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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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The changing meanings of lifelong learning policies: consequences for young adults and their life courses

The changing meanings of lifelong learning policies: consequences for young adults and their life courses

(p.199) 10 The changing meanings of lifelong learning policies: consequences for young adults and their life courses
Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in Europe

Tiago Neves

Natália Alves

Anna Cossetta

Vlatka Domović

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

Lifelong learning policies have multiple meanings. They change across time, space, theoretical perspectives, and the types of actors that seek to make sense of them. This poses challenges to developing a research framework able to capture the myriad of understandings of lifelong learning ‘policy’. Furthermore, it defies coordinated policy-making and assessing its effects. This chapter aims to gauge such diversity and discuss its consequences for European young adults and their life courses. The chapter then moves on to, and concludes with, a discussion of how the tensions in the ‘growth and inclusion’ agenda interconnect with the movement from standardisation towards de-standardisation in the lives of young adults. In other words, we seek not only to provide an answer to 1) how de-standardisation is taken into account in European lifelong learning policies, but also to 2) how such policies impact and transform the lives of young adults.

Keywords:   Lifelong learning policies, Multiple meanings, Europe, Young adults, De-standardisation, Life course


Policies in general, and lifelong learning (LLL) policies in particular, have multiple meanings (Ball, 1993; Schuetze and Casey, 2006). They change across time, space, theoretical perspectives, and with regard to the types of actors that seek to make sense of them. This challenges the development of a research framework capable of capturing the myriad of understandings of LLL ‘policy’. Furthermore, it defies coordinated policy-making and the assessment of its effects. This chapter aims to gauge such diversity and discuss its consequences for European young adults and their life courses.

We begin by clarifying the notion of ‘policies’ used throughout the chapter. To take due account of the diversity mentioned earlier, we address different forms of policies, both in terms of materiality level (low to high) and initiating agents (formal to informal). Next, we sketch the history of LLL policy-making from the 1970s until now, namely the shift from lifelong education to LLL. Here we highlight the expansion from a humanistic focus on personal development and the democratisation of education to a utilitarian emphasis on economic growth and individual employability. This is further explored through a discussion of tensions in the contemporary ‘growth and inclusion’ agenda in the so-called ‘knowledge-based economy’, echoed in the Lisbon Strategy, the plan devised in 2000 for the development of the economy of the European Union (EU) between 2000 and 2010 (European Parliament, 2000). The local assessment of these implications in nine European countries enables a comparative approach that renders common issues and diverging developments visible.

(p.200) The chapter concludes with a discussion of how the tensions within the ‘growth and inclusion’ agenda are articulated with the shift from standardisation towards de-standardisation in the lives of young adults. We seek not only to provide an answer to: (1) how de-standardisation is considered in European LLL policies, but also (2) how such policies impact and transform the lives of young adults.

The changing meaning of LLL policies

It is necessary to begin by clarifying the use of the term ‘policy’ in YOUNG_ADULLLT. Contrary to more common usage, namely in the field of political science, its meaning is not confined to the actual content of actual political decisions and regulations nor to proposals for alternative legislation. Indeed, to make sense of LLL at the functional region (FR) level – the level at which empirical work was undertaken in the project – it was necessary to broaden the definition. This expansion occurs in three dimensions:

  • policies are seen as ranging from low to high levels of materiality and concreteness, that is to say from discourses to concrete measures, there is a wide range of products/activities we count as policies;

  • both products/activities that are formally initiated and run by a single institution or a group of institutions and those that are more informally started and run by networks can be regarded as policies (Kotthoff et al, 2017);

  • specifically regarding LLL policies, it can be argued that this definition is wide because it goes beyond the educational field to encompass the youth and labour market sectors. Thus, for YOUNG_ADULLLT:

LLL policies can be defined as any effort to educate young adults in the three policy fields, independently from the content or the format of the educational measure. The precondition is that a political actor has to be involved, be it in the form of generating public discourses in the field of education or in the form of commissioning concrete educational measures.

(Kotthoff et al, 2017: 6)

Let us now go through each of the three dimensions of expansion in more detail. First, the consideration of different levels of materiality is an approach grounded on recent socio-material approaches to LLL (Fenwick and Edwards, 2011, 2013). It can be argued that the (p.201) greatest originality of such approaches resides in reclaiming the role of materials and materiality in the social life, ceasing to regard them either as the mere background against which human activity unfolds or merely as products of human agency (Fenwick and Edwards, 2013: 49–50). Instead, the focus is on the ‘specific materializing processes through which policymaking actually works to animate educational knowledge, identities, and practices’ (Fenwick and Edwards, 2011: 710). Policies, then, materialise at different levels; that is, they ‘incarnate’ in different planes, from low (for example, the discourses about the knowledge-based economy) to high materiality (for example, the forms young adults need to fill in to apply for a training course, or the training course itself). Conversely, those materials shape the practices and knowledge they enable. An analogy with Stephen Ball’s (1993) distinction between policy as a text and as a discourse can be found here. In his now famous text, Ball draws on Foucault’s (1994) generative understanding of power to conceive of discourses as creators of possibilities and impossibilities for thought, and of texts as encoded representations resulting from a history of both material and interpretive struggles. Thus, from Foucault’s conception of power/knowledge to Ball’s distinction between policies as text and as discourse, through to socio-material approaches to LLL, there is an immanent relationality between a matrix of (im)possibilities and its materialisation at different levels. It is this relationality that YOUNG_ ADULLLT seeks to grasp and portray.

Second, taking due account of the varying planes and degrees of materialisation requires regarding policies as both products and activities that are formally or informally initiated and run either by a single institution (for example, the Ministry of Education) or by networks (for example, the SANQ Report [Forecasting System of Qualifications’ Needs Report], which in the Portuguese FR of Vale do Ave is elaborated under the coordination of the respective intermunicipal community). This has two clear advantages for YOUNG_ADULLLT: one, it enables acknowledgement of a wide range of LLL products and activities in the FRs under analysis; two, it is an interpretation that is highly compatible with the governance approach, which is one of the main theoretical tenets of this project (Kotthoff et al, 2017: 6).

Finally, the third dimension of our broad understanding of LLL policies refers to going beyond the educational field to include the youth and labour market sectors. This option is grounded in the acknowledgement that contemporary LLL policies, whether as ‘discourse’ or as ‘text’ (Ball, 1993), tie those three sectors together. (p.202) Indeed, as argued by Biesta (2006) and others, we are living in a learning economy that is increasingly driven by the need for countries and regions to remain competitive in a globalised world. In this context, ‘employability’ and ‘activation’ have become commonplace strategies for achieving collective economic goals and dealing with social problems, even if, in fact, they place the burden of responsibility on individuals rather than on society. Thus, education is inextricably related not only to the economy – namely to the labour market – but also to youth and social inclusion issues. This has led Aspin and Chapman to speak of the ‘“triadic” nature of lifelong learning: for economic progress and development; for personal development and fulfilment; for social inclusiveness and democratic understanding and activity’ (2010: 17).

This drive towards a learning economy produces a shift from a humanistic, collectivistic focus on personal development and the democratisation of education to a utilitarian, individualistic emphasis on economic growth and individual employability. In other words, LLL shifts from being regarded as ‘a personal good and […] an inherent aspect of democratic life [to being] understood in terms of the formation of human capital and as an investment in economic development’ (Biesta, 2006: 169). Thus, LLL, once regarded as a right focused on personal development, is now understood as a duty focused on engaging in socially useful learning. A change of this magnitude impacts the very nature and meaning of LLL policies, and has led Biesta to shrewdly ask: ‘who has the (democratic) right to define the “agenda” for lifelong learning’ (2006: 170) and ‘what is the point of lifelong learning […] if the purpose of lifelong learning cannot be defined by the individual learner[?]’ (2006: 176).

From lifelong education to LLL

In this section we deal with the shift from lifelong education to lifelong learning. While the notion of lifelong education is not new, as shown by several authors (Canário, 2003; Fernandez, 2006; Lima, 2016), the modern concept of lifelong education did not emerge until the early 1970s. This happened in the context of the breakdown and criticism of the school model whose expansion, in the 1950s and 1960s, was unable to create a more socially just and cohesive society. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s publication of the report Learning to Be: The World of Education Today and Tomorrow (Faure et al, 1972) represented a turning point in thinking about education. In addition to expounding a critique of the formal education school model, the report recovered the idea of education as (p.203) a continuum process from birth to death, which can be associated with human existence and the development of the individual. Therefore, it is not surprising that an aim of education is ‘to enable man [sic] to be himself, to “become himself”’ (Faure et al, 1972: xxxi).

Lifelong education corresponds to an educational project that associates the individual and social dimensions of education within the framework of a humanistic and democratic system of collective values. Strongly influenced by the social justice agenda, lifelong education is seen as a ‘lever for empowerment and emancipation’ (Biesta, 2006: 117). Regarding social and educational change: ‘it is out of question for education to be confined, as in the past, to training the leaders of tomorrow’s society […] education is no longer the privilege of an elite’ (Faure et al, 1972: 160). The educational city and the learning society are the fundamental elements for revolutionising the educational system (Tuschling and Engemann, 2006) and fulfilling the social change ‘whose main proposal is to democratize education and democracy itself ’ (Barros, 2012: 129).

The lifelong education movement is contemporary with other critical thinking currents that challenge the formal education school model. Philosopher Ivan Illich, in the name of a new idea of society, radically developed a systematic argument about the need to disestablish the school institution in order to deschool society (Illich, 1971). From another theoretical approach, Paulo Freire criticised the banking conception of education, opposing it to a liberating education that would be capable of helping individuals to ‘read’ and transform the world (Freire, 1975, 1977).

Despite the difficulty in implementing lifelong education in terms of policies and practices, the conception of education it advocates enables dialectically integrating different education modalities and processes; criticises the school model; consolidates the principle of equal educational opportunities; promotes individual and collective autonomy from a perspective of social transformation rather than simple adaptation; transforms education into an act among subjects rather than an object-based task.

This humanistic approach, focused on personal development and democratisation, has now been replaced by an instrumental and utilitarian one that emphasises individual employability and economic growth. The current, insistent discourses about the importance and aims of LLL, as well as the allocation of financial resources, could be interpreted as a rise in the ideals of lifelong education. However, this is not the case. The importance currently attributed to LLL is rooted in a perspective in which education is determined by economic logic (p.204) and social control, in what Griffin (1999) calls a welfare state reform strategy. Indeed, the supporters of neoliberal reform models argue that the current crisis of education is a result of the crisis of the welfare state. According to them, the intervention of the state in education has helped to: increase bureaucratic control; limit freedom of choice; emphasise quantity in access to education rather than quality of educational success; overrate the social dimension of education in comparison to training for a job, economic growth and productivity; and assign unlimited power to teachers and pedagogy, to the detriment of stakeholders, socioeconomic needs and, most of all, entrepreneurs (Lima, 2016). LLL emerges precisely to provide an answer to some of those problems.

This instrumental conception of LLL is well documented in several documents produced by the European Commission (1995, 2001a, 2001b) between the late 20th century and the beginning of the new millennium. The ‘Teaching and Learning: Towards a Learning Society’ report states that ‘the development of a broad knowledge base, namely the ability to grasp the meaning of things, to comprehend and make judgments, is the first factor in adapting to economic and labour market change’ (EC, 1995: 10). At the same time, the end of the debate on educational principles is decreed (EC, 1995: 22). According to this new narrative, the contradictions between a broad knowledge base and training for employment, as well as the cultural and ideological barriers that separated education from the companies’ world could be overcome.

Presenting themselves as ideologically neutral and apolitical, the new LLL policies aim at promoting the functional adaptation of individual learners to employability, flexibility and economic competitiveness within the framework of the ‘learning society’ and the ‘knowledge economy’. This contributes to social cohesion by combating exclusion through social and educational policies and programmes targeting young people in vulnerable situations (NEETs [neither in employment nor in education and training], migrants, women, unemployed, under-skilled workers) and promoting individual employability. In fact, these are the objectives of almost all LLL policies analysed in YOUNG_ ADULLLT (see Kotthoff et al, 2017).

The current hegemony of the concept of LLL is indebted to the transformations in late modernity. For Green (2002), the current importance of LLL policies stems from three structural factors: the aging of the population, cultural and social changes and the process of globalisation.

The aging population has had a profound effect on the educational sphere. On the one hand, it has changed the age composition on (p.205) the educational demand side and, on the other hand, the aging of the working population has imposed an increased effort to upgrade and update skills. Finally, the rise of the age dependency ratio ‘places immense pressures on public expenditure budgets, thus raising constant demands for measures to increase efficiency and reduce costs in education and elsewhere’ (Green, 2002: 613).

Cultural and lifestyle changes also place educational systems under pressure. The emergence of counter-hegemonic cultures that criticise globalisation, the cultural diversity resulting from large-scale migratory flows and a plurality of lifestyles are accompanied by increased social fragmentation, individualisation, risk and uncertainty. LLL policies seek to respond to these changes by providing flexible learning opportunities. Individuals, in their turn, are expected to take ‘responsibility for constructing their own learning pathways and sustaining their own employability’ (Green, 2002: 618) through a never-ending process of accumulating competences and skills adapted to labour market needs.

In its turn, the economic globalisation process has placed enormous pressure on educational systems and contributed to increasing economic competition among countries and regions. It is in this context that companies have been introducing information technology into their production processes and implementing multiple strategies: downsizing, outsourcing and ensuring industrial relations are flexible. As Green pointed out, ‘even for the lower skilled workers, this means the need for new competencies in computer skills as well as attitudes and values that predispose them to being flexible’ (2002: 615). LLL policies aim at responding to such economic challenges by adopting a managerial approach to education, strongly anchored in human capital theory. In this approach, individuals tend to be conceived as a kind of raw material, as objects capable of being moulded and being accommodating, with some seen as ‘incompetent’ individuals, with deficits and gaps that require the acquisition of skills, competencies and abilities that will enable them to engage actively with the new ‘knowledge economy’.

LLL policies also prize non-formal and informal education, albeit from a different perspective than lifelong education. Within LLL policies, these are a way to reduce the costs associated with the skill formation system. It is in this context of cost reduction that Green explains the diffusion of the idea of the learning society:

When the state can no longer pay for the quantities of learning required, it invents the learning society so that the (p.206) costs can be shared. […] The learning society is, thus, both the most affordable and most responsive way to meet the learning demands of the knowledge economy, as far as the national governments are concerned. (2002: 617)

LLL policies and discourses are powerful technologies that create a new subject capable of effectively responding to the demands of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’. Critical thinking, autonomy, responsibility, adaptability, flexibility are no longer the core skills essential to the integral development of the human being, participation in society and the exercise of citizenship. Instead, they are now seen as the qualities required for a ‘good worker’ in the era of flexible capitalism (Rambla et al, 2018). Therefore, LLL is ‘a mode of social control that acts as a new disciplinary technology to make people more compliant and adaptable for work’ (Crowther, 2004: 125). People are expected to accept, without resistance, new forms of flexible rationalisation and flexploitation, which Bourdieu defines as a ‘new mode of domination based on the creation of a generalised and permanent state of insecurity aimed at forcing workers into submission, into the acceptance of exploitation’ (1998: 85).

LLL actively participates in the making of both a new social, political and economic order and of a new subject. It shifts the responsibility of economic failure from the system to the individuals, converting economic and social problems into educational ones. It undermines the humanistic and political role of education, replacing it with a technical-managerial conception of learning subordinated to the needs of late capitalism. It participates in redefining citizens as consumers rather than political actors. It transforms human beings into knowledgeable subjects engaged in an endless process of skills’ acquisition to compete in the labour market and keep their position in society. In sum, and quoting Crowther:

Lifelong learning is shifting the responsibility for learning to individuals, undermining welfare, disguising the reduction of the democratic public sphere, and working on people as objects of policy to ensure their compliance with the brave new world of flexible capitalism. (2004: 130)

Tensions in the Lisbon Strategy

This section identifies and discusses tensions in the contemporary ‘growth and inclusion’ agenda of the so-called ‘knowledge-based (p.207) economy’ envisaged by the Lisbon Strategy (European Parliament, 2000). Through a comparative approach, the implications of these tensions are assessed in the nine European countries that make up the YOUNG_ADULLLT consortium. It should be made clear that this comparative approach is grounded on three different theoretical perspectives that, as mentioned earlier, form the conceptual basis of YOUNG_ADULLLT: governance, cultural political economy (CPE) and life course research (LCR) (see Chapter 1, in this volume). This combination of different theoretical perspectives enables a wider and polychrome picture to be drawn of LLL policies and their consequences for young adults. Governance (Bevir, 2011) specifically, drives our attention towards the vertical and horizontal relationships (including tensional ones) between state and non-state actors involved in defining and implementing LLL policies. In its turn, the CPE (Jessop, 2009) highlights the role of contextually embedded ideas and perceptions in policy dynamics and outcomes. As such, it is helpful to understand how LLL policies construct target groups and envisage their effects. Finally, LCR (Heinz et al, 2009), which considers the embedment of the lives of individuals in macro frames such as the labour market, is of crucial importance in providing an answer to how LLL policies impact the life courses of young adults.

Decentralisation: a pathway for deregulation and privatisation or for democratic policy-making?

In most of YOUNG_ADULLLT’s FRs, the main tension identified refers to the extent to which the publicly funded skills formation system should be oriented to serve the needs of private employers, even if that promotes youth employment. While most public institutions seem to fund and support general skills, private employers are more interested in industry- or firm-specific skills. This contrast seems to be clearer in FRs where there is a predominant economic sector (e.g. oil, tourism, mines). At the same time, in almost all the FRs, employers and some street-level professionals stated that young adults lack soft skills. This seems to hide a deep mismatch between employability skills and labour market demands. In some regions, policies are directed at increasing industry-specific skills in order to improve the employability of young adults (e.g. Girona in Spain, Genoa in Italy, Istria in Croatia), while stakeholders in other regions are focused on the weakness of labour market opportunities (e.g. Aberdeen in Scotland, Blagoevgrad in Bulgaria, Kainuu in Finland) (Palumbo et al, 2018).

(p.208) The conflict between supply and demand seems to be easing where there is a well-defined labour market, with organised stakeholders (where a public authority has a strong leading role) or where there are person-centred policies. In one initiative, the Italian good practice called ‘Dote Unica’ (Single Endowment) (Milan FR), people have a personal budget that they can spend on training, placements, internships and entrepreneurship schemes. The budget assigned to each individual (not just young adults, as this policy is open to everybody) depends on their particular situation, taking into account factors such as the time they have spent out of work, age, qualifications and gender. The ultimate goal is to support people throughout their working lives. Another relevant initiative that deals with both the demand and the supply sides is the Vienna Employment Promotion Fund (WAFF): in this case, unemployed people are funded to undergo education and training in order to align their skills with the ones demanded by the labour market (Palumbo et al, 2018).

Certainly, one of the greatest tensions found in YOUNG_ ADULLLT’s FRs concerns the financing of the vocational education and training (VET) system, in particular the availability of the European Social Fund (ESF) and their ability to manage it. In the FR of Malaga, for example, the mismanagement of European funds has even led to the closure of important employability measures, while in Austria – in particular in Vienna – since the region’s policies for disadvantaged people share funds with refugees and non-EU migrants, tensions have grown among beneficiaries. In the FR of Istria, in Croatia, the scarcity of funding ultimately means that only young people who have private resources manage to undertake VET if they were unable to finish vocational school as regular students or wish to attend additional higher secondary school programmes. Thus, disadvantaged people struggle to improve their employability. In general, there is a wide dependence on ESF: a number of FRs have mentioned the importance of ESF for the regional VET system (e.g. Blagoevgrad in Bulgaria), without the programme, youth opportunities in the region would be very limited or even non-existent.

In conclusion, there is a fundamental tension between whether the decentralisation process is a real chance for collaborative and democratic policy-making and decision-making at the local and regional levels or, instead, because of a less substantial state intervention, it ends up creating more room for privatisation, deregulation and exclusion.

(p.209) Matching supply and demand: who defines what, and how?

Our analysis also sought to understand the interactions among actors and institutions based on the discursive and material factors that shape them. In that sense, it was interesting to consider how actors construct and define problems and target groups. Challenges for given targeted groups are usually detected when changes are experienced at the local/regional/national/supranational levels (variation). The activities/policies that actors decide to take part in (selection) and promote (retention) at the different levels are influenced by their problematisation of the situation of the targeted group (Ribeiro et al, 2017). The selection and retention of discourses highlighted a fundamental node: the so-called ‘street-level professionals’. There are a large number of actors such as teachers, social workers, psychologists, job centre operators, tutors, counsellors and others who establish daily rapport with young adults and have to ‘translate’ policies into concrete action. In some cases, such actors are in a precarious situation and struggling with difficulties, while in other cases they are professionals closer to decision makers. In any case, the ‘funnel’ of decision-making is often through these actors: frequently they are working within contradictory guidelines (Lipsky, 1969), with a potential conflict between beneficiaries and incongruous procedures. Street-level professionals develop their own perceptions and routines in order to solve the contradictions and ambiguities in their mandate. These constructions often have a strong impact on the social image of the beneficiaries (Rambla et al, 2018). Importantly, while the bulk of employment-centred LLL policies consider that the predicaments of street-level professionals eventually threaten policy effectiveness, these predicaments are nothing but the common challenges of educational interaction.

An important discourse throughout YOUNG_ADULLLT is the soft skills rhetoric: on the one hand, soft skills (communications, emotional intelligence, self-motivation, problem-solving, time management) are essential, yet, according to employers, very difficult to find. At the same time, however, soft skills seem to be somewhat evanescent and not useful to teach in training courses or in education. In that sense, soft skills are personal and non-communicable and their lack is more a personal fault than a gap to be filled.

Another relevant discourse is related to the fact that vocational education is not prestigious and is less valued than a standard academic path. This stereotype seems to be mainstream across Southern Europe. (p.210) In the Portuguese case, young adults are conscious that there is a social stigma around VET and feel they have to fight for social recognition. In Italy, the prejudice against VET seems very strong, especially from parents. Parents in Italy try to direct their children to academic studies instead of professional or technical high schools, while in Spain LLL is considered a good choice but simply to fill vocational gaps, and only for people who have significant training shortages. These countries look to Germany as a touchstone, as a model to follow even if other countries (including Germany itself) consider its approach paternalistic and controlling.

A conviction shared by all countries was that young adults, and in particular the beneficiaries of LLL measures, were perceived as weak, unable to find their own path in life without specific public measures. Young adults in particular are regarded as not being able to ‘read’ labour market dynamics and as needing more support in order to collect and interpret data and trends. In this sense, young adults need to strengthen their ties with the labour market considering the state of affairs identified by Brown and Hesketh: ‘The knowledge economy conjures a world of smart people, in smart jobs, doing smart things, in smart ways, for smart money, a world increasingly open to all rather than a few’ (2004: 1). Public policies need to be implemented to enhance the match between supply and demand, namely by improving the skills and capabilities of young adults.

In many cases, however, young adults share the impression that they are training for precariousness (Kurki and Brunila, 2014), and that the specific measures aimed at employability, despite providing them with hard and soft skills, do not really help them disentangle the thick meshes of mismatch between the supply and demand of the labour market.

Living the young adult life: dilemmas, dilemmas, dilemmas

Narrowing the research focus down to the individual level elicited four dilemmas. The first is related to the tension between standardised and de-standardised life courses. It is currently widely accepted that the life condition of a young adult is characterised by a de-standardisation of biographies. However, policies (and social expectations) still remain based on the linear three-stage trajectory (education – work – retirement) that emerged in the 20th century. Today, young adults increasingly have a multistage life, with transitions and discontinuities in between. These multistage lives require a new proficiency in (p.211) managing transitions and reflexivity, reskilling and building new and diverse networks and careers. The end of linearity is related not only to the school-to-work transition, but also to the personal and private lives of young adults (evidence of this is the fact that, in almost all the FRs analysed, the number of young adults living with their parents is at an all-time high). At the same time, social policies and social expectations seem to have remained anchored in a standardised view of life and every deviation is experienced as a fault – typically, an individual fault – or a problem to solve. Only a few countries support individual trajectories (as we saw before in the cases of ‘Dote Unica’ in Milan FR, the Finnish Programme and the WAFF in Vienna FR), but even these tailor-made measures have to consider the difficulties and uncertainty in planning for the future.

The second dilemma is connected to the previous one, but it is focused on the perception that young people cannot follow a linear trajectory and policies must intervene to reduce risks of deviations. The transition to adulthood seems to be perilous, and policies assume that school dropout remains a persistent and critical issue in many school systems and a threat to young adults’ life courses.

The third dilemma relates to the future: discourses extracted from young adults’ interviews show a conflict between plans and dreams. In many cases, young adults prefer to talk about their dreams rather than their projects. Indeed, their design thinking or planning capacity seems to be impaired, weakened as it is by an overloaded information system and the continuous difficulty in seeing their (modest) strategies fulfilled.

The fourth dilemma concerns the relationship between formal and informal learning environments. Young people have to take extensive responsibility for their own life courses and careers, especially for choices about job seeking and education. The individualisation processes seem to lead young people to interpret their situations purely as personal problems rather than public issues. Therefore, they seek to solve the situation more through the adoption of adaptation strategies than through requests for participation in policies’ design or monitoring and evaluation.

The individuals’ life course is inextricably linked to the passage of time, the different institutions and contexts of regulation (the education and training system, employment, social security) individuals pass through, and individuals’ choices and decisions. As stated by Heinz and colleagues (2009: 18) life phases and transitions are ‘structured in a reciprocal process of political, social and economic conditions (“historical time”, welfare state regulations and provisions (“institutional (p.212) time”), and biographical decisions and investments concerning shifting living circumstances (“individual time”)’. Unlike traditional societies, in the contemporary knowledge society, individuals must construct their own biographies through action. Thus, individualisation is not really a choice, but rather an existential condition. Furthermore, their biographical trajectories and tailor-made initiatives are overshadowed with new forms of control and new institutional demands. The paradoxes presented previously – standardisation vs de-standardisation, linearity vs risks, plans vs dreams, formal vs informal – make up the scenario in which young adults live. A scenario full of doubts and contradictory expectations.


Policies, and LLL policies in particular, are a contested terrain. As previously mentioned, their meanings have changed radically over the past few decades and, given the challenges and dilemmas currently faced, it is expected that they will continue evolving. Interestingly – and paradoxically – this situation coexists with a major community of states (the EU) having decreed the end of the debate on educational principles (Commission of the European Communities, 1995). To be sure, this is not only an inaccurate portrait of reality, but also a potentially dangerous statement in political terms in the sense that it seems to attempt to sweep under the rug sharp divergences in understandings of education and society. As shown before, despite seeking to present themselves as ideologically neutral and apolitical, the new LLL policies are embedded in an ideological framework and pursue political aims. Indeed, as also stated earlier, given that LLL plays an active role in the making of both a new social order and of a new subject, it does not seem plausible that it might emerge as ideology-free and apolitical. We should be clear: this is not only a fallacy but, given the nature of the world we live in, a fallacy that runs the risk of being pushed forward on a global scale, with global implications. One of those implications is a paradox in itself. While everyone acknowledges that we are living in a new social and economic organisation, policies, for the most part, keep looking at work and jobs as the great – sometimes even the sole – organiser of the individuals’ lives. This – like the expectation that individuals will have linear professional trajectories – is clearly out of tune with reality. We would like to argue that this absence of fit with reality plays an important role in explaining why young adults and decision makers seem to lack the knowledge to comfortably navigate through (p.213) the challenges posed by the so-called knowledge economy. Indeed, switching the focus to LLL at the expense of lifelong education (in other words, the shift from a humanistic to an economistic approach) has downplayed the inextricable educational component of activities such as elaborating individual life plans, choosing a profession and becoming an active citizen. It has also reinforced the contradiction between a macroeconomic perspective and a context- and person-sensitive humanistic approach. However, the hegemony of the technical-instrumental conception of education that is present in LLL policies is only contested locally by a few dissonant voices: the street-level professionals. It is they who demand policies that take into account the knowledge, life experiences, life projects and living conditions of young adults in vulnerable positions, rejecting the deficit conception that has been underlying their creation. It is also they who appeal for LLL policies aimed at the development of young adults not only as workers but also as human beings.

Understanding the actual place of learning in any given society requires answering what must or should be taught and learned and why. It also requires a broader approach, focusing not only on work but on life itself. Paradoxically, it appears that learning per se is not particularly valued in the ‘knowledge society’. Instead, learning and education tend to become an accumulation process, the rationale – or, perhaps, the unjustified hope – of which is that one of its layers will eventually solve the individual’s insertion in the labour market and social inclusion. Meanwhile, what happens is that, because they are financially cornered, young adults become politically disengaged and struggle to commit to plans in a scenario of contradictory expectations. This is all the more so because, while policies do materialise at different levels – that is, they ‘incarnate’ in different planes – they are yet to incarnate in young adults’ ability to participate in their design, assessment or monitoring.

In conclusion, most of the LLL policies analysed in YOUNG_ ADULLLT show an inability to incorporate in their design and practices the de-standardisation of young adults’ life courses and their expectations. The few that have a person-centred approach deal with the risks of the increasing tendency to transform education and training into private goods and learners into consumers, reinforcing the privatisation of skills formation systems. Finally, along with the dilemmas and paradoxes discussed throughout this text, if on the one hand LLL policies can have a positive impact in young people’s lives, on the other hand they may be participating in the construction of domesticated citizens and workers, compliant with the new spirit of (p.214) capitalism. Therefore, they need to enhance their context-sensitivity and strike a finer balance between economic and humanistic concerns.


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