Which societal and professional trends transformed social work?

Would you make a good social worker? Take our career test and find your top matches from over 800 careers.

Take the free career test Learn more about the career test

The challenges presented by a constantly evolving society mean that social work is an ever-changing field. Over the years, several trends have had a far-reaching influence throughout society, in general and have exerted a demand for change in the services and delivery of social work, in particular.

The Impact of Trauma

In the last two decades in particular, citizens across the world have been exposed to trauma created by terrorist networks. Porous borders and interconnected international systems of finance, communications, and transit have allowed terrorist groups to reach every corner of the globe. While some of these networks remain focused on local or national political dynamics, others seek to affect global change.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forever changed life along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Such natural disasters are, of course, an ongoing threat.

As veterans return from wars and conflicts abroad and struggle to reintegrate into their home life, awareness of the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder has also increased.

Social workers have always been involved in assisting victims of both manmade and natural disasters. What has changed, however, is that modern communication and relentless media coverage have brought the horror right into people’s living rooms. Therefore, the potential psychological wounds are now even greater.

Mental Health / Substance Abuse Parity

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008: According to this law – which was fought for by advocacy groups and the social work community – insurance companies and group health plans must provide the same financial and treatment limit coverage for mental health or addiction as they do for physical ailments and conditions. This equality in coverage makes obtaining services mental health and addictions affordable and accessible to more individuals.

Evidence-Based Practice

Evidence-based practice in social work involves a partnership where professionals, clients, and organizations combine to coordinate resources and guide the best treatment options and interventions. The objective of the practice is to ensure that the best outcomes are made available to the greatest number of people.

Evidence-based practice is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In the words of Joan Levy Zlotnik, director of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Social Work Policy Institute, ‘You can’t just take something that someone else has developed for a different population or a different type of agency and just open up a manual and do it.’

An Aging Population

The population of the United States is aging. Between the years 2000 and 2010, the number of Americans over age 65 increased by five million. This increase in the aging population and the resultant greater number of elderly client caseloads was the impetus for the Geriatric Initiative. The initiative addresses the need for programs that offer a degree in specialized social work focused on the elderly. It is designed to help social workers understand the needs of specific older populations, such as those with chronic health conditions, those dealing with mental disorders, and those needing end-of-life care. It also responds to trends that include a shift in care away from the nuclear family to society at large, a move away from institutional care to community-based care, and a growing understanding of the importance of cultural competency in serving elderly immigrants.

School Violence and Bullying

Ron Avi Astor (Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health at USC School of Social Work and USC Rossier School of Education), an expert in school violence and bullying across cultures, hopes that the role of social workers in ensuring school safety will evolve from trying to eliminate violence to making schools warm, caring, and loving environments. ‘That should be our real goal,’ he says. ‘I would like our profession to push the envelope and look at what the ideal school setting would be.’

One way that social workers have been trying to create compassionate school environments is in preventing bullying targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGBT) youth. The issue has gained attention worldwide in the wake of instances of gay teens driven to commit suicide. Studies continue to reveal links between violence and bullying against LGBT youths and the risk of depression, suicide, HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Children’s Mental Health

Diagnoses of mental health problems in children, especially autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder, have become more common; as has the use of medication in treatment. There is considerable debate taking place around whether this trend marks a recognition of children’s mental health needs or an epidemic of over-diagnosis.

Without doubt, there is an increased awareness of how mental health conditions affect children, managed care policies, and parents’ need to explain and label their children’s behaviors. In view of this, it is vital for social workers to remain true to the profession’s focus on looking at the underlying issues that influence children’s behaviors. As articulated by Denise Duval of Child Therapy Chicago, ‘the biggest thing is not to forget to understand the people and the families and the nuances that form who the kids are.’

Economic Recession

The original impact of the economic recession that began in 2007 was on the finances of the American public. However, it was far from the only impact. Reduced incomes, loss of jobs, and home foreclosures started as a financial story; but it continued as one with serious behavioral and mental health implications, leading to hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. The stress and strain placed on individuals and on families by the financial crisis increased the number of cases social workers were expected to handle. But the recession also left many people without insurance or income to pay for services, resulting in some social services being cut back or discontinued entirely. Some social work jobs declined, while others increased to meet demands in mental health and substance abuse areas.

In response to the cutbacks in the field, many social workers and social work agencies are adopting social media and the internet as a means of marketing their services and connecting with those seeking assistance.

Web-based Social Work Education

The internet, of course, has grown to be a massive influence in every sector of business, communication, and education. Web-based social work education programs are also now common. While there is some debate over the validity of an online social work degree in completing field assignments and building networks and relationships with peers and professors, the option has opened the field to individuals concerned with local access, affordability, and flexible schedules.

Social Media

In today’s world, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are used by hundreds of millions people worldwide.

The phenomena of social networking has allowed diverse client populations, such as those battling addictions, to form online support groups with global reach. Many social workers and social service agencies have embraced social networking to market their services and educate clients and potential clients about mental health, substance abuse, family dynamics, and other topics.

But questions have been raised about the ethics of using social networking in social work. Although social networking can be a useful tool, social workers who choose to use it need to carefully consider how their activities could violate client boundaries, lead to unrealistic expectations from clients, and risk identity fraud. Frederic G. Reamer, a professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, believes that these questions will persist as the popularity of social networking continues to grow. ‘This is a train we’re not going to stop,’ says Reamer. ‘The onus of responsibility is on social workers to identify the issues, educate one another about the issues, and come up with the appropriate risk management strategies.’


Technology and communications continue to make the world an increasingly connected place. This means that global events are affecting many professions, including social work. Migration patterns mean that social workers are encountering greater numbers of clients who are immigrants or refugees, and the lives of these clients are naturally affected by global trends.

‘Social work has responded to these trends with a greater emphasis on international collaboration, a renewed focus on cultural competency, and the addition of international content to social work curricula. But there is much more work to be done if American social workers want to effectively address issues that are global in scope, such as aging and human trafficking. Social work educators need to incorporate more international content into foundation-level classes and increase the opportunities for students to do international-related field placements.’

‘All social workers need to be exposed to an international environment, whether they’re interested in careers in international social work or not. We have made some progress, but we have a long way to go.’

– M. C. ‘Terry’ Hokenstad, Jr., Ph.D., the Ralph S. and Dorothy P. Schmitt Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland

Related Careers



Your Match?
Avg Wage
3.0 / 5

Did you love science as a kid?