In Defence of Youth Transitions

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In the last article I outlined a relatively new conceptual approach to the study of young people – that of youth generation. Proponents of this approach have argued that this way of looking at young people’s issues offers the best way of unpacking processes of change, continuity and particular processes embedding inequalities for young people growing up in contemporary society. They argue that the ‘tradition’ of youth transitions is an outmoded way of analysing the lives of youth growing up today due to the ‘messy’ or ‘fragmented’ stage that youth has become. I disagree.

The concept of ‘youth’ is a difficult one to define – essentially it is a social construction and is understood differently depending on culture and time. We all know 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 25 when full entitlement to welfare benefits starts? Over the last couple of decades writers in the field of youth studies have suggested that rather than pursuing a chronological definition, the period known as ‘youth’ is better understood as a period of transition, or a set of transitions between the dependency of childhood and the independence of adulthood. The idea of youth being a transitory period can be traced back to the work of Olivier Galland. He posited that in order to negotiate the hurdle between childhood and adulthood successfully, young people had to make three successful transitions:

  1. From school to work – The ‘professional’ transition
  2. From family home to independent living – the ‘residential’ transition
  3. 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.

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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. For the previous generation (the Baby Boomers) the decades after the Second World War saw the transition to adulthood occur in a (reasonably) ordered and predictable fashion, with all three transitions taking place over the space of 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. Jeffrey Arnett argues that this period of emerging adulthood offers those living in Western, capitalist societies the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of consumerism. This delay in transition offers young people the opportunity to develop their own selves, travelling, dipping into education, exploring and developing their own identities and getting a ‘taste of life’. For those less fortunate however, Alan France suggests that 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 Ulrich Beck 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.

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. MacDonald and Marsh 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.

The study of transitions has been invaluable in identifying these changes. It has also been invaluable in identifying the continuities – the major one being that class still plays a significant role in shaping the life chances of young people – albeit how this is occurring is changing. For young people fortunate enough to be taking advantage of the expansion of higher education, these young people now embark on the ‘slow track’ transition – delaying the move into employment and other transitional statuses and able to take advantage of the period of emerging adulthood. But, for those young people making the ‘fast-track’ transition into work, parenthood or tenancies of their own, the risk attached is substantial – NEET status, poverty, social exclusion, marginalisation and increased health risks are all much more likely. And these factors are still significantly more likely to affect young working-class people. These young people are particularly vulnerable today due to the increasing demand for qualifications and technical skills, especially for jobs that pay anything halfway decent or offer more stable employment.

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Of course, this is not to say young people don’t exercise agency – of course they do. And this has been one of the main criticisms aimed at transitions studies – that they take the young people out the equation and are too pre-occupied with the structural determinants of young people’s lives. Not so. As Rob MacDonald and colleagues at Teesside have long argued, their study has shown the remarkable agency that young people display in the demanding circumstances of the deindustrialised North East of England. Far from the fatalism often ascribed to young people on the margins of the employment market, their studies have shown that young people move in and out of work, training courses and periods of unemployment. Instead of the popular right-wing portrayal of young layabouts sitting on the couch, drinking cider and happy to lap up benefits, their research consistently shows young people stuck in a churning life of precarious work, desperately seeking opportunities to better their lives and make the stable transition to secure and stable employment. Their research has revealed that that popular trope of politicians – the importance of the ‘foot-on-the-ladder’ has ceased to exist for a significant portion of people as life in the precariat is better understood as a ‘waterwheel’ –

  • …the low-pay, no-pay cycle meant that they might make small, regular steps to just above the official poverty line when they moved into jobs but they also made regular steps back down when jobs were lost. Better than metaphors of ‘routes’, ‘steppingstones’ or ‘ladders’ away from poverty, the participants seemed more to be caught on a ‘waterwheel’ that dipped them under the official poverty line before lifting them above it, before the wheel turned again, forever churning between low-paid jobs and even lower benefit payments.

MacDonald and colleagues also point to the depth that transitional studies have given us into the lives of young people struggling to reach ‘adulthood’ today. They point out that studies have given us a window into how different aspects of youth transitions interpenetrate – family issues, bereavement, housing issues, involvement in the criminal justice system as well as paying attention to localised factors such as high rates of unemployment or disadvantage has allowed us a deeper understanding of how these issues all relate.

Autumn Path

As such, critics are correct to argue that transitions have become more unstable and messy – but that is no reason to abandon transitions. Indeed, if anything, it cements its use. It’s also worth noting that young people are still making these transitions – albeit in different shapes and sizes. The study of transitions has allowed us to unpack the complexity of young people’s lives today and ask questions relating to the structural determinants which continue to shape the youth phase. The sensitive use of transitional studies – paying attention to young people’s agency, structural constraints, locality, family and the social and economic factors of the hour – can still provide us with a deeper understanding of young people’s lives as they navigate the choppy waters of late modernity. As Rob MacDonald and colleagues argue:

  • For us, the primary sociological, political and policy relevance of the study of youth – and the main reason why it is worthy of further investment – lies in the fact that youth remains a critically important period in which individual life chances are established. The concept of transition predisposes us towards a study of youth that is fundamentally the study of youth as a life phase. A study of youth remains essentially a study of the shifting social, economic and cultural processes that shape this period of the life course: this is what gives ‘youth’ its meaning… through the study of the transition…we can glimpse the wider processes that generate such different outcomes for young people as they reach adulthood: processes which continue to mean that some get a lot where others end up with very little.

So, I would argue that rather than jettisoning the study of transitions, a more productive way forward would be to combine the study of transitions with the generational perspective outlined in the last blog. Combining the two could offer a deeper understanding of the youth phase. As Woodman and Wyn note, transition is still institutionally embedded – age continues to dominate how government treats its citizens. Noting the nature of the transitions of the current generation and looking for patterns of change and continuity with previous age cohorts can go some way towards exploring and analysing the changes occurring in the transitions young people are making. Doing this we can interrogate how patterns of inequality are impacting on young people – and pay attention to how young people are negotiating everyday life. Combining transitions and generations could allow us to unpack structural determinants including class, gender, race and (dis)ability (amongst others) whilst looking at the active ways young people make their way through the youth phase in these rapidly changing and challenging times.

For a good discussion on the value of Youth Transitions see the excellent and still very much relevant paper by Rob MacDonald and colleagues. 

Categories: Youth Studies, Youth Unemployment

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4 replies

  1. Having read both posts a couple of thoughts occurred to me – that class, which could also be translated as available support and a financial cushion, seems more important than it ever has been in my lifetime (much longer than yours!) and that continual change is probably a feature of life for many young people. Interesting insight into current thinking – mostly new to me. Love the goldfish – surely has a great career ahead of it!


    • Hi Mary, hope you’re good. It seems that, yes, class is just as important as it’s ever been. There was a report out this week (i haven’t had a chance to really look at it yet) which suggests that middle-class parents are able to create a ‘glass floor’ for their children, helping them to retain their privilege in the face of challenges. We’ve known for a while that social mobility has had the brakes put on (not that it was ever much of a thing in any case). The point that someone like Bourdieu would make is that it is about much more than money, however – although that obviously has a lot to do with it. It’s also about social and cultural capital, both of which mean that middle-class values are the ones that are valued in society (and particularly at school) and which make life that much more challenging for working-class youth. And – i’m hoping that the goldfish is going to make it! You can read that report here:


  2. Really enjoyed reading this Alan. By the way I suspect that goldfish would not agree with the saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination”… youngsters …wishing they could ALL get there but sadly they won’t.


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