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Youth work during pandemic times – how the field felt the pandemic

  • What did the Covid-19 pandemic look like in the spring of 2020 through the lenses of youth work professionals?
  • What happened to them and how did they experience the lockdown and pandemic impacts?
  • How was the near and distant future of youth work perceived and how did the Covid-19 pandemic affect youth participation?

The article attempts to address these questions using empirical evidence, while acknowledging that some of the questions remain unanswered even now.

Background

The article builds on pro-bono research, conducted by the author between April and July 2020. The aim was to detect and analyse initial findings in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. The research targeted professionals working at a national and international level within the youth field – trainers, youth workers, organisers and coordinators of youth projects, etc. The idea for the research was supported by a non-formal self-organised group of colleagues, gathered since March 2020 to provide regular weekly meetings, discussions, sharing experiences and general support to each other. The community is now named Non-Formal Learning (NFL) Goes online – Community and is active and growing. The expressed need at that time seemed quite clear – no one knew what was happening in the field and data was lacking. And the sooner we get it, the better.

About the research

The research, split into three separate monthly surveys, reached 150 different respondents [Being monthly repetitive research, each monthly questionnaire was composed using constant and changing indicators. As they were freely distributed, some of the respondents were the same. In total, the research managed to gather 203 completed forms (among which some of the respondents took part in more than one survey). This article only presents a small part of all findings made during the whole initiative] of various ages, backgrounds and experience in youth work, coming from more than 28 countries. Due to limited resources, the research is not representative for the field. Nevertheless, it showcases tendencies and highlights significant findings. Currently, the outcomes have more of a retrospective nature, since there have been many developments and the landscapes have changed. Still, the added value is documenting the first months of these extraordinary times, and bringing a lot of food for thought on how our field is established, as well as how it functions and responds to global challenges, such as Covid-19.

The article links youth work professionals’ experience and youth participation. This is based on the belief that if practitioners cannot work securely in a certain environment, then their work is incomplete and this affects the whole field, including the level of youth participation. This could not be further from the truth when it comes to the Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19, lockdown and its impacts and challenges for youth work professionals

The gathered data backs the general notion of growing instability and uncertainty in the period between March and June 2020 in Europe.

On an individual level, more than half of the respondents shared that they feel more anxious (55%) and more thoughtful (53%) compared to the times prior to the pandemic. Less hopeful were 39%, and less calm – 36%. Around 20% admitted that they feel more despair. Taking into account the restricted access to nature, public spaces or even walking on the streets, the research also looked into some acknowledged depression symptoms [Depression and its symptoms have broad interpretation. Nevertheless, there are more or less well defined physical symptoms. According to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK; According to The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the USA], that could be easily observed and self-assessed by respondents. More than 50% of respondents shared that they experienced a change in appetite and difficulties concentrating all the time or often; 47% shared that they have sleeping issues. More concerning is the fact that around 20% of all respondents reported experiencing all three of these symptoms simultaneously, often or all the time. In contrast, only 7% claim they do not face any of these difficulties. All of this made working and meeting professional obligations quite challenging. 

Another issue that emerged after the pandemic outbreak was the financial instability and loss of income of practitioners. 54% shared they had suffered a reduction in income due to the cancelled job opportunities (increased income was an exception; 37% stated their income was not affected). 26% of all respondents have lost half or more of their income. Some shared in open statements that they have lost all of their income for several months. According to the research [All cited percentages here are based on respondents’ statements, on their knowledge and personal experience. The numbers do not claim to present a representative landscape for all activities on a European level.], 30% of all planned activities have been cancelled and 42% postponed to some other time in the future. Much less were conducted than planned (13%), transformed into online activities (8%), or rescheduled again (6%). Youth work professionals, often on part-time contracts or self-employed, are often unable to count on social security safety nets. All of this was combined with a lack of sufficient information to plan a professional future, stated by nearly half of the respondents.

Not surprisingly, regardless of the high level of job satisfaction (91% – very or somewhat satisfied), 21% of all professionals claimed they were considering quitting the youth work field and looking for alternative jobs. Even though recent data is unavailable, the brain drain from the field may have tremendous negative consequences for the whole area of youth work.

Professional future and future of youth work

Near and distant future is still uncertain, and this was also evident from respondents’ opinions. According to 20% of them life would never get back to how it used to be prior to the pandemic, while 11% believed that normality would be back in three months [at the time of writing, September 2020]. One out of four respondents predicted a return to normalcy at around the end of 2020. The majority of the respondents expected normality somewhere in the distant future.

The future of youth work appears to be less dark. The majority (55%) of respondents felt (somewhat or strongly) optimistic for the future of youth work, and less than 30% felt pessimistic. Meanwhile, they are more sceptic about their professional future – nearly 40% feel somewhat or strongly pessimistic.

Youth participation and Covid-19

Youth participation is an integral part of youth work. The research looks [The topic of youth participation is addressed in the 3rd survey, conducted during the end of June and beginning of July.] into this topic and allows some conclusions to be drawn despite the limited number of respondents.

The landscape of Youth Participation in the context of Covid-19 remains ambiguous. The majority of the respondents believe that the pandemic negatively affected participation on a regional, national, and international (European) level. The only exception was the local level, where opinions were split – less than 50% of practitioners believed that the impact was negative. This was logical, due to mobility restrictions, where the youth interacts more intensively locally (when possible).
The same trends were apparent regarding the impacts of the current situation on the quality of democracy. For approximately half of the respondents the current situation had negative effects on democracy when it comes to local and regional levels. On national and international levels, the opinions were more stark – between 60% and 70% believed that Covid-19 reduced the quality of democracy in their country of residence and in Europe, as a whole.
Practitioners were also sceptical or did not know how to imagine future youth participation. On local and regional levels, it seemed slightly more positive, but on a national and international level, scepticism was widespread. The assumption that restrictions of mobility and gatherings had a negative impact on participation and the only visible solution seemed to be use of digital tools, was also ambiguous. On the one hand, the majority shared that digital tools would have a positive effect on youth participation. On the other hand, the prevailing opinion was that digital youth work could only provide a temporary solution.

Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic still has a tremendous impact on our daily lives. The research showed how the youth work field and subsequently youth participation are directly affected by the pandemic. Now, as another winter approaches, new challenges may arise for the youth work field. We need to act decisively and to support the whole sector if we want to continue living in healthy and democratic societies in the future Europe.

Authors

Photo of Stefan Georgiev
Stefan Georgiev

Stefan Georgiev is a freelance trainer in the field of youth and a researcher living in Bulgaria. He has rich sociological and analytical experience in research in the NGO and private sector. For the past 10 years he has dedicated himself more to the youth work field on a national and international level.