When concepts cross borders

When concepts cross borders

Signe Ravn (Danish National Centre for Social Research) and Tea Bengtsson (University of Copenhagen)

Judging from the 270 presentations made by more than 350 researchers attending the Journal of Youth Studies Conference, ‘Contemporary Youth, Contemporary Risk’ held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in March 2015, the risks facing contemporary youth are both many and diverse. Youth across the world are struggling with the risk of unemployment, economic insecurity and prolonged transitions to adulthood. At the conference it was demonstrated that these risks can fruitfully be conceptualized in many different ways, drawing on both theoretical understandings focusing on the continued relevance of social class and structural inequalities, as well as by introducing concepts more focused on change and new theoretical perspectives on the experiences of young people. Despite this diversity, however, three concepts in particular struck us as reappearing again and again across keynote talks, plenary discussions and paper sessions: neo-liberalism, aspirations and ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training). As Danish youth researchers positioned outside the British context we will in this piece reflect on these concepts and their central role in the field of youth studies as enacted at the conference.

While obviously quite different in nature, all three concepts can be said to inhabit a somewhat ambiguous status. Neo-liberalism, aspirations and ‘NEET’ are analytical concepts used to understand conditions formed by public policies, to analyse future (educational) aims, and to conduct statistical analyses on young people outside education and the labour market, respectively. At the same time, however, all three concepts are often used critically to trigger scrutiny and call for sociological awareness. As one conference delegate asked, ‘what do we mean when we refer to neo-liberalism?’ thereby raising a shared reflection on how to understand neo-liberalism as more than a catch-all term to be criticized at no cost, except, perhaps that of analytical clarity. Analytically, it might be useful to see the development in the Nordic countries from social welfare to ‘social investment’ (where the focus is no longer on universal welfare, but on how to make nations more competitive through social investment in their citizens) as a neo-liberal movement seeking to increasingly govern (young) people’s lives. However, the usefulness of an analysis like this building on the concept of neo-liberalism falls back on what analytically characterises neo-liberalism, and the conference debates on this demonstrated that there is still some work to be done for us as youth researchers in this respect.

Discussions about young people’s educational aspirations are also contributing to the debate on neo-liberalism, and some researchers are wary of reproducing the individualising rhetoric surrounding the political discourse of aspirations. They argue that the increased focus on young people’s aspirations leads to a strengthening of an ‘aspiration doxa’ – which, in the words of Dr. Kim Allen at the University of Leeds, are “setting up a hierarchy in which only some skills, knowledge, subjects and futures get recognised as worthy and legitimate” (see more about this critique e.g. here and in Kim Allen’s keynote talk to the British Educational Research Association here). Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Aspiration Nation’ speech is now famous also outside of the UK, but in Denmark this discourse around young people’s educational attainment is almost absent. In the Danish context the political focus is rather on altering the attitude towards education among the relatively large proportion of students who drop out of their educational programmes (on some vocational training programmes, almost half the students do not finish). Instead of an ‘aspirational problem’, we have what is termed a ‘motivation problem’, implying that students do not find meaning in going to school and hence do not concentrate, do not show up etc.

Researchers have made the point that instead of learning, the educational system – and the students it has fostered – is focused on utility. While this has been documented in Danish language only by Dr. Niels Ulrik Sørensen and colleagues from Aalborg University, some of the points made are echoed in the UK. Thus, Professor Diane Reay from Cambridge University in her recent, piece in Discover Society 17, on “A radical manifesto for education” also critiques the ‘testing regime’ that focuses on specific, testable skills at the expense of learning collaborative skills and promoting creativity and critical thinking. However, shifting the focus from individual aspirations to ‘system errors’ leading to the ‘motivation problem’ does not necessarily change the public and political discourse around young people’s responsibilities. This overlooks the point that for those on the margins of the educational system in particular, leaving the Danish educational system is often not a matter of lacking individual motivation but the result of facing a number of barriers and challenges, personal as well as social (as described in the Danish book ‘De Frafaldne’ (The Dropouts) by Ungdomsbureauet (The Youth Agency), shortlisted for a Youth Award at the coming European Youth Week 2015.

Young people’s individual responsibilities also surfaced at the conference in a number of presentations addressing the concept of ‘NEET’. The concept was often problematized because of the assumed homogeneity of the persons lumped together into one category and because of the static character of the concept. In a recent blog post, Alan Mackie from the University of Edinburgh makes the point that “the NEET concept appears as a tool to, again, frame the issue of unemployment in individualistic terms – a problem of the young person and one that can only be solved by working ‘on’ the young person to move them to an EET status”. In the Danish political debate the focus is not so much on ‘NEET’ youth, but rather one ‘the 95% target’ (meaning that 95% of Danish youth should complete upper secondary education). To ensure ‘education for all’, a number of policy initiatives have been introduced, e.g., that all 15-17-year-olds must have an educational plan; that they are assessed with regard to their ‘educational readiness’, and that their parents will have their child support benefits cut if their children are not in education or otherwise ‘active’. For the 18-29-year-olds, social benefits have been cut and those who are outside work must enrol in education to be eligible for social benefits.

When observing some of the discussions about neo-liberalism, aspirations and NEET unfolding at the conference, the strong and admirable tradition of youth studies in the UK becomes clear. However, so does the need to consider how these discussions unfold and change in other national contexts. Even though academic concepts travel across national borders, we have to be careful not to assume that these concepts or their implications are the same. Contemporary youth is facing many similar risks across national contexts, but they are revealed in different and nationally specific ways. At the Journal of Youth Studies Conference in Copenhagen, we re-discovered that the field of youth studies is strong in delivering pertinent analyses of the risks facing contemporary youth across both national and disciplinary borders. We hope that many of these analyses will be published in the coming years, demonstrating that the field of youth studies is both scientifically and politically significant in delivering relevant and contextualised understandings of the lives of contemporary youth.


Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson is Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen. Her main research areas are qualitative methods, crime, social work, risk-taking and youth studies. She is co-editor of YOUNG and has recently published in Berkeley Journal of Sociology and Qualitative Research. Signe Ravn, is Senior Researcher at SFI – The Danish National Centre for Social Research, Copenhagen. Her main interests are youth cultures and risk-taking, drug use, transitions, marginalization, gender and qualitative methods. She has recently published in Sociology of Health & Illness and Health & Place.