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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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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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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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We turn now to probably the biggest challenge of our time, the destructive force of COVID-19, of which the long-term implications for young people may turn out to be the most significant. Of course, we have no means of knowing how long the pandemic will last, including the possibility of its return or another virus of even greater virulence. All we can be sure of is that a shadow has been cast over the generation most directly affected in terms of life chances, for which significant investment will be needed to put in place the necessary safeguards to protect young people’s futures.

In the best case scenario the virus effects are a temporary phenomenon for which only a handful of young people have been damaged by the experience. In the worst case the whole generation is significantly affected, of which those in the process of leaving school, facing examinations and seeking work risk losing most. At the same time, to take a more optimistic view, with analogies from the post-World War II period, it is also possible that the shakeup brought about by the pandemic will trigger new thinking and practice in education and other public services. Long-term critics of the status quo have an unexpected opportunity to be heard.

But such development is critically dependent on ensuring that change moves in liberating and progressive rather than regressive directions; that is to say, matching the digitalisation transformation that preceded COVID-19. Surprisingly, and encouragingly, public opinion polls in both the UK and Germany appeared to favour not returning to ‘things as they were’.

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The facts and issues regarding youth prospects in the digital society that we presented and discussed in this book are embedded in economic, cultural and social upheavals with enormous consequences for young people’s lives. The first two decades of the 21st century were a period characterised by five major societal transformations affecting youth transitions: (1) the spread of neo-liberal economics and politics; (2) deregulation of labour markets and employment; (3) the digital revolution; (4) expansion of higher education; and (5) social media and associated lifestyles. These social, economic and cultural changes have been leading to a dissolution of traditional ways of life, including the decoupling of social classes, social disintegration and uncertainty among large segments of the population, combined with rising populism. They are now joined by more of a natural phenomenon than the conventional human adversary: (6) the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of which we discussed in Chapter 8 and return to here.

Fundamental changes in the public sphere are associated with this transformation. News media (newspapers and television) are losing ground to social media with a trend towards the spread of fake news, and of substituting emotions and opinions for knowledge. These changes document the ambivalent effects of digitalisation and globalisation, including worldwide trade, communication and travel versus new nationalism and tensions within societies and generations, brought about by fewer winners and more losers. These transformations have been leading to increasing contradictions. Responsibility and civic participation are expected of citizens, also young people, while bankers, business managers and some politician act irresponsibly – especially those pursuing a philosophy of neo-liberalism.

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Much is written about the conflict between generations. Such tensions are at their strongest in the teens when the parental controls of childhood give way to the freedoms of youth while, at the same time, holding onto the sentiments of respect and dependency that children feel for their parents. Parent–child relationships tend to become more relaxed in young adulthood, when the transition from education to work defines this phase of the life course and parents’ emotional and material support is called for.

A continuing theme of family relationships is what the future will offer for young people and this is where we are witnessing unparalleled technologically driven and political change in which population movement, neo-nationalism and widening inequality are major features. Thus, the recession arising from the 2007/08 global banking crisis is just the most recent example of disrupted capitalist economies, bailed out by government funding, of which young people leaving education can bear the brunt. What worked for their parents in the transition to adulthood, including finding job opportunities, building a career and forming a family, is unlikely to work in the same way for them. The choices they must make are laden with risk and uncertainty in a way that was unknown until relatively recently. Most recently COVID-19 has created societies in standstill mode with restrictions in all spheres of everyday life, presenting a completely new challenge for young and old.

The situation is also compounded by the fact that even before the coronavirus pandemic broke out many features of modern society were already changing at high speed, especially in the labour market as the consequence of digitalisation.

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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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