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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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Are lifelong learning policies working for youth? Young people’s voices

Are lifelong learning policies working for youth? Young people’s voices

Chapter:
(p.149) 8 Are lifelong learning policies working for youth? Young people’s voices
Source:
Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in Europe
Author(s):

Siyka Kovacheva

Judith Jacovkis

Sonia Startari

Anna Siri

Publisher:
Policy Press
DOI:10.1332/policypress/9781447350361.003.0008

Abstract and Keywords

LLL policy programs and initiatives at the national and local level rarely begin by investigating the needs and aspirations of young participants, and even less opportunities are provided for young people to participate in the design, implementation and evaluation of policy interventions. In this chapter we attempt to highlight the views of young adults on how effectively policies support their personal life projects, educational and professional aspirations and more broadly, their need for empowerment in the transition to adulthood. This chapter presents young adults’ perspectives on their participation in LLL policies. The role of LLL programs and measures in shaping young adults’ life trajectories is best captured at one of the most pivotal turning points in their lives – the transition from school to work. To explore this, we apply a life course perspective to the analysis of a rich data set of 168 qualitative interviews. Interviews were conducted in 2017 with participants of diverse LLL policies across two functional regions in each of the nine partner countries in the YOUNG_ADULLLT project.

Keywords:   Lifelong learning policies, Young adults’ voices, Life course, Empowerment, Interview research

Introduction

In the aftermath of the global recession in the early 21st century the trend towards rising insecurity in both education and work has rendered the relationship between school leavers’ credentials and their labour market integration more complex than ever before. Policy responses focused on increasing the intensity, although not always the offer, of various lifelong learning (LLL) schemes and initiatives (Walther et al, 2016; Butler and Muir, 2017). The trend towards activation in welfare and learning is most consistently targeted towards young people, and is premised on policy makers’ implicit perception that young people lack the motivation as well as knowledge and skills that would make them employable. Given the lack of a more holistic understanding of young people’s needs and resources in their life course transitions in many countries, apprenticeships have been hailed as ‘the magic bullet’ against youth unemployment (Raffe, 2011).

LLL policy programmes and initiatives at the national and local level rarely begin by investigating the needs and aspirations of young participants, and even less opportunities are provided for young people to participate in the design, implementation and evaluation of policy interventions. In this chapter we attempt to highlight the views of young recipients on how effectively policies support their personal life projects, educational and professional aspirations and, more broadly, their need for empowerment in the transition to adulthood. This chapter also presents young adults’ perspectives on their participation in LLL policies. The role of LLL programmes and measures in shaping young adults’ life trajectories is best captured at one of the most pivotal turning points in their lives – the transition from school to work. To explore this, we apply a life course perspective to the analysis of a rich data set of 164 qualitative interviews. Interviews were conducted in (p.150) 2017 with participants of diverse LLL policies across two functional regions (FRs) in each of the nine partner countries in the YOUNG_ ADULLLT project.

Young people’s life course transitions

Life course research is an enquiry into the life course transitions of individuals ‘through institutions and social structures, and is embedded in relationships that constrain and support behaviour – both the individual life course and a person’s developmental trajectory are interconnected with the lives and development of others’ (Elder, 1998: 5). This perspective draws attention to the dynamic interplay in human lives among social structures, institutions and individual action. Unlike the life cycle approach, focus on the life course employs a contextualist approach linking individual lives to social time and place (Heinz, 2009). The timing of key events in the life course is studied in relation to the historical period in which the life is lived, and the interaction of multiple milieus is acknowledged (Mills, 1959).

Life course research will be impaired if the contextualist approach is not combined with biographical analysis, which understands the biography as a story told in the present about events and experiences in a person’s life in the past and expectations for the future (Kohli, 2005). The biographical approach is premised on the assumption that individuals actively construct their own biography (Heinz, 2009), making more or less informed choices, attributing meanings to their actions and reflecting upon them, thus creating their own understanding of the sequence of events in their life course. In addition, life course research is comparative in essence and enriches its potential when applying a case-study approach to comparisons among youth transitions in different contexts. While LLL policies usually start with the construction of a ‘normal life’ drawing upon dominant social expectations of standard life courses in which life events occur with uniform timing (Brückner and Mayer, 2004: 32), the comparative approach to life course research aims to provide thick descriptions of a small number of cases. Through a matching and contrasting of cases (revealing meaningful similarities and differences) life course research can outline not only the broad trends over time in major institutions, but also how they are perceived, experienced and acted upon by individuals. The life course perspective helps capture the dynamics of school-to-work transitions, setting them within a wider picture of individual lives, and thus avoiding the static vocabulary of many contemporary approaches to the issue (Vogt, 2018).

(p.151) In this chapter we examine the experiences of young adults taking part in LLL policies as an integral part of their learning biography and focus on their subjective interpretations. We look at the ways in which participation in learning programmes beyond formal schooling shapes their life projects. It is important to study young people’s learning biographies and their perspectives on LLL policies as the latter have predominantly been developed, implemented and evaluated using a top-down approach in which experts and policy makers decide what is best for the client group and society. The ‘voices’ of young people involved in LLL are rarely heard and even less often taken into consideration in policy design or implementation. We start from an understanding of youth participation in LLL as much wider than attendance and successful completion of the programme (with ‘success’ measured by institutional criteria). The aim is to go beyond the perception of young people as passive ‘beneficiaries’ and to analyse their narratives as co-creators of their learning experiences.

Researching lived experiences of LLL

This chapter builds upon research conducted as part of the YOUNG_ ADULLLT research presented in this book. Qualitative interviews were conducted in 2017 with young adults (aged 18 to 29) involved in diverse LLL programmes run by various governmental and private institutions in 18 FRs in nine European countries. The programmes were chosen to be representative of the main priorities in regional LLL policies, while the selection of interviewees aimed at a diverse distribution in terms of gender, family background and achieved educational level.

The interviews followed a common framework, starting with an open question inviting young people to tell their life story and then proceeding with more focused questions about their learning trajectories, biographical turning points, interaction with significant others and life projects in the near future. The interviews, complying with the ethical requirements developed as part of the project, were conducted by trained researchers from each national team, who took care to carefully select the settings and guarantee the anonymity of participants. The interviews were audio recorded and then fully transcribed in the national languages. The texts were coded following the approach developed by Corbin and Strauss (1990) and some thematic groupings were tracked in all regions.

The 164 narratives of young people’s learning biographies provided the rich and abundant empirical evidence for this chapter. The (p.152) authors worked with the original fully transcribed interviews from their countries, the extended English summaries of interviews in other languages and the national and comparative reports. We were conscious that the interview itself is a process of interaction shaped by different asymmetries and hierarchies, which inevitably affected young people’s narratives. In addition, even though we differentiated between the person’s life trajectory (sequence of events) and the story they told us about their life, we had to keep in mind that narrations were framed by the research focus on LLL policies, which might or might not be of biographical significance for the individual young person. Therefore, rather than attempting to present an objective ‘evidence of experience’ (Scott, 1991: 797), we analysed how the young adults constructed this experience and attached meaning to their lives.

The cross-country and cross-case comparison of young people’s experiences of LLL is particularly challenging due to the diversity of their contextual living conditions, as well as their own diverse strategies. In what follows we first examine the structures of opportunities and constraints that young participants in LLL programmes face, and then focus on their learning biographies and individual agency to cope with barriers and activate resources available to them.

The social context of young adults’ experiences of LLL

The context of young people’s learning trajectories is formed by their country’s living conditions, such as structures of economy, employment, education, welfare systems and culture; the regional and local labour markets and the institutional structures available to the young; and, finally, the immediate individual conditions such as family background, health and previous trajectory in the formal educational system. More detailed analysis of living conditions and risk profiles is presented in Chapter 9 in this volume. Here it is sufficient to indicate some of the most significant factors impacting youth life paths through social institutions.

The young adults’ lived experiences we studied are embedded in a post-crisis Europe under conditions of sluggish economic growth, where significant improvements in the employment prospects of present-day young people appear unattainable. In the second decade of the 21st century, living standards in the countries under study vary from the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Austria and Germany, to the lowest in Bulgaria and Croatia. Again, Germany and Austria together with the UK have the highest youth employment rates, while they are lower in Italy and Spain. The latter two countries, (p.153) together with Portugal, have the highest shares of early school leavers. Institutional structures for education-to-employment transitions also vary among countries, forming different employment and welfare regimes. In terms of employment systems, the countries in the study represent the liberal orientation of the UK system, the continental system of Germany and Austria, the social democratic model in Finland, the state-coordinated model in Italy and Spain, and the transition system in Bulgaria and Croatia. Types of youth and welfare policies are similar, with some important deviations (Wallace and Bendit, 2009). Education and training systems are most differentiated in Germany and Austria, and least so in Bulgaria and Croatia.

Diversity in living conditions increases when we delve into the immediate milieu in which young people’s lives unfold. At the regional and local level, the impact of concrete measures in addition to that of the general institutional systems becomes visible. Most of our interviewees were involved in programmes and projects developed within the employment sector of their municipalities, with the rest in the educational and youth and social policy sectors. The policy measures were also very diverse, constructing varying definitions of their target groups, pursued objectives and implementation methods. The young participants themselves were not a homogeneous group of under-achievers lacking basic skills. They displayed a wide range of differences and inequalities in terms of gender, ethnicity, family background and learning biographies prior to joining the programmes. Some had a linear upward trajectory in the formal educational system, including university level, before enrolling in an LLL initiative. Others were early school leavers who did not have the educational credentials to take up vocational training in the formal educational system. While some were from privileged family backgrounds, others lacked family support or suffered from parental abuse, had fractured learning biographies, early parenting responsibilities or physical and psychological problems. Given the complex entanglement of structural, institutional and individual factors at different societal levels, we focus on examining young participants’ perspectives on their involvement in LLL.

Young adults’ learning biographies

Our research confirms findings from many studies about the diversification of young people’s educational trajectories in present-day European societies (Serracant, 2015; Cuconato et al, 2016). Based on the ways in which young people construct their learning (p.154) experiences within social structures and educational institutions and the subjective strategies for coping with uncertainty, we identified five clusters of learning biographies. The clustering of the learning biographies started with consideration of young adults’ living conditions in the country and regional context, family background, ethnicity or migrant status and health. We delved into their school career, considering their subjective satisfaction or experiences of bullying or low performance, and then examined their motivation and expectations upon joining an LLL programme. Finally, we focused on the biographical significance attributed to their participation in the policy, interaction with practitioners, skills learnt, developed or ignored, and perceived effects on their self-esteem and life projects. We did not search for an exhaustive typology of the logical combinations between these indicators but instead looked for emerging patterns in the life stories of the interviewed young adults. In particular, we distinguished whether:

  • the involvement was led by expectations for personal development or external pressures to meet the demands of the educational and employment systems;

  • the participation was experienced as increasing personal autonomy or as forced dependence;

  • the effect was perceived as enabling or constraining individual life projects.

In what follows we present the identified clusters, including some exemplary trajectories of young people in each cluster.

Taking a detour back to the education system

This cluster combines the learning strategies of young adults who have slipped out of a normative progression through the stages of the formal educational system. Some have experienced a rupture in their ‘normal’ life trajectory due to illness, family breakdown or violence. Others could not cope with the requirements of school and left because of low performance. Following an early break with formal education, these young adults invested in their participation in LLL programmes, expecting the training to serve as a remedial pathway and door-opener to a ‘normal’ life course trajectory. For the early school leavers, the goal is to complete the 12th grade, which is seen as essential for employability in the modern economy. For others, the training is a manageable springboard into higher education in their desired field (p.155) having not been accepted despite several attempts to pass the regular exams. This learning strategy is also found among immigrant youth in many countries who do not have recognised educational credentials, or who possess occupational skills developed in informal jobs not valued in the labour market. Young people in this group become involved in diverse LLL programmes in order to achieve integration in the host educational and employment system. The expectations interviewees attach to their participation are to progress in a career they have deliberately planned, and achieve ‘a regular’ and ‘peaceful’ life.

Lucas (Y_PT_VdA_1) is a 28-year-old man from the region of Vale do Ave in Portugal. Conditions for school-to-work transitions in the region were unfavourable in 2017, as Portugal was among the countries hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis. What is more, the formerly industry-oriented regional economy was still contracting in 2017, living standards were below national and European averages, the unemployment rate was high and the region continued to be characterised by a traditionally low-educated workforce.

Lucas’s family is working class, his father having only basic education while his mother managed to finish high school (12th grade) by taking advantage of a new policy initiative at the time. The young man left school early after repeating the last year of basic education and starting secondary school, but was unable to pass the professional aptitude test. He found a job almost immediately as an electrician with the help of a cousin, and worked for six years before becoming unemployed during the economic crisis. He registered as a job seeker and enrolled in a vocational training programme.

In Lucas’s words, there is ‘nothing dramatic’ in his personal or family life and while he is on good terms with his parents, he has not received a lot of direction and advice from them. In the narrative of his learning biography, Lucas expresses regret about his decision to leave school early, explaining it in terms of self-responsibility – ‘the wrong decision of an 18-year-old boy’ (Y_PT_VdA_1) – although recognising the constraints of his family’s financial situation:

I think that my school time was peaceful, normal. But at the time, I did not want to go on. I wanted my independence, I wanted my car, I wanted to do my things and my parents could not afford it and my option was to go to work. It was more or less like this, but today I regret it, and I am enrolled now and trying to finish 12th grade, to … who knows, maybe get into university. (Y_PT_VdA_1)

(p.156) He values his experience in the training programme mostly for the opportunity it provides to gain the educational certificate that would allow him to continue along the ‘normal’ educational path. Although at the time of the interview he was recovering from a knee injury, he was committed to finishing secondary education – ‘without the 12th grade you are nothing nowadays’ (Y_PT_VdA_1). Like many of his peers, Lucas does not have an explicit life plan and does not elaborate much on his future expectations. Nonetheless, he envisions having a ‘normal’ life allowing some stability: ‘a job, a car, a house’ (Y_PT_VdA_1). His childhood dream was to become a professional musician and he still plays guitar in a band. However, he presents himself as a responsible young adult whose main goal is to achieve economic independence, which requires passing through the necessary stages of the school system.

Carmen (Y_IT_M_2) is a 24-year-old single mother from South America who is enrolled in Youth Guarantee in Milan, part of the ‘NEETwork’ project. The economic conditions in this region are better than those faced by Lucas in Vale do Ave, but her learning biography is marred by her immigrant status. She has chosen to participate in the project in order to address the main gap in her professional profile: an absence of certified work experience:

About my expectations […] the situation is that I was always an irregular worker and I have nothing to attest my skills; but the positive aspect is that at least this apprenticeship can give me something more. (Y_IT_M_2)

She dropped out of high school because of her son’s birth, and at present the absence of a high school degree prevents her from applying for many job openings, even though she acknowledges possessing a medium to high level of actual skills. Indeed, she has strong competences as an administrative technician, which she acquired partly when she was still attending high school (where she was high achiever) and partly through her undeclared activity as a tax return technician.

Carmen would like to launch a micro-credit service for micro enterprises (which, in the case of her network, might be primarily related to ethnic food production and trade). Yet, before pursuing her objectives for the future, she knows that the gap in her professional path must be filled. Carmen appears very aware of both her actual skills (for instance, she considers her traineeship as a secretary to be lower than her competences) and the formal constraints that prevent her from acquiring a higher position on the labour market. Despite (p.157) already having made a decision about her future path, she remains torn between her confidence in her own abilities (and their competitiveness in the labour market) and her conscious reading of her condition as a young, migrant single mother who often has to postpone future planning in order to solve more urgent present problems. Carmen interprets starting an internship at a non-profit organisation within the project network as an opportunity to obtain work experience that can be certified and therefore used in future job applications.

Hanging around while waiting for better opportunities

This cluster characterises young adults who have adopted ‘a wait-and-see’ attitude towards their learning careers. Similar to the previous group, they have experienced some disruption in their life course but do not have a clear educational project and feel at a loss vis-à-vis the structural constraints they are facing. They view training as a period of ‘active waiting for a better opportunity’. For many in this group, training is not understood as providing useful skills but as a socially acceptable period of waithood, approved of by parents and other adults. Personally, they appreciate the fact that training schedules provide structure in their daily lives. Participation allows them to consciously avoid making plans and go on ‘living day by day’. Many develop a discourse about the lack of labour market opportunities for the current generation (in contrast to that of their parents) and the limited access to education and jobs (including ‘nepotism’ in the context of south and East European countries). Young people living in regions with growing economies expect that opportunities will improve in the near future, while those from regions with declining economic output envision emigration as a future life strategy.

Michael (Y_AT_V_8) is 25 and has lived in Vienna his whole life. While Vienna is a big city offering numerous job opportunities, these have declined significantly following the financial crisis and youth unemployment is on the rise. His parents are lower middle class and he has a brother who has always been an excellent student. Michael is on good terms with his family and his parents have encouraged him to make decisions for himself. He moved out of the parental home when he was 18. He maintains a special relationship with his father and grandfather and they all share a passion for football. Football has an important place in his life. He has been playing for many years and since 2013 he has been working as a football coach for boys.

His educational trajectory is not linear and he presents himself as a ‘practical’ rather than ‘academic’ learner. After primary school he (p.158) went to an academically oriented secondary school like his brother but had to repeat one year and then transferred to a less demanding general school. After graduating successfully, he enrolled in a college for higher technical education but dropped out after the first year. Since then, Michael’s learning biography has entailed participation in various training programmes. He completed a short internship at an insurance company and then a longer apprenticeship in the same company. He went on to complete compulsory civilian service. At the time of the interview he was involved in a vocational education and training programme while looking for better job opportunities in insurance.

The young man describes his experiences on the programme as generally positive. He appreciates that his participation gives him a regular day-to-day structure and the opportunity to do some practical tasks for which he receives acknowledgement:

I thought, yes, instead of just sitting at home and doing nothing and doing whatever, I come here. Because … getting up early, that’s great. Because if I find a job, I will already be in that rhythm. (Y_AT_V_8)

He does not envision gaining any useful skills, as his dream job is to become a professional football coach. He can afford a period of waithood thanks to support from his parents and the payment he receives from the programme. He does not feel pressed to make life plans and prefers to keep his options open. He is convinced that just being in training increases his chances of getting a job.

Marco (Y_IT_M_1) is a 23-year-old man from Milan, who has not completed vocational high school, and perceives himself as not suited to formal schooling. After dropping out of school, he began a three-year educational/training path, but did not complete this either. Afterwards, he started looking for a job, but in his opinion the global crisis has diminished his already limited possibilities as a young unqualified worker. His relative financial stability (he is an only child and both his parents have stable employment) has not ‘pushed’ him to accept any job available.

[My parents’] expectation was that I would get a diploma and find work which I liked … you know … kind of … you wake up every morning and do something you really like, instead of ‘I got this [chance for work] consequently I do this [work]’ … but that’s not what actually happened … (Y_IT_M_1)

(p.159) The traineeship was an enjoyable experience, and Marco was able to develop positive relations with his colleagues and his tutor, while obtaining good evaluations for his duties as a handyman. All these factors led his tutor to offer him a further six months’ traineeship, which was quite disappointing (he was expecting to receive a full-time job offer). Marco decided to view this as a chance to strengthen his connections to a positive working environment, but his lack of specific skills makes him feel uncertain in his aspirations:

Very honestly, I don’t really know what I would like to do … the fact is that at the moment I can’t say ‘Ok, I’ve completed this school consequently I know how to do this or that.’ (Y_IT_M_1)

This affects his attitude to planning: Marco prefers to avoid contemplating the future, instead focusing on his daily routine. Nonetheless, while he does not declare specific professional ambitions, neither does this prevent him from envisioning a very traditional future private life (marriage, children and a home).

‘Coming out of your shell’

Some young adults interpret their participation in LLL as a turning point in their biography, a major shift in the life course through discovering their true identity. They narrate their experiences of training as not only providing them with basic and occupational skills but primarily as ‘a newly found route to significant personal development’ or as ‘self-creation’. Among them are school dropouts coming from families with limited resources, often from migrant backgrounds. The members of this group raised in more privileged families describe themselves ‘before the training’ as isolated, unable to establish meaningful contact with others or formulate significant personal goals. Following negative experiences at school, training programmes have helped them become active learners, change their outlook on life and create new life plans. Similar patterns of enabling learning experiences in LLL programmes were found in most regions, as they were shaped by the individual agency of young people and the quality of interactions during training.

Assen (Y_BG_P_11) is a 29-year-old Bulgarian man living in the FR of Plovdiv. The region’s economic output and living standards are far below the European average and 40 per cent of the population are at risk of severe material deprivation. Early school leaving is also highly (p.160) prevalent, with one in five young people classed as not in education, employment or training (NEET), among whom young people with disabilities, single mothers and Roma youth are over-represented. While many young people in the country risk leaving school early, Roma in Bulgaria frequently leave school after the 6th or 7th grade or earlier, often resulting in illiteracy.

Assen comes from a poor Roma family with many children and until his involvement in the LLL programme he had the ‘normal’ (for his community) trajectory of a short educational career, early work and early marriage. In his childhood he used to spend time on the streets with his friends and school did not occupy an important place in his life. His mother often advised him to finish secondary school but was unable to help him with everyday school assignments. He left school after the 8th grade and went to Greece where his parents were working on a farm.

I was stupid then, I was eager to have a car and people were making good money in Greece … Now, as I see it, if I had thought before, then I would not have left school and gone to Greece. Because the car would still be bought, but learning is very difficult as it is, and more so when life has gone in a different direction … (Y_BG_P_11)

Assen’s decision to leave school occurred during the first years of market transition in Bulgaria when local enterprises were collapsing, poverty was rising and living standards in Greece appeared far superior. During one of his holidays back home he married his girlfriend and they returned to Greece together where they stayed for some years more. After the 2008 crisis, the economic situation in Greece worsened significantly and the young family returned to Plovdiv. Back home, life was very difficult and Assen could not find a full-time job. He was contacted by the Land Source of Income Foundation. They enrolled him in their training programme for eight months and helped him to start farming. An agronomist from the Foundation regularly comes to the village and advises Assen.

Assen is very satisfied that now he works for himself and makes good money from agricultural produce. He has plans to buy more land and build a warehouse. He is also determined to continue studying and signed up for a part-time course to gain secondary education and he insists that his children do well in school:

I was nothing; I was really nothing. Now I’m a bit better, in the sense of a little more knowledge … I may say they (p.161) [the Foundation] taught me how to become a better person … (Y_BG_P_11; emphasis added)

A comparable case is that of Duncan, a 19-year-old man from the FR of Aberdeen (Y_UK_A_3). Duncan lives in very different conditions and comes from a more privileged family than Assen. Aberdeenshire has above-average incomes and low unemployment in comparison with the rest of Scotland and the European Union (EU) as a whole, but its economy is undergoing rapid economic changes due to the recent downturn in the oil industry. Young people’s lives are characterised by challenges due to unexpected job losses and economic flux, as well as rising inequalities in the distribution of wealth and opportunities between the region’s communities.

Duncan’s biography is one of difficulties at school where he did not like most subjects except biology. Learning has ‘always been like a weird thing for me’. He continued to struggle with education until he reached college, and he dropped out of this during the first year. He attributes his troubled educational path to a delayed diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which made it hard for him to focus. Although he fought with his mother to sign up for a social science course in college and began the programme, he had disagreements with his tutors. In his carer he has four months of work experience in a fish factory and a few months of unemployment. He was referred to his current four-week placement in a social indoor activity centre by the Labour Office. There his life started changing for the better. He has gone through unhappiness and uncertainty but now he feels he is understood and appreciated by his trainer and others on the placement. In his narrative he describes his team leader at the centre as a role model:

He’s just an amazing person … I see him as like, like an authority figure that wasn’t this condescending, demeaning kind of person. He really opened my eyes. It was cool … As in like if you didn’t feel really like doing something, he would get you to the point where you would do it. (Y_UK_A_3)

The greatest benefit for him was the increased confidence and self-esteem as a competent learner, a rediscovery of a better ‘you’. As Duncan explained:

It’s a lot of fun. It’s so much fun. I enjoyed it. I really did. They really make you bring out the person you didn’t (p.162) think you were. Like, you feel a lot more confident, speak a lot better. It just really brings out the true you. They try to focus on making you come out of your shell. Really good … (Y_UK_A_3; emphasis added)

He has started making plans for the future, considering a new college. His dream job would be a marine biologist but he does not think that is realistic. He is sure, however, that he will find a job he would like to do, not necessarily highly paid but where he would feel fulfilled as a person.

Learning by helping those in need

Our interviewees in Genoa exemplified another distinctive pattern of attributing subjective meaning to their participation in LLL programmes and constructing their learning biography. This was closely linked to the satisfaction of doing something for the community and learning civic responsibility through volunteering. Getting involved in a volunteering programme was not ‘the only choice’ for these young people, although it was clearly influenced by the lack of labour market opportunities in the FR. Young people in this category appreciated the experience both for the skills gained and the feeling of solidarity. Commonly, this group of ‘civic learners’ had a long trajectory in the formal school system with high academic performance and positive experiences of school and university. They came from well-to-do families that provided support and understanding. As an alternative to accepting low-quality jobs, the young adults on this track value the skills developed through civic service and consider it relevant in their continuous job search. A long career path in the formal educational system followed by difficulty integrating into the labour market was also common for some young adults in Bulgarian and Croatian LLL programmes.

Emma (Y_IT_G_2) is a 24-year-old woman enrolled in the Regional Civic Service Programme in Genoa developed under the Italian Youth Guarantee Implementation Plan. In terms of economic and sociocultural living conditions for young people, the region of Genoa is one of the better-developed areas in Europe. With the economic and financial crisis that began in 2008, however, the Italian labour market contracted significantly and the share of NEETs among young people rose high above the EU average. Following the tradition of generous and lengthy family support for offspring, parents try to mitigate the effect of the crisis (Bello and Cuzzocrea, 2018). For the highly qualified, the issue is not so much economic hardship as barriers to (p.163) the realisation of their life plans. Emma is from a middle-class family and still lives with her parents. She is on good terms with them, but experienced ‘a dramatic break with the whole family’ (Y_IT_G_2) when she did not choose her parents’ strong preferences for law or medicine at university. During her studies she completed an internship in the municipality of Genoa, which she enjoyed immensely.

Emma is among the LLL participants who had a long and linear trajectory in the formal educational system, achieving a three-year university degree. Her break from the normative life course came when she did not achieve a smooth transition to employment. She applied for various jobs but refused offers that she considered ‘exploitative’ or ‘deceiving’ (Y_IT_G_2). She joined the Civic Service in Genoa and is currently working in a prison with immigrants and minors, helping them to complete administrative documents. She is highly satisfied with her experience in the Civic Service and is applying for another year, this time in the National Civic Service Programme. She thinks that it has done a lot for her personal growth but not her job prospects. The skills she values most are described in the following way:

a whole package of skills regarding the ability to listen, to reflect, the ability to manage debates, to be sure of oneself without leading to pure egocentrism, and therefore to manage oneself in relation to others. (Y_IT_G_2)

Her life plans for the short term are to continue living with her parents as she does not see herself able to afford living costs alone. Yet she is experiencing a new conflict in her parental home since her mother ‘discovered’ that Emma is homosexual. In the long term Emma sees herself living with her partner in the countryside and working ‘in the social sphere, helping people in vulnerable situations’ (Y_IT_G_2).

Struggling for autonomy

Finally, this cluster refers to young people attempting to ‘take their life back into their own hands.’ In contrast to the previous category, most of the young adults are in very vulnerable situations with limited or no family support and participate in social policy programmes directed at overcoming severe psychological and physical problems. Involvement in the programmes offers them personalised support to regain self-esteem and ‘reclaim autonomy’. Young people in this group are predominantly found in FRs with differentiated and individualised social and youth policy systems, such as Finland and Germany. Many (p.164) of them are fighting against social injustices and are looking for a different way of learning that would allow them to reconcile training and working with personal challenges and responsibilities. Some of them are critical of structural barriers and actively contest the unequal distribution of power.

Hannah (Y_GER_F_1) is an 18-year-old woman living in Rhein-Main FR in Germany. The region is a tightly knit urban metropolitan area that is fast growing and attracts workers from across the country and abroad. It is a wealthy region with a GDP per capita more than three times the EU average. The youth unemployment rate and proportion of NEETs are much lower, but opportunities are unevenly distributed among youth in the region.

Hannah’s life trajectory is marked by experiences of violence and mental illness. She was a victim of violence in her family and at school. Her family is working class, facing persistent economic difficulties and she often suffered from her father’s brutality. Her school path was difficult, with ‘regular’ incidents of bullying from other students and even a teacher in primary school, because of her speech disorder or ‘just because they wanted to’ (Y_GER_F_1). The youth welfare service intervened when she was in the 6th grade because of sexual assault in the family committed some years ago and placed her in a children’s home against her will. She stayed there for a few months and then was allowed to return home to her family. She changed schools twice and managed to finish lower secondary school with a school-leaving certificate. Most of her life has centred on medical treatment, appointments for speech therapy and counselling for self-harm and depression, which inevitably affected her school career, her life course trajectory and her own self-perception.

We placed Hannah in the ‘struggling for autonomy’ group, although there were some other obvious ‘fighters’ in Frankfurt such as the young woman threatening the job centre with legal proceedings or young mothers fighting to sustain independent lives for themselves and their children. Hannah was perhaps in the most vulnerable situation but, despite all hardships, she demonstrated an impressive pursuit of autonomy combined with self-reflexivity and self-deprecation:

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

(p.165) Hannah appreciates the individualised support she receives from practitioners, which stabilises her everyday life and allows her to make plans for the future. She is interested in psychology, seeing herself as a social worker in later life. While the programme’s underlying understanding of autonomy is focused on employability and most of the young participants accept this objective, Hannah demonstrates a developed consciousness of youth rights. In her interview she insisted that young people struggling with diseases have the right to be integrated into society to the same degree as those without special needs, and that wider society should accept their independence:

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

Mahamadou (Y_SP_G_9) is a 24-year-old man who arrived in Girona from the Gambia when he was 12. Although immigration figures for the region are quite similar to the countrywide mean, the city where he lives has a high foreign-born population. Together with a high rate of youth unemployment, the city faces the significant issue of early school leaving, especially among students from immigrant backgrounds.

In his life trajectory, Mahamadou has had to face several difficulties both in his learning path and his personal life. His migration was not easy, despite his father having resided in the country for some time and having a social network in the city. He had to learn a new language and had trouble finishing compulsory secondary education ‘on time’. He then started combining different jobs and training programmes, always prioritising employment, ‘because right now I need money more than I need to study’ (Y_SP_G_9).

In addition, he is aware of his family’s economic difficulties and does not want to be a burden, so has squatted with some friends for the last four years. At the time of interview, he was happily working at a fuel station – a position that workers from his LLL programme helped him to find. He gives half of his salary to his family and hopes to be able to rent or buy a flat for himself in the future. He values the programme for the prospects of an independent life that it offers:

Honestly, I want to work and start looking for a stable life, and that’s all, and have a normal life. […] Every father or mother wants to see that his/her son is already married, (p.166) and that he is ok, because me, 24 years old, why am I not married? Because you don’t have a job, you don’t have money, you have nothing, you cannot marry. (Y_SP_G_9)

After the training he expects to find a job that would allow him to save money and build a family, which seems central to his understanding of autonomy.

Conclusions

In this chapter we gave room to young adults’ ‘voices’ as they reflect upon the subjective meaning of their LLL experiences. Our study shows that the life course transitions of young adults are highly differentiated – both in terms of structural inequalities in their societies and localities and in terms of the LLL policy programmes offered to them. Institutional factors may reinforce or weaken structural barriers, but young people’s individual agency also filters and influences the institutional policies and practices regulating youth transitions and social integration. The individual life paths of our interviewees diverge widely from the normative life courses envisioned and promulgated by LLL programmes. While in most countries young people have internalised a discourse of self-responsibility and achieving autonomy through labour market inclusion, they still attribute different meanings to their involvement and place it within a much wider framework of life strategies.

We have presented five clusters of learning biographies, differentiating between young adults’ motivations for joining LLL programmes, as well as their expectations, the learning processes involved in training and the effect on their life plans as perceived by young people themselves. We also followed the educational paths of nine young men and women who more or less fit those profiles. Some participants like Lucas and Carmen are making efforts to conform to normative life paths despite the different vulnerabilities they face. Others like Michael and Marco instead pretend to do so while exploiting other opportunities for self-development. Young people like Emma accept LLL as an opportunity to help others in need while at the same time developing their own ‘egoistical’ occupational skills and prospects. Assen, Duncan and other young people have found in LLL a path towards personal development, and Hannah and Mahamadou view their participation in LLL as a way to achieve autonomy and recognition while fighting for their right to social integration.

The diversity of these different profiles indicates that LLL policies do not have to reflect a ‘standard’ view of lifestyles, and instead should (p.167) consider the different needs arising from de-standardisation. As a result, European policies, while charged with tackling similar challenges across countries, need to be adapted to the national and local context as well as the individual circumstances of young adults. If, in the second half of the 20th century, the affirmation of a ‘standard’ life course was supported by stable institutional structures and relatively homogeneous cultural models, today we are witnessing the inability of social institutions such as schools, the labour market, the family and welfare systems to guarantee orderly and predictable life paths. As a result, transitions to adulthood are prolonged and outcomes uncertain.

Our main finding is that youth participation in learning requires recognition of young people’s active contribution to the governance of LLL policies, through autonomy, subjectivity and enabling young people to manage their learning experiences and integrate them meaningfully into their individual biographies. The young interviewees expressed dissatisfaction that most programmes were not responsive to their needs arising from other life domains, and did not appreciate skills and competencies developed informally. As a whole, the study shows that it is possible and desirable that young people, including those in the most vulnerable situations, participate in their support programmes, with participation not limited to the ‘choice’ to pursue a programme or not. From young adults’ perspective, the objective of LLL programmes should be to encourage young people to become active learners, finding their own subjectively meaningful ways of being part of their societies.

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