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This paper reviews evidence on young people in Europe and the US making the transition from school-to-work before and after the 2008 Great Recession. Taking a macro-level perspective, similarities and differences in education and employment experiences across different European countries are described, considering the role of different institutional support systems in ‘scaffolding’ young people's transitions to independence. It is argued that the 2008 financial crisis brought with it reduced employment opportunities for young people and accelerated pre-existing trends towards prolonged education participation and precarious employment. There are, however, considerable variations across different countries, highlighting the role of social institutions in supporting young people during the school-to-work transition. Transition systems that created bridges between education and employment are associated with lower national levels of youth unemployment, while young people coming of age in less-protective transition regimes suffered highest levels of youth unemployment, high levels of temporary employment and not being in education, employment or training (NEET).

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The concepts of ‘learning society’ and ‘lifelong learning’ appear in a number of guises in the literature and in policy pronouncements (Coffield, 1999). Our project was concerned with policy and practice: the strategies to bring about a learning society in the wider national sense and to develop a learning culture at the level of organisations, groups and individuals. We focused on a particular feature – credit-based learning – and its role in the development of learning cultures at local level.

National policy statements about the Learning Society offer numerous visions of lifelong learning as part of a ‘learning culture’. The government’s own vision of lifelong learning is set out in the White Paper, Learning to Succeed:

Lifelong learning can enable people to play a full part in developing their talent, the potential of their family, and the capacity of the community in which they live and work. It can and must nurture a love for learning. This will ensure the means by which our economy can make a successful transition from the industries and services of the past, to the knowledge and information economy of the future. It also contributes to sustaining a civilised and cohesive society, in which people develop as active citizens and in which generational disadvantage can be overcome. (DfEE, 1999, p 1)

The underpinning of such lifelong learning by the development of a ‘learning culture’ is elaborated in the reports of the advisory group under the chairmanship of Bob Fryer (1997, 1999). Such a lifelong learning culture (Fryer, 1997) would be characterised by:

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Identities and Inequalities in an Unravelling Europe

In an age when the next generation have worse prospects than those of their parents, this book appraises the challenges young people face resulting from the instability of their lives.

Based on youth experience of education, employment and political participation in England and Germany, the book examines the impact of digitalisation in the context of rising inequality, accelerating technological transformation, fragile European institutions, growing nationalism and mental and economic stress arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The insights gained point to young peoples’ agency as central to acquiring the skills and resources needed to shape their future in the digital society.

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Our discussion starts with the US as a disturbing example of the impact of neo-liberal thinking on unequal prospects of youth by considering the consequences of social origin on transition processes and outcomes in the changing economic and political contexts of education and work. The first stop is perhaps surprisingly not Europe but the US, which economically sets the agenda for what happens in the countries to which it is closest, such as Germany and the UK in Europe.

Social inequality is a basic feature of societies that is built on the unequal distribution of property and income from work. For social scientists there are generally four dimensions to be distinguished: education, occupation, income, and wealth; these stratify the population into segments of people with different life chances and social mobility prospects. Since the beginning of the 21st century, as comparative research shows, there has been a widening disparity in the life chances associated with these strata between the social classes in the western democracies (see Blossfeld et al, 2005, 2008; Picketty, 2014).

Educational inequalities have characterised the differentiation of pathways to adulthood since the 1970s (Jencks, 1972) in the US and in the post-social democratic period increasingly in Europe, where the global trend towards higher education as a means of achieving social mobility became popular. The effect of family and schooling on young people’s transition to employment and independent living arrangements has been widely documented. During the subsequent decades, the gap between lower and higher education became larger, due to the concentration of wealth and academic credentials in the upper classes.

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Inequality, as discussed in the preceding chapter, is a distributional characteristic of human society supplying key markers of life chances from an early age as defined by such demographic and attributional factors as social class, gender, ethnicity, education, income, wealth and geographical location. The first signs of inequality’s considerable ramifications become evident in childhood: kindergarten and elementary school set the scene for adolescence, where the different routes via vocational or academic education signal likely destinations in the adult labour market. This chapter turns to the individual life course attributes and life course processes from which adult identity is formed, paying particular attention to the consequences of the transition to a digital society. To what extent does the transition bring about shifts in what we want and believe ourselves to be in the exercise of our human agency and in achieving our aspirations for the future? These changes are addressed in the context of the three transformational factors of digitalisation interacting with different economic and social conditions, including growing nationalism, in mainly a European context. Our starting point is the construction of identity, focusing first on the idea of developmental stages as formulated originally by psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson. Next, we turn to identity as a life course resource. We then consider the transformation of the workplace and the labour market in the digital economy and the effect of these structural changes on the relationships of lifestyle, social class and identity. The chapter ends with the wider implications of the changes for young people’s communication, and solidarity in the digital age.

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Many political and economic decisions of the European Union are affecting young people’s living and learning circumstances in all member countries, though not in the UK after Brexit. Therefore, this chapter outlines the basic components of the European Union and the strategies of the European Commission for improving the living conditions and prospects of young people. Since their attitudes towards the EU and its institutions determine how the younger generation will become active in supporting and criticising its policies, we also look at young people’s perception of the EU and the effects of its youth policy, with a focus on the UK and Germany.

The EU provides a single market with a free exchange of goods, services, capital and people. The EU has been a work in progress, without a master plan: From its inauguration as the ‘Economic Community’ in a ‘common market’ 60 years ago with the Treaty of Rome, its members grew from six (France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) to 28 states in 2018; the UK (and Ireland and Denmark) joined in 1973. The current European governance system with a multilevel structure was established by the Maastricht (NL) Treaty in 1992. A common currency, the euro, replaced 12 (of 28) national currencies in 2002. The euro is supervised by the European Central Bank, which regulates the monetary policy.

The institutional setting of the EU consists of two legislative bodies: the European Parliament (in Strasbourg, France), representing the member states’ citizens, and the European Council (in Brussels, Belgium) of the heads of state, representing the member states’ governments.

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Youth has always been regarded as a period of transition from childhood to adulthood with a wide variation in duration and social support and control by family, neighbourhood, education providers and the state. Its defining institution is the education system, its experiential space is the peer group, fun and games, and more recently social media. We understand transitions as life course events in time and social space. On their path to adulthood young women and young men are confronted with many road signs (norms and regulations) and signals (risks and opportunities) that command attention and individual responses. In view of the multiple institutional demands of education and work and the informal expectations in their family and social networks, adolescents and young adults must deal with the challenge of constructing a coherent self (see Chapter 2).

Life course theory states that transitions imply a duality of social structure and individual agency in the context of social pathways (Heinz, 2009b). Their timing and sequencing, direction and outcome are embedded in structural conditions – the economy, the labour market, and family social background and institutional arrangements, educational and welfare systems. Variations are due to agency, for example individual characteristics – competences, motivation, identity and life goals. Transitions unfold via turning points: entering and leaving school, leaving home, graduating, finding a job, forming a partnership, becoming a parent. The timing and duration of such life course events have become less standardised in recent decades. Today the transition to adulthood implies a period of young adulthood and spans the age between 18 (maturity) and 30 (average age of independent living).

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‘How do we ensure that the digital economy doesn’t leave people behind?’ To answer this question posed by Mathew Taylor and Payal Dalal (2019) of Britain’s Royal Society of Arts requires much deeper consideration than has been the case for societal transformations of this kind in the past. As we shall see, ‘The Internet of Everything’ produces change at an accelerating rate in every domain of human activity, of which the most problematic, in terms of meeting youth transition needs, is education. At the most basic level, as the previous chapter showed, prior to the influx of digitalisation, schooling supplied, at least in principle, the knowledge and skills needed to lay the foundations for later participation in vocational training, the labour market and citizenship.

With the dramatic changes in the organisation of the labour market from the 1970s onwards – now confronted by the challenges of digitalisation and ever-accelerating technological change – transformation reaches another level of complexity. The far-reaching educational consequences have been evident for some time, but until the 2007/08 banking crisis, and the recession that followed, most of these effects on young people’s prospects were barely recognised (Schoon and Bynner, 2019). The crisis economy, marked by 12 years of post-2008 banking collapse and austerity, was characterised by lack of stability and insecurity. Short-term and zero-hour contracts, ‘casual’ jobs and unemployment replaced secure positions across whole swathes of the labour market. The consequence in Britain was a massive rise in social and economic inequality and the beginnings of the case not only for lifelong income support but universal lifelong learning (Bynner, 2017).

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The form families take, and their internal organisation, have been changing in the process of modernisation. Formal marriage has increasingly given way to cohabitation as the basis of partnership and having children, while more recently the marriage contract has been extended to same-sex couples of either gender to enable them to formalise their relationships.

In contrast, the trend in the other direction has been the rise of singlehood. Increasing numbers of adults in a partnership with or without children or living alone are resisting the idea of formal or informal partnership in favour of staying single. These self-determined ‘singletons’ are joined by the growing proportion of others, who – as a consequence of marital or partnership breakdown, in which children are involved – become single parents.

Nevertheless, despite the importance of these latter family formations, in policy terms there is still, albeit implicitly, a broad consensus, reinforced judicially and through the tax and benefits system of the desirability of formal marriage and children as the basis of family life. The commitment to it of a substantial section of the adult population remains strong.

Family types define the various contexts in which children of the current era grew up and stayed in, or left, the family home. As we have seen, since the 1980s there has been a postponement of leaving home, forming continuing partnerships, getting married and having children. At its simplest level this points to increasing stress laid on family functioning largely borne by parents.

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Political issues are increasingly communicated in the electronic media, while newspapers and television have become less frequently used for building and exchanging opinions, especially among young people. Therefore, this chapter examines the expansion of online use and the extent to which there is interest in European and national political developments. It focuses on young people’s perceptions of political issues, their involvement in social networking, and the spread of new youth movements around climate change in Germany and in support of the Labour Party in the UK.

The UK and Germany are among the countries with the highest rate of IT users in the EU: 95 per cent of the British population and 92 per cent of the Germans. Being online is ubiquitous, almost everyone has been using the internet as the most frequent means of communication in the past decade.

Whereas 73 per cent of people over the age of 10 used the internet in 2009, it was 88 per cent in 2019 in Germany (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2020). While all pupils and students, that is teenagers and young adults, were online for many hours a day, only two thirds of pensioners used it at all. Internet activities for private purposes differ by age, too: 89 per cent of the 16 to 24 age group use it for messages on social networks or chat rooms and searching for information on goods and services. The difference between the younger and older generations regarding internet activities is remarkable: whereas among people older than 65 only 19 per cent use the internet for networking, the majority use it for collecting information.

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