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Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in EuropeNavigating between Knowledge and Economy$

Marcelo Parreira do Amaral, Siyka Kovacheva, and Xavier Rambla

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781447350361

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447350361.001.0001

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Young adults as a target group of lifelong learning policies

Young adults as a target group of lifelong learning policies

(p.65) 4 Young adults as a target group of lifelong learning policies
Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in Europe

Xavier Rambla

Dejana Bouillet

Borislava Petkova

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Lifelong learning policies may construct target groups in two different ways. First, sometimes encompassing systems of lifelong learning policies implement programmes for specific social categories in terms of school performance, gender or ethnicity. Second, lifelong learning policies are much more fragmentary in many countries. There, experts and the very young adults may assume that programmes compensating for early school leaving and vocational training schemes ‘are’ lifelong learning. In these circumstances, it is likely that the same specific social categories become the target of these policies by default. This chapter discusses the consequences of constructing these target groups of lifelong learning policies in nine member states of the European Union. The pros and cons of this policy instrument is considered at different geographical scales such as the whole Union, member states and functional regions. In addition, the chapter will explore to what extent the construction of these target groups draws on wider societal classifications of socio-economic background (e.g. previous school performance), gender and ethnicity.

Keywords:   Young adults, Target group construction, Gender, Ethnicity, Lifelong learning policies


The first section of the chapter accounts for the processes that link lifelong learning (LLL) policies with a particular age group such as young adults, arguing that policies construct their target groups in various ways. The main stakeholders coordinate their actions by sharing a rationale or a ‘theory of change’ (at least, an array of factual claims as to the expected effects) of each policy. These varying institutional designs impinge on the experiences of young people in differing ways.

The second and the third sections analyse the views of professionals and young adults. The data are compared across member states and regions by examining whether or not apprenticeship schemes constitute the core of LLL policies. This exercise aims at highlighting some variations in how LLL policies navigate between learning and the economy. These analyses form the basis for our final discussion and conclusion.

This chapter analyses of interviews with young adults and experts, although our analysis requires greater focus on details regarding target groups. In Austria, Finland, Germany and Scotland a significant proportion of young people complete apprenticeships either after or during secondary education. In these countries, samples included LLL programmes catering to the needs of groups who cannot access apprenticeships. Significant dimensions of social vulnerability that constrained these young adults were socioeconomic exclusion, mental ill health, family abuse and refugee status. In Germany, each programme is addressed to specific groups, such as discouraged apprentices or very young mothers. In the other countries, LLL programmes respond to a wider variety of circumstances. In these cases, the whole social category of ‘youth’ is considered to be exposed to some form of social vulnerability. In Portugal and Spain, early school leaving exposes many young people to severe risks, but it was perceived as a normal pathway (p.66) towards employment prior to the financial crisis. In all five of these countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Spain), at least some interviewees described their family’s socioeconomic background as middle class.

Constructing target groups in the midst of policy borrowing and transfer

In order to facilitate our analysis, this chapter compares the objective of LLL policies, the chosen approach or ‘theory of change’, the definition of the target group(s) and the experience of young adults for two (roughly defined) types of LLL policies. On the one hand, Austria, Germany, Finland and Scotland have established complex arrangements of guidance, pre-vocational training, social benefits and vocational education around a core of institutionalised apprenticeship and on-the-job training schemes. The arrangements are relatively diverse but the consistency of institutionalisation is remarkable in all these countries (Walther, 2017). In contrast, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Spain currently borrow the bulk of these policies from models developed elsewhere. In Italy, Portugal and Spain, vocational training has been in place for decades, but policies have seldom further developed those complex arrangements. In Bulgaria and Croatia, the majority of such policies have only recently been implemented.

The analysis explores the cultural political economy (CPE) of LLL policies in relation to discourses on public policies, which normally focus on a target group (Fairclough, 2003). This issue is explored within the framework of European governance, given that discourses are a crucial instrument of coordination (Radaelli et al, 2013). Finally, further research questions regarding the governance of youth transitions (Walther, 2017) as well as the experiences of the people who live through these transitions (Walther et al, 2015) are discussed from a life course research (LCR) perspective.

Policy makers engage in discursive activity to construct target groups and recognise the salient social categories for a policy. When professionals construct and pursue the objectives and the ‘theory of change’ of a given policy, they normally enact particular social categories to which the beneficiaries supposedly belong. Significantly, the same policies do not always understand given categories in the same way, nor do the beneficiaries usually perceive themselves through the lens of the relevant categories of a given policy.

The official European Union (EU) policy on early school leaving clearly follows an encompassing ‘theory of change’. The European (p.67) Commission (EC) and the Council assume that the national rate will eventually decrease if member states engage in prevention, intervention and compensation (European Council, 2011). Similarly, the EC has recently launched a large initiative addressed to young people who have already completed compulsory education, the Youth Guarantee Scheme (YGS). The YGS assumes that jobs, training, activation, partnerships and other complementary measures will eventually reduce the figures of NEET (neither in employment nor in education and training) youth (European Council, 2013). These causal narratives enact social categories related to disadvantage (Walther, 2017), unemployment (McDonald and Marston, 2005; Caswell et al, 2010) and social inclusion (Thompson, 2011). Young adults live out these circumstances in different ways, to which they attribute different meanings.

But the understanding of LLL and the YGS is likely to vary according to the transition regimes of member states. Although it is hard to classify Central and Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Croatia, in other cases it is much easier to portray some general views of professionals. Thus, universalistic welfare regimes such as Finland normally relate disadvantage to individual rights. Liberal regimes identify disadvantage with poor employability, although Scottish policy-making is currently elaborating a more sophisticated version of this institutional mould. Conservative regimes such as Austria and Germany normally attribute disadvantage to lack of education. Finally, in Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Spain youths normally rely on family support until they create their own family at a relatively late age. In these countries, LLL policy makers and professionals often assume that most young adults are somehow exposed to social disadvantage (Walther, 2017).

In this vein, the YGS assumes that the beneficiaries should change their routine in order to improve their participation in either education, training or the labour market. The social category of ‘nonparticipants’ forms a seemingly universal target group; however, this group is also diverse in terms of class, gender, ethnicity and other social attributes. Therefore, such assumed heterogeneity may inspire ungrounded expectations as to the impact of caseworkers’ interventions (Thompson, 2011). Interestingly, not only does engaging with education, training or employment entail many specific challenges, but this very engagement may be quite different for young men and women coming from middle- and low-income backgrounds, as well as from different family trajectories of migration and location, in countries such as Bulgaria, Finland, Germany and Portugal.

(p.68) The analysis of governance focuses on interactions between policy actors. The EC is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the YGS, allocating funds and evaluating the final impact. The European Council (2013) directly asked the governments of member states to comply with the YGS, although regional and local authorities also play an important role in the majority of states. In a nutshell, this web of responsibilities instantiates the phenomenon of policy borrowing and transfer (Steiner-Khamsi and Waldow, 2012), whereby decision makers set policy objectives and look for inspiring standard models. While, in the 20th century, policy makers often found key ideas within their own national traditions, since the turn of the millennium they have frequently borrowed many guidelines from elsewhere. Some countries and a few well-resourced and well-connected international organisations (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the World Bank) have been the main promoters of policy borrowing. In fact, the EU is essentially reproducing these processes within its own governance system.

A remarkable finding of previous research on policy borrowing and transfer highlights how context is normally as influential as content (Steiner-Kheimer and Waldow, 2012). The reasons why a foreign example is perceived as interesting in a given country at a certain time do not only lie in scientific evidence or rational calculation. Frequently, governments adopt a foreign approach in the name of priorities and needs that seldom relate to the original context.

Thus, the YGS has triggered a typical process of European governance. To begin, the Council and the Commission recommend policies to the member states. Then, the Commission develops a causal narrative or a ‘theory of change’, that is to say, a systematic body of causal beliefs that predict how the policy is going to produce effective changes in a certain area. In general, European member states often draw on these narratives to endorse better regulation (Radaelli et al, 2013). Ultimately, it is designers of LLL policies at the regional level – street-level professionals who deliver services to young people, consultants that provide support and young adult beneficiaries – who engage in this complex web of discursive activity.

The next section applies these insights on the CPE and governance to the evidence produced from interviews with experts in 18 regions spanning nine countries, highlighting a correlative variation between ‘theories of change’ and notions of target groups.

LCR has widely documented the extent to which LLL policies take into account the living conditions, family responsibilities and civil (p.69) engagement of young adults. So far, this theoretical perspective has illuminated three substantial findings that shed light on the situation of young adults who participate in LLL policies. First, although the pathways of youth transitions are embedded in daily routines, young people also use their judgement to qualify, review and elaborate these pathways (Biesta and Tedder, 2007). For instance, LCR researchers have noticed that youths opt for smooth academic and vocational pathways. Although many apparently follow the recommendations of their teachers and school counsellors, a large group does not agree on the reasons with which those professionals attempted to persuade them. There is no clear correlation between compliance and enrolling in higher education (Walther et al, 2015). Second, young people also draw on complex accounts of how their families facilitate social capital or need support. Family relationships mould senses of belonging that eventually influence decision-making on further education (Butler and Muir, 2016). Third, consequently, the perspectives of professionals do not normally match perfectly with the perspectives of youth. European and national authorities craft official discourses that professionals translate into terms of everyday experiences. For instance, although universalistic regimes provide encompassing guarantees, beneficiaries often state that they are not receiving any support. Conservative regimes illustrate another example of divergent perspectives to the extent that many interviewees regret how counsellors required them to change their aspirations so that they became realistic and fitted with the available opportunities more easily (Walther, 2017).

The following section explores how youth become targets of LLL policies and presents an LCR analysis of interviews with young adults who participate in these policies in the countries under study. In essence, these interviews show young people’s disparate explorations of vulnerability, previous painful experiences and opportunities to overcome vulnerability through employment, education and vocational training.

The official definition of target groups

Policy design normally draws on socio-demographic indicators in order to establish who will be the target of a measure. Thus, decision makers ultimately come to define certain groups (either directly or indirectly) in terms of age, education, sex, immigration status and/or other available statistical indicators. On the other hand, people use social categories to distinguish groups and identify themselves as members of (as well as outliers or alien to) certain groups. As a result, (p.70) the official definition of any policy target inevitably intermingles with intricate social interactions.

Unsurprisingly, not only the design of the YGS but also its implementation, monitoring and evaluation entail dilemmas at national and subnational levels. These endeavours question issues that stakeholders easily take for granted in everyday life. Who are young people? Why do they need a guarantee? How is the scheme going to work? These certainly complex dilemmas become even more complex due to the predicaments of governance. Stakeholders in LLL and YGS policies eventually associate the previous questions regarding the context of policies with other questions concerning governance. Is the YGS necessary in the same way everywhere? Who is in charge? How does LLL integrate previous policies? How is the YGS to be adapted to varying national contexts?

In this section, we will highlight how stakeholders answer the second set of questions in diverse ways and how these answers convey different portraits of target groups.

In Austria, Finland, Germany and Scotland expert interviewees drew on a comprehensive ‘theory of change’ that linked the antecedents, objectives, expected impacts and evaluation strategies of LLL policies connected with the YGS. Interestingly, this similarity has led us to cluster together quite different institutional arrangements within our discussion. That is to say, while Austria and Germany have developed some of the best-known differentiated systems of LLL policy, Finland and Scotland do not follow the same model. In addition, this clustering is not intended to suggest that the authorities of these countries agree on what LLL policies are. Particularly in Scotland, experts understood the expression ‘TVET [technical and vocational education and training] policies’ as making reference to a clear corpus of goals and guidelines, while deeming the notion of ‘LLL policies’ too vague for rigorous discussion.

A central concern of Austrian interviewees was providing young people with initial on-the-job experience. In their view, although specific social benefits cater to the needs of youth who suffer from the risks of social vulnerability, these benefits do not equip them with the skills they need to succeed in employment and construct their professional identity in the medium term. One expert expressed this very clearly by claiming that an effort to ‘place people concretely in employment’ was a necessary movement ‘away from the theoretical’ (E_AT_V_1).

In Finland, authorities frame the YGS within a ‘public–private–people partnership’ (MOE-Finland, 2012). Besides arrangements (p.71) between public agencies and private providers, the responses of experts paid close attention to the ‘people’ in the two regions that were included in the sample, all the more relevant due the heterogeneity of these regions. South-west Finland is a thriving urban area whilst Kainuu is a remote rural region. In both areas, experts coincided to require that these programmes took ‘people’ into account. For some, it was important to acknowledge that ‘everyone has difficulties in admitting their own problems and challenges in life’ (E_FI_SF_2). Others emphasised that ‘here the young person has an opportunity to think’ (E_FI_K_3). These comments are quite coherent with a further claim, namely that participation is an essential objective,

and the third essential objective is tied to one of our themes, which is youth participation, in that young people are involved in developing this operation. (E_F_SWF_4)

In Germany, the expert interviewees relied on an informal ‘theory of change’. In Frankfurt, they argued that LLL policies constitute an institutional system, which, in their view, means a set of different measures catering to different needs, while the baseline consists of equipping the most vulnerable youth with basic skills. In addition, a further set of compensatory programmes was to equip the beneficiaries with more elaborate instruments so that empowerment and qualification foster their employability (‘On the one hand of course, the women get an official apprenticeship and become financially independent from the welfare office and from their husbands. So they can live their lives independently from any other factors. That is the primary goal. The next goal is that they grow personally’, E_GER_F_2). In Bremen, interviewees said that each policy tackles different needs, and ultimately, employability is the cornerstone of the system. The main policies in this region are designed to address youth unemployment and dropout rates, as students are prepared for an apprenticeship and ‘are taught certain competences like structured work, punctuality, how to keep files tidy, in general, we give them a structure or a goal’ (E_GER_B_1).

Scottish authorities label their ‘theory of change’ using an expressive metaphor. The Employability Pipeline maps out a series of actions that allegedly underpin the work readiness, skills and employability of beneficiaries. Both authorities and professionals expect that five types of action will push the beneficiaries of vocational training, social benefits, vocational education and career guidance from exclusion to regular employment. These types of action are engagement, (p.72) needs assessment, vocational activity, employers’ assessment and in-work support (MoET-Scotland, 2013). In the interviews, some experts claimed that engagement and vocational activities presented role models to youth. They stressed that young adults ‘are looking everywhere for role models. They’ve just got to try and pick the right role model and they (will want) to achieve’ (E_UK_A_5).

In Italy, Portugal and Spain, most experts did not mobilise the type of elaborate arguments presented in the previous paragraphs. At most, some of them expressed vague causal beliefs in the beneficial effects of psychological support. This is not a minor contribution, since they are struggling with different bureaucratic traditions that have reduced LLL and active labour market policies to providing short-term training courses:

The truth is that it is very procedural, it has become a very controlling programme and currently the technicians spend more time on administrative issues, of control, managing, documenting, signatures, bureaucracy, than on the youngster, sincerely. (E_SP_G_11)

But the evidence does not indicate that authorities associate the YGS with a general ‘theory of change’, although this is only a provisional conclusion that should not overlook possible exceptions. For instance, in Portugal Vale do Ave LLL policies respond to an implicit but coherent rationale:

The execution is based on an action plan developed by the Executive Committee of the Local Council for Social Action (CLAS) with regard to the Plan for Social Development. A commission of inter-municipal representatives elaborates the Plan, which the CLAS validates afterwards. (E_PT_VdA_2)

Nonetheless, the national analyses did not spell out a general approach that posited a framework for everybody’s opinions. Additionally, it is remarkable that some interviewees highlighted the deficits – according to their view – of the beneficiaries:

There is no way to make them understand that … they’re a bit spoiled, they give me the impression of being a bit spoiled, a bit empty …, they do not have significant interests or hobbies, even when you ask them what they do in the afternoon, if they do a sporting activity, if they (p.73) have something to do, a passion … no, no they tend to see friends and nothing else. They live on a low socio-cultural level and actually they are not stimulated at home, in any direction … (E_IT_M_6)

This is not to deny that low motivation or inappropriate language may become a hurdle for many youngsters, nor that the target group is necessarily heterogeneous in these countries. Regardless of their specific validity for a programme in a certain region, the general use of these observations suggests that the rationale of LLL policies assumes a stereotype. If the main area of professional action focuses on correcting low motivation and inappropriate language and distributing varied groups among providers, it suggests that stakeholders share the belief that the main factors of social exclusion lie somewhere inside the psyche of youth:

Now we always do prep sessions. I do prep sessions where I not only tell them what behaviour they should have, what is expected of them. The type of language, what … is the language they use, the language they cannot use with each other, when we are talking about how they greet the intern tutor or how they greet fellow interns, how they behave in the workplace, receiving orders with humility and simplicity, these are always things I ask them to be careful about, not using their mobile phone, because it is always a temptation, the kind of clothing they take to the workplace. This type of advice is important not only for the internship but also for the future when they are working. (E_PT_AL_4)

In Bulgaria and Croatia experts mostly kept within official guidelines for the interview schedule. In these countries, authorities define standard LLL policies and require professionals to implement the same guidelines everywhere:

Well, I think the authorities and all those involved in the making of those decisions should be more led by praxis and what happens ‘in real life’. There is a difference between making decisions with no relation to praxis, when everything is on a theoretical level and things look great, but when it comes to actual praxis, things turn out to be completely different. (E_CRO_OB_2)

(p.74) Some of them also attributed stereotypes to the beneficiaries of LLL policies. Although authorities expect that all youngsters undertake LLL, expert interviewees considered that some groups posed greater problems; indeed, some of them regarded beneficiaries as being at the lowest ranks of a polarised social hierarchy:

Conflicts arise between the two communities because one is accustomed to living in one way, the other – in another way. There is some intolerance … Just someone feels discriminated against by something, for example, when a Bulgarian has to queue with 50 people from ethnic minorities. (E_BG_P_5)

Becoming the target of a LLL policy

Young adults are not passive recipients of LLL policies that deploy the YGS across the nine countries analysed in this chapter. On the contrary, although some (mostly the youngest among them) express how hard it is to build a future trajectory in extremely uncertain circumstances, others are quite assertive of their life projects and openly criticise the constraints they face.

This section presents a general overview of their responses, which identifies a number of core themes. The interpretation of their current position and the memory of previous painful experiences are important issues in all the countries. In addition, interviewees introduced key national and regional nuances when discussing ways to escape social vulnerability through employment, education and vocational training. Thus, five issues structure this section: young people’s position, their scars, their available employment opportunities, their views on education and their use of vocational training.

First, many young adults expressed fear that their current position in the labour market and the education and training systems lead to a dead end. They defined this anxiety as a sharp emotion that imprinted a sort of psychological scar.

Highlighting the social contradictions of youth policies was a straightforward way to raise the point:

Well it is a social, a social descent, if you’re just not part of, of the norm-society, I would call it. But that you’re one of those, that, you hear and read of them, yes, the Austrian unemployed youth. That’s the box, in which you are put automatically. (Y_AT_V_6)

(p.75) Because at the end of the day I find myself young, because you do not know what criteria, therefore ‘trainee’, exploitable until … but at the same time too qualified for a salaried job, so I still have a degree, a degree, different experiences behind me and so on, so … that is, a situation from which it is not easy to extricate oneself. (Y_IT_G_1)

Rejection of continuous requirements to present one’s life project to teachers, counsellors and employers also conveyed some of these emotions: ‘This communication with the counsellor has become like some formality for me …’ (Y_CRO_OB_3).

Stigma was also a concern. Certainly, vulnerability provoked intense emotions of despair and shame:

Now I am a little bit ashamed to submit my CV because it has been torn, torn, torn with these (LLL) programs […] I did not imagine my career like this or at least I did not want it. It’s like a history, I cannot hide it. (Y_BG_P_5)

Gender and migration are deeper issues that this section can only grasp superficially; a more rigorous account would require thicker descriptions of each research setting.

Nonetheless, we can tentatively highlight some gendered experiences. For example, the interviewees observed that employment and training opportunities for low-skilled workers posit very different role expectations to males and females:

our guidance counsellor said to me that now you will go to the [study programme] cause you’re a girl, but like I would have wanted to study something related to cars, like auto mechanics, but yeah, that idea didn’t suit our guidance counsellor who said, like, it’s only for boys. (Y_FI_SF_7)

Albeit in a cursory way, a further point on migration completes the range of references to the scars of vulnerability. In both South-Eastern and Western Europe, some young adults mentioned the option to leave the country as a thought that relieved them from their current negative feelings regarding their social position:

My task in 10 years is to bring my mother and my sister together with me and move to the USA, where my friends (p.76) are waiting for me, also assuring me a job, this is my task! (Y_IT_M_4)

I gave Croatia a deadline. If I am not able to find a job in Croatia before the end of the year, I will move abroad. My years are passing by, and I am unable to plan anything in my life. (Y_CRO_OB_4)

Second, for some young adults, it was hard to share certain previous painful experiences with uncaring parents, including chronic disease and mental health problems:

that I as a human being, as an adult am allowed to live and learn and that I as an affected person [by a chronic disease], I am allowed to work, that I can be normal despite my problems, that I have my place in normal society. (Y_GER_F_1)

In Girona (Spain), rent has escalated since 2013 and many interviewees had squatted in abandoned dwellings left empty after the 2008 financial crisis. This type of deprivation was also a factor in producing anxiety:

How do you see yourself in ten years’ time? Buf. Look. Now I have a child. I see myself with two children and a mortgage. I am struggling to get a mortgage. So far I have lived as a squatter. When the court gives its final judgement, probably I will have to deliver the keys. Because now I am not at-risk of housing exclusion as I used to be. Now I have my payroll, my income. I have to look for a mortgage. (Y_SP_G_10)

School bullying was a biographical hallmark for many interviewees. Although it is hard to delve into this issue on the grounds of the memories of 20 year olds, a wide array of quotations document to what extent this experience impinged on their lives:

Yes [bullying affected my choices]. And they were not good choices. There was for example this, there were many opportunities to accept help, but I didn’t. Because umm I suppose I expected that it just wouldn’t help anything. (Y_FI_K_7)

(p.77) I rebelled against my step-dad, but this was because I was younger and I didn’t really understand the whole divorce, parents-splitting-up kind of thing. So I did a lot of rebelling against that. So when it came to school work, ’cause I was getting bullied in primary school, school work was put on the back burner a lot. I was like, I put up a big fuss about it. So I kind of blamed that on my step-dad. (Y_UK_A_2)

Particularly poignant dilemmas derived from the difficulties of immigrant youth to pursue further education because their previous diploma was not recognised in their host country:

I would love to go on with my education. I finished my secondary school in my country. But here I am not allowed to go on. I don’t like the adult school because they only teach my course three or four hours a week. It is not enough. (Y_SP_G_7)

Two autobiographical portraits complete this selection of evidence regarding problems that emerged during childhood. In Frankfurt, a young female reported how her biological parents mistreated her; continuously reminding her she was unwanted (Verlage, Boutiuc-Kaiser and Schaufler, 2017). Eventually she decided to break away and struggle to ‘achieve something’ on her own, which led her to LLL services.

In Girona, a young male remembered how he had suffered continuous bullying because of his weight. Since he lived in the same small town at the time of our conversation, he still met his harassers in the street. Although he had told his parents, and they complained to teachers, nothing was done. Eventually, the bullying aggravated his eating disorder (Rambla et al, 2017). Thus, secondary education presented very difficult changes due to both a stricter academic environment and such a violent everyday life. For him, the worst experience was waking up knowing he had to spend the whole day at school without doing anything productive. He felt relieved when his teachers recommended he started an initial vocational training outside the school focused on cooking, which he realised he loved.

Third, young adult interviewees struggled to overcome vulnerability by means of employment opportunities. The emphasis on this alternative varied depending on the country; while there was a strong emphasis on tertiary education in Austria, Finland, Germany and Scotland, a heterogeneous set of formal and informal alternatives (p.78) emerged in the rest of the countries (e.g. job promotion, social connections and entrepreneurship).

Although some interviewees relied on tertiary education across all the countries, these views were markedly more pronounced in Austria, Finland, Germany and Scotland:

When I was an apprentice, it was not nice for me to be an apprentice. […] How shall I explain that, I believed that I could do more than that. […] How can I say that […] I thought I could do better than that. […] I have always believed I can do better. […] And I proved that I can. (Y_AT_UA_6; emphasis added)

Many young adult interviewees related tertiary education and social mobility. For instance, two Bulgarian young adults stated they wanted to find a stable job in the company where they were currently employed. Their plan was to reach a managerial position by improving their skills with some form of education and training while they were working. The key feature of interviewees from Bulgaria is that they were much more imprecise than others across the study. In a similar way to these two Bulgarians, one young man mapped out his future professional steps as a continuous upwards ladder (Kovacheva et al, 2017):

When you get some experience as a software developer, you can create your own software and sell it. For instance, you develop something for a private school. Then, you earn some money for keeping it updated. But some families may also become interested in your services. I see some professionals got good positions … (Y_SP_G_8)

In Croatia, Italy and Portugal, some respondents argued that either firms or vocational training programmes made seemingly straightforward but untenable promises: managers recommended very unreliable ‘stable’ tracks, economic sectors spoiled the initial vocation of youth and programmes simply did not render real employment opportunities:

It’s like this: I’ve always really liked this area. […] In professional terms, working at this time on hospitality is very complicated. […] Because it is seasonal. To go to work in the Algarve in the summer is possible, but then they opt for (p.79) temporary companies. What do temporary companies have? The hotel has a team of 12 people, for example. When it has a larger flow of customers, it hires specific people by the hour, just for those days when it has the most activity and it’s over. It’s complicated. Then, to be working, a person has no life of her own. I’m 22 years old, I like to go out, to be with my friends, to socialise, it does not work. Because we only have a schedule for entering work, but there is no set time to leave. The person leaves, but she takes work home because she has to think about what she has to do for the next day. […] And it is exhausting. Then you only have one day off per week. It’s complicated. (Y_PT_AL_8)

In Bulgaria, Croatia and Portugal, some young adults noticed the potential of social connections. In Croatia, an interviewee directly observed that political parties offered the best way to find jobs through influential acquaintances. In Bulgaria, a young woman reported how she had failed to find a teaching position through her father’s network but had succeeded in finding a job in the telecom industry through her boyfriend’s friends. In Portugal, an interviewee reported he had really learnt to be a hairdresser by cutting his friends’ hair:

Yes, I started with my friends. The first time I cut hair it was for a friend. I was at home and I was like, ‘Hey, let me cut your hair, you know?’ ‘Hey, man, go for it, I’ll let you.’ And there he was and there was another. And I cut his hair and the other one liked it and said, ‘Oh, cut mine too.’ It was the first time I cut hair. Then I started to cut more and said, ‘Look, let me do this, let me do that.’ (Y_PT_AL_8)

In Plovdiv and Girona, a couple of respondents referred to entrepreneurship. They suggested they would create their own business:

(I want) to have 50, 60, 70 acres and my business to go with it. That’s when I call myself a boss, right? I want to develop my business and involve some serious traders, something to do with contracts, buy everything by contract […] [I plan] to make a warehouse, to have everything I need. (Y_BG_P_11)

Fourth, in Italy, Portugal and Spain young adults emphasised education as the way out of vulnerable situations. Completing secondary (p.80) education was a challenge for many of them, not least because of high early school leaving rates. Although in Spain guidance is normally reduced to single interviews, and most vocational training programmes are shorter than one year, in Girona a number of interviewees benefited from a two-year pilot career-guidance programme. Significantly, their main theme was overcoming vulnerability through education. It is interesting to notice that some middle-class interviewees basically addressed this issue in the same terms. Thus, one female respondent narrated how her parents had supported her up to her mid-twenties, when she was planning to take an official examination to become a civil servant for life.

In Italy and Portugal, many had observed that diplomas were indispensable when searching for a job:

I’ve tried everything to find a job, applying online and delivering my CVs wherever, but they have always replied: ‘Look, you’re not our ideal profile.’ Indeed, nearly all of them were searching for qualified people or, at least, workers with certified previous experiences, and I have a lot of experiences, but all of them are undeclared. […] Anyway, reaching the high school diploma is my thing, because it’s something I do want … I have nothing to prove to anybody, but I do want to prove it to myself, I want to be sure that the skills I have are formally recognised by my graduation. (Y_IT_M_2)

I started wondering: what will I do if this goes wrong? This is what I do, I can’t do anything else. And so I talked to a few friends to see if they knew of some course I could do. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wanted to go back to school. And now I am finishing high school, to have some basis. (Y_PT_VdA_8)

Finally, some young adults expected to overcome vulnerability by means of the vocational training they were undertaking at the time of the interviews. In Austria and Germany, they spoke of both the advantages and the shortcomings of these programmes:

It is really much better now, because I’ve got a task to fulfil. Because I think that a task is just, everyone needs a task and for me it is, it just is, I’ve also got a rhythm. […] I would say it is really good that I am here, because the (p.81) people just support you. They talk stuff through with you. Also, personal stuff. […] I think it helps. But I think you have to engage in it. […] I think you can get really far, but you have to engage, to engage with the people, with the coaches. (Y_AT_UA_2)

I have learned that I can come to them with every simple and trivial question and I get an answer. And I really found hope here and I have the feeling that I’ve got perspective. […] I have the feeling that here are human beings who really support special cases like me [laughs]. Yes, and it is the first time I feel safe. (Y_GER_F_1)

In Italy, Portugal and Spain, young adults mostly mentioned vocational training in very vague and generic terms. For instance, a 22-year-old man said he only visited the local employment centre when he received the periodic postcard asking him to go. In the views of these interviewees, a key strength of vocational training lies in a close relationship between trainers and students as well as among students themselves:

I have administrative and accounting office skills, since having attended school (where I got excellent evaluations) I’ve learned everything I could [following her dropout] […] I’ve learned by myself, by doing undeclared tax return compilations for some friends. (Y_IT_M_3)

So much companionship, then … the teachers, very close to us. It’s not like a high school. I did the courses with less people, because we were ten per module, like they are closer to you, they help you more, you … They reinforce you more … I do not know, like that … You learn more, okay? In my opinion. (Y_SP_M_7)

In Bulgaria and Croatia, young adults at most had formal relations with vocational training officers. A young woman from Croatia stated she had ‘no expectations whatsoever’ when commenting on her counsellor (Bouillet, Pažur and Domović, 2017). In Bulgaria, a young graduate woman from a minority background was required to enrol in the YGS to get a job. Other young adults also reported they were put under pressure to join the scheme:

I started looking for a new job […] When they saw that I was of such an age and I had the education, they (p.82) immediately made the link that they could use subsidized employment for me. They made me wait for the [Youth Employment] programme to open, I was appointed by this programme and only after that they offered me the place. (Y_BG_P_5)

As I decided to apply for the job, the boss mentioned that he had participated in this [LLL] programme […] And if I want to start with them, this is the condition because the programme actually requires it. […] I did not know about this programme before. And then I was impressed by the fact that a lot of the companies participate precisely because of the amount [paid] that helps them for the budget later on. (Y_BG_P_2)

Discussion and conclusion: constructing target groups through social interaction

The actors involved in LLL policies use discourses to construct target groups (CPE), but these discourses do not transmit the same meaning to all actors (governance). Young adults actively look for instruments that help them to be autonomous at certain moments of their life (LCR). Therefore, a standard approach such as the YGS leads to diverse policies once filtered through a variety of local contexts and multiple forms of implementation.

Across countries, the institutional design is not similarly comprehensive. Sometimes, where designs are sketchy, the professional portraits of target groups refer to the defects of beneficiaries.

  • In Austria, Finland, Germany and Scotland, the YGS avails itself of a long institutional tradition of apprenticeships and recognised policy-making expertise in the area of LLL. Expert interviewees mostly mentioned young adults in quite official terms.

  • In Italy, Portugal and Spain, the YGS entails policy borrowing. Authorities attempt to design LLL programmes that broaden a traditionally narrow focus on vocational training courses. In these countries, some expert interviewees voiced derogatory stereotypes of the beneficiaries.

  • In Bulgaria and Croatia, the YGS has placed youth high on the policy-making agenda, but the authorities struggle to cope with these new requirements. In the interviews, street-level bureaucrats also engaged in stereotyping.

(p.83) LLL policies targeted at young adults relate to employment, education and vocational training, with these foci acquiring variable meanings depending on the country.

  • Employment-focused LLL policies are not suitable for tackling the experiences of some young adults who occupy an insecure social position and have previously suffered problems such as disease, mental ill health, family abuse or bullying at school.

  • In Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Spain, LLL policies targeted at young adults are producing a kind of compensatory effect. When employment opportunities are scarce and insecure, many youth react to their negative experiences in the labour market by upgrading their qualifications and academic diplomas.

Although the YGS recommends that authorities invite youngsters to participate in policy-making, this is not the case in most EU countries, and political participation remains low on the agenda – Finland being the only exception. In Austria and Germany, both experts and young adults occasionally touch on debates surrounding the strengths and weaknesses of LLL policies. However, in Italy, Portugal and Spain young people discuss these policies in very vague and generic terms. Room for participation is narrow in Bulgaria and Croatia. Therefore, it is not plausible to conclude that these policies support the capability of young adults to become autonomous agents of their own life plans.


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