Youth and Authority 5

Perhaps before continuing, I can just make one comment arising from this before we get carried away with the issues about inter-agency understanding. There are hard issues about resources and priorities in our community. I raise the subject of the impact of divorce on the problem we are discussing and at a time when the divorce rate is continuing to rise, in Milton Keynes alone the Marriage Guidance Council and the Family Welfare Association are facing immense problems about funding, and my own service, the Probation Service, is being pressured by the Home Office to limit the resources that it puts into divorce work. Peter Bottomley MP in 1979 asked the following question and it remains apt: “is it an explicit Government decision that this country should spend 30 times as much on legal aid to help us get divorced and separated as is spent on all forms of marriage guidance and counselling?”


Youth and Authority 4

The truth is that whatever we feel about the political aspects of these issues, young people do face real difficulties in making the adjustment from childhood to adulthood. They do not have the old consensus about the appropriate role of authority. Their family lives are likely to be fragmented, their expectations are likely to be higher and not always achievable. It is perhaps less often acknowledged, however, that whilst young people may have a difficult time making this adjustment, authority has a difficult time as well.

Take the predicament of parents as par t of the authority structure. As parents, we too live in a society where we have greater expectations for individual happiness, and many of these expectations are focussed in the marriage. High expectations lead in due course to disappointments that the rewards of marriage cannot come without also paying the price in terms of the pain and difficulty of intimate relationships. Of course for some this disappointment is such that the marriage breaks down and divorce ensues. The hope for happiness still survives however and can find expression in new marriages and in this way new and complex forms of family relationships are created. Children growing up face this intensely confusing and complicated authority structure, with parents and step-parents often in conflict with each other. Certainly our experience in the Divorce Courts (sic) reflects the problems children have in these circumstances, but we also encounter the intense distress of the parents. Of course, the link between divorce and delinquency is well established.1

1Well, perhaps not quite so simply as this paper suggests in retrospect!

Youth and Authority 3

On the other hand, there are those who oppose this wish to return to old certainties. They who suggest that the society whose ideals surround the idea of the creative and enterprising individual, must also accept responsibility for the consequences of those ideals for the more deprived and less fortunate members of the community, and that therefore a greater level of tolerance for delinquent youth is required. It may even be argued that the rebelliousness of youth is in some senses praiseworthy, drawing attention to the inequalities in society and ensuring that the attention of those in authority is properly drawn to those in need. Here however the tendency seems to be to frown on the enterprise culture and to yearn for a greater sense of collective solidarity amongst working people. There is a suspicion, or even a rejection of individualism and a wish to assert the authority of the majority over the few.

I have put these two points of view as extremes when, of course, most people have views that fall somewhere in the middle and have sympathies that can fall on both sides; but the point I am making is that the problem of youth and authority, the attempt of young people to achieve their own sense of individuality, and the conflicts and destructiveness that come with this, arouse mixed and conflicting feelings in most of us. The certainty and dogmatism of the few disguise the uncertainty and mixed feelings of the majority of us who are working with this kind of problem. This context of uncertainty seems to me to provide the background to the difficulties that we may have in working together with the problems of youth and authority. It is all too easy to see in each other’s agencies a level of certainty that we may not possess ourselves, and to attribute to other agencies views which are fixed and rigid.

Youth and Authority 2

The trouble is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have the joys of freedom and creativity of individual enterprise without the loss of the old certainties and securities that came from the generally accepted authority. It often seems to me that much of the discussion about offending amongst the young sustais a fantasy that it is possible to have it both ways.

On the one hand, we have the advocatnes of the enterprise culture- the society that rewards success – and which believes the success of individuals can lead the rest of the country to prosperity. In such a society the development of that sense of one’s own individual identity and ability to be creative, is crucial for a feeling of well-being; but of course many have life circumstances which make the achievement of that ideal very difficult, if not impossible, and it seems all too easy for them to get involved in a cycle of despair, seeing themselves as victims of an uncaring society and acting out their rage and destructiveness in offending or delinquency. But the advocates of the enterprise culture want also a reassertion of the old authority in matters of law and order, with a temptation to look back nostalgically to days when it feels the assault on authority was less severe, and people were more accepting of their lot in life.

Youth and Authority 1

The more complex the strands of a professional life become over the years, the greater tendency to compartmentalise ‘issues’. The starting point for this writing was an attempt to locate a range of issues into a more biographical ‘story’ structure. It seems right therefore at this point to illustrate how I was myself trying to hold together in some coherence a range of insights from individual casework with people in trouble, family work, community involvement, organisational patterns etc.

In about 1985, I was asked to address an inter-agency seminar on the subject of ‘Youth and Authority’. This seminar had been prompted I think by some anxiety in the new city of Milton Keynes about a group of young people who had become attached to an aggressive right wing ideology and who were seen as a threat to social order and as something of a criminal gang. My address is set out in the next few postings.

Are many of you followers of Star Trek? I caught the end of an episode just recently. Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise had found themselves stuck on a planet populated by an innocent people, living in an apparent paradise, but slavishly serving a machine that ruled every aspect of their lives. Our hero, Captain Kirk and his crew set out to free the people from this slavery, wanting them to become creative individuals able to enjoy the pleasures of humanity – the joys of love – but required to face the responsibility for their actions, and for the conflicts that arise from different individualities. The happy ending is achieved when the machine is destroyed and a bewildered but free people are left to forge their own destiny. At the end of the episode, the non human Spock is allowed to express some reservations about what they have done, but he is made the butt of a joke by way of reply.

It seems to me that our discussion here today is in some ways about this same dilemma and that we are as torn as ever between the safety and security that comes from an accepted authority, and the risk that arises when people express and feel their freedom and individuality. It is a very ancient dilemma and Spock’s argument against what the Starship Enterprise had done on the planet referred back to the tale of Adam and Eve. He wondered if the crew had played the part of the serpent tempting these people to taste from the tree of knowledge, and as a result be expelled from paradise.

The trouble is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have the joys of freedom and creativity of individual enterprise without the loss of the old certainties and securities that came from the generally accepted authority. It often seems to me that much of the discussion about offending amongst the young sustains a fantasy that it is possible to have it both ways.

Working in Partnership – multi agency meetings

Working in partnership was not always fascinating! This was especially true as I became involved in multi agency groups, a substantive part of my work experience from the time in Milton Keynes to the end of my career. It was in the Crime Prevention Panel in Milton Keynes that the importance of being there and waiting first struck me. Many of the meetings of this group were tedious and of dubious effectiveness. Police would present information about crime patterns and we would all say how useful it was for this information to be shared. No consequences could be observed in the way people worked in the light of this information. I often wondered what I was doing sitting through such apparently pointless meetings. As time passed, however, it gradually became clear to me that I was becoming more influential in how meetings were conducted, and my presence seemed to be valued by others in the meeting. This meant that I was building relationships that were useful outside the meeting as well as becoming more useful in the meetings. In this case it would be hard to argue that the meetings themselves were especially useful in preventing crime, but it did help me as a local manager to become part of a community of influence in the city. At least there was some public relations benefit to the exercise.

Working in Partnership – owning expertise

Indeed, whatever the organisation or professional with whom you are trying to work in partnership, the first priority is to know your own expertise, to know its content and to know its limits, and finally to know where there are potential overlaps with the partner professional. As is so often the case, this may seem to obvious to say, but there are distinct organisational tendencies to the way different professionals hold their own expertise. Medical doctors often seem to be unburdened by self doubt. This can be intimidating for others and can lead to an insufficiently critical evaluation to be made of what they say. Their expertise is hard earned but medical training builds in the owning of expertise to the learning experience. They have to pin their colours to a mast of diagnosis and treatment in a way that is hardly ever possible for social workers. They are expected to be expert and to test that expertise against the judgement of their peers by presenting papers to each other as they go through training and afterwards.

Social workers by and large operate without direct peer scrutiny, rarely stand in front of each other as experts and are all too frequently likely to say of themselves, ‘I’m no expert”. Even when interviewing candidates for a job as a social worker or probation officer, a question about the candidate’s skills would rarely be answered confidently or convincingly. All too often, the reply would be a list of past work experiences not of skills. I became sceptical of many who did claim skills – those who said ‘they were good with young people’ turned out to be good at superficial relationships with young people but weren’t much use at helping them with the realities of their lives. We even said to each other at times, that only those who said they disliked working with sex offenders should be allowed to do so. Social work skill is hard to pin down, especially in the abstract,and is best revealed through demonstrating an understanding of a particular client or family and their predicament, and by demonstrating active listening skills within the partnership relationship itself.