MYPLACE Policy and Impact leads Mick Carpenter (University of Warwick) and Marti Taru (Tallinn University), together with Project Manager Martin Price (University of Warwick) on the economic crisis, its impact on youth and what MYPLACE might do to help our understanding of the issues affecting youth in 21st Century Europe.
This blog is based on a paper written by Mick Carpenter and Marti Taru and presented at the ESA mid-term Youth and Generations Network conference, September 2012.
For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE
In this article we seek to identify emerging policy themes and issues that are arising from the early stages of the MYPLACE project. This research covers fourteen countries including England, Germany, a range of post-socialist countries, and the southern European flank of Portugal, Spain and Greece. It is examining young people’s civic and political participation, including the extent to which it has been shaped by past histories of ‘populism’ and totalitarianism, and the receptivity of young people to radical ‘right’ and ‘left’ political movements. Drawing out the policy implications for national governments and European wide institutions from the project’s extensive empirical research is a central aim. We are jointly leads for ‘Work Package 8’ (http://www.fp7-myplace.eu/workpackages.php) with the responsibility for ensuring that these concerns are addressed from the outset of the project. This paper therefore provides an opportunity to highlight issues with colleagues on a complex, multi-researcher project, as well as with a wider research community. Thus while it draws from project documents and emerging research, the views and analyses put forward here are our own.
The first and central question we will consider is whether what we are seeing across European societies at the current moment is a distinct ‘youth crisis’ with its own features and therefore primarily resolvable by discrete youth policy and youth work’ measures, or whether there is more a general systemic crisis that is affecting youth, but whose remedies might lie more in wider policy actions than youth policy and youth work alone, important though these may still be.
In this particular blog we will focus especially on the youth unemployment issue that is affecting many European countries to varying degrees. We will ask what are the cross national and more localised patterns and drivers of youth unemployment, and how significant is it as a factor shaping or even explaining the 3 D’s of youth disengagement, discontent and disturbance? Our inclination, and the initial scoping research of our project, indicates that it is a major factor, though we also would not want to over-emphasize its importance. There is much that influences young people’s engagement in civic and political action that cannot be traced to youth unemployment, and where it is clearly a factor it should not be deployed in over-deterministic ways.
We believe that ‘something’ is undoubtedly changing, and admit that this might be a rather obvious conclusion. Whereas social scientists until recently sought to comment on exaggerated and misplaced claims that youth as a whole were disengaged and primarily apolitical (e.g. Manning, 2010), over the past year or so more young people have undoubtedly been politically and publicly active. This has included ‘issue movements’ involving action (as in the UK) in relation to specific concerns, such as higher university tuition fees and end to pre-University financial support. These patterns of action can be seen elsewhere, for example higher education was a driver of young people’s political protests in Greece, before austerity politics started to reshape action. What we then saw, through movements such as Occupy and the ‘squares’ movements of southern Europe, or campaigns around democracy in Russia and other post-socialist countries were more general ‘system’ focused movements, in which young people played a prominent part. There have also been disturbances in urban centres such as the widespread riots in British cities in 2011, and those in France in 2005, in which young people, especially the most socially excluded have participated. There is therefore undoubtedly a shift to more ‘radical’ and ‘populist’ aspirations and actions, in which youth and young adults are prominent.
The populist right was rising in significance, becoming part of the political ‘mainstream’ before the current crisis, especially in northern Europe and Scandinavia, and this needs explanation (e.g. Hainsworth, 2008; Marsdal, 2008). However, the growing intensity of economic pressures, and the failure of European Union institutions to respond effectively them, and issues of underlying political alienation from ‘rigid’ political systems, is undoubtedly helping to nourish it (Baier, 2011). The Internet has provided an effective means for propagating what Bartlett et al (2012) call ‘digital populism’. There is thus increasing polarity in the political system. What MYPLACE seeks to do is to understand such phenomenon by placing them holistically within the total profile of youth consciousness and action, rather than simply focusing on the most publicly visible aspects identified above. It also puts emphasis on understanding the international, cross-national dimensions and influences, and placing contemporary youth action in the context of ‘historical memory’. Higher education reform spurred young people’s action in Chile too, for example. Undoubtedly the Tahrir Square movement and Arab Spring had an impact on European movements. Occupy and similar movements have also been influenced crucially by the failure of traditional forms of political action such as demonstrations to effect change, not least the huge global demonstrations in 2005 that failed to prevent military intervention in Iraq. The ‘squares’ movement arguably has a longer genealogy stretching at least to Tiananmen Square actions of 1989, but not necessarily, as this example illustrates with an enhanced record of success. The actions of Pussy Riot in Russia, while of course echoing the UK musical movements of the 1970s, also draw (through it) on ‘situationist’ traditions and the spirit of May ’68 in France, as well as social theorists such as Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Without adopting a technologically determinist stance, it is clear that the internet has facilitated the global networking of both the radical ‘left’ and ‘right’. On the left the recent historical landmarks are the ‘anticapitalist’ Seattle protests of 1999, which were in fact a continuation of previous protests, but out of which a more organised though still disparate counter-system movements evolved. Thus the current wave of protest and disturbance does not come out of thin air. While they are responses to current developments such as the economic crises and austerity that have beset global capitalism since 2008, they have deeper antecedents and do not involve entirely newly invented political repertoires.
Early MYPLACE working papers in the form of National Youth Policy Regime Reports prepared by each project partner across 14 European countries supports the hypothesis that youth unemployment tends to be one, albeit significant, aspect in broader social and political developments rather than a wholly independent variable. There is considerable variation in the significant of the unemployment issue in different European countries. Youth (un)employment has different history and varying contexts, and also has divergent consequences in different countries. Without positing a crude deterministic relationship between recession, educational opportunities and access to decent employment, it is clear that these factors are drivers or ‘generative mechanisms’ of the ‘3 Ds’ of disengagement, discontent and disturbance. A review of the effects of the crisis on youth by Marcus and Gavrilovic (2010) makes the point that economic development depends crucially on a combination of good education and decent employment opportunities, and where these are not available this can undermine economic productivity and fuel unrest. They also point out that one of the chief obstacles to tackling these issues is the low level of political influence enjoyed by young people. In other words, a combination of economic vulnerability and political disempowerment are significant factors impacting differentially on young people at a time of crisis. Arguably it thereby also contributes to a greater likelihood of young people pursuing avenues of influence outside the political mainstream – through radical or populist movements.
There is evidence that economic conditions are important influence young people’s political consciousness and protest, not in a mechanical or simple ‘cause and effect’ way, but rather interacting in complex ways with other factors. We must understand the values and discursive meanings attached to these factors by young people themselves and also how they fit into the overall patterns of life in which they are involved. Thus MYPLACE is seeking to explore this further in its various qualitative and quantitative research strands.
The evidence on poverty and unemployment linking the development of ‘NEETs’ (those not in education, employment or training) to crime, disorder and riots is disputed by those like the English Prime Minister, David Cameron who prefer to see them as examples of ‘pure criminality’ rather than systemically generated. However, the research by EFILWC (2012) [http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/pubdocs/2011/72/en/1/EF1172EN.pdf], uses the 2008 European Values Survey (EVS) to explore the extent of their disaffection and found that young people in the NEET category
“…are likely to have built up a lack of trust in institutions, as they may perceive that authorities lack the ability to solve their problems. A large share of ‘politically disillusioned’ young people can contribute to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic systems in societies (EFLWIC, 2012: 6-7) ”
Since the economic collapse, there are more reasons to lack trust in political and economic elites, and the institutions they oversee. Again it is important to look at how the current crisis ‘builds’ on the past.
Our early work cautions against seeing all forms of radical action by youth outside, or in challenge to, the mainstream as similarly ‘populist’; whether of the right and left. In some senses what is perceived as loss of ‘trust’ might better be seen as efforts towards democratic renewal or ‘positive’ disengagement to change and renew the political and economic system. Seen in this way, the Arab Spring, the squares movement in southern Europe, Occupy in the UK and North America, are not simply responses to the immediate situation but have longer antecedents. It similarly cautions against viewing the new forms of internet action as a wholly new departure changing the nature of political mobilisations and action. This is a part of a broader trend in which young people play a prominent role, but not only in ‘youth movements’.
Rather than focus solely on young people themselves and measures to tackle the immediate crisis, we argue for a contextual historical analysis linked a broader policy agenda. Policies targeted at youth are often called ‘youth policies’. However we think there needs to be more emphasis on a broader range of policies that may not be particularly targeted at youth but have implications or effects on them. We suggest that ‘radical’ or so-called ‘populist’ action can have a system renewing rather than threatening potential, by indicating pathologies within the political and economic system that need correction, rather than just forms of action that need to be combatted. Similarly, responses to economic crisis perhaps call for more than simply efforts to integrate young people within existing systems of politics and economics that have been shaped by three decades of neoliberal governance. Thus contrary to ‘repressive’ and ‘integrationist’ approaches that are often based on deficit models of young people, we would propose ‘responsive’ forms of action that involve self-reflexivity by political elites, and seek at least to meet young people ‘half way’, viewing radical actions as not due to personal deficits and even potentially having positive features. Or as former French President Francois Mitterand put it:
“If young people are not always right, the society which ignores and knocks them is always wrong (cited EFILWC, 2012: 1).”
Rather than simply develop isolated youth policy analyses we therefore suggest need to focus more on the implications of general theories for young people, and how these can be contextualised by research in the youth policy field.
One of the issues we think needs addressing is the extent to which the current economic crisis and austerity has in fact brought materialist politics back into the frame, through an emerging ‘politics of austerity’ involving young people. Rather than just focusing on values, this would necessitate examining the extent to which ‘structural’ changes are affecting young people. One possible approach to this is through Standing’s (2011) analysis of ‘the precariat’ which focuses on the way that neoliberal globalization is undermining the labour market position of increasing numbers of workers, and eroding supportive public services, with potentially ‘dangerous’ political consequences, which he recognizes are likely to impact most on those (young people) entering the labour market, rather than (older people) already in it. Another is the fact that it is not just the precarious so-called NEETs that are being affected by these changes, and becoming restive, but also disaffected graduates whose opportunities have been narrowed and life pathways disrupted, as Paul Mason (2013) points out.
Of course, political action cannot crudely be derived from structural analysis. However we think this is important because it might counter some of the theories recently advanced which focus excessively on (admittedly significant) intergenerational effects as political causal mechanisms rather than political economic consequences of the global economic crisis. Therefore structural analysis might, to the extent that it might influence young people, and lead to responsiveness from older people and from formal political elites and institutions, shape a ‘politics of solidarity’ involving an alliance against neoliberalism or ‘politics of division’ across the generations. The danger of theories of the ‘clash of generation’ (e.g. Friedman, 2011; Howker and Malik, 2010) which blame the current crisis primarily on the selfishness of the ‘baby boomers’ is that it fails to identify the embedded structural economic and social forces that helped to generate the crisis – just as the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory (Huntington, 1996) helps to promote the very Islamic and ‘western’ tensions it purports to analyse, and similarly problematically asserts the primacy of the cultural over the political-economic.
The above forms a background to an analysis which we have started into youth policy responses in MYPLACE countries, based on early reflections on MYPLACE partners’ Youth Policy Regime Reports which we are currently analysing. We are seeking to analyse national policies for youth within a mainstream social policy context rather than a ‘partial’ youth policy framework, an exercise which so far has not been fully undertaken. As well as charting the national level we are charting the pan-European effects and also the reshaping of European level economic and social policy, and the youth/young people’s dimension within that. We certainly hope that the results of our research will help to influence these emerging policy agendas and national and European levels, and in this paper we have sought to scope out a range of significant issues relevant to this these tasks. Preliminary analysis of our youth policy regime reports indicate that the link between youth unemployment and political attitudes and activities is far from deterministic. It varies significantly across countries, and with countries by class, gender, ‘race’ and other inequalities, which indicates that wider social factors play important role. We see that youth reactions can involved ‘political’ but also ‘personal’ agency, or a combination of both. In Latvia and Portugal, for example, which have very different welfare models and history, young people have increasingly adopted a personal ‘exit’ rather than a political ‘voice’ strategy by choosing to leave the country in search of a better life elsewhere. In Greece and Russia youth political activism is high but it occurs because of different factors – economic crisis and welfare retrenchment in Greece and protest against political oppression and authoritarianism in Russia.
Overviews from different countries across Europe – East and West, South and North, – thus suggest that we must look for a more nuances link between employment, unemployment and youth activism. Focusing mainly on education and employability is not likely to lead to a significant increase in social development and well-being, neither on its own will it increase young people’s sense of security. Our policy responses must therefore be more holistic and responsive to the messages of youth action. Rather than seeking simply to integrate young people into the existing mainstream, serious thought needs to be given as to whether it is the mainstream itself that needs changing.
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 In this paper we use this term loosely to encompass youth and young adults, broadly in the 15-25 age range.
 Since these are the ‘first findings’ of the research, we do not yet know enough about methods deployed to fully assess this way of accessing the views of ’NEETs’ compared to other young people.