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EACEA National Policies Platform


10. Youth work

10.1 General context

Last update: 28 November 2023
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  1. Historical developments
  2. National definition or undertanding of Youth Work

Historical developments

Understanding of both youth work in Germany and its central organisational and structural principles can be traced back to the late 19th century. As industrialisation gathered pace, it brought about changes in the social fabric (e.g. wage labour, growth of cities). Youth eventually came to be seen as a separate stage of life. With more free time on their hands, young people began to organise their own independent activities, such as the "bird of passage" youth movement (Wandervogelbewegung), or the newly established youth associations. But governmental organisations were also taking an interest in young people – above all to make sure that they were not acting against government interests. The first youth services were mainly directed at employed young men in urban areas and were designed to offer access to rewarding recreational activities. Welfare associations began to offer their own services, such as youth clubs, to combat antisocial behaviour and neglect amongst young people. The Weimar Republic (1919–1933) was a period of intense politicisation for youth associations. The diversity of emerging new youth organisations gave young people plenty of opportunity to express their interests, e.g. in young worker's movements or the youth chapters of the trade unions. The number of youth organisations, associations and alliances increased greatly.

This development was interrupted during the fascist Nazi regime (1933–1945). Independent youth associations were banned. The only youth organisations allowed by the state were the Nazi organizations Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) and the League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel). The strong militaristic focus of these organisations was designed to indoctrinate young people into the National Socialist ideology.

After 1945, there was a change in tack. For example, the ban on creating youth groups was lifted relatively quickly in West Germany and initiatives like the German Youth Activities Program were introduced to support the establishment of democratic structures, prevent political radicalisation amongst young people and provide recreational activities. Youth associations began to re-establish themselves and build on where they had left off before National Socialism. Open-door facilities (Häuser der offenen Tür) were also created to reach young people who did not belong to associations.

In the 1950/60s, youth work emerged in West Germany as a separate guidance and education framework alongside the family and schooling. Educational approaches increasingly came to the forefront. The 1970s were dominated by a countermovement (e.g. the "Jugendzentrumsbewegung" youth centre movement). Young people fought for the right to have spaces unstructured by adults for their own activities. This resulted in the creation of youth centres led by the young people using them. At the same time, from the 1970s onwards youth work expanded continually and reached new levels of professionalism.

In East Germany, most young people were members of the only authorised youth organisation, the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend, FDJ). FDJ toed the party and government lines. After German reunification in 1990, the former East Germany began to draw on the youth work structures in place in the western federal states. However, the landscape of youth organisations and youth services has changed somewhat in the 30 years since reunification. For example, the eastern states have fewer youth associations but more initiatives and clubs at a local level.

Today, youth work in Germany generally follows these structural characteristics and principles:

  • A plurality of youth organisations enshrined in and supported by law, partly in response to National Socialism and the uniformity of youth organisations in the former East Germany. The variety of youth organisations increases young people's chances of finding activities that correspond to their ideals and interests.
  • Volunteer work plays a very important role in youth work. Historically, it has been an expression of the underlying principle of autonomy in youth work since its very beginnings.
  • Youth work is supported by around 32 000 youth work professionals nationwide. One of their tasks is to support volunteers.
  • Youth work is financed and structured primarily at a local authority level.
  • The activities are voluntary and oriented to the needs and interests of young people: Youth work by and for young people.
  • Most of the youth work services are provided by non-statutory organisations. Cooperation between statutory authorities and non-statutory organisations is enshrined in German law.

In addition, youth work has been shaped since its beginnings by the push-and-pull of governmental interests and youth-led youth activities. Phases of political instrumentalisation interchange with periods of greater self-determination amongst young people. Even today, the struggle to balance government influence with youth autonomy continues.

National definition or understanding of youth work

Youth work is carried out as part of the child and youth services system in Germany. Child and youth services generally cover all education and care services for children, young people and their families outside of school. In addition to youth work, child and youth services provide things like childcare facilities (education and care of children aged 0–6 years and of schoolchildren); socio-educational support services (Hilfen zur Erziehung) such as residential care or foster families; youth social work; youth assistance in the justice system; and child and youth protection services. The socio-educational support services in particular focus on problems faced by children and young people, such as difficulties in upbringing, domestic abuse and neglect, providing specific support for parents to help them (better) meet their parental responsibilities. Youth social work aims to offer socio-educational assistance to young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to redress the balance or help them overcome barriers. Such assistance can include school social work, support with vocational training, workplace integration and more. Youth work in Germany forms an independent field of activity that is distinct from the socio-educational support services, youth social work and other areas of child and youth services.

Youth work covers a broad spectrum of services and recreational activities for young people. It is for all children and young people irrespective of their age, background, education, sex and – in particular – any problems they may have, or which are attributed to them. Youth work services are oriented to the interests of children and young people and do not primarily take place in spaces structured by adults. They offer room and opportunities for youth-led activities and processes of self-learning in educational contexts. Youth work is also a place that represents the interests of children and young people, for example by representing youth associations or the alliances to which they belong in (local) political structures. As is the case with all services provided under Social Code Book VIII (SGB VIII), youth work is oriented to young people up to the age of 27. Youth work services are mainly used by young people between the ages of 10 and 17. Some services, such as play buses (Spielmobile), are offered specifically to children. Young people over the age of 27 also make use of youth work services.

Two important areas of youth work in Germany are: youth associations (verbandliche Jugendarbeit) and open youth work (offene Jugendarbeit).

Youth associations can be organised in extremely diverse ways and are classed as such primarily on the basis of their similar historical roots, their members' (close or loose) ties to the association, and their orientation to specific values. Youth associations can be, for example, denominational, assisting (e.g. the German life saving association (Deutsche Lebensrettungsgesellschaft, DLRG)), cultural (e.g. rifle clubs), ecological, professional, trade union-based, or party-affiliated. Youth associations are often the youth chapters of their adult counterparts, e.g. the youth fire brigades, Protestant or Catholic youth associations, or the youth arm of the German civil service federation (Beamtenbund, dbb). Whilst many have a long history, other new youth associations are still being established today – such as youth-led migrant organisations (Migrantenjugendselbstorganisationen). The youth association groups (Jugendverbandsgruppen) at local authority level form the heart of most youth associations. These individual groups are often affiliated at the next organisational level up, whilst some are incorporated into the structures of an adult association. No data is available on exactly how many local youth association groups exist.

Open youth work refers mainly to an approach that focusses on youth clubs with open-door services as well as adventure playgrounds and play buses. The overriding purpose of open-door youth work is to provide activities that are open to all young people, irrespective of their social background or ideological convictions. The youth work services are free of charge (with a handful of exceptions) and not tied to any conditions (e.g. membership). Open youth work activities aim to offer young people opportunities to pursue their interests and needs and gain self-directed experiences in an environment that is not dominated by adults. These are typically youth clubs attended by children and young people in the afternoons and evenings who can spend their free time as they wish, for example meeting friends, relaxing, playing games or sport, engaging in creative or artistic activities, or asking for help with everyday issues. Young people cannot be forced to make use of specific youth clubs. Around 11 000 such youth work facilities and youth clubs exist across Germany at present. Statistically, this means that there are 129 facilities for every approximately 100 000 young people aged 6–21. Youth work professionals work in around half of these. The other facilities are youth-led meeting places, often in rural areas, that offer young people a place to spend their free time together in an environment that is not structured by adults.

Nowadays, the boundaries between these two areas (youth association work and open youth work) are often blurred. For example, some youth associations also offer meeting spaces which are open to all children and young people, including non-members. Both youth associations and youth clubs organise initiatives during school holidays (e.g. holiday and adventure travels or holiday recreation camps).

Child and youth services, and therefore also youth work, are subject to local self-government. The federal (Bund) and state (Länder) governments (see 10.3) only lay down general legal provisions regarding the need for child and youth services and the general goals these services must pursue. The majority of youth work is organised and financed at local level. This results in a (sometimes confusing) array of organisational forms, services and structures – for example, which organisations are active where, how diverse the services are, or which services exist with what conceptual focus. Regular efforts are necessary at local and supra-local level to establish consensus on what constitutes the core of youth work, not least because this field covers such a wide range of subjects. Conferences and quality debates are held, and diverse information leaflets and magazines are published in pursuit of this goal.