Forever young, but never young?

Alan France’s ambitious account of young people’s experience of economic crisis across eight developed countries shows what it means to be young has been transformed

Craig BerryThere is a strong consensus among the social science community that young people are among the groups most affected by the 2008 global financial crisis, in part because they will live with the aftermath for longest, but also, importantly, because of the crisis’ specific impact on their socio-economic circumstances. Surprisingly, however, there have been relatively few attempts to substantiate this set of assumptions through international research.  Enter Alan France’s excellent book, Understanding Youth in the Global Economic Crisis.

By discipline, France is a sociologist, and one of the strengths of the book – and the key to its undoubted value to non-academic readers – is France’s mastery of both the detail of social policy, and how policy interacts with lives actually lived by today’s young people. But he opens his account of young people and the crisis with a critique of sociological and social policy scholarship, arguing primarily that existing analyses have left structure ‘under-theorised’.

France arrives at an ‘ecological’ understanding of social policy via a useful discussion of the contribution to social science of Pierre Bourdieu and Urie Bronfenbrenner. Essentially, he is interested in the way politics, production, culture and space interact in shaping policy-makers’ understanding of youth as a ‘field’ of policy activism.  What appears as a technocratic area of policy is in fact loaded with meanings that are at the same time constraining and contestable.

What is required, in other words, is political economy (although France himself only uses this term quite narrowly, when discussing Marxist sociology). The under-theorising of structure France identifies surely helps to explain why it has to date been difficult to document the particular impacts of the crisis on young people.  As France shows authoritatively, we can ask what impact a particular policy or process has had on young people, but we cannot only ask this if we seek to understand the nature, and longer-term consequences, of any impact, since this will be bound up with the evolution of the structural environment in which our understanding of youth is institutionalised.

France’s study is based principally on the experiences of young people in four ostensibly similar, ‘Anglosphere’ countries: the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These cases provide a wealth of evidence on what France calls the ‘neoliberalisation’ of youth policy – a process he finds is based on an unscientific developmentalism which sees youth as an inherently problematic life-stage.  Recent youth policy agendas in these countries have therefore sought to make young people responsible for their own welfare as soon as possible, to hasten transitions to responsible (and productive) adulthood.

Crucially, France shows that the crisis was not in-itself a transformative moment in terms of social policy, and that post-crisis youth policy in the four Anglosphere countries has tended to reinforce the pre-crisis ‘responsibilisation’ agenda. This is indeed a finding common to political economists’ accounts of capitalist crises; responses to crises are products of the practices institutionalised before the crisis – not least because crises, even while disrupting the established order, are typically defined in ways which legitimise pre-crisis ideological settlements.

The core trends that France concludes have accelerated since the crisis include:

  • The reconstitution and elongation of educational pathways, whereby the maintenance of ‘human capital’ becomes paramount to life chances, but also increasingly individualised.
  • A strengthening of the imperative to work, even as work become more precarious – searching for work and coping with uncertainty are therefore recast as essential life-skills.
  • An increasing tendency for young people to be required to invest in their own long-term financial welfare – a process which in practice compels their parents to be financially responsible for their children for longer (and breeds intra-generational inequality).

The key post-crisis development, however, is that in the years since 2008, even the narrow inter-generational bargain which underpinned the neoliberal settlement – that taking responsibility for developing one’s human capital will be rewarded with economic security – is starting to unravel.

Perhaps the book’s most salient chapter for current debates in the UK is that which focuses on mobility among young people. In this chapter, France sketches out a future research agenda on migration patterns on young people – considering both immigrant and native youth populations in the case study countries.  He suggests that international mobility has become a key facet of human capital development in precarious circumstances (although the nature and purpose of migration is very different for young people from different socio-economic backgrounds).

France correctly stays away from the UK’s Brexit-related soul-searching in this regard. But it will be difficult for British readers not to speculate that British young people’s overwhelming support for ‘remain’ in June 2016 was not necessarily reflective of Europhile values among the young, but rather of a highly individualised understanding of the path to financial well-being, even if the path might require young people to embrace and internalise the acute vulnerabilities associated with international migration.

The book offers an unusual, but generally very illuminating, approach to comparative analysis, insofar as the seventh and eighth chapters contrast the Anglosphere countries with experiences of young people in Norway, Japan, Spain and Poland. It allows France to underline that neoliberalisation is not a uniform process, but rather mediated by the role of national institutions and cultures, and indeed the proximity of particular domestic economies to the global crisis.

France shows that both Spain and Poland have come to resemble the Anglosphere in recent years, but in both cases, especially the latter, the transformation of youth policy began well in advance of the financial crisis. For both Norway and Japan, the book presents evidence of the neoliberalisation of youth policy by stealth, even though these are among the developed countries where the core assumptions of neoliberalism have been subject to the greatest challenge.

What we are seeing is a fundamental redrawing of citizenship for young people, and by extension the entirety of the developed world. France therefore adds a generational dimension to the questions I have explored around financialisation and citizenship in the UK. For France, youth is no longer a protected phase of life, but rather a stage of embryonic adulthood, with youth policy oriented towards accelerating the transition.  At the same time, the certainties of adult life can no longer taken be for granted (for example, around future careers, housing and rising prosperity), and young people are increasingly required  to cope (with never-ending parental support for the lucky ones) with economic precariousness as the cost of social inclusion.  Further (comparative) research on the extent to which young people have absorbed and internalised – or instead resisted – such circumstances would be welcome.

One topic on which the book could perhaps have offered greater insight is that of how neoliberal policy elites treat the problematique of youth in their co-ordinative discourses, not least because France’s theoretical approach upholds the explanatory significance of such discourses. France is surely correct about the problematisation of youth by neoliberal ideology, but it is probably too simplistic to suggest that policy-makers have consciously sought to dismantle traditional conceptions of childhood and adolescence.  Where such dismantling has occurred, it is perhaps best conceived as a product of other perceived imperatives for policy, pre- and post-crisis.  Neoliberalism’s greatest sin may be its blindness to the generational nature of society, rather than any deliberate targeting of younger generations.