Focus: Hard Times for Youth?

Focus: Hard Times for Youth?

Tracy Shildrick (University of Leeds), Robert MacDonald (Teesside University) and Lorenza Antonucci (UWS) 

Precarious work, underemployment and an increased risk of unemployment are now common features of youth transitions in most European countries. The recent Journal of Youth Studies Conference in Copenhagen in April 2015 fuelled academic reflections on the contemporary state of young people across the world. The pieces in this special issue – on Young People and Social Policy – are all contributions from the participants in the conference. In order to ‘set the scene’ we focus here on two main issues emerging from existing scholarship: first, how young people are affected by a wide set of challenges which are not limited to unemployment; secondly, how these new challenges,risks and uncertainties might be widely dispersed across youth populations at the same time as being unequal in their patterning and effects. The list of open questions presented at the end of the article are reminders of some of the most important issues facing young people currently – as well as being questions of significance for how our societies develop.

More than unemployment: the spread of precarity
Debates about youth precariousness in respect of the labour market and the potential specificity of the youth labour market are not new in youth scholarship. Nevertheless, the effects of the Great Recession, coupled with the imposition of widespread austerity measures since then, seem to have hit young people particularly harshly. A recent policy briefing from the European Youth Forum points to a wider context of rising rates of youth unemployment, increased levels of poverty and social exclusion and a growing gap between older and younger generations. Also recent data from the European Commission suggest that five million young people in Europe are unemployed with around one in five being unable to find work. Whilst youth unemployment rates vary dramatically between countries with those in Germany being generally low (around 7%) and those in Greece and Spain being very high (around 50%) the general picture is one of ‘unprecedented’ rates of youth unemployment, which amount to a ‘particularly serious problem’ according to a recent IMF report.

Yet, unemployment is not the only, and perhaps not even the main, problem which young people face in making transitions to adulthood. Relatively few young people are unemployed long-term and research shows that churning between jobs and unemployment (or other pathways such as education) is far more common. Underemployment and precarious working are a growing and potentially more significant problem for young people. Deep and wide-spread social, economic and political processes – which were in train prior to the economic crash of 2007-8, but which were given greater momentum by it, and by subsequent programmes of austerity and changing employer practices – have caused the proliferation of precarious work. Whilst it is not only young people who are impacted by these changes, evidence shows that precarious work and underemployment are now common features of youth transitions to the labour market in many European countries. This is usually an aspect of disadvantage rather than a life-style choice and significantly, one that extends beyond working-class young workers to include university graduates (particularly but not exclusively those from working-class backgrounds). There are likely to be differences as well as similarities in the meaning and experience of precarious work for young people from different class backgrounds and/or on different educational trajectories. Working-class young people churning around low-level jobs and unemployment in the UK’s deindustrialised localities find their counterparts in, for instance, middle-class Spanish graduates who are unemployed or trapped in precarious, temporary jobs for which they are substantially overqualified. A report for the European Commission shows that more and more young people find themselves in short term and part-time work, when many would prefer secure contracts and longer hours. Young people’s hope and aspirations for work are not being met. Evidence also shows that young people are often at greater risk of poverty than other groups. Recent research in the UK suggests that young people are the group that have experienced the greatest increases in poverty over recent years. These increases are tied to changing labour market conditions and the rise of in-work poverty (for all age groups not just young people) and are also exacerbated by wider social and economic conditions, for example the lack of affordable housing. As Lodovici and Semenza argue, ‘precarious work determines precarious living conditions’ meaning that insecure employment is deeply enmeshed with the wider precarity of life prospects.

Young precarious workers as a new social class?
Influential arguments have suggested that these developments are indicative of the rise of a new, global Precariat class. Guy Standing is the chief proponent (in the English speaking world) of the idea of the Precariat and Youth have a critical place in his thesis. Standing argues that the spread of insecurity in general and precarious work specifically, particularly for young adults, is indicative of the emergence of a new global class – the Precariat – situated below the old working-class. Standing has drawn explicitly on MacDonald, Shildrick and colleagues’ Teesside Studies of Youth Transitions and Social Exclusion as evidence in support of his Precariat thesis. Even if some critical, empirical and conceptual questions remain, Standing argues that the emergence of this new group is predicated on the idea of ‘the flexible labour market’; the sort pursued progressively by Western neo-liberal governments since the 1980s. For Standing, the Precariat has a diverse, mass membership including the unemployed, the working poor and the insecurely employed. Working-class young people deprived of the regular, standard employment known by their parents and grandparents (like those in the Teesside studies), and the new working-class university graduates falsely sold the promise of upward social mobility, and the underemployed middle-class graduates shuttling between careerless, dead-end jobs are all said to figure in the membership of the Precariat.

Sociologists – without adopting the Precariat thesis – have pointed to the new social, economic and political conditions shared by young people from different class backgrounds, key among them being the experience of underemployment and precarious work. The recent Great British Class Survey Experiment (Savage et al.) identified a new category of ‘emerging service workers’ which represents a ‘break in working-class culture’ consequent to deindustrialisation. This class tends to feature a high proportion of the youth population with high levels of ‘emerging cultural capital’ but who are still being employed in jobs which are not middle-class jobs in terms of their remuneration. While the findings of this survey are currently debated and criticised in sociology, they resonate with other recent studies signalling the presence of a ‘squeezed middle, which could explain why it is becoming more difficult for young people to mobilise family sources, even for those with parents in intermediate positions.

On the basis of long-term studies of youth transitions in Western and Eastern Europe, Ken Roberts reaches the striking conclusion that ‘underemployment is the 21st century global normality for youth in the labour market’. This finding comes from research carried out prior to the global economic crash of 2007-2008. He is not pointing to reversible consequences of recession but to deeper, structural changes in the nature of the global economy as they affect Europe and the prospects for its young workers. Related to this, an important new argument put forward by, among others, the Australian youth sociologists Woodman and Wyn, is that we are witnessing the formation of a ‘new social generation’ across Western industrialised economies, whose life worlds and prospects  – as a consequence of long-run social and cultural, but mainly economic change – are now defined by insecurity. Compared with the generation of the ‘post-war baby-boomers’, the current generation of young people faces tougher conditions and restricted prospects across several spheres. These limited opportunities to make successful transitions through education into rewarding, secure employment are just one example.  This is the first generation, argues Roberts, which is likely to experience downward social mobility compared with their parents generation. For the majority, the chances of social descent outweigh the chances of social ascent.

Questions remain as to how social class (and other dimensions of inequality) impact on these trends and experiences. The piece by Formby and Hudson ‘From cradle to college’ points out how graduates are increasingly experiencing job insecurity and precarity. Nonetheless, inequalities remain as important as they have been in the past – not only between graduates and non-graduates but, between young people in higher education from working-class backgrounds (or first generation higher education students) and the rest. The relationship between higher education and the labour market is a complex one, which is currently being reconfigured. Ainley and Allen, in ‘Lost Generation?’, have elaborated the idea of a pear-shaped class structure in which young people ‘are running up a down-escalator of devalued qualifications’. According to these authors, young people represent a ‘reserve army’ characterised by diffused experiences of risk and precarious jobs; somewhat like the new Precariat class proposed by Standing. Nevertheless, as conditions tighten for all, it is likely that the middle (and upper)-class (students and their parents) will do whatever they can to maintain class privilege and distinction, running ever harder to stand still. As Ken Roberts has stressed: “As those from more affluent backgrounds see their middle class positions threatened, parents may be angered by the low salaries that their well-qualified children are being offered, the shortage of long-term career jobs and the debts the young are incurring and frustrated that they, the elders, lack the resources to remedy or compensate for young people’s difficulties’.”

Although the expansion of Higher Education has opened up opportunities for working class young people degrees from different sorts of universities hold different sorts of value in the labour market. Similarly, graduates from private school backgrounds still earn more than their state school contemporaries. Although in its infancy, research is emerging that shows how elite occupations remain internally stratified, with those from lower class backgrounds achieving less well in terms of pay and status. The ‘glass ceiling’ of gender discrimination is well-known; this ‘class ceiling’, as Laurison and Friedman refer to it, less so. As austerity plays out, it seems the poorest are faring the worst and as youth conditions deteriorate important questions arise as to how privilege and disadvantage form young people’s experiences.

The ‘familisation’ of welfare states during austerity
Social policy scholars have also contributed to this debate by showing how welfare structures and, in particular, the mix of welfare sources from the family, the state and the labour market vary across countries. This helps to create different ‘regimes’ of youth transitions across Europe. In other words, comparative social policy shows that the distribution of precarity is not equal across countries, but is mediated by welfare structures. A recent edited publication on Young People and Social Policy in Europe shows that differences across welfare regimes play a large part in the variation of youth poverty across Europe, for example regarding the ‘weaker’ role of welfare states in mitigating social risks in eastern and southern Europe. In the same publication, Antonucci et al, show that ‘universalistic regimes’ (such as those found in Nordic Countries and Continental countries, such as Germany), are not immune from the widespread challenges faced by young people. In particular, inequality in youth experiences is important in both these ‘welfare regimes’. In the Nordic countries young people are particularly vulnerable due to early housing transitions, and young people from working class backgrounds are more represented among the recipients of social security. In Germany, where dual transitions from school to work reproduce existing inequalities, young people from working class backgrounds are pushed early towards vocational routes.

An interesting issue that emerges in relation to young people and welfare systems is how welfare states currently emphasise the responsibility of the individual in managing his or her labour market risk – by becoming ‘active’, ‘flexible’ and ‘employable’. Paradoxically, despite this emphasis, welfare and labour conditions mean that young people are unable to sustain their independence. At the same time, cuts to welfare spending on youth that affect several areas of their transition (student support, housing benefits and so on) change the balance of welfare sources in the ‘welfare mix’, by reducing the protection provided by welfare states. Welfare states, which also have an important function in limiting the impact of new social risks, are particularly challenged in Europe not only by cuts, but also by the lack of effort to adapt, recalibrate, and update youth policies to offer comprehensive protection against young people’s new social risks.

As a consequence of the retrenchment of welfare states, for many young people the main source of support in many countries becomes (or remains) the family. Welfare states stipulate the reliance of young people on their family; a process that has been defined as a ‘familisation’ of youth social policy. This means that the welfare state assumes the contribution of families in covering part of the costs of ‘extended youth transitions’. This is, for example, the case with higher education policies which, in many countries, assume the role of the family in co-contributing to young people’s living costs. These normative assumptions do not apply, however to all young people equally. The familisation of youth social policies reinforce and reproduce socio-economic differences across the youth population. In other words, families have a different capacity to provide the (additional) support required. The influential idea put forward by the economist Piketty – of an increasing inequality determined by the transmission of ‘capital’ (or wealth) – fits particularly well with the findings emerging about young people. It is by mobilising parental and family capital and income that young people are able to sustain their protracted dependence as shown by cross-national research on young people at University by Antonucci (The Real Lives of Students,Policy Press, forthcoming ). It is also through the mobilisation of family sources that young people from middle-class backgrounds are able to compete with their peers on the ‘down-escalator of devalued qualifications’ described above.

Debates and issues: it’s not just a ‘youth business’
Social scientists need to learn how to ask the right questions. , A number of issues are emerging in the field of youth studies (many of which were apparent in Copenhagen, at the Journal of Youth Studies conference, and all of which comprise the focus of a proposed conference, involving the authors, with the British Academy in 2016):

  • What is the condition of youth in the UK and Europe? Are prospects improving, stagnant or declining?
  • How do we balance an interest in the new and change with the old and continuity?
  • Do we need a longer-term historical perspective so as to examine social continuities with earlier periods prior to the boom decades and possibilities of social mobility found in the 1950s-70s?
  • How useful are the concepts of ‘social generation’ and ‘precariat’?
  • Is this a generation likely to experience downward social mobility compared with the parent generation and if so, what are the points of comparison?
  • How widespread is the experience of precarity?
  • Is precarity manifested and experienced differently for different class, ethnic and gender groups?
  • How are insecurity and precarity impacting on youth transitions to adulthood (including housing careers, employment and training, welfare, education, family formation and young parenthood)?
  • Does further and higher education still provide a personal and collective route for young people’s advancement?
  • How is Higher Education stratified and are these strata becoming more or less permeable?

Youth Studies has often been marginal to the mainstream debates in Sociology. But, as pointed out by MacDonald, these are not just questions for youth studies, but for sociology in general. Questions about youth alert us to questions about social change and continuity, about social reproduction and social conflict. The questions we ask here are ones about wider processes in post-industrial societies, particularly about the dynamics of inequality in a changing in society. Our questions are as much about the meaning and shape of class in contemporary society – and how these are changing – as they are about the particularities of youth experiences. These are also questions that extend beyond the narrow confines of national borders and also ones that affect not only this generation of young people but which alert us to the future and the possibilities and challenges that lie there for us all.


Tracy Shildrick is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy (University of Leeds), Deputy Editor of Journal of Youth Studies and Co-Editor of Journal of Poverty and Social Justice. Tracy has conducted two research projects on poverty for the Joseph Rowntee Foundation and is an internationally-recognised expert in the study of youth transitions, worklessness, poverty and social exclusion. Rob MacDonald is Professor of Sociology in Teesside University and Deputy Editor of Journal of Youth Studies. Rob is a leading figure in the area of youth studies, social exclusion and unemployment. He has written with Tracy Shildrick and Colin Webster the British-Academy-winning publication ‘Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-pay, No-pay Britain’ edited by Policy Press. Lorenza Antonucci is Lecturer in Social Policy at UWS (University of the West of Scotland). She co-edited ‘Young People and Social Policy in Europe’ for Palgrave and her forthcoming book with Policy Press is ‘The real lives of students: Youth, austerity and inequality’. She writes for the US magazine Slate.