and funding can therefore both enable, but also set the limits of, youth work practice, and within that space there can be scope for the sector to shape practice and respond to the needs and demands of young people. As the examples of Estonia and North Macedonia show, the sector can also influence the policy space for youth work and a dynamic or creative tension between policy and practice is desirable.  Youth work wants recognition and autonomy but does not want to be directed or controlled!  Equally, as volume 5 of the History of Youth Work in Europe registers, perhaps youth work can, paradoxically, win more autonomy as a result of greater dependency, if there is a willingness to engage with the policy agendas of others (Siurala, Suurpää, Coussée and Williamson, 2016).

As figure 3 illustrates, youth work practice can therefore be further understood as the outcome of a creative tension between policy, the needs/wants of young people and, the principles and values of youth work. 

Figure 3. Youth work practice: navigating with the triangle of policy, principles, and young people’s needs and wants 

If youth work is sucked completely into any one corner, this paralyses youth work from establishing any effective practice.  Youth workers should not be “policy poodles” but nor should they be uncritically at the beck and call of young people.  However, their principles and values (most significantly, seeing the young people holistically and their engagement with the youth worker voluntarily) need to be carefully applied. There is a need to consider what may be sacred cows (ready to be sacrificed, if necessary) and what are “cherished values” (that need defending at all costs, if youth work as a distinct practice is to be sustained).  Even the cherished principle of the voluntary relationship may need to be contested: what about youth work in closed settings, such as schools or custodial settings for young people?