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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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Tackling vulnerability through lifelong learning policies?

Tackling vulnerability through lifelong learning policies?

(p.127) 7 Tackling vulnerability through lifelong learning policies?
Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in Europe

Thomas Verlage

Valentina Milenkova

Ana Bela Ribeiro

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses different concepts of vulnerability and reviews the policies of European countries to overcome vulnerability. The main thesis is that the current situation gives rise to prerequisites for vulnerability and that the type and number of disadvantaged groups is increasing. Special attention is paid to the Roma – the most at-risk ethnic minority in Europe. A key focus of the chapter is that tackling vulnerability and minimizing it is the result of policies at different levels - European, national, regional. The chapter puts forward a review of the most recent key policy measures for equal education opportunities and social inclusion targeting at-risk groups. Various aspects of adopted policy interventions for stimulating social and LLL inclusion are illustrated, and supplemented by a critical analysis in different EU countries. The conclusion is that the required strategic actions targeting educational equity for marginalized social groups have been indeed formulated by the stakeholders; yet, certain shortcomings have been noticed and these are primarily linked to practical implementation of the national documents into real actions.

Keywords:   Social vulnerability, Lifelong learning policies, Ethnicity, Inclusion, Europe

The development of social assistance systems in Europe throughout the 20th century was characterised by a high level of welfare protection that guaranteed support for different groups in society, especially those deemed at risk (Esping-Andersen, 1990, 1999). The basis for this was the significant economic growth achieved in the 20th century, which has allowed the necessary institutional mechanisms to ensure a reasonable standard of living for a large number of European citizens to be created. Social assistance systems aim at tackling key risk points in people’s lives: unemployment, disease and disability (physical and mental), old age. The new century is characterised by rising risks (Beck, 1992) and has turned uncertainty and instability into basic characteristics of society. Confidence in one’s ability to control risks has been replaced by the belief that risks are not fully predictable and controllable (Beck, 1992). In this sense, as Piketty wrote:

A market economy based on private property, if left to itself, contains powerful forces of convergence, associated in particular with the diffusion of knowledge and skills; but it also contains powerful forces of divergence, which are potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice on which they are based.

(Piketty, 2014: 398)

Skills, competences and qualifications are important values for individuals in our market-based economy. Lifelong learning (LLL) policies play an important role in this system. Persons and groups that are targeted by these policies are increasingly described as ‘vulnerable’. The concept of vulnerability becomes central in European policy debates and the term itself is used in an inflationary fashion.

This chapter aims to show how LLL policies address vulnerability today. To do so we first discuss the concept of vulnerability, showing (p.128) how this term is misused when operationalised in the field of LLL and highlighting that our understanding of vulnerability is a social-relational one. In the second section, we present groups of people who often find themselves in vulnerable circumstances and identify poverty and social exclusion as key aspects of those situations. By referring to European statistics, we show that contemporary European societies are facing a growing phenomenon: an increase in the prerequisites for vulnerability. To show how vulnerability is addressed today, we refer to three European countries in contrasting situations and which are facing different issues:

  • Germany, as an example of a highly institutionalised and economically successful European country;

  • Portugal, as an example of a relatively sustainable traditional economy;

  • Bulgaria, as an example of a country experiencing a high degree of poverty and ethnic distance.

In sum, we show different ways of addressing vulnerability and identify employability as the overarching aim of LLL policies that attempt to tackle vulnerability.

Vulnerability as a social-relational issue

According to Heidegger (1996), humans are thrown into the world, which is to say we find ourselves delivered over to a world. This exposure provides us with an image of the general vulnerability of human beings. Vulnerability derives from the Latin (vulnerare = to wound, injure). Developing this image, two sources of vulnerability can be differentiated: vulnerability to nature and vulnerability to human society. The former refers to natural disasters and their consequences, such as famine (Delor and Hubert, 2000), which are scientifically elucidated, for example by disaster risk management (Vatsa, 2004). In these studies ‘vulnerability is the key factor which explains how the outcome of a risky event is distributed across households’ (Vatsa, 2004: 9). In contexts of LLL, the second aspect – vulnerability to society – is the more dominant issue in our modern societies. In the field of LLL, varying terms are used to describe and categorise persons or groups of people. People are ‘at risk’, suffer from ‘social disadvantage’, are ‘near social exclusion’ or are described as ‘vulnerable’. These terms – used in the field of LLL and in public discussions – are defined and established by social sciences. The term vulnerable is especially used in poverty/ (p.129) social exclusion research, indicating persons or groups who are worthy of protection or face higher levels of exposure to poverty or welfare losses (Alwang et al, 2001; Luna, 2009).

Another differentiation of vulnerability was presented within the taxonomy of vulnerability developed by Mackenzie and colleagues (2014). They distinguish inherent from situational vulnerability: ‘Inherent vulnerability refers to sources of vulnerability that are intrinsic to human conditions’, such as hunger, thirst or physical harm (Mackenzie et al, 2014: 7). To cope with these inherent vulnerabilities, the capacities of the individuals to meet their needs are central. Situational vulnerability is the second source mentioned by Mackenzie and colleagues. These vulnerabilities are context-specific: ‘This may be caused or exacerbated by the personal, social, political, economic, or environmental situations of individuals or social groups’ (Mackenzie et al, 2014: 7). They could be short-term, intermittent or enduring (Mackenzie et al, 2014: 7). Mackenzie and colleagues’ situational vulnerability comes closest to the image of exposedness that Heidegger evokes with his term of ‘thrownness’ (Heidegger, 1996) and highlights at the same time that different kinds of vulnerable situations are related to the societal context. Thus, vulnerability is also constituted by different ‘layers’ of social interactions and contexts, rather than one solid form of vulnerability that transcends all circumstances. In other words, a person is not vulnerable but is rendered or made vulnerable by certain situations and thus may be simultaneously vulnerable, highly vulnerable or not vulnerable depending on the situation and context (Delor and Hubert, 2000; Luna, 2009; Scandurra et al, 2017).

In scientific discourses it is nowadays widely accepted that all these concepts – at risk, social disadvantage, near social exclusion and vulnerability – are dynamic processes and not inherent characteristics of persons or groups. When examining the work of Castel – Les Métamorphoses de la question sociale (1995) – it becomes more and more evident that these concepts cannot be understand as static, natural or individual attributes. Castel presents a model of social exclusion, which divides the social sphere into three zones of integration: the integration zone, incorporating people who have a secure job and a solid social network; the zone of vulnerability (la zone de vulnérabilité), including, for example, those whose job is not secure or who have unstable social relationships with little social support; and finally, the exclusion zone in which we find people that have been ‘shaken off’ (from the labour market, educational participation etc). It becomes obvious that people are able to change/slip from one zone to another depending on their (p.130) current situation. Here again it is context that acts as the crucial factor and not the ‘characteristics’ of the individuals or groups.

This implies, therefore, that anyone could become vulnerable, in the sense of finding themselves in a vulnerable situation, as Levine and colleagues (2004: 46) also discuss: ‘So many categories of people are now considered vulnerable that virtually all potential human subjects are included.’ In our view, this does not mean that the concept of vulnerability is diluted. It highlights instead the dynamic of ongoing processes, especially in times of individualisation, flexibilisation and de-standardisation of life courses. In this sense, we understand vulnerability as a social-relational issue (see also Scandurra et al, 2017: 10).

While such an understanding makes sense at a theoretical level, it seems difficult to realise in daily practice. One reason could be that identification of particular attributes of people in vulnerable positions makes it easier to define target groups, operationalise theoretical concepts and build capacity for action. It seems that rendering the concept of vulnerability manageable on-site risks essentialising attributions as static and ‘natural’. As a consequence, the status quo of dynamic processes are used as labels and characteristics of persons or groups, which leads to phenomena such as ‘blaming the victim’ (Ryan, 1971) and ‘Group-Focused Enmity’ (Zick et al, 2008), obscuring focus on the cause of the problems.

Nowadays the concept of vulnerability is central to European policy debates concerning the prevention of social exclusion among different populations. Vulnerability as a social-relational issue occurs and develops in the economic, demographic and political spheres, and in conditions of uncertainty related to the material environment and unstable local economy and institutions; underdeveloped market relations being characterised by a high degree of fluctuation. In this sense, vulnerability and uncertainty arising from different risks in society are interrelated.

Depending on the situations people are ‘thrown into’, uncertainty and risks act differently on them and thus, they are differently affected by vulnerability. The concept of vulnerability demonstrates how the effects of risk spread to different groups and the extent of their impact on the risk factor (Vatsa, 2004). Vulnerability is a state of susceptibility in a certain situation to the action of a given risk. Therefore, it can be said that the notion of social vulnerability identifies not only specific risk profiles, but also the nature of the risks themselves (Castel, 1995).

The state of uncertainty is frequently experienced by young adults and characterised by several key features, including the fact that they are at the beginning of their working lives and often face difficulties (p.131) in the transition from education to work and the labour market. The labour market is one of the principle mechanisms for the distribution of social resources and, therefore, is crucial for the lives of individuals. Young adults are often subject to job insecurity, which affects income and thus the opportunity to invest in education and careers. They often change jobs and move to other cities and countries due to staff rotation or company relocations. There are several peculiarities in the temporary employment of a large proportion of young adults that relate to job insecurity:

  • Labour relations are short-term and therefore labour protection is weak.

  • The employed person cannot influence the work situation and is poorly integrated into the company.

  • The employed person has little or no social and legal protection.

  • Job insecurity occurs both in the service sector with a low maintenance level as well as in highly qualified and professionalised sectors, which leads to the polarisation of the labour market and affects social groups traditionally considered to be protected against the risks of temporary employment.

The positioning of young adults between the labour market, the family and the social system (Taylor-Gooby, 2004) heightens the need for responsibility and care in the early phases of family life, cooperation between members of the family and intergenerational support.

Social assistance systems do not offer protection to all groups at risk (Taylor-Gooby, 2004); or if they offer such benefits, they are insufficient to ensure a normal level of well-being. Thus, a situation is being created at the intersection of several processes: insecure income and unstable workplaces, as well as unstable family support that social protection systems cannot handle (Lash and Urry, 1987). It is therefore hardly surprising that the years since the 1980s have been marked by increasing job insecurity and a sharp increase in the prerequisites for vulnerable situations, particularly for young adults.

Groups in vulnerable positions

In the previous section we highlighted the social-relational nature of vulnerability and outlined the dynamic and non-essentialistic character of the (social scientific) concept. We also highlighted the difficulty of implementing this insight in daily practice. Various major and decisive actors at the international level, such the European Court for (p.132) Human Rights,1 the Council of Europe2 and even Eurostat,3 speak of vulnerable groups and perpetuate misleading terminology, turning the status quo of dynamic processes into static attributions and societal situations into the characteristics of a person or group.

On the basis of their different categorisations, we can produce an integrated classification to identify recurring groups described by these sources: people in poverty and social exclusion; unemployed people; ethnic minorities; disabled people; groups with minority sexual orientations; migrants and refugees.

All of these groups share a common societal situation – their risk of social exclusion – which is often perceived and communicated as exclusion from the labour market:

Social exclusion is a process whereby certain individuals are pushed to the edge of society and prevented from participating fully by virtue of their poverty, or lack of basic competences and lifelong learning opportunities, or as a result of discrimination. This distances them from job, income and education opportunities, as well as social and community networks and activities. They have little access to power and decision-making bodies, and thus often feeling powerless and unable to take control over the decisions that affect their day to day lives.4

Poverty and social exclusion seem to be the most prominent categories for characterising situations of vulnerability. To elucidate the current situation in Europe we focus now on these central phenomena.

Poverty and social exclusion

Poverty and social exclusion are complex phenomena with multiple manifestations. They concern not only people’s income and material well-being but also possibilities for their active participation in society. Poverty becomes a key characteristic of vulnerability. The poverty level is in direct correlation with levels of socioeconomic inequalities, which in turn are some of the main factors influencing the deepening of poverty.

The European Union (EU) uses a relative definition of poverty, set out in 2004:

People are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society (p.133) in which they live. Because of their poverty they may experience multiple disadvantages through unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong learning, culture, sport and recreation. They are often excluded and marginalised from participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted.5

Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon, and it includes both a lack of resources to satisfy basic needs and a lack of conditions and prerequisites for a decent and fulfilling life, which in turn is due to a lack of possible choices. People in a disadvantaged position both inside and outside the labour market are at greatest risk of falling into poverty. Examples of people typically in these positions are unemployed youths up to 29 years of age, the long-term unemployed and ethnic minorities.

Despite EU targets to reduce the number of people experiencing poverty or social exclusion by 20 million before 2020, the number of people at risk of poverty has increased from 116 million in 2008 (23.8 per cent) to 122 million in 2014, representing 24.4 per cent of the population (EU-28) (Lecerf, 2016: 5).

In 2014, more than a third of the population was ‘at risk of poverty or social exclusion’ (Lecerf, 2016: 5) in three member states: Romania (40.2 per cent), Bulgaria (40.1 per cent) and Greece (36 per cent). At the opposite end of the scale, the lowest share of those at risk of poverty or social exclusion was recorded in the Czech Republic (14.8 per cent), Sweden (16.9 per cent) and the Netherlands (17.1 per cent) (Lecerf, 2016: 5). Data show a marked increase in the risk of poverty and social exclusion for the period 2008–2014 (Figure 7.1): in Greece (+7.9 per cent), Spain (+4.7 per cent), Cyprus (+4.1 per cent), Malta (+ 3.7 per cent), Hungary (+ 2.9 per cent) and Italy (+ 2.8 per cent) (Lecerf, 2016: 5).

In addition, it can also be said that the risk of poverty and social exclusion is greatest among young adults (18–24) in the context of EU member states (Lecerf, 2016: 6), as shown in Figure 7.2.

Muffels and Fouarge (2004) claim that the number of people affected by temporary poverty is much greater than those in a state of constant poverty. Another dimension of poverty is the number of people in Europe who live slightly above the standard poverty line. According to Forster and d’Ercole (2005), roughly 6 per cent of the European population has an income of between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the average, while 10.6 per cent live on less than 50 per cent of (p.134)

Tackling vulnerability through lifelong learning policies?

Figure 7.1: The share of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2008 (EU‑27) and 2014 (EU-28)

Source: Lecerf, 2016, p 5

Tackling vulnerability through lifelong learning policies?

Figure 7.2: The share of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2008 (EU‑27) and 2014 (EU-28) by age

Source: Lecerf, 2016, p 6

the average threshold for available income. The result is an aggregate of people who are economically unstable and make up more than 50 per cent of Europe’s population. Income instability is a way of life characterised by economic discomfort, reduced living standards and hardship. Poverty leads to poor living conditions, unhealthy environments, frequent births, inadequate health culture, lack of family planning skills, limited access to health and medical services and much more.

(p.135) Policies for overcoming vulnerability

After further developing the concept of vulnerability – referring to groups of people who frequently have to cope with vulnerable situations – and presenting figures that show the increasing importance of tackling vulnerable situations, we focus on LLL policies that address this issue and try to overcome vulnerability in their domains of activity. We focus on three countries in very different circumstances: Germany, Portugal and Bulgaria.

Policies tackling vulnerabilities? The case of Germany

As opposed to other countries such as Bulgaria (see later section), German LLL policies do not employ the term ‘lifelong learning’ in their titles and it is seldom used in general. Nonetheless, the field of LLL policies is highly differentiated and diverse. The mapping process conducted as part of the YOUNG_ADULLLT project (Bittlingmayer et al, 2016) rendered visible the scope and range of policies in this field. Labour market policies, social and youth policies and education policies were the most commonly occurring. In the case of Germany, we notice that the conceptual differences between these three policy fields are difficult to maintain. LLL remains implicit and is understood as a cross-sectional task spanning the aforementioned fields. One reason for this is the German vocational education and training (VET) system, which includes a blend of school- and company-based training. Another reason is the general activation paradigm that pervades the whole system and blurs the distinctions between different fields.

The support system for young adults in Germany is highly institutionalised and the number of actors and measures is so significant that critics speak of a ‘jungle of measures’ (Maßnahmedschungel) (Leisering and Rolff, 2011). If we take a step back, as we did in YOUNG_ADULLLT, we see that all these actors and measures form a dense, functionally differentiated system in which all individual policies are interrelated, only realising their full potential in combination with each other in order to sustainably tackle vulnerability.

From a macro perspective, we clearly identify a network of policies, which are located at different levels, with different corresponding ways to tackle vulnerability (see Verlage et al, 2017). The breadth of policies seems to be comprehensive. Some provide direct access while those at the lower levels are aimed at providing required prerequisites. There are policies that address the basic, sometimes even existential, needs of young adults. There are policies that aim to compensate (p.136) for individual deficits, which are seen as barriers to training or employment. In addition, there are policies that provide regular qualifications, whether in the form of a school-leaving qualifications or a completed apprenticeship. Policies at all these different levels share the overarching intention of tackling vulnerability in terms of employability and independence through standard employment.

Our analysis of the governance of the German LLL system (Weiler et al, 2017) suggests that it can be described as a ‘loose coupling’ of involved actors. We see a dense mesh of actors, measures and cooperation as well as locations and opportunities for contact. The system works without a central actor that oversees the whole system. Instead all participating actors work with a relatively high degree of independence, pursuing their own interests or their public mandate. The aim each actor has to fulfil (with regard to cooperation) is the result of a common process; this, of course, does not mean that these processes are democratic or free of hierarchy.

While this analysis appears valid for Germany in general, there are differences in the prioritisation and implementation of measures and projects according to local/regional conditions and needs. While in the Rhein-Main region, an economically strong and growing area, situations of vulnerability emerge because of employers’ skill requirements or extremely high rents, the Bremen region faces different, dynamic changes in its structure due to lower economic strength and demographic trends in the region.

In the following, we present two exemplary measures that tackle vulnerability at the local level to reveal commonalities and differences. The first initiative is offered by the Centre for Further Education (Zentrum für Weiterbildung) – an independent service provider – and is called ‘Perspective with a Plan’ (PmP). The finding that young people who depend on social benefits often experience multiple problems at the same time forms the background to this measure. This plurality of problems can inhibit the search for a job or a VET placement, preventing access to the labour market. PmP provides individual, bespoke advice and support to young people aged 16 to 26, and it is commissioned and funded by the city of Frankfurt and the Jobcentre. Thus, the concrete support the measure offers depends on the needs of the young person in question. Possible interventions are: individual support for coping with everyday life; group training; competence training; stabilisation; guidance; clarification of circumstances; initiation of assistance measures; long-term, intense social-pedagogical support at the process of transition into vocational training, further education or work; and the development of personal (p.137) and professional perspectives. Vulnerability, according to this policy, is understood as a coalescence of challenging circumstances in which young people are entangled and which prevent their labour market participation. Behind the social-pedagogical intervention lies the assumption – drawing parallels with Castel’s work – that shifting from a zone of vulnerability to a zone of integration is possible if individual bespoke support is offered. One quotation from a young participant supports this assumption: ‘It is complex. I have a lot of wishes, but I don’t know how to realise them or even if I should realize them. I have to work on a lot of issues and I don’t know how to prioritise. I am still confused, that’s why this is a big help’ (young adult, Rhein-Main, male, Y_GER_F_1).

The second example is the VbFF (Verein zur beruflichen Förderung von Frauen/Association for the Professional Development of Women), whose initiative is an example of a policy that aims to help young adults gain qualifications. It is an independent service provider with a focus on training and professional development aimed primarily at women. The organisation was founded in 1978 in Frankfurt am Main, has its roots in the women’s movement and still holds to a feminist perspective. It offers 30 hours per week of part-time vocational training for single mothers. The VbFF cooperates with companies and supports single mothers in coping with the challenges of childcare during vocational training (based in companies and professional schools), as well as with different social problems. The vocational training takes place on site at the collaborating companies and at the VbFF itself, where they organise childcare, specialised teaching and exam preparation. One staff member outlined the objective of the measure: ‘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’ (expert, Rhein-Main, E_GER_F_2). They target single mothers under 26 who live in Frankfurt and have a school-leaving qualification (for more details see Verlage et al, 2018). Vulnerability in this policy refers to gender (female) and a temporary situation (young mothers with dependent children). Here, vulnerability is tackled with a combination of social-pedagogical support – which could be interpreted as an individualising approach – and situation-changing offers (childcare) that tackle the situation instead of the individual.

After reflecting upon the case of an economically successful and highly institutionalised country, we turn to a country with a relatively (p.138) sustainable economy and traditions, which is also rather under-institutionalised: Portugal.

Policies tackling vulnerabilities? The case of Portugal

In the wake of a dictatorship that lasted almost 50 years, Portugal was a country characterised by low economic capacity, widespread poverty and illiteracy. This period ended with the revolution of April 1974 and, since then, great efforts have been made in order to reduce poverty and social inequalities, enhance economic growth and increase educational standards. Social security policies have been implemented alongside universal public health and educational systems, dramatically raising the population’s general well-being (Alves et al, 2016).

In 1986, Portugal joined the European Economic Community and started modernising its public administration system and its communication, transport and, to a lesser degree, agricultural and industrial infrastructures. In Portugal in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was huge investment in real estate and construction, leading to a great intensification of immigration. This was also a period defined by great growth in educational qualifications and socioeconomic well-being. Although this led to an expansion of the tertiary sector labour market, Portugal still faced a limited capacity for generating employment (Alves et al, 2016).

In spite of this global and quite significant growth, in the early 2010s Portugal still lagged behind EU and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average standards in educational, social and economic terms. This became even more evident following the severe austerity measures imposed by the 2011 bailout plan. In Portugal, the impact of the crisis and austerity measures on unemployment was significant and far-reaching, although the impact was greatest among the younger population. The most dramatic period was between 2012 and 2014, when more than one third of active youngsters under 25 were unemployed, leading to an increase in the number of those defined as NEET (not in education, employment or training) (Alves et al, 2016). The situational nature of widespread vulnerability became particularly evident during this period.

Portugal, like most southern European countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy, plunged into a major economic and financial crisis, beginning in 2008 and reaching its peak in 2014. As a result, there was a joint EU and International Monetary Fund intervention and austerity measures were implemented in the country to reduce public debt and stimulate economic growth. These measures resulted in (p.139) moderation in the use of public money, the limitation of social policies, a reduction in public administration posts, lowered wages and raised taxes. However, while attempts were made to foster economic growth, these measures resulted in a reduction of families’ financial capacity and increasing unemployment and job instability (Sarmento et al, 2015).

During this period, Portugal experienced the worst economic crisis of its democratic life, registering high levels of unemployment, which deeply affected families. According to a study by Ribeiro and colleagues (2015), families faced new challenges such as indebtedness, changes in family income and changes in their daily practices. According to the authors, this crisis had a ‘particularly negative psychosocial impact on families with lower incomes’, as these families had more difficulties adjusting or reducing their already low expenses (Ribeiro et al, 2015: 5166).

Even given such a negative set of indicators, and taking into account the fact that they have not yet reached average European standards, levels of educational attainment have been consistently rising in Portugal. This growth is the result of a set of policies that are currently in place nationwide. In Portugal, LLL policies have a national, rather than regional, scope, and most of these policies reflect three principle concerns: the consolidation and growth of the academic and qualification levels of the Portuguese population in general, and young adults in particular; combating unemployment (especially youth unemployment); and tackling social exclusion (Alves et al, 2016).

Currently, in Portugal, the greater challenge that young adults face is ‘finding a job’ (expert, Vale do Ave, WP6_PT_VdA_1), and this is usually due to their lack and/or inadequacy of skills, given that ‘many of the young adults do not have adequate training’ (expert, Vale do Ave, WP6_PT_VdA_1). Although it is expected that a ‘young adult’s first job is often precarious’ (expert, Vale do Ave, WP6_PT_VdA_1), many will have to deal with job insecurity and/or structural unemployment throughout their lives (see also Ribeiro et al, 2017).

Against this backdrop, we present one policy (out of many) that aims at tackling vulnerabilities in Portugal: Contrato Local de Desenvolvimento Social (CLDS; Local Contract of Social Development), which was created as a response to the economic and social situation produced by the crisis and the consequent growth of social inequalities that have led to increased instances of social exclusion.

CLDS seeks to promote the social inclusion of citizens living in persistent poverty and experiencing social exclusion in deprived areas. The target group of the CDLS intervention are ‘the unemployed young (p.140) adults and adults, the beneficiaries of the Social Integration Income [a type of minimum guaranteed income for the severely dispossessed] or young people with difficulties of school integration, therefore, […] a fringe of the population that, effectively, needs intervention’ (expert, Vale do Ave, E_PT_VdA_2). CLDS aims to strengthen the proactivity of all agents in the search for solutions to the different issues affecting citizens, and to promote sustainable and inclusive growth of the territories with a special focus on employment. CLDS projects are structured around a concentration of resources in crucial areas of intervention, such as employment, training and qualifications, measures in support of families and parents, community and institutional empowerment, and information and accessibility. The professionals involved work according to a logic of ‘networking, joining efforts and resources, and CDLS is a kind of a booster’ (expert, Vale do Ave, E_PT_VdA_2). Nevertheless, while this networking demonstrates a positive impact, this expert also recognises that at times ‘it is difficult to articulate and to understand the logics of network functioning without being intrusive, because our goal is not to intrude, but rather to activate and to enhance’ (expert, Vale do Ave, E_PT_VdA_2) (see also Rodrigues et al, 2017). The policy is expected to contribute to enhancing the local and regional economies and generating new, sustainable and lasting jobs. It includes cooperational approaches that especially target individuals’ situations, but the individualised approach of tackling vulnerability remains dominant.

This exemplar policy selects leveraging employability, or supporting all factors that lead to employability, as the method of choice to support individuals’ shift from a zone of vulnerability to the integration zone.

Our third case was chosen to maximise the contrast within our sample. Bulgaria is one of the youngest EU members and faces a high degree of poverty and ethnic distance, which, at first glance, paints a picture of extended vulnerability.

Policies tackling vulnerabilities? The case of Bulgaria

In recent years, in Bulgaria, a series of policies and measures have been introduced aimed at reducing the dropout rate in primary schools, stimulating continuous education and increasing the opportunities for marginalised communities to participate in social and economic life.

A significant step forward in the development of the Bulgarian education system is an eagerness to implement good practices from the global LLL experience. Roma inclusion policies seek to modernise (p.141) the training system through enhancing the responsibilities of all actors implicated in the process. In line with this, consistent educational policies are regularly reinitiated given that so far these instruments have largely been coordinated and resourceful.

There are few policy documents outlining the conditions of Bulgarian LLL (Boyadjieva et al, 2013; Milenkova and Apostolov, 2018). From 2005 to 2015, three strategies have been adopted:

  • The National Strategy for Continuing Vocational Training (2005–10), which aimed to optimise conditions for those in the workforce to obtain vocational qualifications.

  • The National Strategy for Lifelong Learning (2008–13), which outlined measures at all educational levels, including adult education, with respect to disadvantaged groups and people aged 55 and over.

  • The National Strategy for Lifelong Learning (2014–20), which has a leading role in providing the legal conditions for the implementation of LLL policies focusing on groups in vulnerable situations.

Currently, the dynamics of social events and the rapid alteration of agendas have led to demands for more flexible and adaptable policy solutions to educational inequality (with a focus on Roma communities), including the need for a greater diversity of initiatives to be enacted. The following policies appear to encompass the whole range of approaches used to tackle vulnerability. Some policies focus on social-pedagogical guidance for young people in vulnerable situations. Others try to improve the cognitive skills and qualifications of this group and shift individuals from the zone of vulnerability to the integration zone:

  • National Strategy for Reduction of Early School Leaving (2013–20), aimed at reducing the share of early school leavers to less than 11 per cent using the governmental budget and structural funds. The strategy is in line with measures designed to improve access and quality of education oriented mainly to Roma youth.

  • National Strategy to Promote and Improve Literacy Skills (2014–20), aimed at creating a knowledge society in which literacy is central to individual and social development and is the basis for smart growth. The measures include conducting courses in literacy, information campaigns and validation of prior non-formal and informal learning. The strategy entails overcoming the low literacy rates among certain groups where poverty and poor command of the official language serve as major barriers to acquiring a diploma.

  • (p.142) Strategy for Educational Integration of Children and Students from Ethnic Minorities (2015–20). The strategy includes the following activities: working with parents to ensure greater interest in and commitment to education; attracting minority ethnic young people with higher education to the teaching profession; providing additional qualifications for pedagogical specialists to work in multicultural educational environments; conducting extracurricular work linked to the traditions of various ethnic groups; supporting students from ethnic communities towards continued education after compulsory school age; and the dissemination of good practices for the preservation and promotion of ethnic communities’ cultural traditions through modern technologies.

The implementation of LLL policies at the regional level takes the form of various programmes aimed at creating paths to the labour market for youth, especially those in vulnerable positions. Such a policy is the ‘National Youth Guarantee Scheme’,6 which aims to provide: career guidance for young people; training in vocational qualifications or key competences; subsidies for temporary work; assistance to employers to create new jobs; support for youth entrepreneurship; and provision of services from the European Employment Services (EURES) network (the European job mobility portal). The objective of the programme is to support unemployed young people under 29 to achieve their personal goals and labour market integration. Young people can register through labour offices with the assistance of labour mediators. The policy primarily makes use of training, internships and so on, in line with local needs. According to the experts: ‘Precisely because including these young people in any kind of activity, whether it is a course, qualification or internship has a positive effect for them and for their families and for the regional economy’ (expert, Blagoevgrad, E_BG_B_7).

Due to the centralised policy approach, public programmes targeting groups in vulnerable positions are implemented identically in both functional regions – Plovdiv and Blagoevgrad. From this perspective, it is not so much the regional differences in implementation of the ‘Youth Guarantee’ policy that are significant, as the regionalised views of experts and young adults themselves.

Young adults in both regions describe various difficulties related to the labour market. They ‘face high job insecurity working informally, without labour contracts, and quickly switching from one job to the other’ (Kovacheva et al, 2017: 31). ‘It is difficult to find a job to ensure a normal life. Employers usually pay low wages and this marginalises (p.143) young people’ (young adult, Blagoevgrad, female, Y_BG_B_5). ‘Like any normal person, I want to build a family, but I just do not know […] whether I will handle the costs. I have to raise a child. This is something that actually stops me from thinking about these things’ (young adult, Plovdiv, male, Y_BG_P_2). In this respect, ‘Youth Guarantee’ represents an opportunity to address critical points in the life course related to an individual’s job search. Young people ‘gain confidence when participating in the project, especially when they work on what they want and what they have learned’ (expert, Plovdiv, E_BG_P_1).

According to experts, the meaning of the programme ‘is crucial because it is related to providing employment, income, and hence a better quality of life. Increasing employment is a key to reducing poverty and social exclusion; people feel more engaged in the social environment and feel part of it’ (expert, Blagoevgrad, E_BG_B_7).

However, the implementation of ‘Youth Guarantee’ policy in both regions has come up against a number of difficulties:

  • The need to adapt the education and training system to the labour market.

  • Employers’ high expectations of the skills, qualifications and experience of youth.

  • Insufficient coordination between universities and business organisations.

  • The lack of altered outcomes after completing the programme – most young participants remain out of work.

Successful implementation of the reviewed policies requires more investment and effort to improve the efficiency of local labour markets and to promote economic activity. Local needs are reflected through the active involvement of regional businesses to increase employment, thus meeting the needs and requirements of local stakeholders.


Several important conclusions can be drawn. Risk factors are at the root of vulnerability as they relate to creating unfavourable circumstances in people’s daily lives and life courses. The dimensions of vulnerability are associated with the loss of permanent employment and a lack of secure income. Changes in the labour market and an increase in temporary employment have weakened social protection mechanisms and – mediated by the professional position of individuals – have led (p.144) in many cases to poverty and social exclusion, as well as the disruption of links among the labour market, domestic organisation and public welfare. Vulnerability affects areas of public life that are considered as private spheres and which are important for the implementation of social policies. People’s involvement in different systems for the distribution of public resources makes it possible, in the event of a crisis, to mobilise compensatory mechanisms and gather resources. At the same time, this allows the coordination of different resource allocation mechanisms, supports social systems to respond to new forms of social vulnerability and enables current systems to adapt to ongoing social and economic changes.

Poverty is a major feature of vulnerability. The high level of poverty among the unemployed shows that a lack of employment is one of the main causes of poverty and social exclusion. Most EU countries are experiencing increasing income inequality. Data shows that income distribution is significantly more uneven than before (OECD, 2014), leading to the question: Can LLL policies address poverty and social exclusion?

This is certainly a great challenge, but the examples of our chosen European countries suggest that the way to overcome poverty is by shifting as many people as possible into the zone of integration. This could be achieved by expanding the opportunities for people in vulnerable situations (especially the unemployed, the poorly educated and the unqualified) through the formation of skills and qualifications. In the different countries examined in this chapter, various configurations of approaches were identified. In Germany, where the impact of the financial crisis was the least pronounced of our sample, employability is the clear vanishing point of its highly institutionalised support system. A system of policies is implemented to guide clients step by step towards this ultimate goal. In Portugal, we observed that LLL policies are often directly aimed at labour market integration. The primacy of business and labour market integration seems to be consistent at a time when the country is coping with the effects of the financial crisis. As a result, the main orientation of LLL policies in Portugal can be understood as a consequence of the financial crisis and its huge impacts on Portuguese society. In contrast, LLL policies in Bulgaria are adaptations of worldwide LLL best practices, and represent an attempt to establish a diverse landscape of LLL programmes, with a particular focus on ethnic minorities who are identified as being in vulnerable circumstances.

In all of the analysed countries, employability is the overarching aim of these policy initiatives. Under the banner of this common aim, we (p.145) observed different approaches to tackling vulnerability through LLL policies. We identified social-pedagogical interventions that try to strengthen individuals’ ability to cope with their vulnerable situations and to guide them from the zone of vulnerability to the integration zone. It should be noted that for this approach, the principle aim remains employability as a means to overcome vulnerable situations. Therefore, employability is the dominant theme of LLL policies that support young adults to cope with vulnerable situations. To a lesser extent we also find policies that try to change the environmental conditions of young adults and transform their situations in this way from vulnerable to not-vulnerable. In some cases both approaches are combined.

However, we also find policies that address groups of people as carriers of the attributed characteristics. The fear is that in these cases, people in vulnerable circumstances do not receive individual, needs-based support. It is necessary to be aware of the essentialistic attributions that are still used in the field of LLL in order to strengthen the heuristic capacity and practical relevance of vulnerability as a social scientific concept. This is crucial if we are to better support young adults and other people in vulnerable situations

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(2) Vulnerable groups according to the Council of Europe: https://www.coe.int/en/web/europarisks/vulnerable-groups

(4) Joint report by the Commission and the Council on social inclusion, Council of the EU, March 2004, p 10, http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/soc-prot/soc-incl/joint_rep_en.htm

(5) Joint report by the Commission and the Council on social inclusion, Council of the EU, March 2004, p 10, http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/soc-prot/soc-incl/joint_rep_en.htm

(6) The scheme started in 2014 and it has facilitated structural reforms and innovation in policy design across EU member states ever since. It is a commitment among all member states that aims to ensure that all young people under 25 receive qualitative job offers or continuing training. The member states an voluntarily increase the age limit to 29 years and Bulgaria has taken this decision.