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3 uncomfortable truths about youth work as a career.

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

a male teacher engaging with a classroom
youth work and the uncomfortable truth

As you can imagine, I talk about residential youth work a lot. It's my job and my passion. Whether that's in talks, in my emails online, and of course in my training course, "The Solutions Toolkit."

In fact, whenever I do, I describe residential youth work and youth work in general as the:

"Greatest Job in the World."

It was only a matter of time before someone called me out.

"Can we be realistic and talk about what's not so great about this job? Is there anything in your view?"

My answer was to tell the following story. I'll credit it to Alan Cohen, although I have no idea whether he wrote it.

a vicar and an old lady drinking tea and chatting
Talking directly to god?

There was a woman in a small village who made claims to other villagers that she was speaking to God on a regular basis. Word got around the village and this was causing quite a stir. In fact, it got back to the church congregation and the local village priest. He was a little irritated by the woman's claim to have a direct line to God as clearly this was the domain of the church. He decided to go and visit the woman and put this whole thing to bed once and for all.

Whilst sipping his tea, he casually mentioned, "I hear around the village that you are speaking to God on a regular basis?"

"That's true enough," she said, pouring another cup of tea.

"I wonder if you might ask him something next time you speak to him?" The priest enquired casually before taking another digestive off the plate and dipping it in his tea.

"I'd be glad to, Father," she replied.

"Well," he said, "When I was in the seminary as a young man, I committed a sin. Would you be kind enough to inquire with God what the sin was and whether I might be damned?"

"Glad to," she said, and that was that.

A week or so later, the priest called again and sat down to drink his tea once more before suddenly sitting up as if he might just have remembered.

"Oh, I must say I almost forgot. Have you spoken to God recently?"

"I sure have," she said, "only this morning, in fact."

The priest tried desperately to hide his smug grin behind his teacup, "Did you by any chance remember to ask him about my sin whilst at the vestry?"

"Of course, I did, Father," she replied.

The vicar put his tea cup down on the tray and sat upright, raising his eyebrows.

"And what did God say?"

She looked him in the eye, "He said, 'I forget.'"

I hope that story illustrates my point. Perhaps I was looking elsewhere and still do. Maybe I didn't see the downsides because 'I forgot.' By 'forgot,' I don't mean I can't remember; I mean I simply don't look at those things.

For those considering a career in youth work, I thought I might do a post about three things that I have seen around me during my years of experience.

1. You might not have all the answers.

a freudian type psychiatrist with a client
You might not have the answer.

The reason I do what I do now is because of my fascination with people, behavior, and how we get into problems and how we get out of them. One thing I have learned is that there's no secret code. The behavior and problems are mysterious and often without logic. There are certainly character traits that will enhance your skills, whether natural or learned, but one thing that's for sure is that you might not have the answers. Accepting that refers you back to at least one of the points in my training course, or as we say in NLP, "The map is not the territory."

This means that their world looks very different from our own, and so do their solutions. Those solutions might well be bizarre and without logic to us. In short, we have totally different maps.

The solution to this is to work with their map instead. Be curious.

2. It Ain't Oliver Twist.

a disheveled boy in a workhouse dining hall
It isn't quite Oliver Twist

The reasons and logic behind pursuing a career in youth work are genuine and heartfelt. The desire to assist others can be overwhelming, and the willingness to inspire and change lives is truly inspiring. However, it is not like working with Oliver Twist. Be prepared to face rejection, physical and verbal abuse.

The young people in your residential setting may naturally have a hard time forming relationships and trusting others. They may lash out, hurt themselves or others, and refuse any assistance. Your job is to accept this reality, possibly on a daily basis, while continuing to knock on the door. However, it is possible that the door will never open.

3. Your career in youth work may not be a lifelong endeavor.

a man packing up his belongings to leave his job.
It might not be forever

While working in a youth care home, a young girl screamed in my face, "Mike, you know that's not right, you know it's out of order!." She had just been issued a sanction, which meant she would be unable to participate in a specific trip with the group. I attempted to explain the situation and calm her down, but the other staff member (management) had already left.

Everything I said to her was a lie, because she was correct. The manager's decision was indeed "out of order."

In fact, it was more than that; it was vengeful and quite cruel. Regrettably, as a junior staff member with nowhere near the decades of "experience" she possessed, I took no action.

I've never forgotten this incident, and I never will.


Because I remember thinking, "If I ever, ever start to feel that I dislike these young people who might verbally abuse me or misbehave, I will quit."

Since then, I've met a few people like that, individuals who have remained in their profession long past its expiration date. They should have recognised they were becoming bitter and moved on a long time ago.


In response to the initial question, I could have simply said

"I forgot."

The truth is, I wasn't focusing on those negative things, and I still don't. The joy and satisfaction of youth work, the accomplishments, and the difference you can make will far outweigh the negatives. Yes there will be exhausting and challenging days, but in my opinion they are all worth it.

I hope this is helpful to those who are considering a career, if you are then good luck. I've dropped a few links below that might be a good starting point, not least a few free training options on my website.

Additional Resources

  • The Action Factory (Free Training)

  • National Youth Agency (NYA):

  • Youth Work England:

  • The Council of Europe - Youth Partnership:


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