Tomi Kiilakoski, Leading Senior Researcher, Finnish Youth Research Network

I have been watching science fiction films and reading sci-fi books all my life. Space operas are my thing. For me they deal with the fundamental issues of our lives: how we relate to ourselves and the world, how we deal with otherness, and how technology changes our lives.

Stories about the future with space travel and flying hoverboards are really stories about today, stories that warn us about the political power of transnational companies, stories that reflect on what it really means to be human. In films like this, all kinds of devices are imagined. They have flying cars and machines that teleport you to distant places. Yet they have incredibly clumsy TV screens. For some reason, imagining flying cars was easier than thinking about ultra-slim cell phones or flat TVs. To me, this is a healthy reminder of how easily we might be fooled when we think about the future.

One of the wisest guesses about the future is what researchers call a null hypotheses. It basically says that nothing out of the ordinary happens. This is usually true with stable social systems; they are resistant to changes. Yet, for some reason, when we think about the future, we are likely to talk about huge changes in our surroundings. We expect things to be extremely different. Of course, in the era of the COVID-19 crisis, we know that our societies can easily become affected by things we did not even care to think about. So-called black swans, unexpected events, can swim into our back yard tomorrow.

When thinking about the future, the combination of null hypothesis and change is in my opinion the best possible alternative. Some fundamental things will likely stay the same, while some things will certainly be different. The tricky part is understanding what things are the likely to change and respecting that the existing wisdom of the youth work community will likely be needed in the future as well.

What is unlikely to change

Young people spend more time with their friends than any other age group. The young are likely to distance themselves from their families and schools and spend time together. They will deal with sexuality and romantic relations. They will become involved in their communities and likely find things they like and things they are critical of. They also need to deal with transitions to the world of education and to labour markets. I do not see these things changing much.

The second youth work convention held in Brussels five years ago resulted in a declaration about what unites youth work. The convention talked about two significant missions of youth work: creating spaces and building bridges.

Creating spaces refers to the spaces youth workers build for the youth work practice, such as youth centres. It also refers to enabling young people to build their own spaces. The core value of youth work is believing that when young people come together, there is huge potential to create something meaningful and to contribute to the growth of the persons involved as well as society at large. Creating spaces requires knowing what the young want, what they like and how they want to be treated. For this reason, there is always an element of fun in youth work.

Building bridges refers to helping young people find their place in the society. Within the Finnish youth work community, we often think about education and labour markets, but also about making an impact on the local and national and global levels. The task of youth work is to help and enable young people to be able to enjoy what society has to offer. This requires cultivating the languages of hope and criticism at the same time.

The tasks of creating spaces and building bridges will maintain their importance in 2030. There will be young people. They will want to spend time with their peers, have fun, do something meaningful together, express themselves culturally and politically, talk and wonder about their lives and their cultures. There will be youth workers who work with the young using non-formal methodologies and who want to view young people as a resource, not as a problem. There will be social and political structures, which might exclude some young people. Spaces and bridges will be needed. For this reason, I think that we need to have the courage to say that some fundamental things will be the same. They might look different, but fundamental issues will be with us for decades.

What is most likely to change

Our practices need to be rethought every time cultures, societies or technology change. The tricky thing, of course, is that they will never stay the same. Therefore, we need to think about our practices from time to time.

COVID-19 has intensified these changes. We now know that some aspects of our lives can change almost overnight. In my opinion, at least the following four aspects will require attention.

The most acute thing to do is to cope with the eco-crisis caused by our way of life, which causes global warming. The huge task of the society of the future is to create a more sustainable future. The young will play a role in this change. For youth work, being able to work for a socially and ecologically sustainable world will be a key task. This requires learning new things and letting go of the old ways. In 2030, environmental issues will be increasingly important when we talk about daily youth work practices.

Digital tools will change the world. We know that technology changes our world, but we don’t know how – think about how they imagined flying cars, but not flat TVs. Digital tools change the creation of spaces, but they will also change how bridges are built. Learning to live well in a digital world will be one of the key issues of the future.

In my home country of Finland, one of the most visible changes in youth work in the 2010s was the increasing cooperation of youth workers. School-based youth work especially boomed. There was also a change in thinking about services: a young person needs to be the starting point, not the professionals and what they know. Youth workers believe that there will be more cooperation in the upcoming decade on the welfare of young people and their learning paths. As Lasse Siurala, a talented scholar working in the university of Tallinn, put it, the way forward for youth work is not professional isolation but negotiating its recognition and relative freedom through partnerships, networks, activities and projects.

The fourth feature is something I hope to see. As a youth researcher, I have only lately realised how little we have paid attention to the role of families in the lives of the young. We have been concentrating on youth culture, not on homes and daily interaction within families. Simultaneously, youth workers are ‘discovering’ families and trying to build cooperation with them.

Facing uncertainty

It is highly unlikely that we are able to get back to life as we lived it in 2019. There is no pause button in human lives—even if we would like to think that we could just go back to the so-called ‘old normal’ when human kind has invented vaccination and hopefully other methods of coping with the virus. The social systems are never stable. Since they move all the time, when we push the play button and open up our societies and Europe, we have entered a new phase.

I expect that harsh negotiations are ongoing about how societies should spend their money. We have to be able to articulate the benefits of youth work, describe our principles and values and perhaps demonstrate the impact of youth work; although, this has been an incredibly difficult task to achieve given the open-endedness of youth work practice. Digital tools will likely continue to be important. Finding a way to integrate digital tools in youth work will be of importance, too. Multi-professional cooperation will likely increase, as will the significance of team work skills. Discussions on how to simultaneously support families and help young people become independent will take place.

Most importantly, I sincerely believe that finding a way to respond to the eco-crisis is the next grand narrative of all youth services. As Stephen Kemmis put it, the task of any good education is to help the young live well in a world worth living in.

Erkki Kurenniemi, a pioneer of Finnish electro music, said that the future is not what it used to be. This is especially perceptive in the era of COVID-19, which changes how we are able to move and travel, talk and interact, feel and touch each other. Things are going to change. Then again, they never stay the same. Despite uncertainty, the core tasks of youth work, namely creating spaces and building bridges, will continue to be of importance. The spaces will probably look different and the bridges will be made out of new material, but they will be needed as long as there are young people looking for their place in society and the eco-system.

The cover image was designed by Estonian artist Martin Märss.

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