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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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Governing the normalisation of young adults through lifelong learning policies

Governing the normalisation of young adults through lifelong learning policies

(p.105) 6 Governing the normalisation of young adults through lifelong learning policies
Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in Europe

Risto Rinne

Heikki Silvennoinen

Tero Järvinen

Jenni Tikkanen

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Policies are based on – explicit and implicit – assumptions of well-functioning institutions, a prosperous economy, a good citizen, and so forth. In short, they have a vision of a desired society with reasonably behaving individuals. Against this background the chapter scrutinizes the taken-for-granted logic behind lifelong learning policy measures targeted at so called ‘vulnerable youth’. The term ‘vulnerable’ itself bears within it connotations that influence policy makers’ and policy actors’ perception of the individuals categorized under the label ‘vulnerable’. The chapter is interested in the ways by which lifelong learning policies with their variety of policy measures, projects, regulations and practices, incentive structures and sanctions, aim to govern (regulate, steer, mould) the ‘vulnerable’ young adults to govern themselves – their reasoning and conduct – according to the desired direction. The aim of this chapter is to make visible the underlying assumptions and tacit implications beneath the ‘normal’ life course, how ‘vulnerability’ is produced in policy texts, and how the normalization of ‘vulnerable’ youth is governed. Besides theoretical analysis the article uses policy documents, descriptions of policy measures and projects, and international, national and regional statistics to make sense of practices of governing the normalisation in empirical contexts.

Keywords:   Social vulnerability, Normalisation, Young adults, Lifelong learning policies


Policies are based on assumptions – be they explicit or implicit – of a desired society with well-functioning institutions and reasonably behaving individuals. This is to say that policies are built on a conception of a reasonable order of things, and various policy measures aim at governing, maintaining or strengthening this order. In a liberal democracy, to govern a society is to govern autonomous individuals in their decisions and actions. Since the 1980s, education policy implemented in the Western world has been framed by neoliberal political rationality with a vocabulary mostly drawn from economic doctrines and reasoning. In this context, lifelong learning (LLL) can be seen as a technology of governmentality (Edwards, 2002; Fejes, 2005; Ball, 2009). Today, the ideology of LLL is an accepted truth of the ‘knowledge society’. LLL is seen as an effective tool not only for improving competitiveness and enhancing growth but also for advancing social integration and self-disciplined, responsible and active citizenship (Jessop et al, 2008; Olssen, 2008; Walker, 2009; Kinnari and Silvennoinen, 2019).

In this chapter, the presupposed logic underlying LLL policy measures targeted at young adults, and ‘vulnerable’ youths in particular, is scrutinised. The term vulnerable carries connotations that steer policy makers and policy actors to perceive individuals in a certain way. Use of the term may also cause vulnerable persons to see themselves differently from their original self-conception. This is the intersectional point at which political governing and individual self-governing meet (see Foucault, 1991; Rose, 1999; Dean, 2010). Although individualised society and individualised decisions concerning one’s life course have (p.106) been much debated, there is an underlying implicit norm in LLL policies regarding the structure and characteristics of a desired life course. The very conception of normality implies a strong normative representation of the stages that the life course of a productive citizen should follow. Deviation from the ‘normal’ life course marks a person as a mental outlaw who is not thought to be aware of his or her need to be protected and guided by society.

Research questions and data

In this chapter, the focus is on the ways in which LLL policies induce young adults to govern their reasoning and conduct according to a preferred direction. In addition to theoretical analysis, policy documents and descriptions of policy measures and projects, interviews with young adults and experts in Finland are utilised to make sense of the practices of governing young adults’ normalisation.

This chapter builds on analyses of the following data: key Finnish LLL policy documents (N = 26) published by national- and regional-level actors in the fields of labour market, education and youth policies from 2007 to 2016;1 19 thematic interviews of national and regional LLL policy experts; and 19 biographical interviews of young adults (12 females and seven males). Two contrasting regions, south-west Finland and Kainuu, were chosen as contexts for the study as they differ in terms of socio-demographic features and educational and labour market opportunities available to young people. South-west Finland is a wealthy region with a growing population and versatile educational and labour market opportunities. Compared to south-west Finland, there are much fewer post-compulsory educational opportunities in Kainuu and labour markets are more closed to young adults, meaning that young adults living in Kainuu are in many cases forced to leave their home regions due to the scarcity of educational, employment and life opportunities. To capture the dynamics and interaction of policy-making across different fields and levels, both high-level national experts and street-level regional experts from the fields of education, labour market and youth and social policies were interviewed.

Although the empirical focus is on one country, the argument is that the findings of this study have international relevance. By utilising the variety of data, the aim is not only to reach a comprehensive understanding of LLL policies in one country, but also to place the results within an international context.

The goal is not to describe how successful Finnish LLL policies have been in helping vulnerable youths, youth at risk or young people (p.107) not in employment, education or training (NEETs). The Finnish context serves instead as an empirical case for answering the following questions:

  • How the perspectives of governance, life course and cultural political economy (CPE) are interwoven in national policy documents representing the political demands, objects and ideology of national (Finnish) LLL policies? What do they indicate about the hegemony of normality, and measures to determine and define it?

  • In what ways do young adults and experts react to LLL policies and what are their experiences and opinions of the policies? How do they perceive the measures for controlling (restricting or empowering) young adults’ opportunities in society, the labour market and as citizens?

In the following section, the theoretical perspectives of governance, life course and CPE are discussed, and used to elaborate a holistic understanding of national LLL policies and their connections to the production of normality. This is followed by a short description of the empirical context, Finland, before presenting the findings and conclusions.

Governance, life course and CPE perspectives in understanding the production of normality and LLL policies

As a result of globalisation and the increasing power of transnational actors, the governance of education is in transition (Kotthoff and Klerides, 2015). Globalisation has been described as resulting in a rescaling of politics and policy (Lingard and Rawolle, 2011). The new architecture of governance relies on the production and mobility of data (Clarke, 2012; Ball, 2016) and aims to govern through standardisation, commensuration, transparency and comparison (Nóvoa and Yariv-Mashal, 2003). This rests on the provision and translation of information about subjects, objects and processes, and brings new limits and possibilities for agents (cf Hansen and Flyverbom, 2014).

Places are the locus where all scales conflate, from the supranational through to the national and the local. There, the educational system is manifested as real schools embedded in a web of multi-scalar and multi-actor relations. Agents’ degree of freedom to define and implement strategies, make decisions and access resources relies on those relations, although they are never able to fully determine freedoms, nor directly (p.108) realise intended aims (Gideonse, 1993; Cramer et al, 2012; Dale et al, 2012; Kazepov et al, 2015; Rinne, 2019). Patrick Le Galès (2004: 243) defines governance as:

a coordination process of actors, social groups and institutions that aims at reaching collectively defined and discussed objectives. Governance then concerns the whole range of institutions, networks, directives, regulations, norms, political and social uses as well as public and private actors which contribute to the stability of a society and a political regime, to its orientation, to its capacity to lead, to deliver services and to assume its legitimacy.

The principles of calculability and measurability, usually used in the private sector and originating from economics, are increasingly transferred to fields previously regulated by old bureaucratic statutes and professional norms, typically located in the public sector. Rose (1999: 152) refers to the new governing technology, which is based on accountability and assessment and to which the public sector is subjected through governance at a distance (Rinne and Ozga, 2011: 67).

Standards, in turn, penetrate all spheres of human life. Standards are not only ubiquitous but also normative. They create ideals and normalities but also the ‘less than ideal’ and abnormalities. Standards produce social norms, encourage conformity to the ideal and dictate how things ought to be. They restrict decision-making possibilities, set parameters and narrow choice (Gorur, 2013). Standards

codify collective wisdom about what is acceptable in a given situation, and, explicitly or implicitly, what is not. This may create tension between individual autonomy and the codes of behaviour set by anonymous, distant others, removed from the immediate context by space, time and perhaps understanding. Standardisation is feared by some on the grounds that it promotes mechanistic behaviour, devalues tacit and professional knowledge and attacks our very humanism by voiding idiosyncrasy, individuality, creativity, intuition and emotion.

(Gorur, 2013: 132–3)

To ensure conformity, standards are often institutionalised processes involving various kinds of certification and formalisation. The more successfully the standards are mobilised and institutionalised, the less (p.109) visible and noticeable they become. Many standards are thoroughly interwoven into the very fabric of our everyday lives, operating upon us in ways we scarcely recognise (Gorur, 2013). Standardisation helps the state and public authorities to compare and rank individuals and groups and to create a common language shared by professionals, policy makers and evaluators. Standards are based on scientific expert knowledge, which grant them legitimacy.

From the life course perspective, the power of standards can be seen in societal expectations concerning a desired ‘normal’ life course. These expectations are, in turn, reflected in institutional governance of individual life courses and careers. However, individual life courses consist of life phases and transitions that are always constructed in a reciprocal process of political, social and economic conditions, welfare state regulations and provisions, and biographical decisions and investments concerning changing living circumstances. Historical conditions (e.g. economic cycles, wars) and institutional arrangements (such as education systems, labour markets and welfare provisions) influence the shaping of individual biographies. Hence, life course transitions and trajectories are constructed differently in different socio-historical, structural and institutional settings (Heinz et al, 2009).

The de-standardisation of life courses has been noted in many studies over recent decades (EGRIS, 2001; Furlong and Cartmel, 2007; Eurofound, 2014). Even where life courses have been individualised in many respects (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2001; Côté, 2002), an individual’s location within power structures still strongly affects their life chances and the formation of their life course (MacDonald et al, 2005; Iannelli and Smyth, 2008; Furlong, 2009). However, in spite of the significance of structural factors such as social class in the life course formation of young people, at the policy level young people are increasingly expected to take responsibility for their own careers, and become self-governing, enterprising and proactive (e.g. Lundahl and Olofsson, 2014).

The CPE perspective highlights the relevance of the cultural dimension in understanding and analysing the complexity of social formations such as policies. LLL policies reflect selective interpretations of problems, explanations of their cause and preferred solutions. The economic and political features of LLL policies are deeply embedded in cultural contexts and broader sets of social relations. By emphasising the variation, selection and retention of particular policy foci and approaches, their objectives and orientations as well as their definition of target groups, CPE invites analysis of policies as the articulation of (p.110) semiotic (cultural) and extra-semiotic (structural) moments (Jessop, 2004, 2010).

From the CPE perspective it is appropriate to ask how societal problems are framed. What kind of terminology (such as economic, social and cultural) is used when talking about the phenomenon and its potential solutions? At the level of implementation, practical issues are often the main focus while more general connections between the phenomenon and society are not discussed. Policy documents, for instance, are based on some taken-for-granted perspective. Policy texts construct a problem and its surrounding reality for discussion. Therefore, the description of a phenomenon and its origins, at least implicitly, assumes acceptance of the logic that the reality is built on. The description often depoliticises the subject matter, presenting it as if a clear-cut solution based on, for example, economic principles exists for the problem. In this way, political solutions transform into technical solutions within a given political rationality. Yet with this approach, a large portion of the problem’s framework is omitted from the reality constructed within the texts.

The concepts of normality and normal distribution became key models in natural scientific analyses as statistics developed. The normal distribution, Gaussian distribution or bell curve is one of the most commonly used distributions when analysing the aggregation of causally independent events or targets. Lars Grue and Arvid Heiberg (2006: 234) emphasise the concept of the average man. They state that even Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874), a Belgian astronomer, statistician and mathematician, raised the generalised notion of ‘normal’ as a necessity and an imperative for research. Through medical statistics, the same ‘normal’ transferred from state level to the level of the human body. Quetelet thought of combining the observational error or error curve, later named normal distribution, to describe not only states but also human properties such as height and weight. According to Quetelet, all human features deviate from the average norm (Rinne, 2016). In this discourse, the average is ideal. The moral and physical qualities of an average person were considered the most valuable features of a population. Larger and smaller deviances began to gain significance as bodily ugliness, a lack of moral virtue or frivolity (Grue and Heidberg, 2006: 235).

From a sociological standpoint, the premise of differentiating between normal and abnormal is a social norm. A social norm is a code of conduct reinforced with sanctions. By presenting norms and using sanctions to fortify their adherence, people and human populations practise social control. Those in power very much define (p.111) value hierarchies, and norms are ultimately perceptions of normality to those in power. Power is the ability to make others act in a desired manner. Normative regulation penetrates the institutions of socialisation, such as upbringing and education, and the activities of both families and educational organisations, all the way from primary school to university.

Norms are prescriptive behavioural models and standards that make human behaviour predictable. Norms are dependent on their socio-historical context and, thus, constantly changing. The significance of a norm is realised when conflicts occur between norm systems and deviance in interactional situations. Such deviance reveals the norm, which changes from hidden to visible. Deviance signifies inadaptability to norms. Deviance can be understood as a negative, stigmatised social reaction of others towards the deviant (Rinne, 2016).

Life conditions of young adults in empirical context: the case of Finland

While lifelong learning is the term now most commonly used, this concept has also been known as adult education, recurrent education or permanent education (OECD, 1973; Aspin and Chapman, 2000; Tuijnman and Boström, 2002; Rubenson, 2006; Centeno, 2011; Kinnari and Silvennoinen, 2019). Since the 1960s, the concept has widened to include all kinds of learning environments, shifting focus from civic skills to skills for employment. Although this chapter is not intended to describe Finnish LLL policies as such, there are several reasons why Finland is an interesting case for international comparison:

  • high level of skills, for example in mathematics, sciences and literacy, among school-age youth (as tested in the Programme for International Student Assessment [PISA]) as well as among the adult population (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies);

  • high learning outcomes in association with equality of the education system;

  • high adult participation rates in education and wide public provision of adult education;

  • high private provision of employer-provided, in-service training for the labour force;

  • long tradition of liberal adult education system built on Nordic egalitarian values;

  • dense network of public libraries.

(p.112) When compared internationally, Finland reports relatively narrow income and class differences. Socioeconomic and cultural inequalities have been smaller than in most European countries. One reason for small class differences is the cultural homogeneity of the population. Implemented policies have certainly had an impact on the extent of class differences as well. However, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics (OECD, 2015, 2016a) show that income differences in Finland have grown since the beginning of the 1990s.

Since the recession at the beginning of the 1990s and the financial crisis following 2008, there have been considerable budget cuts to the welfare state, shifting the emphasis in a more selective and market-oriented direction with significant impacts on education. Centralised steering, especially of education, was drastically reduced in the 1990s while decentralisation, deregulation and decision-making powers of local administration were increased (Rinne, 2014; Berisha et al, 2017).

The Finnish education system is characteristically intertwined with the Nordic notion of the welfare state, emphasising equal opportunities. As one of the key elements of the Nordic welfare model, the comprehensive school system is identified by universal, non-selective and free basic education provided by the public sector. PISA results from the early 2000s onwards show not only high average levels in learning outcomes, but also that the share of low achievers is comparatively small. The Finnish school system has been successful in compensating for the poor socioeconomic background of pupils. The school-to-school variation in learning outcomes is one of the smallest in OECD countries. Young people have relatively good educational opportunities at the upper secondary and tertiary level. However, roughly 5 to 10 per cent of young people in each age cohort do not continue to further education or training after basic education. Their situation is deteriorating as competition in the labour market increases.

Furthermore, according to recent developments in PISA assessments, all positive characteristics of the Finnish school system have been deteriorating since 2000. The effect of socioeconomic background on learning outcomes has increased, average proficiency levels in literacy, mathematics and sciences have dropped substantially, and the proportion of pupils with a low level of skills has grown significantly (OECD, 2013, 2016b).

Moreover, the employment prospects of Finnish young people have deteriorated in recent decades. The Finnish economy has suffered two crises since the 1980s; first in the early 1990s, and then as an effect of the global financial crisis from 2008 onwards. After the financial (p.113) crisis of 2008, unemployment among young people has increased, particularly for males. Uncertain employment prospects have also had a discouraging effect in terms of educational motivation, especially for those young people who score at the low end of the achievement curve. The NEET rate for 20- to 24-year-old males in particular has increased significantly since 2010 (Alatalo et al, 2017).

Living conditions and opportunity structures for young people vary significantly across Finland. The capital city Helsinki and its metropolitan area provide better opportunities for education and employment than remote areas in the eastern and northern parts of the country. The general trend since the 1960s has seen a concentration of the population in southern parts of the country, as the northern and eastern parts become more and more sparsely populated. A rising dependency ratio, due to an ageing population, is a national concern. In 2017, the number of children born in Finland reached a historic low since the famine of 1866–8, despite the population having more than doubled. Nonetheless, Finnish young adults seem to be more satisfied across life domains than their European counterparts (see Figure 6.1).

The differences are particularly large in the domains of accommodation, job satisfaction and overall life satisfaction. However, as elsewhere in Europe, there are gender differences, young Finnish women being more satisfied with their life situation than young men.

Ideology and aims: policy documents

In Finland, general guidelines and action plans for the implementation of LLL policies are included in government programmes. The same is true for strategic priorities and objectives related to employment and education, which, in turn, are integrated into key programmes. In the most recent government programmes (2011, 2014 and 2015), main priorities have included the stabilisation of public finances and increased employment rates. Governments have focused on extending career paths at both ends and finding ways to speed up young people’s transitions from school to work. When reforming educational practices, the current government is focused on strengthening ties between educational institutions and businesses. A reduction in the number of youths not in education or work, as well as the number of education interruptions have been set as goals for this government term (Prime Minister’s Office, 2015: 17–19).

In accordance with government targets, youth and labour market policies focus primarily on improving the well-being and employment (p.114)

Governing the normalisation of young adults through lifelong learning policies

Figure 6.1: Satisfaction in various life domains of population aged 25–34 by gender, EU-28 and Finland

Source: Eurostat, 2017

prospects of young people. Educational policies in turn aim at reducing education interruptions, shortening study durations and improving the connection between education and working life (MEC, 2012c). The importance of developing apprenticeship training and other forms of work-based learning, as well as competence recognition, is highlighted in order to support individual education and career paths (MEC, 2012b). In general, the aim is to align education with to the needs of businesses (in terms of content and structure, for example, competence-based qualifications) and ensure that the number of people being trained corresponds to the needs of the labour market. This is intended to make education more attractive and result in greater numbers of young people gaining employment (Finnish National Board of Education, 2015: 71–4.

In Finnish LLL policies, special measures are targeted at groups assumed to be facing the highest risk of becoming socially excluded, such as NEETs, early school leavers, unemployed youths, vocational school dropouts, immigrants and disabled youths. It appears that (p.115) the success criteria for these policies are whether employment and graduation rates improve among young people belonging to these supposed risk groups. According to the Child and Youth Policy Programme (MEC, 2012b), preventing discrimination towards children and youths belonging to various minorities should be a priority. The listed minority groups include immigrants, traditional Finnish minorities such as the Romani people and the indigenous Sami people, people with disabilities, and groups that differ from the majority in terms of gender identity or sexual orientation. In addition, gender and age groups are mentioned separately (MEC, 2012a: 6–7, 28; 2012c).

Despite the recent de-standardisation of life courses, a normative ideal path for young people based on a standardised and linear life course model can be found in policy documents. Furthermore, young people are expected to complete their degree within the given target time and find a job after graduation (MEC, 2012c: 33). However, those policies that assume the prevalence of ‘normal’ life courses do not take into account the fact that career progressions are often nonlinear and strongly influenced by actions, events and circumstances that lie beyond the control of individuals. According to the careership theory (Hodkinson and Sparkes, 1997; Hodkinson, 2008), career-related decision-making is bounded by a person’s horizons for action, which enable him or her to see opportunities within them, but at the same time prevent him or her from seeing what lies beyond them. Horizons for action are influenced by social position as well as by embodied dispositions (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992), which, in turn, are interconnected. Dispositions influence the ways individuals think and act within their horizons of action, which are both objective and subjective (Hodkinson, 2008).

Young people face a weak position in the labour and education markets resulting from a lack of jobs. In turn this narrows their horizons for action and contributes to negative visions of their own futures. This phenomenon sits within a wider context of a decline in low-skilled jobs and an increasingly highly educated population, resulting in intensified competition among individuals for the available training places and jobs. As a result of these changes, people who have struggled in formal education are losing faith in their ability to compete for decently paid work.

Sanctions are a common element of Finnish employment policies targeting disadvantaged young people (usually defined as poorly educated, with difficulties in finding employment). The primary goal of government is to reduce the number of young people categorised (p.116) as unemployed. One common method for achieving this appears to be tightening the conditions for receiving unemployment assistance. Since 1996, 18 to 24 year olds who have not completed a vocational qualification have been obliged to undertake educational programmes in order to receive unemployment benefits. A young person must apply to at least three educational programmes in the joint application, and if they are accepted, they must start and complete the programme in order to be entitled to receive unemployment benefits. This measure tightens the conditions for receiving unemployment benefits targets individuals, while failing to, even indirectly, target the structure of labour demand and the number of available jobs. The most important criterion that defines the measure’s success is a decrease in the number of youths who do not have a degree and receive unemployment benefits.

Thoughts and experiences: interviews

LLL policies represent not only societal expectations but also public interventions that aim to bring about preferred visions of individual development and a ‘normal’ life course. From this viewpoint, it becomes crucial to examine how the implicit assumptions included in the structure and characteristics of the desired and ‘normal’ life course, which are present in LLL policies, correspond with young people’s own experiences, expectations and opportunities.

Despite the increasing de-standardisation of life courses, in Finland LLL policies are still arguably based on the assumed prevalence of an ideal, late-industrial, standardised life course model (Mayer, 2004), which separates young adults’ lives into two phases: first, full-time education and, later, full-time employment. However, using a ‘normal’ life course as a standard against which the success of LLL policies is measured can be problematised given that volatile European labour markets increasingly create diversified and uncertain pathways into and within the employment system and, thus, lead to more age variability in occupational and private transitions (Heinz et al, 2009).

Despite the influence of people’s locations within power structures on their life chances and the formation of their life courses (Järvinen and Vanttaja, 2013; Vauhkonen et al, 2017), there are attempts to treat structural problems, such as a lack of jobs, through LLL policy measures targeted at individuals. In this respect, however, the views of national high-level and regional street-level experts significantly differed from each other. While the national-level experts recognised the existence of structural problems, the regional-level experts working closely (p.117) with young adults in their everyday lives did not see young people’s disadvantage as stemming from structural constraints, but primarily from their individual life situations and problems. According to the high-level national policy experts who were interviewed, the main challenges facing young adults are the difficult economic situation and regional and social polarisation:

At least the official truth is that our economy is not in a good condition, and due to that there have been cuts to different services. […] you can see the budget cuts starting from child welfare clinics and compulsory schools and so on. In all of them we can see that things are not on such a good level as we would like to see them. And this is then naturally reflected in the possibilities that young people have in their lives. The regional differences have slowly started to grow, and people from different regions and backgrounds are not in an equal position in relation to this system. The more financial stability there is in the family and the closer to big cities you live, the better your possibilities in life. (E_FI_NAT_3)

I would say that polarisation is the one challenge that emerges strongly. […] For us it shows itself as a regional issue, like how education is organised, how education is accessed, what the available possibilities are. […] And I do see that one of the big challenges for us with the big group of young people is how the regional policy is constructed. (E_FI_NAT_1)

In contrast to the views of national-level experts, the individualisation of structural problems was evident in interviews with regional-level experts. They had difficulty in seeing beyond individual circumstances and local policy context. In the interviews, they emphasised the significance of policy priorities that encourage young adults to take responsibility for their own lives. For the regional-level experts across different LLL policy fields and both functional regions, lack of self-confidence and self-esteem were recognised as being among the main challenges influencing young adults’ participation in policy initiatives. The following excerpt echoes findings from studies into transition policies showing that at a policy level young people themselves are increasingly expected to take responsibility for their careers and be self-governing, enterprising and proactive (e.g. Lundahl and Olofsson, (p.118) 2014). In other words, it is young people who have problems, not society:

Our goal is to work out how to activate young people, to wake them up and get them motivated about their own lives, whether it is a case of going to school or work or rehabilitation, or strengthening their self-esteem. Our objective here is to solve these problems that young people have. (E_FI_K_2)

Furthermore, street-level experts did not critically reflect on the possible unintended consequences of the measures, but emphasised their empowering aspects, which they saw as increasing young adults’ opportunities in the labour market and as citizens:

I mean everyone has difficulties in admitting their problems and challenges in life. And when you talk and talk and talk about them, they become something you don’t have to be ashamed of […] Identifying them and talking about them has in a way influenced the fact that this young person finds it easier to accept themselves and get experiences of success. (E_FI_SF_4)

Similarly, the vast majority of young adults interviewed in this study shared the experts’ view of the empowering nature of policy measures they had participated in:

The work here [LLL policy measures] has given me so much, like strength. […] I probably couldn’t have coped with a normal job, or at least I couldn’t have trusted that. So this rehabilitative thing that I started was the best option. (Y_FI_SF_6)

It is important to note, however, that although the policy measures may have been successful in empowering young people, this masks the fact that without changes to the local opportunity structure, the future labour market prospects of these young adults will remain poor.

The key questions related to individual agency are, what kinds of beliefs and perspectives do the individuals have of their future possibilities, to what extent do they feel in control of their lives and how do they view what is possible for them? For the young adults interviewed in this study, their horizons for action were more or less (p.119) restricted. Interestingly, in many cases they were still using the ‘normal’ life course as a standard against which they compared their own biographies and future plans. The young adults demonstrated rather normative and conventional understandings of adulthood despite the accumulating challenges they faced and the disadvantaged situations they were living in:

I hope I will have a job, and perhaps my spouse and I would have our own house and a vegetable garden. (Y_FI_SF_2)

At least I would like to think that I will have a job and a husband and perhaps also a child. And our own home. Just kind of basic dreams. (YI_SF_K_4)

Interestingly, the differences in regional opportunity structures were not particularly reflected in the young adults’ perceived and planned life projects. Furthermore, many young adults had internalised societal and structural problems, seeing the reason for their problems and struggles in themselves. For instance, in the interviews conducted in Kainuu where youth unemployment is higher than the national average, young adults attributed their troubles finding employment to being ‘failures’ themselves, an attitude also recognised by the interviewed experts. Thus, they defined themselves as ‘slow learners’ or stated that ‘it’s just me that can’t learn’ without recognising the impact of their social environment or schooling arrangements on their educational success and choices:

I don’t know why, but remembering things was difficult. I studied for exams and I remembered the things I studied for a short while, but it just did not stick in my head […] Or, you know, in vocational school it was somehow really irritating when the others were always ahead and I, even easy things, God damn, I didn’t understand or couldn’t do. (Y_FI_K_7)

A view similar to that illustrated in this excerpt emerged in several interviews.

Conclusion and discussion

Young adults struggle to gain a foothold in the labour market all over Europe. In many countries, young adults living in central and (p.120) peripheral regions face very different future prospects. Due to the scarcity of educational and labour market opportunities, in Finland people born in northern and eastern parts of the country tend to move to southern cities after completing compulsory or upper secondary education. The risk of poverty and social exclusion has especially increased in northern and eastern regions of Finland.

The analysis shows that the concepts of governance, life course and CPE are interwoven in national policy documents, contributing to the hegemony of normality, especially normal life courses. However, using a ‘normal’ life course as a standard against which to measure the success of LLL policies can be problematic given that European labour markets increasingly create diversified and uncertain pathways into and within the employment system and, thus, lead to more age variability in occupational and private transitions.

Analysis of Finnish LLL policy documents indicates that there is a desire and commitment to develop education and services in order to better support young people and their career paths. At the same time, there has been a shift from a structural towards an individualising policy approach (see Pohl and Walther, 2007). Young people themselves are expected to take active responsibility for their employability and civic participation. Sanctions are a common element of employment policies targeting young people in vulnerable situations. In fact, many of the measures to reduce youth unemployment are not targeted at unemployment – they are targeted at the unemployed. Giving employers the option of paying young workers a lower wage than those defined in collective agreements is one of the most discussed topics in the current discourse on youth unemployment. No minimum wage is defined by Finnish legislation. Instead, minimum wages are defined in the collective agreements of each industry. According to the government, Germany offers a good example, having succeeded in reducing unemployment through low-waged work. Low-paid work is seen as a solution, especially for poorly educated young people. Gratuitous social security and inactivity traps are seen as obstacles to accepting low-paid temporary work.

The analysis shows that national-level experts particularly are aware of the realities of society. Their experiences and opinions of the LLL policies appear more sceptical, and they acknowledge that the ideology and aims of policy documents are often far removed from the reality of the young people’s lives. The main challenges were more frequently related to young adults’ difficult economic situations, as well as the polarisation of educational opportunities and labour market possibilities. For those young adults in disadvantaged situations, (p.121) approximately 20 per cent of the entire group, it was also challenging to remain hopeful and believe in one’s future possibilities. They did not see, however, their difficulties as stemming from structural constraints, but instead from their personal characteristics such as a lack of motivation or difficulties in doing well in school.

One important aspect omitted from policy texts is class structure and the different life opportunities available to different social classes. After the Second World War particularly, Finland experienced a period of growing equality during which class differences decreased as the number of white-collar jobs and middle-class positions increased significantly. For a long time, the development of the Finnish welfare state could be described using rising graphs and increasing numbers. The range of services expanded, while budgets and the number of service users increased. Economic growth made extensive wellbeing services possible, and in turn, public services supported further growth. A comprehensive social security system was built to cover temporary gaps in employment income. Social assistance provided by municipalities was intended as a last resort to ensure income security.

In the 1990s, the trend began to change. At the same time as inequalities between social classes began to increase after the recession of the early 1990s, neoliberal arguments were mobilised to create a doctrine around this change. The relationship between society and the individual was redefined. At the core of the new doctrine was the individual, now responsible for ensuring their own well-being without help in the form of transfer payments. The new morality rejects gratuitous social benefits for the unemployed. Neoliberal governing of institutions and populations tightens competition for decent jobs, decent pay and decent social standing, even at the lower levels of the social hierarchy among the ‘vulnerable’.

Naturally, one cannot simply generalise the Finnish situation to a broader European context. The Finnish case has its own strong historical and social roots, and a vision of education as the great equaliser seems to still be alive in Finland, at least in the rhetoric of policy documents. On the other hand, the political decisions, and the experiences and opinions of both young adults and experts examined in this study, demonstrate that the reality is often bleaker than the promises made in policy documents.


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(1) These include the Finnish government, the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Finnish National Board of Education, Centre for Economic Development, (p.122) Transport and the Environment of South-west Finland, Regional Council of South-west Finland, Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment of Kainuu, Regional Council of Kainuu and Kainuu Social Welfare and Health Care Joint Authority.