I agreed to write a blog on the recent ‘Youth Matters’ conference in Newcastle after discussion with one of the organisers. Having attended the fantastic ‘Precarity Tees’ event the previous month, I thought the odds on this conference being as good were pretty long. But, happily, the two days were extremely worthwhile, with a whole host of informative, interesting and thought-provoking presentations. Not to mention meeting many, many warm and friendly people.
A key focus of the conference was making links across different disciplines – and it became clear throughout the two days that there is significant crossover in the work that people are conducting into contemporary youth issues. Over the two days we had presentations from sociologists, geographers, criminologists, political scientists, educationalists and on and on and on. Coming together in an atmosphere of collegiality to share knowledge, experience and our differing perspectives from our differing backgrounds can surely be no bad thing. And it seemed to work going by the highly scientific ‘hands-up if you learnt something new from another discipline’ conducted at conference end!
The opening day saw a pre-conference methods workshop with six different panel events on topics such as research ethics, working with gatekeepers and participatory research methods. Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith (education) raised some interesting points during her session on gatekeeping. One particular issue was the possibility of us as researchers labelling young people at the point we select them for our studies. Terms such as vulnerable, disengaged and disadvantaged, she argued, are all very problematic and it could be easy to unthinkingly give young people these labels unless we pause for thought during the initial phase of our research. It can set the context for our entire research and the young people’s place within it.
Dr Jamie Harding’s (Social Policy) session on research ethics raised an interesting point about challenging participants during research interviews if they should raise viewpoints which we deem inappropriate or even horrific? Dr Harding gave the example of a research participant denying the occurrence of a particularly brutal mass slaughter during a conflict. There were some differing views in the room and examples of interviewers adopting different strategies. What do you think?
The final session of the day was with Associate Prof Sara Kindon (Geography) who had travelled all the way from the University of Wellington. The session on participatory research with young people was interactive and had the group on the floor working in teams thinking about the benefits and challenges of conducting participatory research. Our ‘hand’ was food for thought for those of us not using this methodology and posed questions for me, particularly around the issues of power and respect in the research process. Who is the research for? And how am I ensuring the authentic voice of the young people themselves is coming across? I’ll need to think about these issues, and more.
After enjoying a couple of beers in the sunshine we joined others for dinner in the evening and enjoyed some Italian cuisine. My neighbour for the meal received an interesting Italian concoction – sausages, soggy bread and peppercorn sauce. I’ll end the first day on that!
The second day kicked off with a keynote address from Professor Rob MacDonald (Sociology) who talked about some of the common misunderstandings around youth unemployment – that it’s down to low aspiration, that the young people come from families where 3 generations have never worked, that young people are lazy (and the shirkers Vs strivers binary). All nonsense, or voodoo sociology, as Professor MacDonald terms it. Instead, he argues, we need to understand that the labour market is far more nuanced – and that young people are desperate to get on and build lives around long-term, stable employment. Unfortunately, young people on the margins are increasingly consigned to short-term and insecure work – flitting between jobs, unemployment, work programmes and education amongst others. Worse still, it appears that this is a reality which follows young people into their thirties – rather than being a temporary phase it may be the case that early labour market exclusion can have a scarring effect on people. These are worrying conclusions given the rise in zero-hour contracts, precarity and under-employment amongst other pressing issues. And particularly for those in traditional working-class and post-industrial areas of the U.K.
This theme was further developed in the morning’s open panel discussion by Katy McEwan (Sociology) in her excellent presentation on ‘Lived Insecurity’ in which she discussed the practical and emotional issues which those living in the precariat must live with on a daily basis – particularly for those with limited social, economic and cultural capital. Young people are increasingly tasked with being ‘the executive producers of their own lives’ – relentlessly given the responsibility to map out the terrain of their own future, despite that path being more opaque than ever. As such, the structural determinants of these paths are obscured as the blame for any deviation from the ‘norm’ can then be placed squarely on the shoulders of the young people themselves. Personal pathology is the framework now as young people are ‘cast off in a sea of individualism.’ Good stuff.
Verena Bruer (International Development) and Graham Gaunt (Geography) gave presentations on responses to employment uncertainty – Verena on Active Labour Market Policies in Germany and Graham on apprenticeships in the north east of England. Verena outlined her research, which is at its early stages, looking at how non-cognitive skills may influence job search behaviour and outcomes. The outcome of this research should provide an interesting discussion point in the never-ending argument about the interplay between structure and agency, particularly around the issue of employment. Graham gave a fascinating presentation on the state of engineering apprenticeships – what particularly came across to me was the changing nature of apprenticeships, the growth of apprenticeships in the retail sector, the continued low pay associated with them and the fact that informal job networks are still absolutely crucial to young people gaining employment. As someone who has worked with young people churning out hundreds of unsuccessful speculative letters to potential employers, this comes as little surprise.
Prof Mark Shucksmith & Dr Niki Black (Sociology) followed the break with an invitation to consider the dimension of place – how can we bring this into our research? They presented research they are currently undertaking in rural Northumberland and issues such as transport, employment opportunities (or the lack thereof), internet access and affordable housing are particularly acute for young people growing up in rural areas. As traditional labour such as agricultural and fishing have disappeared these have been replaced (or not) by tourism which tends to be more precarious as well as seasonal, temporary and low-paid. Unemployment may be low, they argue, but this can mask the precarious nature of the work that does exist. As I’ve argued elsewhere myself, the notion of place must be central when considering the experience of the young people we are researching. It will play a central role in their development as well as shaping their life chances.
Dr Michela Franceschelli (Sociology) presented on current work looking at young people’s view of the future and aspiration. This is timely as it seems aspiration is seen as some sort of silver bullet by current government. As Dr. Franceschelli suggests, young people very much see future success or failure as results of their own actions – the ‘epistemoloogical fallacy’ raised by Furlong and Cartmel. As structural factors dissolve into the background young people, again, see themselves as captains of their own ship, navigating the choppy waters of contemporary society. But far from young people lacking ‘aspiration’, again, very little evidence seems to exist for this. Instead, most young people are optimistic and have a sense of control over their future, despite current uncertainty. Other research tells us that rather than lacking aspiration, many young people may be unaware of the hard reality of post-school opportunity structures (but there is conflicting research on this, too).
Beverley Brozsely (Health & Social Sciences) gave us a great quote – ‘young people are the flexes in the joints of capitalism’ – as she discussed middling kids and the hourglass economy. Beverley argued that there is a demand for high level jobs but equally there has been a large rise in low qualification labour. This squeezed middle, she argued, has particular consequences for young people at the moment as young people can find themselves in ‘throwaway’ jobs with little in the way of security or financial reward. She also posed a question – is confidence an embodiment of class identity and is it taking on more importance now, due to the ever competitive world of work? An interesting thought.
Becky Holloway (Geography) gave an interesting presentation on her PhD so far, mapping transitions into work. The problem with government statistics is they tend to be snapshots in time – Becky showed us that the transitions young people are making are far more messy as they jump between statuses. Again, young people are expected to be rational decision-makers of their future but as Becky showed, luck, perseverance and connections were absolutely critical as young people made their way toward stable employment. And Becky made the important point that taking a snapshot in time can be pointless without understanding young people’s backgrounds.
After lunch in the sunshine and a walk to stretch the legs, the afternoon began with a session on political participation kicked off by Dr Stuart Fox and Dr Sioned Pearce (Social Sciences). Their research on young people’s engagement with the EU referendum looks at whether or not this generation of young people are distinct from previous generations, particularly in terms of euroscepticism? Or are we again looking at a life-cycle effect or periodic effect? What is going on? They suggest that Millenials are the most pro-European cohort since the UK joined the EU – and results since the referendum would suggest that they are correct. Their Wiserd website has lots more information on their work and is worth checking out.
Professor Matt Henn (Politics) presented on his current work, using Ronald Inglehart’s post-materialist thesis to look at young people’s political values in the contemporary period. In this way of thinking, under conditions of austerity, our values are said to be shaped by our immediate concerns (i.e. economic security) whereas in periods of prosperity we can look beyond these and focus on other issues such as environmental sustainability, global justice etc. However, Professor Henn’s study shows that young people are still prioritising post-materialist concerns – even in this period of austerity. Interesting.
After coffee we had a presentation from a group of young people who had carried out a piece of research with Jill Clarke and Karen Laing (Education) on young people and alcohol. They offered some advice to us all – make the research process interesting and make it fun. They told us that when young people hear about research they think it is going to be boring. They also argued that young people should be rewarded in some way for their participation. They also suggested that we give the young people some options to do things differently and to perhaps listen to some of their ideas. It is they, after all, who have the knowledge and answers that we’re looking for. And it is we who need to learn as well. They were very effective presenters, so kudos to them!
The day concluded with a keynote address from Professor Bryony Hoskins (Social Sciences) who discussed her current work looking at how political activities in school can influence young people’s political efficacy. This is particularly important in the current context given the cuts in youth services, their diminishing access to social security and the fact that Baby Boomers appear far less affected by government cuts. Professor Hoskins argued that citizenship education in schools is rather haphazardly taught – something I have argued myself . She also went on to argue that what political activities are available in school is heavily influenced by class as is whether or not you feel able to speak up in the classroom during discussions and arguments. Professor Hoskins conclusions suggest that social class is the major factor impacting on political efficacy (gender and ethnicity far less so). However, citizenship education does have the potential to act as an equaliser and reduce the influence of socio-economic status on learning and political engagement.
All in all, the two days were excellent. As the above shows, there was a great deal of information to take on board – I have given a snapshot of just some of the presentations. What I also hope I have shown is the range of disciplines that presenters came from and the crossovers between them are quite clear. Class, place, transition, aspiration, insecurity and the changing face of capitalism that young people are attempting to negotiate were themes that came across from many of the presentations. And these are themes that we all appear to be wrestling with, regardless of our research backgrounds. And the different takes we bring on these issues mean that events such as this are a valuable way of sharing our differing viewpoints. For myself, coming from education, it was interesting to hear about the importance of place on opportunities, the changing nature of work that we are supposed to be preparing young people for and the potential that education holds for the political participation of young people. Particularly as it seems to be waning after the boom we had in Scotland during the Independence Referendum. The next Scottish Independence Referendum, if as seems likely there is one, could offer us up the opportunity to re-engage young people in a lasting and meaningful way if we take on some of the advice offered.
Thanks again to the organisers and thanks to all the presenters for their stimulating presentations. If there is anything I didn’t cover or if I have misrepresented any of the presentations please get in touch on Alan.Mackie@ed.ac.uk and I’ll be happy to update. For any comments please just add below.