“Because We Care”: Youth Worker Identity and Persistence in Precarious Work
Vasudevan, Deepa Sriya
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CitationVasudevan, Deepa Sriya. 2019. “Because We Care”: Youth Worker Identity and Persistence in Precarious Work. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
AbstractYouth workers are vital educators, mentors, and caregivers for adolescents. Researchers agree that caring relationships between youth workers and young people are the “critical ingredient” of community-based programs with beneficial outcomes for youth (Rhodes, 2004). However, it is common for practitioners to exit from organizations or the career altogether after just a few years (Yohalem & Pittman, 2006). While previous research has considered the various reasons for these exits, limited scholarship has explored the underlying motivations and circumstances of youth workers who stay in the field.
To address this empirical lacuna, my dissertation examines the trajectories of “persisters” –– those who continue in youth work despite known barriers. To understand the occupational identities and commitments of persisters, I utilized narrative inquiry, which entailed conducting life-story interviews with 20 practitioners with five or more years of experience. In my analysis, I found that persisters understood their work as a community calling. Intrinsic motivations fueled their persistence and shaped “boundaryless” constructions of their career identities across dimensions of time, engagement, and expertise (Arthur & Rousseau, 1996).
Youth workers’ explanations of identity and persistence also uncovered cultural and structural challenges that worked against it. Extrinsic factors, such as gentrification and student loan debt, created new barriers to persistence. This led practitioners to employ a variety of individual coping strategies, including taking on additional jobs and relying on family finances, to stay in youth work. Thus, persistence often came at a personal cost. Youth workers eventually renegotiated their “boundaryless” identities to either avoid burnout or consider transitions to related fields. While extrinsic supports helped cultivate an occupational identity, organizational and professional supports did not ensure persistence. In illuminating the relationship between occupational identity and persistence in youth work, this study also reveals the social inequities between those who can afford to stay and those who cannot. I consider the implications of the nonprofit sectors’ reliance on persisters’ callings and individual coping strategies. Ultimately, I argue that policymakers and organizational leaders must address the working conditions and concerns of youth workers rather than play a complicit role in perpetuating the undervaluation and precarity of care-based work.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42081490