Neoliberal Transitions: Are public services failing youth?

Neoliberal Transitions: Are public services failing youth?

Shelda-Jane Smith

Neoliberal logics have become intrinsic to youth services.

The psychological traits of independence and responsibility for the self, have become integral to youth education programmes, healthcare practices and an ever increasing popular psychological wellness discourse. Within this Eurocentric enterprise of adolescent psychology, to be a functioning and healthy citizen one must both embody and perform the values central to neoliberalism. Young people are expected to self-regulate their personal journey into adulthood – an adulthood within a world of capitalist realism.

The proliferation of cognitive and neuroscientific explanatory models of adolescence have provided justification for reshaping policy and practice in a variety of public arenas. Consequently, the ‘incomplete’ neurobiology of the maturing adolescent brain has now become the de-facto explanation of why young people struggle with decision-making, risk-taking and emotional regulation. In our present age of brainhood,  adolescence has been earmarked as a fundamental cause for concern. Youth are now reduced to their brain activity, which portrays them as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ to their own biological development.

Yet this is only half the story.

Politicising Adolescence
In fixating teenagers as a challenging demographic, we do not see how the ‘adolescent’ – with all its connotations of risk, turmoil and stress – is a figure that is culturally and socially contingent. Critical to advancing a more situated perspective of adolescence is to consider the concept’s social and scientific past.

The emergence of contemporary notions of adolescence is attributed to American psychologist G.S. Hall and his two-volume work Adolescence: Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education (1904). However, Hall was influenced by 19th century evolutionary theory of recapitulation wherein individual development recapitulated – or mimicked – that of the entire human species. In other words, echoing imperialist ideas of moving from primitive and savage states towards an idealised civilisation. Specifically, Hall referred to people of African, Indian and Chinese origin as the ‘adolescent races’, with European and American societies as civilised.

At the beginning of the 20th century, recapitulation theory served to isolate adolescence as the pivotal moment when an individual ‘leaped to a developed, superior, Western selfhood or remained arrested in a savage state’. Hall was the first to define this life stage as ‘strum und strang’ (storm and stress), and consequently developmental psychology arose out of Western cultural and scientific anxieties around racial and social classification.

This colonial legacy is very much alive today as concerns for youth and their ‘proper’ Western development can be seen in all manner of social life wherein adults surveil, corral and ultimately control the lives of young people. Contrast this with differing forms of Indigenous or anarchist approaches, that prioritise collectivity, prefiguration and freedom for youth-society relations.

Yet within Western, liberal worldviews, it was the prevailing authority of medical science that turned young people into subjects for justifiable surveillance. This privileging of childhood and medicalisation of the family have laid the foundations for the impetus in child and adolescent research and practice today. Consequently, childhood and adolescence are now subjects of medical and educational expertise that have extended into the politics and management of life itself.  

Human Becomings
Taken together, neuropsychological and historical perspectives have shaped today’s dominant rhetoric that adolescence is a perilous journey. Presently, adolescence is portrayed as something of an expedition through storm and stress, with the final goal being a stable sense of adulthood. Here, emphasis is placed on youth as human-becomings, rather than seeing them as human-beings in their own right.

But to view adolescence as a means to an end is outdated – particularly within the 21st century, an era characterised by rapid technological change and globalisation. Our age of uncertainty has heralded in new ways of defining developmental life stages and how people move between them.

The relationship between youth and the workforce is an example of this fluctuation. Following the post-war era, the rise of Fordism meant that stable employment became a typical defining characteristic of adulthood. Yet, in today’s fast paced world of global change, employment is frequently more precarious. The consequence of which we see in drives towards mass-marketisation of higher and post-18 education and deregulated, flexible and non-unionised labour forces. Such insecure and temporary forms of work mean that stable employment is no longer a consistent indicator of adulthood – ergo, the adolescent journey is without a clearly demarcated end.

Transitional Healthcare: A case in point
With journeys being intrinsic to society’s perception of youth, my own research grapples with this assumption within the context of the UK’s National Health Service. Specifically, within an increasingly underfunded healthcare service wherein self-reliance and moral responsibility are preferable to state provision of public services and welfare.

Transitional healthcare is defined as the planned and purposeful movement’ of young patients with long term conditions into an adult healthcare setting. With claims that adolescence not only impacts biomedical outcomes but also a young person’s ‘achievement as self-reliant, independent and productive members of society’ [1], the social processes inherent in this youth service are clear from the outset.

The desire to shape future adults who are valued for their productivity and self-reliance reveal this care practice to be guided by notions of the entrepreneurial or neoliberal-self and its place in wider society. Nevertheless, in developing care practices around Western-capitalist logics, many racialised, and/or disabled youth face ongoing exclusion and oppression.

The families that I speak to within my work are caregivers to teenagers and young adults with severe forms of neurodisabilities. Crucially, whilst engaging with transitional services that aims to build young peoples’ sense of responsibility for their own health, these parents vehemently resist sociocultural preferences for independent neoliberal subjectivities.

Taken from an ethnographic study of transitional care for young people with disabilities, the following interview extract illustrates this point. Here, the parents of a 17-year-old son, discuss the care that they received when transitioning from paediatric to adult services:

Father: It makes sense to put all effort into ‘normal’ kids or those with mild difficulties because they’re the next generation going into society, but he doesn’t really go into society, does he? All this promise of health plans and reviews we just take it with a pinch of salt.

Mother: When you’ve got a kid with disabilities, over the years you learn to lower your expectations of [health] services and the government.

The mother described her son’s post-paediatric health and social care as paying lip service to his health. Contra to the independence rhetoric, both parents felt that transitional care did not accommodate their child’s specific needs which was a life of continued dependency on carers and parents. Rather, transitional care reiterated the collective thinking of society:

Mother: It [transitional healthcare] just shows what everyone else wants for my son when he becomes an adult. It [being independent] is the norm within our society…We just have to go along with everyone else, y’know to include him, superficially, in ‘normal’ life.

These brief quotes show that appeals to independence and responsibility for the self, do not reflect the lived experience of famillies caring for youth with severe disabilities. Importantly, it was noted that such default cultural values exert a form of social pressure on famillies to falsely mimic ‘normal’ life patterns.

However well-intentioned, transitional care ultimately prepares youth for participation in a society that values neoliberal subjectivities. Unfortunately for many youth with long-term health conditions and disabilities, transitional healthcare (in its current state) mirrors a society that marginalises and fails those who do not conform to its prevailing values and ideals.

Portraying adolescence as ‘storm and stress’ reveals the political character that underlying many youth services. Framing youth as vulnerable or at risk constructs their social world; (re)producing their experiences and dictating how they negotiate their way around society.

By depicting young people as incomplete humans who are journeying towards a Western neoliberal adulthood, we maintain exclusionary relations towards those who are unable to, struggle with or simply chose not to follow this social narrative. In order to facilitate more ethical, socially just and culturally appropriate care services we need to sharply re-assess how we both portray and relate to youth.

Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that adulthood does not equate independence. Just like childhood and adolescence, being adult involves periods of dependency which requires cooperation and mutual caring as necessary to human life. Such things undoubtedly become obscured in the ‘independent self’ narrative – a narrative that is predicated upon colonial legacies, liberal ideologies and capitalist logics.

[1] D’Agostino, N., Penney, A., & Zebrack, B. (2011). Providing developmentally appropriate psychosocial care to adolescent and young adult cancer survivors. Cancer, 117, 2329-2334.


Shelda-Jane Smith is a postdoctoral researcher based in Geography at The University of Liverpool. Her research explores cultures of health, biopolitics, critical psychology and the production of marginal populations. Acknowledgement: This article was based the author’s PhD research funded by charity Epilepsy Action No. 234343. The dissemination of the results reflects the author’s view.

Image credit: By permission of Liverpool-based graphic artist, Slim Smith, whose original piece can be found here.