As outlined in section 1, youth work practice varies hugely across Europe. It is shaped, enabled and constrained, and ultimately constructed, by differences[1] in the: 

  • cultural-discursive context of each country, such as the ways in which youth work is recognised, understood, and discussed and the expectations and demands of young people; 
  • social-political context of each country, such as levels of political support for youth work; the autonomy and connections youth work has with other agendas and agencies; the bodies that represent and speak on behalf of youth work and youth workers and those that regulate and inspect youth work and youth workers; and
  • material-economic context of each country, such as levels of funding for youth work and youth work education and training, the education and training provision for youth workers (discussed in section 4), the places and spaces available for youth work (such as youth centres), and the opportunities and challenges young people face (adapted from Kemmis and Grootenboer, 2008; Kiilakoski, 2019).

The three domains are interconnected; for example:

  • the cultural-discursive context and the ways in which youth work is recognised, understood and discussed, and also the extent to which it is valued and wanted (demanded) by young people and others, will influence key aspects of the social-political context, such as such as levels of political support for youth work; 
  • key elements of the social-political context, such as levels of political support for youth work, will determine aspects of the material-economic context, such as education and training for youth workers and the places and space available for youth work; and
  • the material-economic context will shape the resources available to government and the third sector and therefore, key aspects of the social-political context, and also factors such as the visibility of youth work and the roles it plays, and therefore ways it is understood and discussed in the cultural-discursive context. 

Cultural-discursive contexts: how is youth work defined and what is its status in Estonia, Ireland, North Macedonia and Wales?

The way youth work is defined in a country can be understood as a product of dialogue between government, the sector (practice) and researchers; a dialogue that is taking place at both national and European levels, with national and European dialogue between these three groups of actors informing each other; as a consequence, as table 1 and section 1 outline, the definitions of youth work outlined in table 1 can be understood in terms of: 

  • common threads (highlighted in bold in the table), such as a focus upon development of (or empowering) young people, and also integrating them into society, though their voluntary participation and “non-formal education and learning” and support in the third milieu of socialisation (beyond family and school), which unite the disparate fields of youth work; and
  • the definitional and descriptive statements of youth work emerging from the Declaration of the 2ndEuropean Youth Work Convention (2015) and/or the Council of Europe Recommendation on Youth Work (2017).

[1] Youth work practice is effectively constituted by its context – but its practice also sustains and reproduces aspects of it; for example, what youth workers do and say influences the way youth work is talked about and understood in a country.