10.1 General context
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This section builds on Forkby in “Youth policy and participation in Sweden: a historical perspective” in The history of youth work in Europe Relevance for today’syouth work policy from 2014.
A milestone in Sweden’s history of youth policy took place in 1939 when the Youth Care Committee was set up. The committee looked broadly at youth-related questions. A motivation for the committee was to challenge the moral indignation involved in discussions about young people’s behaviour. The concern focused on unemployed youth and organised leisure activities.
The committee took the stance that having too much free time was a risk for those young people whose families did not provide adequate support and did not allow them to develop their talents or competences. This was believed to lead to unstructured free time outside the family and away from adult supervision. To address this situation, the committee declared that young people should be educated and fostered so they could make better use of their free time. Leisure time should involve productive activity, the pursuit of hobbies and interests, and interaction with fellows in a spirit of companionship. From there on, recreational youth centres were established all over Sweden, offering a variety of activities.
From prevention to promotion and empowerment
An ideological shift towards a different kind of youth work was formulated in late 1960s. The intention was to shift the perspective from prevention to promotion, and instead of threats and risks, focus on young people’s personal strengths and resources. But as social problems such as binge drinking and drugs use were increasing among teenagers in the 1970s, prevention of social problems remained the most important goal for youth work, not capacity building.
As a result of the International Youth Year in 1985, youth policy with focus on youth participation took place in the Swedish political agenda. A comprehensive youth policy agenda was put in place during early 1990s. Ways of introducing participatory steering models in recreational youth centres was discussed, in order to create free spaces for teenagers. A “free space” meant a place free of adult steering and commercialism, where young people could develop individual learning processes with their peers.
The shift in perspective demanded the goal of promoting young people’s right to give voice to their opinions and to experience a real sense of participation; this also meant that young people should be able to change things – that is, to have real power.
This line of thinking has since then been influential in Swedish youth policy. Young people are seen as agents for their learning processes, and the role of grown-ups is to step back in order to show their support.
Recreational youth centres in Sweden today
More than eight out of ten young Swedes, 83%, stated in a national youth survey in 2018 that they have good or very good opportunities to participate in recreational and social activities. The share was lower in disadvantaged urban areas. Further analysis showed that young people in rural and remote areas find it difficult to find organized activities other than sport for their leisure time. In rural, remote and disadvantaged urban areas, young participants in focus group interviews described a lack of such activities that they want to participate in. What is more, many expressed that there is a lack of meeting places for young people where they feel included. Young residents in cities, on the other hand, told that the main obstacles to participating in recreational activities were waiting lists for fully booked popular activities and lack of time, according to a study from 2018 of the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil society.
The share of young people aged 16–19 years old who visited an open leisure activity (öppna fritidsverksamheter) has been around 10–12% during the last ten years. In 2018, the share of boys was about twice as high compared to girls, according to Swedish youth statistics.
According to a report from the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) from 2019, most open leisure centres are run by the municipality and are located in a socio-economically neutral area that is neither characterised by a high nor a low share of economically vulnerable households. The most common approach was to offer general, open leisure activities for 13-18-year-olds. Other orientations that were relatively common were creating activities and spaces for girls and young women, or for visitors older than 18 years old. Mobile youth work was also a common orientation.
Young people visiting open leisure activities such as youth clubs (ungdomens hus) and recreational youth centres (fritidsgårdar) are most often in lower secondary school age, according to a study from 2016 of the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil society. Open leisure activities also seem to mostly attract young people from families with scarce economical resources. Young people with foreign background and young people from disadvantaged areas participate more frequently in open leisure activities compared to others. When it comes to gender balance, it is mainly boys and young men who take part.
It also emerged that there were groups of young people that avoided visiting a leisure activity because they were afraid of being harassed. Those were mainly young people with disabilities and young LGBTQ people, but even girls generally.
In Sweden, there is no definition or common understanding of youth work at national level.