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The Shifting Landscape of Youth Work

The youths of our day live up to many names. Broadly called Gen Z, they are also defined as a unique generation of “Digital Natives” who have fully grown up in the digital age[1], meaning that they also bear traits that no other generation before them share. According to a 2021 survey SUSS conducted in collaboration with Great Eastern, some of their unique behavioural traits include being highly accustomed to the everyday use of technology, while being more comfortable expressing themselves over messaging platforms. Surprisingly, almost 50% of them have more interaction online than face-to-face[1]

More distinctly however, is that this generation of youths’ have also been defined by having come of age during the COVID-19 pandemic, inadvertently also garnering the moniker “Generation COVID”[2].

What is Generation COVID like?

While prior familiarity with digital technologies has enabled them to adapt easily to the physical restrictions the pandemic brought about, they are still grappling with an indelible mark that the crisis has left on their psyche, much of which stems from uncertainties about the future[3]. Some of their key traits include:

  • An OECD report stated that mental health in youths has worsened all over the world[4], with a risk that depression and anxiety may continue to cast a long shadow in young people’s lives. In Singapore specifically, a TODAY survey, conducted in November 2021 revealed that most millennials (58%) have become more fearful and less sociable (54%) because of the pandemic[5]. And no wonder, as it was found that at the height of the pandemic, youths were among the distinct groups particularly vulnerable to depression and anxiety.[6]

  • While recent surveys[1][5] have shown that youths are still optimistic in finding a job and building a successful career, a large percentage of 55% still felt that their prospects had been dimmed by the COVID-19 crisis[5]. Insecurities about the future caused many to choose a more pragmatic career path instead of pursuing their dreams[7]

  • Having witnessed global challenges such as climate change, the heightened risk of geopolitical conflict and the “worst global pandemic crisis in the modern world”[8], the personal priorities of youths now lean towards ensuring a more sustainable future. According to a 2020 National Youth Council (NYC) poll, 96% of respondents were concerned over the impact of carbon emissions on the environment, and with 98% of them willing to play their part towards making Singapore a zero-waste nation[9].

How can we help our youths navigate this post-pandemic landscape?

While the responsibility of grooming our youths typically falls on family, the education system and even the government, youth workers also play a key role in empowering the youths. “Youth work” or “Youth development”, as defined by the Singapore government, is “the active process by which young people are engaged, equipped and empowered to be active citizens in society”[10].

But in helping youths navigate a world that has changed so drastically, the approach too, needs a change. Nicholas Gabriel Lim, Head of Graduate Diploma in Youth Work at SUSS, believes that it starts with understanding. Youths need a platform or space where they feel safe to express themselves, and more importantly, to express what they had gone through during the pandemic and how they were able to manage or not manage it well. Besides that, to encourage them through all the uncertainties they face, their successes need to be celebrated, and every effort to do well in any aspect of their lives, be acknowledged and affirmed. 

Youth workers need to learn to adapt in order to be more effective in helping youths. It takes initiative to know them. This means understanding the digital world they live in, learning the devices or apps they are on, and not immediately assuming that they are comfortable with face-to-face engagements, for example. Youth workers need to do the needful to forge a relationship that youths are comfortable with, and sometimes, it means putting aside one’s own biases. 

To achieve this, youth workers simply need to remember to empathise and listen more. They need to understand that building the relationship is more important – building relational authority rather than positional authority. To achieve this, one can adopt certain strategies. For example, in reference to Nicholas’ book Clash of the Mind and Heart, a youth worker can help unlock a youth’s potential by using this Developmental Relationship Framework strategy, aptly structured as VOICE:

•   Give them a VOICE to say what they think
•   SHOW them that they matter, and you care
•   INSPIRE them to go beyond their world and themselves
•   CHALLENGE them to keep getting better
•   ENCOURAGE them to complete tasks and achieve goals

Where can youth workers find support in their work?

The effects of the pandemic aren't all negative. Nicholas points out that for youth work, many have realised the need to band together. Both big and small practitioners are now seeing the advantage of rallying together – it is no longer about individual gigs, but a common goal to influence and impact youths together.

There are also now more avenues for youth workers to upgrade themselves. In May 2021, in recognition of the contribution youth workers make to society, the Singapore government launched the Youth Work Supervision and Youth Work Mentorship pilot schemes, which leans in on experienced youth workers to empower younger youth workers[11].

At the launch of these pilot schemes, Eric Chua, then Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth commented, “As youth workers adapt to the changing youth landscape, we must ensure adequate support and training is provided to them… We must look at supporting their personal and professional growth.”[12]

In a larger ecosystem, while government agencies, educational institutions and organisations have in the past played their part in contributing to the wellbeing of youths, there is a growing need for skilled and qualified professionals, specifically in the area of youth work. In this avenue, programmes such as the SUSS Graduate Diploma in Youth Work provide opportunities to attain the needed qualifications. 

Generation of the future

What does the future of youth work look like? Nicholas feels that youth work in Singapore is still a relatively young field compared to countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom and even Hong Kong. But thanks to the pandemic, more light has been shed on the importance of empowering our youths for the future, and efforts have been put into developing the field. Alongside collaborating on new local initiatives to help youth workers, the Youth Work Association Singapore (YWAS) is also a member of the Commonwealth Alliance of Youth Workers Association, where youth workers across all Commonwealth countries can support each other in their growth and development. 

As for how youths can look forward to their future, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, recently spoke at the Varsity Voices Dialogue event in June, addressing the youths there, "Despite what you have lost, you have the honour of being the generation that went through school life during the pandemic. You lost something, but you also gained a lot, in terms of grit, in terms of resilience and that strong sense of social responsibility."[8]

As a whole, we are set up to navigate and embrace a changed world, as a new generation of youths and youth workers alike. 

[1] SUSS (Singapore University of Social Sciences) (2021). “Youths in the Digital Space.” Published by the Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences. 

[2] STRAITS TIMES (JUN 2022) More can be done to help Singapore’s ‘Generation Covid’: Desmond Choo

[3] TODAY (JAN 2022) Challenges arising from Covid-19 have affected mental health of youths: Edwin Tong

[4] OECD Policy Responses to Coronavirus (MAY 2021)

[5] TODAY (NOV 2021) TODAY Youth Survey: Majority more fearful, less sociable due to Covid-19 but hopeful of ‘better’ life a year from now

[6] Mothership (AUG 2021) Half of S'pore youths reported Covid-19 mental health issues in 2020, stressed about anxiety over future

[7] CNA (NOV 2021) The Big Read: The pandemic has affected the human psyche. What does this mean for Generation COVID’s future?

[8] STRAITS TIMES (JUN 2022) S'pore youth showed grit, resilience and social responsibility during Covid-19: Ong Ye Kung

[9] YOUTHOPIA Environment And Sustainability: Let's Set Change In Motion

[10] Factsheet on Singapore

[11] STRAITS TIMES (MAY 2021) Those who work with youth to get more support under new mentoring, supervision schemes

[12] CNA (MAY 2021) Youth workers to get more support to develop careers in the sector and deal with burnout


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