Youth work is a central element in our democracies that enable young people to develop their intellectual and physical skills in a way that is aimed at ensuring better development as well as enhanced opportunities for their prospective adult lives. What is youth work, and how can it help young people throughout their development?
At first sight, it is difficult to describe youth work, as this concept is a multifaceted one: in some countries, it is a relatively well-defined, distinct practice. In other countries (especially in Southern European countries), the term is less known, and there is no identifiable overall concept of youth work.
Regarding the target group, for example, the definition of youth work is not the same: in a number of States, it is restricted to the work with young people (15-25 years), while in other countries (Belgium, Germany), there is no strong distinction between children’s work and youth work. But there is however a clear tendency in most countries to take a broad perspective on youth work integrating differentiated practices with different target groups and varying aims. In the Council of Europe Resolution on a renewed framework for European co-operation in the youth field, youth work has been defined in such a way: «youth work is a broad term covering a large scope of activities of a social, cultural, educational or political nature both by, with and for young people. Increasingly, such activities also include sport and services for young people. Moreover, youth work belongs to the area of « out of school » education, as well as specific leisure time activities managed by professional or voluntary youth workers and youth leaders, and it is based on the non-formal learning process and voluntary participation.»
These two features – the use of methods of non-formal education and the emphasis on voluntary participation are common features of youth work as they distinguish youth work from other educational interventions, be its interventions in the private sphere of the family or interventions in public, formal institutions like schools. Youth work starts where young people are and does not have to bother with pre-structured programs or predefined learning outcomes. This is exactly the meaning of non-formal education, which could be summed up as «educational activities outside the formal educational system » or an alternative form of education that is added to the formal one. According to the Maltese definition of non-formal education, “Non-formal learning is learning that has been acquired in addition or alternatively to formal learning. In some cases, it is also structured according to educational and training arrangements but more flexible. It usually takes place in community-based settings, the workplace, and through the activities of civil society organizations. Through the recognition, validation, and accreditation process, non-formal learning can also lead to qualifications and other recognitions.” Peter Lauritzen, who committed his whole career to the development of the Council of Europe youth sector, stressed the important role of youth work as being a place of inclusion of integration for young people. The role of youth work also consists in alleviating processes that prevent individuals, groups, or communities from accessing the rights, opportunities, and resources that are normally available to members of society… and structural forces such as laws and public policies are often responsible for social exclusion, as well as being commonly associated with the traditional concept of «formal education.»