In a Pandemic, Youth Workers are
In the 1920’s, after the Great War and the Spanish Flu Pandemic, Gertrude Stein, the mentor and patron of Ernest Hemingway, referred to youth as “the lost generation.“[i] A century later as youth are faced with a new pandemic, the world is at risk of another lost generation; one where the global youth sub-culture is defined by despair, discord, and disillusionment caused by the seismic cultural shock of COVID-19 and the resulting social tremors to come. In this social pandemic, societies must view youth workers – from mental health providers to youth pastors to community center directors – as essential workers (not that I’m suggesting they should ignore distancing or ‘shelter in place’ orders, but that their jobs are more important than ever). Before we can comprehend the magnitude of this statement, a few words about culture are in order.
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life exploring the intersection of youth and culture, including living and working among different cultures. This means I’ve encountered my fair share of cross-cultural conflict. What is often referred to as culture shock occurs when one’s own values, beliefs, and actions abruptly collide with those of the host culture. This same shock also transpires when, like unseen tectonic plates, our deeply rooted thoughts and feelings are in stark contrast to the actions around us. This internal frustration, or dissonance, mounts the more relational conflicts occur. However, just as earthquakes are followed by smaller quakes, initial culture shock is followed by ongoing cultural adjustment stress. Although someone may adjust
to life in a new cultural milieu, there will be times when internal and external conflict arise. By now you may be asking, “How does this pertain to the Coronavirus and youth work?”
Efforts at mitigating the pandemic have resulted in social shockwaves felt among cultures the world over. Necessary social distancing has resulted in the upending of normative behaviors for youth from New York to New Delhi. These sudden changes in priorities are at complete odds with the underlining principles and passions so dear to youth sub-culture. This social shock is compounded by feelings of loss, loneliness, and looming uncertainties as the virus takes its toll both physically and financially. Whether we fully comprehend it or not, the Coronavirus pandemic is shaking up the values, beliefs, and norms of every society, and the youth sub-culture
is not immune. While adults, with stronger coping skills, are quick to view the pandemic as a “pause button” (eager to resume normalcy), adolescents, lacking perspective, have seen much of their world come to a screeching halt. In many ways, the collective landscape of global youth culture has just shifted. What’s more, in the months and years to come, if I am correct, the emerging generation will encounter aftershocks, or pandemic adjustment stress, as they seek to adapt to new norms and societies potentially filled with increased economic disparity and emotional despair. In the midst of this disruption, there are at least three ways youth workers are essential to preventing another lost generation.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Jessica Drachenberg believes there are “four constructs children and adolescents need in order to build secure [social] attachments: consistency, predictability, safety, and accessibility to an emotionally available caregiver.” Literally or figuratively, when life is shaken, the first thing we need is stability. From a sociological (and psychological) perspective, when disorder occurs in our routines, instinctively we desire to create new order with new rhythms. During the pandemic, the desire for stability has been no more evident than seeing educators from Seattle to Seoul adjust their instructional approach to allow for video-chat-based platforms like Zoom. Youth ministers from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam are streaming sermons via Facebook and Instagram. During Holy Week, in my own community, children and youth pastors dropped off Easter baskets to remind families that the Prince of Peace still offers hope. It’s not just academic or religious institutions that have adapted to provide continuity of care to young people. My friend, Mike Trevino, coordinates a municipal teen center where youth drop in after school to play games and unpack stresses caused by academic and adolescent angst. During the pandemic, he, like so many other youth workers, has found creative ways to help youth mitigate tension by providing online activities and group chats for teens sheltering-in-place.
During the current shock and subsequence adjustment stresses caused by this global pandemic, youth workers will continue to provide platforms and programs to help youth navigate not only the journey from pre-to-post pandemic but also the most significant journey of their life, from childhood to adulthood. Whether through grief counseling, facilitating dances, or leading community service projects youth workers help provide a sense of stability that youth so desperately need.
“As youth navigate through adolescence, they need several spaces to explore who they are and who they’re becoming,” says Matthew Williamson who runs Source Youthwork, a charity outside of Manchester, England that offers youth and family counseling services. Williamson told me he believes, “The area of exploration and experimentation is often beyond the home and school.” For that reason, he believes, “Youth work creates a third space where there is an emotionally safe and non-judgmental adult to help adolescents navigate change.” Sadly, instead of offering essential crisis care for youth, many of which already faced hardship before the pandemic, Williamson and his staff have been furloughed. Even as we talked, Williamson’s focus was on resuming mental health services in order to offer safe relational environments for growth. He underscores what many of us have always known, youth work is essential work in the lives of young people and their families; especially so in the midst of crisis.
Upon learning of increased domestic violence and suicides among the youth in his country, Ashish Hirday, the Youth Commissioner of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), is setting up a crisis hotline. Himself the product of a rough childhood yet having experienced the love and hope of Jesus Christ, Hirday has a soft spot in his heart for hurting youth. By partnering psychologists and counselors with youth in crisis, he aims to address mental health issues headon. While youth are faced with uncertainty amidst a nationwide lockdown of 1.3 billion people, Hirday and other youth workers like him desire to facilitate a safe place for youth all across the nation to realize there is hope for a better tomorrow. Not only now but in the cultural shockwaves to come, youth workers in Manchester and Mumbai are stepping up to provide safety in the midst of mental and emotional confusion.
As essential components of a social safety-net, youth workers, in mental health and social services, religious sectors, and non-profit organizations (NGOs), provide support for youth and their families. Psychologically and practically speaking, youth workers mobilize resources to aid youth in their developmental journey. Often is the case that the assistance of a minister or counselor provides an emotional reprieve for parents and affords them an opportunity to rest and recharge. As “emotionally accessible caregivers,” youth workers also support parents by reinforcing healthy and acceptable relationship expectations, conflict resolution, and decision making.
Already, there are parts of our world that have been decimated by this pandemic and the resulting economic repercussions. While those in developed countries await stimulus checks, places like Pakistan are scrambling to feed starving families. At the forefront of this essential life-saving work are youth workers! Rebekah Samuel, the Executive Manager of Pak Mission Society notes, “Youth ministers and workers are playing a significant role during the COVID-19 crisis as they are the leads connecting families in our local communities with organizations and churches providing food and relief assistance.” For Samuel, youth workers are offering frontline support and hope amidst a crisis which has resulted in widespread joblessness and starvation.
In conclusion, let me offer a few cautionary words of advice. First, to those making budgetary and staffing decisions on behalf of churches, governments, and NGOs, please prioritize youth workers. To those who financially support youth-related organizations, please keep giving. In view of recent social and physical restrictions, with an increasing need for creative technological interactions, Ms. Drachenberg underscores the importance of supporting youth work when she states, “Adolescents require more resources – physically, psychologically and relationally. When you take away youth programs and youth workers you risk minimalizing their sense of belonging and self-worth while creating a void for toxic entities to fill it.” Both, now while the shock of COVID-19 unfolds and in the aftershocks to come, don’t forget that youth workers also need PPE – prayers, partnership, and economic stimulus!
Second, to the youth workers on the frontlines – don’t give up! In my two decades of working with youth and families (around the world) I’ve never met a youth pastor or social worker who didn’t love young people. In fact, every one of them would bend over backward to come to the aid of a teenager or parent. Don’t let budget cuts stop what you’ve been called to; youth, no the world, need you now more than ever. Brace yourselves, you’re about to step into a very different global youth sub-culture. In the coming pandemic of the collective youth psyche, don’t forget God has called you to shine hope as you provide stability, safety, and support.
Lastly, to everyone else, if there is ever a time to invest or reinvest in youth work, it’s now. Join the movement and be a hero for hope. If we fail to invest in youth work now, we will reap social paralysis for decades to come, resulting in another lost generation. From faith-based organizations to public-based social services, youth workers ARE essential workers!