The future of social work

Inequality, disadvantage, social justice – these are the issues that underpin social work and the passions that drive those who work in the industry. But in Australia these issues are not static; they evolve and shift as circumstances change. As part of our future of work series, we sat down with Charles Sturt University academics to uncover the changes and challenges society will undergo in the coming decades, and how these changes will affect the future of social work and the role of social workers.

The ageing population dilemma

The most recent Australian census found that people aged 65 years and over now make up nearly one in six (16 per cent) of the country’s population. As a proportion this has risen from one in seven people in 2011, and from one in 25 people at the start of the last century. Increased longevity – due in part to superior healthcare – combined with a decreased birthrate means that this proportion of the population is likely to continue to grow.

Belinda Cash, Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services, explained the impact this demographic shift will have on society and social work.

“The demographic shift of an ageing population is bringing about significant changes for health and welfare services. It’s a changing and dynamic time for society, and therefore for social work too. Social workers are involved with individuals across all stages of life, so we understand that there can be significant impacts on ageing and later life depending on a range of variables that impact individuals, families and social groups from even before birth. This knowledge suggests that there will continue to be groups of vulnerable older Australians – and other subgroups of the population – that are likely to come to the forefront of social work in coming generations.”

The tyranny of distance

An ongoing issue that future social workers will still need to address is the inequality of service across communities. This is particularly apparent in rural and Indigenous communities, who are often more disadvantaged in terms of accessing services than their urban counterparts. As Ms Cash explained, the way many social work services are set up has a huge impact on how, and even if, individuals can access them.

“Many critical social workers try to understand the impact of economic policies on human populations. It’s real people being affected when we bring about market-based systems for health, welfare and care. Privatised markets make a lot of assumptions that people have the resources to be able to access and engage in those systems. In social work we understand that access to resources can be a huge issue.

“These challenges can be particularly evident in rural areas, which can often suffer from ‘the tyranny of distance’. A lot of funding and policy decisions stem from metropolitan areas, so there are often a lot of assumptions made about service availability, adequate staffing and geographic accessibility, which is not always a reality for people living in rural and remote areas of Australia.

“For instance, in my research I have looked at older adults who needed to access in-home care to stay in their own home. They were each given a financial ‘care package’, but it was the same for everyone, which meant that older people in rural locations that had to access services based in metropolitan or large regional centres were charged travel costs to get the service to them. So there was a distinct disparity, as an elderly person in a city might be able to afford to access a service, say, three times a week, while someone in a rural area might only be able to once.”

Dr Karen Bell, Associate Professor in Social Work and Human Services at Charles Sturt University, does see that social service delivery is changing in rural areas to try to address these inequalities.

“There is certainly a shift, in rural areas, in things like aged care and child and family welfare. Things like getting services embedded in communities and having more primary care at a preventative level on the ground are being seen as increasingly important to prevent more complex issues developing in the future.

“And there is a growing recognition that in terms of rural and Indigenous communities there needs to be different models of service delivery, and that solutions can’t all come from the metro-centric space. Social work has a key part to play in devising and delivering those different ways of providing services.

“By embedding workplace learning in our degrees across different services, we help our students start thinking about these sorts of issues. And, of course, it gives them great practical experience that they can demonstrate to employers when they graduate into the workplace. We also try to incorporate at least one international study opportunity as well to broaden students’ experience.”

Ms Cash agrees that approaching different situations in different ways is key to effective social work.

“One of the things we do well is having Aboriginal ways of knowing within our course structures. We embed the idea that often our traditional ways of teaching and learning are not the only ways and shouldn’t always be the first ones that are applied in social work situations.”

Assessing the environmental impact

Rural communities are often at the frontline when it comes to one of the most contemporary and dynamic areas of the social work industry – eco social work.

Eco social work – also referred to as ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ social work – is concerned with how environmental issues, such as extreme weather events and climate change, affect people and communities.

There is an acknowledgement that the issues around eco social work are going to become more common in the future.

Dr Heather Boetto, Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at Charles Sturt, specialises in this field. She explained how environmental instability can affect the lives of individuals and communities across a range of areas, from the financial to the social and mental health aspects.

“Social workers often work on the frontline with people who are affected by climate change and environmental issues. We have practitioners working with families who can’t pay rising electricity prices due to poverty; and dealing with communities recovering from bushfire and drought; and supporting people who are homeless by trying to find suitable shelter during extreme weather events, such as heatwave. So because practitioners have been finding themselves increasingly engaged with these issues on the frontline, then we’re finding that we need to transition the profession towards being able to better address these issues.”

Dr Boetto also described how the issues around climate change and severe weather do not impact everyone equally.

“Our profession is underpinned by values of social justice and human rights, and we are starting to understand the disproportionate impacts of climate change on disadvantaged people, whether in terms of disability, migration, refugees or homelessness. Any group that suffers disadvantage is often unable to prepare for an extreme weather event, is less able to respond to an extreme weather event, and less able to recover.

“And quite often, people from a disadvantaged background are located in areas that are more environmentally at risk. So it is important for social work to become more involved in this issue, as well as advocate and provide a voice for marginalised groups.”

Dr Bell outlined the variety of ways that environmental considerations are influencing social work as an industry.

“Climate change, global warming and ecological issues – we are aware of the physical impacts of these, but the human impacts, in terms of social work, are often less obvious. People who are already disadvantaged can be affected cumulatively by climate change in terms of their ability to have decent shelter, good food and access to basic services.

“Sustainability is a key growth area (and something we are really focusing on in our social work curriculum). In terms of eco social work, we look holistically at the impacts on a group. On an individual level it could be working with a farming family that has been affected by environmental degradation, but social work is also involved on the macro level in terms of influencing policy.”

As Dr Boetto sees it, eco social work is going to be at least a part of almost all practice in the future.

“These issues are going to become more and more prevalent, and as a result social work as a profession is going to be in high demand. So here at Charles Sturt we want to prepare our students for this change. That’s why sustainability is being embedded across our courses, and why we are also now offering a core subject on eco social work and practice as part of our foundational bachelor’s degree. We’re committed to understanding the human effects of environmental change, and giving future social workers the knowledge and skills to tackle the issues and improve people’s lives.”

The tech equation

Industries of the future – from agriculture to education – will be influenced by technological innovation, and the future of social work is no different, as Ms Cash explained.

“Society in general is more open to technological solutions. Certainly when I started out in social work, not driving out to visit people or sitting with them face to face would have felt inauthentic somehow. Nowadays we are much more comfortable with technology and there’s no reason why social work wouldn’t, shouldn’t or couldn’t embrace technological possibilities to help increase its reach. And certainly when working with younger people, using digital communication to deliver services is more expected. So it’s absolutely something we need to embrace.”

However, she cautioned that technology can’t just be seen as a solution.

“Technology also has its own challenges in terms of cyber safety. We are seeing increases in things like sexting, grooming and compromised anonymity. Those things bring a whole other range of challenges for social work to address.”

Dr Bell felt that technology won’t only assist clients but will also help  practitioners be their best.

“Things like e-counselling and online counselling are gaining momentum, particularly in mental health services and more generally in rural service delivery. And I think technology will become increasingly embedded in how we deliver social work services. It also allows local, national and global networking among service providers. Our graduates need to have good communication technology skills to be a competent practitioner, from that professional networking to direct client work. That’s part of being a professional; accessing the latest knowledge and providing the best service to clients.”

The future of social work

As the issues that social work deals with continue to be significant in Australian society – and beyond – Ms Cash sees opportunities for committed individuals to make a difference across many aspects of the industry.

It’s often a misconception of social work that it just concerns working one on one with clients; there are actually a lot more levels of opportunity, such as leadership, policy and so on. Social workers get involved to ensure that social justice is at the forefront of macro changes that filter down to impact upon the lives of families and individuals.

“Social work is one of the few professions that isn’t just about providing a service. It also includes advocacy and social justice at the forefront of our thinking. So besides providing social services, we are also concerned with how structures and systems – on multiple levels – impact upon individuals. There are so many opportunities, and every student’s career journey will be unique. The profession is really multidimensional. Understanding and working with people in their environment and all the richness and variety of human experience is something that social work does really well. Social workers are critical thinkers looking at ways to bring about positive change whether at the personal or policy level.”

Dr Bell echoes this prediction.

We will always need people who are really passionate about human rights, social justice and making a positive difference. That’s the fundamental thing that our courses build on – that desire to help. That’s the foundation. So we take those intentions and build the knowledge and skills needed to succeed on top.”

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Belinda Cash
Belinda Cash is a Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at Charles Sturt University. Her research and teaching interests include mental health, ageing, social policy, service provision in rural areas and informal caregiving.

Dr Karen Bell

Dr Karen Bell is an Associate Professor in Social Work and Human Services at Charles Sturt University. Her research encompasses gender, women’s health, rural and regional service delivery, ageing and ecological social work.

Dr Heather Boetto

Dr Heather Boetto is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at Charles Sturt University. Her main research focus relates to ecological social work, gender and international social work.