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EACEA National Policies Platform


10. Youth work

10.1 General context

Last update: 11 January 2024
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Historical developments

Youth work in Flanders has a long tradition with its origins in the 1850s with the emergence of the first Flemish youth movements (e.g. the Roman Catholic youth groups in 1850, the Socialist Young guards in 1886 and the Flemish Student Movement in 1875). These initiatives provided working-class youth with healthy recreation and developmental activities and were often led by citizens and parish priests. Also, youth work activities around political topics were common, and youth self-organisations were established by working class people who fought for better living conditions and opportunities.

Youth movements further emerged and developed in the beginning of the 20th century, after the First World War. The movements’ focus, however, shifted from countering social and material inequalities to playful outdoor activities taking place in the participants’ leisure time. Over time, youth work gradually became a place to socialise, in addition to the family and the school or factory. Such change could partly be explained by the fact that the scouting initiative reached Flanders in 1910. Scouting was seen as a “new” and “innovative” outdoor recreational method for lower-class young people.

During the last decades, youth work has remained important in Flanders; young people have a strong need to organise themselves but also the government and society recognises the important role of youth work. Additionally, local administrations started to organise youth work themselves. Flanders’ youth work history, and particularly the youth movements, has made its mark on contemporary Flemish youth work resulting in a strong focus on leisure and recreation. From a historical point of view, Flanders has always focused on youth work as an emancipatory and empowerment instrument for young people rather than an instrument for prevention. It provides many opportunities for a more democratic and improved governance of policy implementation. 

National definition or understanding of Youth Work

Youth work in Flanders is defined in article 3 of the new Youth Decree on youth and children's right policy and the support of youth work as follows:  

  • youth work: socio-cultural work based on non-commercial objectives for or by young people aged three to thirty, in leisure time, under educational guidance and to promote the general and integral development of youth participating in it on a voluntary basis

  • youth worker: any person who assumes responsibility in youth work and has demonstrable experience, or undertakes efforts in education or training on youth work

The abovementioned definition applies to professional and voluntary youth work as both types of youth work are run by organisations with non-commercial purposes. In general, there are two sectors in Flemish youth work: universal youth work provision and targeted youth work provision. The universal youth work sector is much larger than the targeted youth work sector. 

Universal youth work provision refers to those activities that do not distinguish among the target groups – they are accessible and targeted at all young people. This includes traditional youth movements (e.g. Scouts and Chiro) and a large number of other types of more recent youth work (e.g. playground associations, youth centres or clubs, youth amateur art associations, youth workshops). The youth movements are usually youth organisations (with regular activities for specific age groups) and young people themselves, above the age of 16, run the local groups. This form of youth work is generally volunteered with very limited involvement of professional youth workers. 

Targeted youth work includes activities aimed at hard-to-reach groups such as children and young people with disabilities, young people with a migration background and young people in socially vulnerable situations (e.g. in poverty). The activities are in general developed through self-organisation and volunteering, often supported by professional youth workers. Some of the initiatives organised as part of targeted youth work are referred to as “open initiatives” as they do not require regular or timely attendance and do not demand participation in prescheduled group activities.