Youth Poverty, Transition and the case of Scotland


Shortly after the Scottish National Party (SNP) was elected to lead a minority government in 2007, they endeared themselves to those on the left by re-introducing the terms inequality and poverty back into policy lexicon. The SNP have committed themselves to ‘tackling both adult and child poverty’  and have developed a number of outcomes and indicators with which to measure their on-going success, or otherwise. However, there is no explicit reference to tackling youth poverty. This is despite evidence which suggests that in the UK, young people are the group most at risk of impoverishment after pensioners. Recent years have witnessed significant changes in the social and economic context of young people’s lives and there is increasing evidence that this has fuelled a greater disparity between those with prospects and those without. The social, economic and demographic changes that have occurred over the last half century have radically altered the landscape that young people must negotiate in their path to adulthood. For some, these changes represent a time of unlimited opportunity – to travel, to seek personal and spiritual fulfilment or to undertake a whole host of self-developing activities – before settling into adult life. For others however, such opportunities are still as distant as they would have appeared a half century ago. In recent years, rather than seeking to tackle poverty, much government angst has been directed at tacking ‘exclusion’ – with estimates suggesting that  between ten and twenty per cent of young people can be classed as excluded. This is certainly true of policy initiatives in Scotland, with the Scottish Government’s overarching aim of reducing poverty and-or exclusion through the reconnection of young people to employment.

The concept of ‘youth’ is a difficult one to define. It is a social construction and is understood differently depending on culture and time. Coles (1995) notes that legally, it is often defined in complex and arbitrary ways, for example the age of criminal responsibility begins at 8 in Scotland – so does youth begin then? Or end at 26 when full entitlement to welfare benefits starts? Fahmy (2006) suggests that ‘rather than pursuing a chronological definition, youth is better viewed as a period of transition, or set of transitions, between the dependency of childhood and the social and economic independence of adulthood’ (p349). The idea of youth being a transitory period can be traced back to the work of Olivier Galland (1984, 1991). He posited that in order to negotiate the hurdle between childhood and adulthood successfully, young people had to make three successful transitions:

    • From school to work – The ‘professional’ transition
    • From family home to independent living – the ‘residential’ transition
    • From family of origin to family of destination – the ‘domestic’ transition

By navigating their way through these transitions, it is implied that young people will have successfully bridged the gap to full ‘citizenship’ and adulthood.

In recent years however, evidence suggests that these transitions are becoming prolonged, with many of the transitions identified by Galland occurring far later than had previously occurred. Previous generations would make these transitions in a predictable and linear fashion, with all taking place over a few years. For young people growing up in Western societies this has changed markedly over the past twenty to thirty years with many young people delaying the traditional markers of adulthood, sometimes until their early thirties or beyond. Arnett (2006) states that this period of emerging adulthood offers those living in Western, capitalist societies the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of consumerist societies. This delay in transition offers young people the opportunity to develop their own selves, often going backpacking abroad, seeking out new experiences, perhaps trying out different educational opportunities. For those less fortunate however there is far more ‘risk’ attached to these transitions today. As transitions become more fragmented and risky, those that do not have the resources to support and manage this process can find their position further impoverished. As Beck (1992) notes, ‘risks adhere to the class pattern, only inversely: wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom…poverty attracts an unfortunate abundance of risks. By contrast, the wealthy (in income, power or education) can purchase safety and freedom from risk’ (p35). For young people who are already poor there are limited opportunities available for them to grow into independent adults whilst avoiding the pitfall of poverty, leaving them particularly vulnerable. McDonald and Marsh (2005) agree, suggesting that ‘more complex, extended transitions present risks which are disproportionately borne by those sections of the youth population with the least resources with which to deal with them’ (p33).

Mizen (2002) argues that contemporary politics regarding youth are managed in what he calls a ‘monetarist’ framework. He contrasts this with a Keynesian framework which was predominant post-war until around 1976 (see diagram below).

Keynesian Youth1946 – 1976 Monetarist Youth1977 – current
· Direct state support for parents, e.g family allowance · Move cost of child support back on to the family – erode value and scope of welfare benefits for children and young people
· Consolidate and reorganise secondary schooling:1. Raise school leaving age

2. Comprehensive reform, end selection

3. A ‘child-centred’ curriculum

· Reorganise secondary schooling through:1. Age standard testing

2. Promote market forces, selection and competition

3. Make schooling more relevant to the ‘needs’ of industry

· Expand further and higher education free at the point of demand; mandatory maintenance awards· Guarantee full employment · Expand further and higher education by shifting the cost onto young people and their parents – fees and loans· Guarantee place on a work experience or training scheme
· Raise youth wages · Actively depress youth wages
· Extend welfare benefits to young people in their own right e.g. supplementary benefit, unemployment benefit and housing benefit · Relate welfare entitlements more closely to age as a means of limiting provision and introduce harsher eligibility criteria as a deterrent

Whereas the Keynesian state advocated full employment, a strong welfare state, a rise in young people’s wages and inclusion of young people in civic life, the monetarist state has seen the gradual erosion of these policies. This monetarist agenda sees the prioritisation of economic goals above all else, subsuming any notion of social justice along with it. This is particularly apparent in Scotland today where the government declares that its overarching aim is to offer opportunities to all through sustainable economic growth. This has a particularly damaging impact on marginalised young people.

This is primarily due to the fact that this prioritisation on economic growth has ‘been characterised by a singular emphasis on encouraging, facilitating and enforcing participation in education, training or employment’ (McKendrick et al, 2007: 156). Young people have benefited over the past twenty years from the substantial expansion of post-16 education and subsequently progressing from school to university. Those who don’t make this transition however, are likely to find themselves marginalised and facing a labour market that has changed markedly over the past three decades. It has been well documented that the radical macro-economic restructuring of the 1970s hit the young working-class disproportionately hard. Up until this point, the vast majority of young people would find secure and stable employment and through this, social independence and a safe transition to adulthood. Now, the transition from school to work for those leaving school has all but vanished leaving young people in this group vulnerable to poverty. This has been recognised by government and their response to this ‘has been towards engaging them in pre- and post-sixteen training and educational courses, thereby increasing their employability’ (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005: 85). This is a continuation of the move towards ‘vocationalism’ which began in the 1980s under Thatcher. The Scottish Government state that ‘encouraging all young people to stay in learning post-16 is the best way of ensuring their long-term employability and contribution to society’. Unfortunately, this policy ignores that poverty is the fundamental reason that many young people from poorer backgrounds fail to make this transition in the first place.

Research has consistently shown that those young people who grow up in poverty are disadvantaged well into their adult years. The primary reason for this is that a young person growing up in poverty is less likely to gain good educational qualifications. Research has shown that those young people in Scotland who qualify for free school meals are half as likely to get to level 5 in the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework. Several studies have also found that the level of ‘cultural capital’ at home is deeply significant – parents’ social class, their level of education, experience of unemployment and their housing situation amongst other factors all affect whether a young person continues in education or experiences unemployment. As Hine and Wood (2009) note ‘this is not merely a matter of money, but includes features such as the schools that they attend, spaces to do homework, and even language competence’ (p248). The problem with the government’s approach is that it fails to address these issues. Rather than focusing on the root cause of the disadvantage that these young people suffer – their poverty – policy merely addresses the symptoms. As much research has shown, education alone is not enough to break this cycle – education reflects the inequalities that exist in society. Poverty must be addressed if we are truly serious about addressing inequality and deprivation. Young people from impoverished backgrounds can find that a period of unemployment upon leaving school can have a scarring effect on future employment prospects, therefore carrying their childhood disadvantage well into their adult lives. Although the current policy can be seen as a continuity of the vocationalist trend started by the Conservatives in the 1980s, what has changed is the nature of much of the training and education programs. Today’s work programs provide an extremely basic package of work preparation, foregrounding punctuality, compliance and good behaviour. The result is a greater polarisation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ with a substantial number of young people, primarily from poorer backgrounds, falling behind those young people who go on to further and higher education.

The ‘residential’ transition has become more complex and prolonged in recent years, largely due to the contraction of the youth labour market, the erosion of young people’s entitlements to benefits and the concentration of young people in poorly paid employment. Jones (1995) differentiates between what she calls ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ transitions to housing independence. Positive transitions are those that are made during periods of study, training and employment whilst negative transitions tend to be linked to family breakdown. Research shows that negative transitions affect those vulnerable young people living in poverty to a far greater extent. For those young people that do leave the family home, whatever the underlying factor, evidence suggests that there is very high risk of poverty. This is despite changes in the housing sector in Scotland over the last decade, with a divergence in policy from England since devolution. Shelter Scotland note that Scotland has some of the most progressive homelessness legislation in Europe as the Homelessness (Scotland) Act 2003 has extended the range of groups to be considered as having a priority need and therefore eligible for permanent accommodation. This has meant that young people under 18 and single parents are guaranteed access to social housing. However, social housing is in short supply and this can mean that young people can spend months in temporary accommodation, hostels and bed and breakfasts which are often unsuitable for young people and the accommodation can be of poor quality. With the economic downturn meaning that new housing projects have been put on hold, there is little hope that the current situation will improve. It is likely that the residential transition will continue to impoverish young people.

The changes in the ‘professional’ transition of young people have undoubtedly also had an enormous effect on the ‘domestic’ transition. For the majority of young people marriage and parenthood are postponed, primarily as a consequence of the extended transition of education or training. For those young people leaving school with little in the way of qualifications however, many are accelerating their transition to parenthood, often without a stable relationship for support. As Cote and Bynner (2008) note, ‘for young women, NEET frequently converts into early pregnancy and parenthood, with exceptionally high incidence in the UK and USA’ (p255). Bynner et al (2002) note that ‘this is particularly the case for young women who leave education at 16 without qualifications. Having relatively limited access to the white-collar jobs that they typically seek, many opt for the alternative career of motherhood’ (p67). Again, it is noted that this is primarily an issue for those young women from a lower socio-economic background (Jones, 2002). Evidence shows that young women classified as living in areas that are ‘deprived’ are ten times more likely to have a teenage pregnancy than those ‘least deprived’. For young men and women who do become parents, the problems in escaping poverty whilst making the transition to parenthood successfully tends to stem from three main factors. The first is escaping the poverty that they are likely to come from. The second is that benefit rates for young people are lower than that of adults and this can place young parents at extreme risk of poverty, particularly single mothers. This can also be heightened for those young women under 16, as access to benefits can be extremely limited. The third is that for those parents that do find work, the likelihood of it paying enough to escape poverty is limited and this is again heightened for lone mothers. Current policy has changed little over the last twenty years, with work again posited as the best route out of poverty for young parents. There is also little change in the moralistic discourse which has surrounded teenage parents since the early 1990s. Teenage parenthood is still constructed as a social problem, a failing particular to the poor, working-class and a principal cause of social exclusion.

This is perhaps the biggest continuity that can be noted in current policy discourse – the notion that it is the failings of young people that hinder their transition to adult statuses. As Davies (1986) noted back in 1986, the governments philosophy towards working-class youth was that they ‘were characterised as, by their very nature, lacking in appropriate skills, qualities, habits and attitudes’ (p54).This approach continues today with policy focusing on the deficiencies of its young people as can be seen throughout a whole raft of policy documents. For example, the Scottish government states that its framework for addressing poverty includes:

 …addressing educational disadvantage and underachievement; tackling poor health; providing more choices and more chances for vulnerable young people at risk of disengagement; tackling worklessness – particularly deep-rooted pockets of inter-generational worklessness.

It is worth enquiring whether this approach differs greatly from the approach of the last thirty years. The prioritisation of economic goals above all else has meant that ‘the solutions to social exclusion are premised on the social integration of economically marginal groups through the gaining of educational qualifications and paid work’ (Tett, 2006: 50). But as discussed earlier, this approach ignores the barriers that poverty can erect in the paths of young people. This focus on ‘problem’ groups masks the underlying structures which serve to marginalise those young people living in poverty in the first place. The change in language of recent years – from poverty to that of exclusion/inclusion – has helped to divert responsibility from the interventionist state to a ‘deficient’ youth. By putting in place a vocational work preparation course for all young people, the responsibility for unemployment can be shifted squarely onto the shoulders of the ‘feckless’ youth. Add to the mix the dominant discourse of individual responsibility and the myth of meritocracy and it has become easier to blame these young people for their ‘inadequacies’. Unemployment is highest among young people and highest for the most marginalised and the least credentialed. The result is that those young people struggling to make the transition to adulthood can be caught in a cycle of training schemes and poorly paid temporary jobs. It is argued that when young people are unable to find work, the individualised nature of our society means that the young person can experience the ‘failure’ very personally, as internalised deficiency and sense of disconnection. With young unemployed people, teenage parents and homeless youth increasingly being disenfranchised from the processes of production and consumption, this disconnection can only serve to deepen their poverty. As these processes are integral to young people’s identity formation today, such disenfranchisement can lead to social anomie.

The biggest change to occur however, is one that threatens the model of youth transitions itself. The fragmentation and growing individualisation (Beck, 1992) of our society mean that the relevance of these markers of adulthood is argued to be fading. As has been shown, the transition to adulthood has become far more risky, particularly for those marginalised groups discussed. Barry (2005) argues that the ‘model of youth transition rarely incorporates the lived reality for disadvantaged young people – what it really means to grow up in a society which often denies them the opportunities, skills and responsibilities afforded to ‘adults’’ (p102). It is also argued that the narrow focus of the transition model valorises the economic structures which determine a young person’s life at the expense of their own agency. Contemporary politics places more responsibility and obligation on the shoulders of its young people and it is argued that young people are increasingly accepting this responsibility. As such, it is argued they are constructing their own narratives resulting in the linear approach of the transition model being questioned. Kemshall (2009) writes that ‘individuals are framed as shapers of their own worlds making decisions according to calculations of risk and opportunity but risking blame and punishment if they get their choices wrong’ (p45). For all these arguments however, the amount of ‘agency’ that a young person has is still going to be positioned within their social circumstances. For young people living on the margins, Furlong and Cartmel (2007) suggest that they may suffer from an ‘epistemological fallacy’ which masks the limits that structural factors have on their agency. This individualised outlook cultivated by our modern politics can serve to heighten the disconnection that a young person can feel, should they fail to meet one of the markers of adulthood.

There is little doubt that inequalities persist – and have worsened in recent years. Social class origin continues to be hugely influential in shaping young people’s life chances. With ever deeper cuts looming it is hard to see this situation changing. Up until this point the government, through its monetarist agenda and focus on social inclusion, has sought to tackle the symptoms of poverty without tackling the causes and it is highly unlikely this will change with a reduction in its budget. For the majority of young people growing up today, the transition to adulthood has been postponed, primarily due to the change in the ‘professional’ transition. For young people growing up in poverty however, these transitions can be accelerated and the control that they have over these transitions may be questionable. In response to the threat posed to the model of youth transition by the growth of individualism it is probably fair to say that ‘young people do exercise agency, to varying degrees and under diverse circumstances, but this agency is subject to the pressures on, and limits of, activity arising from their material position and relations in society’ (Wyn and White, 1997: 142). Even those young people with a high degree of personal agency may find the road to adulthood difficult should they struggle to find the stable and secure employment which underpins all three transitions. For those young people who make the domestic or residential transition without this, poverty is highly likely to be waiting. The effects of deindustrialisation are still being felt in Scotland today and this, coupled with the importance attached to employment by the government, has meant that not only can young people find themselves marginalised, they can find themselves labelled as indolent:

Their work ethic is non-existent and for them family life is a sham with single young women having children to secure housing, benefits and status leaving a residue of young males who neither work nor care for their offspring. (Jeffs, 1999: 58)

As has been shown, policy tends to focus on the individual failings of young people instead of the structural issues which serve to marginalise them in the first place. And as MacDonald and Marsh (2005) found, far from shunning the mainstream life ‘our informants professed commonplace and obvious longer-term ambitions: a loving relationship with a partner, their own house, children when the time was right, a car and –as a conduit to much of this – a decent job’ (p126). It is unlikely that these ambitions will be realised in the near future.

Further Reading

Aasave, A., Iacovou, M. and Mancarini, L. (2006) ‘Youth Poverty and transition to adulthood in Europe’, Demographic Research, Vol 15, (2), pp21-50

Arnett, J. (2006) ‘Emerging adulthood in Europe: a response to Bynner’, Journal of youth studies, Vol 9, (1), pp111-123.

Barry, M. (2005) The inclusive illusion of youth transitions, In M. Barry (ed) Youth Policy and Social Inclusion, Abingdon: Routledge

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage

Bottrell, D. & Armstrong, D. (2007) ‘Changes and exchanges in marginal youth transitions’, The Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 10, (3), pp353-371

Bynner, J., Elias, P., McKnight, A., Pan, H. & Pierre, G. (2002) Young People’s changing routes to independence, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Bynner, J. (2005) ‘Rethinking the youth phase: the case for emerging adulthood?’ Journal of youth studies, Vol 8, (4), pp367-384.

Coles, B. (1995) Youth, youth transitions and social policy, London: UCL

Côté, J. and Bynner, J.M. (2008) ‘Changes in the transition to adulthood in the UK and Canada: the role of structure and agency in emerging adulthood’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol. 11, (3), pp251-268

Davies, B. (1986) Threatening Youth: Towards a national youth policy. Milton Keynes: OU Press

Dolton, P., Makepeace, G., Sutton, S. and Audas, R. (1999) Making the Grade: Education, the Labour Market and Young People. Work and Opportunity Series No. 15. York: YPS for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Fahmy, E. (2006) ‘Youth, poverty and social exclusion’, In C. Pantazis, D. Gordon and R. Levitas (eds) Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Bristol: The Policy Press

Forsyth, A. and Furlong, A. (2000) Socio-economic disadvantage and Access to Higher Education. Bristol: Policy Press and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

France, A. (2008a) ‘From Being to Becoming: The importance of tackling youth poverty in transitions to adulthood’, Social Policy & Society, Vol 7, (4), pp495-505

France, A. (2008b) ‘Risk Factor Analysis and the youth question’ In Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 11, (1), pp1-15

Furlong, A. and Cartmel, F. (2007) Young People and Social Change – 2nd Ed, Berkshire: OU Press

Galland, O. (1984) La Decouverte: Les Jeunes , Paris: La Decouverte Editions

Galland, O. (1991) Sociologie de la jeunesse, Paris: Armand Colin

Giullari, S. and Shaw, M. (2005) ‘Supporting or controlling? New Labour’s housing strategy for teenage parents’, Critical Social Policy, Vol 25, (3), pp402-417

Hine, J. and Wood, J. (2009) ‘Working with young people: Emergent themes’, In J.Wood and J. Hine (eds) Work With Young People, London: SAGE

Hirsch, D. (2007) Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage – Joseph Rowntree Foundation,, <Date last accessed – 07/11/2010>

Iacovou, M and Assave, A. (2007) Youth Poverty in Europe, York: JRF

ISD (2010) Information services division – Scotland – Sexual health, < 2071.html>, (Date last accessed – 28/11/10)

Jeffs, T (1999) ‘Wild Things? Young People, our new ‘Enemy Within’’ , in Murphy & Shaw (eds) Conceptualising Youth Work: Back to the Future, Edinburgh: Concept, (pp56-62)

Jeffs, T and Smith, M.K. (2001). ‘Social exclusion, joined-up thinking and individualization – new labour’s connexions strategy’, Infed,<; (Date last accessed – 5/12/10)

Jones, G. (1995) Leaving Home, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Jones, G. (2002) The Youth Divide – Diverging paths to adulthood, Layerthorpe: JRF

Kemp, P.A. (2005) ‘Young People and unemployment’ in M. Barry (ed) Youth policy and social inclusion: Critical Debates with young people. Abingdon: Routledge

Kemshall, H. (2009) ‘Risk, Social Policy and Young people’,,In J.Wood and J. Hine (eds) Work With Young People, London: SAGE

Levitas, R., Head, E. and Finch, N. (2006) ‘Lone mothers, poverty and social exclusion’, In C. Pantazis, D. Gordon and R. Levitas (eds) Poverty and Social Exclusion in Britain, Bristol: The Policy Press

Macdonald, R. (1997) Dangerous youth and the dangerous class. In R. Macdonald (ed) Youth, the ‘Underclass and Social Exclusion, London: Routledge

Macdonald, R. & Marsh, J. (2005) Disconnected Youth? Growing up in Britain’s poor neighbourhoods. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

McLennan, D. and O’Sullivan, T. (2008) Housing Policies for Scotland: Challenges and Change, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Mckendrick, J., Scott, G. & Sinclair, S. (2007) ‘Dismissing Disaffection: Young People’s Attitudes Towards Education, Employment and Participation in a Deprived Community’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 10, (2), pp139-160

Mizen, P. (2002) ‘Putting the politics back into youth studies: Keynesianism, monetarism and the changing state, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 5, (1), pp5-20

Mizen, P. (2004) The Changing State of Youth, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Murray, C. (1990) The Emerging British Underclass, London: Institute of Economic Affairs

Ormston, R. (2008) Public attitudes to homelessness: findings from a Scotland-wide survey. < homel essness.pdf> (Date last accessed – 29/11/10)

Parekh, A., MacInnes, T. and Kenway, P. (2010) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion – 2010, York: JRF

Pavis S., Platt S. and Hubbard G. (2000) Young People in Scotland: Pathways to Social Inclusion and Exclusion, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Ravn, M. N. (2005) ‘A matter of free choice? Some structural and cultural influences on the decisionto have or not to have children in Norway’, in C.B. Douglass (ed) Barren States: The Population ‘Implosion’ in Europe, New York: Berg Publishing

Scott, G. & Mooney, G. (2009) ‘Poverty and Social Justice in the Devolved Scotland: Neoliberalism Meets Social Democracy?’, Social Policy & Society, Vol 8, (3), pp379–389

Shelter (2010) Supporting families and children, <; (Date last accessed – 30/11/10)

Stafford, B., Heaver, C., Ashworth, K., Bates, C., Walker, R., McKay, S. and Trickey, H. (1999) Work and Young Men. Work and Opportunity Series No. 14. York: YPS for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Tett, L. (2006) Community Education, Lifelong Learning and Social Inclusion. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press

Valentine, G. (2003) ‘Boundary crossings: transitions from childhood to adulthood’, Children’s Geographies, Vol 1, (1), pp37-52

Worth, S. (2005) ‘Beating the ‘churning’ trap in the youth labour market’, Work, Employment & Society, Vol 19,(2), pp403–13.

Wyn, J. and White, R. (1997) Rethinking Youth, London: Sage

Wyn. J. and Woodman, D. (2006) ‘Generation, Youth and Social Change in Australia’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 9, (5), pp495-514

Yates, S. & Payne, M. (2006) ‘Not so NEET? A Critique of the Use of ‘NEET’ in Setting Targets for Interventions with Young People’, Journal of Youth Studies, Vol 9, (3), pp329-344

Categories: Youth Studies, Youth Unemployment

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