Navigating lifelong learning policies in Europe: impacting and supporting young adults’ life courses
Abstract and Keywords
The chapter takes stock of the insights produced in the different chapters of this collection and draws conclusions based on three theoretical perspectives that guided our analysis. Each of them highlights a few important points that are helpful to make sense of the evidence posited by the thematic chapters. Cultural Political Economy provides crucial insights on the intimate connections between complexity reduction and the institutional normalisation of life courses. Life Course Research sheds light on the equally relevant connections between young adults’ biographies and active learning. Finally, Governance theories account for the regional dimension of lifelong learning policies. Some lessons learned are discussed and a plea to listen to the voices of young adults is made.
The navigation metaphor introduced in the beginning of this book already offers us useful imagery with which to structure our ideas on lifelong learning (LLL) policies and the experiences of young adults across the European Union (EU). We feel that all figures involved in this story – young people, case workers, street-level professionals, managers, consultants, policy makers, researchers, teachers, journalists and so on (artists, activists) – are ultimately learning to be navigators across the seas of human biographies. In the same way as sailors must know about winds and streams, rocks, waves and icebergs to travel and reach their havens safely, young adults, experts and policy makers face similar challenges.
Upon reflection, young people constitute such a diverse group that the reference to sailing may even be too narrow. Some youth sail these seas, while others ski, swim, surf, snorkel or dive in them. Still others ride jet skis or pedalo boats. Despite the inevitable simplification, if we assume that they are the sailors of the metaphor, the point is that young people navigate old psychological scars, overwhelming academic drawbacks and anguishing life course transitions. On the other hand, experts find their way through imprecise policy diagnoses, overwhelming social needs, performance indicators, one-dimensional official benchmarks, slippery research problems and unexpressed human needs. Although this book does not wish provide an ultimately reliable compass, we expect that the previous chapters at least contributed to charting the mare incognito where all these actors come together to play their roles.
These uncharted waters no longer have the shape our traditional wisdom had assumed. While our representation of youth associated (p.242) learning with education and schools, nowadays this premise is very rapidly becoming obsolete. In the industrial era, schools established some channels towards employment by designing a narrow array of vocational specialities. Many students undertook those specialities in order to learn the trade that would provide their living for their whole career. Nowadays, two important trends have questioned this conjecture.
On the one hand, at present education and the labour market are not delimited by clear-cut boundaries. Overlaps between the two realms expand as each one adopts the practices of the other. Thus, secondary schools deliver career guidance, vocational and higher education students do internships to gain work experience, and educators are compelled to take employment outlooks into account when designing new programmes. Similarly, the operation of labour markets increasingly entails educational practices such as skills development, learning on the job, knowledge management and fostering innovation.
On the other hand, today schools are not the only formal setting for learning. Qualification frameworks openly recognise that workers not only complete tasks on the job but may also acquire new skills. The whole array of corporations, public bureaucracies and nonprofit organisations increasingly adopt concepts that take training and learning for granted, such as human resources, innovation or quality management. Briefly, it is neither plausible to maintain that learning is substantively distinct in formal and non-formal settings nor that navigation between formal, non-formal and informal learning is a continuous journey rather than separate trips between demarcated ports.
Hence, drawing a route map is a difficult task for most stakeholders of LLL. Young people experience the complexity of youth as a personal problem, but their perception usually captures only a small part of the bigger picture. Ahead of them, professionals and decision makers struggle with the complexities of policy design and implementation, similarly unable to comprehend the whirlpools created by the overlay and interaction of different social milieus (Mills, 1959). Young participants and experts inhabit social fields where previously distinct policy areas intermingle and previously clear distinctions according to formality become blurred. The following sections attempt to spell out some clues for understanding these social fields through the conceptual lenses adopted in this research.
This book draws on quantitative and qualitative data collected in 18 functional regions (FRs) located in nine member states of the EU. An international team of researchers have analysed this evidence, taking (p.243) into account several levels of governance. Thus, some pieces of EU legislation pattern LLL policies in a similar fashion, but member states embed this template in their own legislation and policies. The analyses took a step further by contextualising 18 regional settings in this wider picture. At the regional level, street-level professionals deliver policies to cater to the needs of target groups. Since a particular view of these needs is already in-built in the policies, and the beneficiaries are enmeshed in complex struggles, the analyses unveil a nuanced, diverse array of outcomes.
The following sections pattern the conclusions drawing on three theoretical perspectives that guided our analysis. Each of them highlights a few important points that are helpful to make sense of the evidence posited by the thematic chapters. Thus, cultural political economy (CPE) provides crucial insights on the intimate connections between complexity reduction and the institutional normalisation of life courses. Life course research (LCR) sheds light on the equally relevant connections between young adults’ biographies and active learning. Finally, governance theories account for the regional dimension of LLL policies.
Coping with complexity and trying to normalise life courses
Since the oil crisis that shook the world economy in the 1970s, sea-changing social transformations have certainly created new and heterogeneous realities that have triggered unprecedented debates on collective affairs. When such tools as managing internal demand (Keynesianism), building large-scale factories (Fordism) and expanding rates of enrolment in schools seemed to deliver solutions, it made sense to expect that minor adjustments of the tools would eventually tackle most social problems. Thus, people were considered young until they finished their education and settled in the labour market. Mainstream political ideas relied on a few measures such as raising prices, wages and school leaving ages, in order to respond to disruptions.
In contrast, when the toolkit failed to perform as expected, a huge variety of alternatives entered the policy agenda. Thus, when prices, wages and leaving ages became obsolete as policy instruments, the agenda turned to exchange rates, innovative financial assets, privatisation, flexible labour markets, active labour and welfare policies.
Simultaneously, the agenda of education policy was flooded with learning outcomes, school quality, school autonomy, school performance-based management, emphasis on science, technology, (p.244) engineering and mathematics, new vocationalism, leadership skills, school choice, public–private partnerships, social entrepreneurship and LLL. In addition, youth was no longer a short experience – ‘a sip of happiness’ in the words of Khadzijski (1974) – but became a blurred and unknown terrain of troubles and strivings that required specialised work. Many governments institutionalised youth policy as a cross-cutting area.
Although the trends of national statistics recorded these novel social conditions, in the end it was the teachers, school principals, social workers and mayors who had to respond to the anxieties of people who were striving to muddle through this world. Remarkably, in order to grasp how young adults and experts navigate LLL, it is indispensable to recognise that the social transformations that we normally associate with post-industrial societies and globalisation brought about extremely complex policy agendas.
Since the late 1970s, both youth and experts in education, labour market and social policies have attempted to reduce such complexity. While the former were increasingly unsure of their parents’ advice for navigating changing circumstances that did not fit with the mould of the old standards, the latter were increasingly insecure in choosing the best instruments, and even more so, crafting coherent mixes of instruments. However, the adoption of certain causal beliefs (or causal narratives, or theories of change) has equipped all actors with operational criteria to cope with this reality. By advancing an explanation of what is going on, these causal beliefs reduce complexity to a point where all parties can at least figure out what they are able to do.
The dominant economistic understanding of LLL seems to have reduced complexity in this way. From such a perspective, settling in employment is the crucial step in life transitions, and jobs provide many opportunities to learn. If policies open these opportunities and make the most out of them, LLL can kill two birds with one stone. These policies can underpin academic performance (or compensate for previous shortcomings) as well as improve employment rates.
A wide spectrum of evidence indicates the prevalence of this perspective. The interpretive policy analyses conducted as part of YOUNG_ADULLLT showed that the vast majority of policies examined draw on this approach (see Parreira do Amaral and Zelinka, 2019). Chapter 3 explored how employment-centred LLL is complementary with social investment in Austria and Finland. Chapter 4 found encompassing theories of change that are based on these tenets in Austria, Finland, Germany and Scotland. Chapter 6 (p.245) mapped out the synergies and the dysfunctions of skills development in the 18 FRs studied in the book.
However, complexity reduction is not a neutral and innocent social practice but an intricate outcome of power relations. The ongoing policies are not the solution to an abstract problem but the ultimate effect of decisions that sometime policy makers were able to legitimise. These decisions require that youth comply with certain requirements and that street-level professionals adapt their views to an official template.
On the one hand, if employment is the milestone, any life course must lead towards integration into the labour market. Regardless of the many dimensions of vulnerability, young people have to be workers by their mid-twenties. Otherwise, as the argument continues, they risk suffering from further social problems that aggravate their situations of vulnerability. As shown in Chapter 4, where apprenticeships, on-the-job learning and labour market intelligence are consolidated, LLL programmes may cater to some groups of youth who are not in the mainstream pathway. Nevertheless, some expert interviewees made some negative if not actually derogatory comments about the beneficiaries of the programmes in Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Furthermore, as Chapter 6 reported, in a country such as Finland with a universalistic welfare regime, researchers have detected powerful effects that place the pressure of normalisation on the shoulders of youth. Chapter 7 questioned the ability of LLL policies to diminish vulnerability in young people’s life conditions by defining employability as the all-encompassing aim of the policy design and neglecting the need to provide access to basic health, income and social services. An eventual consequence of complexity reduction seems to be that youths are expected to follow more standardised life courses. The danger is that the anomalies are read as deviation instead of manifestations of incongruent or overly simplistic policy approaches.
On the other hand, street-level professionals are becoming aware of these contradictions. Since LLL policies impact on people’s lives, professionals are engaged in very meaningful social interactions. They may be defensive or even nasty at times, but most professionals are aware of the circumstances of their interlocutors. Thus, in Italy and Spain, the expert interviewees’ narratives, analysed in Chapter 4, claim that they do not feel comfortable with the official approach. They portray more nuanced descriptions of young people’s circumstances, which notoriously illustrate why their work cannot be so effective as expected. In a similar vein, Chapter 11 maps out some configurations of actors, institutions and pedagogies that eventually fashion spaces (p.246) for learning in such different regions as Milan, south-west Finland and Vienna.
Diverse life courses and active learning
Young adults themselves also feel the need to adjust their life plans to the changing living conditions in their countries and regions. Many envision their future as achieving a ‘normal’ state of adulthood with a secure job, a family and an independent home. However, they feel the pressure of having to cope with various risks and insecurities, which prompt them to delay making critical life choices and shift planning horizons to the nearest future. As the analysis in Chapter 10 revealed, young people respond with less defined life projects, replacing them with a readiness to keep their options open – a flexibility of living in an ‘extended present’ (Nowotny, 1994; Leccardi, 2008; Feixa et al, 2015). But does this allegorise a passive floating on the waves of social change or do young adults actively strive to navigate their life courses to the desired dream shores?
Reconstructing the learning biographies from the narratives of the young interviewees, we encountered a wide diversity of individual life paths, which diverted significantly from the normative sequence of transitions prescribed in the policies. A pattern that could be discerned in most FRs was to take a detour back to education after experiencing a break with formal schooling. Young people following this strategy looked for LLL programmes that would allow them to achieve the educational degree they considered essential for accessing their local labour markets. This was more common for young people from families with limited financial and cultural resources, especially among those of migrant origin without recognised educational credentials and informal skills. In contrast, young adults with more privileged backgrounds took a wait-and-see attitude towards LLL and signed up for various courses expecting the local economy to improve and provide more opportunities for young employees. For them, the period of involvement in further learning was a legitimate form of waithood while being financially and emotionally supported by their parents. Superficially similar to this but led by strong ethical considerations was the strategy of young adults who participated in forms of civic learning. Having had a better experience with formal schooling but still unable to access the labour market, the leading motivation of this group was to gain more (particularly soft) skills while helping those in need. A fourth pattern of learning biographies was exemplified by young adults who found in LLL a fertile space to develop their personality, (p.247) overcome personal barriers and discover their ‘learning’ self. The informal individualised support they received in the programmes enabled them to develop life projects and mobilise resources to achieve these. There was also another distinctive learning path of young adults who are struggling to overcome severe psychological and physical difficulties. Being in very vulnerable situations with limited or no family support, these young adults became involved in LLL to regain self-esteem and reclaim autonomy.
Several chapters in this book argue that to a different extent and in various forms young adults in varying regions in Europe are willing to take on the challenge of further study and training in order to successfully integrate into the labour market. However, they look at their involvement in LLL not only as a way to raise their ‘employability’, but also as a way to develop skills and abilities to actively manage their life courses and achieve a balance between the life domains. It is clear from the analysis that young people’s voices are not heard and their participation as active learners in the policies is not planned or desired. Often youth felt that policy makers and practitioners intended to limit their participation to the ‘choice’ to sign up for courses and considered them to be too incompetent to influence the process of learning in accordance with their life plans. Most programmes were not flexible enough and did not allow young people’s influence in their design and implementation – which resulted in demotivation and dropping out. The competencies young people acquired informally through various activities oftentimes were not sufficiently appreciated by the practitioners and were not used in the learning process. Studies on the EU Structured Dialogue (Banjac, 2017) have found that this mechanism creates the necessary space for consultation between young people and policy makers, encouraging youth to act as ‘active citizens capable, as both individuals and communities, of managing their own risk’ (471). In our research, however, the biographical narratives of the interviewees attest to the fact that the new modes of governance have not reached all groups of youth at risk, at least in the domain of LLL. LLL policies in present-day Europe have not yet found a form of learning that meets the diverse needs of the current young generation and that contributes to developing the participant as a competent and autonomous learner.
Labour market activation that presupposes deficiencies on the part of young adults and places the blame on their supposed ‘apathy’ will not have the desired effect unless situated in the broader perspective of social inclusion policies. What we learnt from the study is that the policy ‘beneficiaries’ must be understood in their entirety, that is, in the (p.248) richness of their personality dimensions: relational, affective, cognitive, operative. Putting young participants at the centre of the political agenda also means strengthening educational strategies and restoring symbolic and substantial value to schools and training institutions.
Our findings also suggest that LLL policies do not have to attempt to encourage a ‘standard’ life course but should take into account the different needs arising from the processes of de-standardisation and reversibility of individual life transitions. This means that European policies, while facing similar challenges in all countries, should be adapted to national, regional and local levels and to the individual situations of young adults. Fundamental to acting on both the economic and sociocultural levels is the enhancement of a place-based territorial approach that pushes different actors (employment agencies, training bodies, companies, trade associations, local authorities, universities, third sector organisations) to cooperate and invest their resources in the direction of exploiting untapped energies and converting them into opportunities to develop the local community.
The regional face of LLL
Governance theories are helpful to understand the implications of regional polarisation for LLL policies. At the same time, these theories illustrate the contradictions that the design of these policies often entails in 18 diverse settings.
To start with, there is evidence of persisting, even aggravated, disparities between the regions of the EU. For instance, Chapter 9 reported significant regional variation of indicators of early school leaving, NEET (neither in employment nor in education and training), and youth and tertiary education achievement within EU member states. In addition, Chapter 9 found strong evidence of path dependency. That is, current policies do not seem to tackle a significant gap in young people’s social conditions between prosperous and peripheral regions.
Why are policies unable to tackle these social divides? Governance theories suggest a couple of explanations. First, policy designs are unable to counteract wider processes that significantly impinge on the opportunities of young adults in the labour market. Migration towards northern countries and global cities is a key development in this sense. Second, it is also noticeable that LLL policies cannot easily exert influence on the main decisions of firms regarding the location of headquarters and operational units.
(p.249) Governance theories also spell out significant contradictions within LLL policy designs. Unsurprisingly, these policies entail such diverse endeavours that the main actors do not always understand the concepts and principal goals in the same terms. Thus, Chapter 4 noticed how street-level professionals construe a hierarchy between employment and education. Sometimes, vague policy rationales and narrow opportunities lead some professionals to elaborate derogatory images of beneficiaries. Chapter 6 spelled out a sharp contradiction that opposes important assumptions about life courses, the point being that, currently, all age groups increasingly depart from standard life courses that had previously proceeded through clearly defined transitions between education and employment as well as between employment and retirement. However, mainstream policies often understand youth as a stage of life that starts with upper educational programmes and concludes with stable participation in the labour market. Therefore, policies eventually convey de-contextualised expectations of young adults’ life plans. Chapter 10 added further insights on these contradictions, with the authors highlighting that policies and young adults attribute different meanings to education and employment. For the former, these are frequently core concerns, while the latter often build their identity on other aspects of life (e.g. leisure, family, autonomy). Eventually, both professionals and beneficiaries of LLL policies feel deeply uneasy because their views do not match at all. Chapter 11 also documented how subtle and contextual interactions between experts and young adults render variable outcomes. Instead of converging on the same expectations automatically, each party expresses both satisfactory and frustrating experiences depending on local realities, institutional constraints and pedagogic processes.
Why does empirical evidence find such important contradictions and disagreements? Governance theories shed some light on this finding by reminding us of the inevitably interactive features of policymaking. An array of actors intervene in the design and implementation of policies. These actors bring their own assumptions and their own interests to the policy arena. Therefore, such remote policy makers as EU institutions and even national authorities may easily lapse into wishful thinking with regard to the underlying messages that policies send to young adults. While the official discourse takes consensus for granted, the views of professionals are not always aligned with the views of beneficiaries in real interactions at the level of front-line services.
Ithaca is the home of the Greek hero Odysseus, who sails for ten years after the fall of Troy before he can reach his destination and reassert his place as king. Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey tells of the adventures, learning experiences, failures and successes of Odysseus and the crew of his 12 ships.
Odysseus sets sail full of hope and happiness, believing that in a short time he will reach Ithaca. However, he encounters obstacles and his journey lasts for ten years. One of the first events in his adventures takes place in the Island of Lotus Eaters, where the dwellers cook a dish made of lotus flowers that makes those who eat it forget their past life and wish to stay there forever. When Odysseus and his ships arrive at the floating island of the master of winds, King Aeolus, he is willing to help them by trapping the winds in a leather bottle to prevent them from harming their ships. However, while Odysseus is asleep his crew opens the bottle, curious to know what is inside, and the strong winds blow the ships back to the island, where Aeolus refuses to help them again and sends them away. A further adventure takes place when Odysseus and his crew reach the Sirens’ Island. The Sirens lure passing crews and ships by singing songs in order to keep them on their island. The cave of the monstrous Cyclops is another stop on their journey, where Odysseus and his crew are trapped and can only escape by outwitting and blinding the Cyclops.
Along their life courses, young people experience similar challenges – academic, personal, social and emotional – which may be compared to Odysseus’s adventures. Life courses may thus be equated to reaching one’s personal Ithaca, a goal that gives meaning and direction to one’s life and pursuits. Like Odysseus, who counted on the goddess Athena as his protector and on many others who helped him overcome obstacles and reach his home Ithaca, young adults need support, wisdom and guidance, but also courage and good winds to succeed in finding their personal Ithaca.
Do LLL policies help young adults to find their Ithaca? Do these policies help the beneficiaries to navigate the seas towards a destination of their choice? Are these policies effective in helping young adults in vulnerable positions, that is, those who suffer substantial risk of social exclusion?
The chapters in this volume suggest a rather nuanced answer. These policies have a chance to be effective if their design and implementation meet at least three conditions, in line with the main (p.251) recommendations of the research reported in this book. In short, these conditions have to do with information, professional awareness and governance. CPE, LCR and governance theories strongly invite researchers and practitioners of LLL policies to discover two-way connections between official policies and young adults’ actual learning. Although at first sight well-designed policies may contribute to one’s learning beyond the limits of compulsory schooling, it is crucial that experts become aware of the deep changes that people’s life courses are undergoing. The very process of LLL must be elaborated anew if these transformations are to be properly addressed. The nature of evidence-based policy, participation, governance and active labour market policies needs substantial revision.
A first lesson has to do with the regional dimension of evidence for evidence-based policies. Since heterogeneous actors make crucial decisions on LLL at the regional level, all of them must draw on appropriate sources of information to share and discuss their views. Currently, many regional authorities and stakeholders are inevitably blind to this aspect of LLL, because most EU regions lack these sources. A second, crucial message is related to young adults’ life courses and participation. Many people no longer follow a linear pathway between education and employment. Policies that rely on any assumption of standard patterns on these grounds threaten to backfire by multiplying misunderstandings. In this vein, it is advisable that young adults themselves participate at least in the monitoring and evaluation of the policies. Since they are active subjects of their own life plans, they may develop a new sense of engagement if they truly participate in policymaking. Furthermore, the informational basis of policies will become significantly broader if the voice of the main protagonists is genuinely heard. The third lesson concerns governance. Currently in the EU, the bulk of public employment services aim at underpinning LLL. However, these authorities do not maintain the same relationships with networks of stakeholders throughout the whole territory. Regional realities are not the same everywhere. While apprenticeship schemes often develop encompassing networks, many stakeholders do not easily find a common ground in south-eastern and south-western Europe. The current situation is unstable. Networks may flourish in some regions where social conditions are bleak. However, if these networks do not consolidate a debate grounded on real regional challenges, it is likely that denigrating stereotypes, contradictions and biased assumptions will eventually come to damage the main understandings of LLL. A further lesson relates to active labour market policies. So far, in many countries these policies aim at activating youths so that they (p.252) can cope with the requirements of the available jobs in their regional context. However, it is important to notice that policy-making also impacts on which jobs are available in these places. It is not realistic to expect that young people are the only responsible agents. If new opportunities are to emerge in the majority of regions within the EU, both sides of the labour market must meet in the middle.
Banjac, M. (2017) ‘Youth, risk and the Structured Dialogue: Governing young EU citizens’, Journal of Youth Studies, 20(4): 471–86.
Feixa, C., Leccardi, C. and Nilan, P. (eds) (2015) Youth, Space and Time: Agoras in the Global City, The Hague and Boston, MA: Brill.
Khadzijski, I. (1974) Life and Mentality of Our People, Sofia: Bulgarian Writer.
Leccardi, C. (2008) ‘New biographies in the “risk society”? About future and planning’, Twenty-First Century Society, 3(2): 119–29, available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17450140802062078
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nowotny, H. (1994) Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Parreira do Amaral, M. and Zelinka, J. (2019) ‘Lifelong learning policies shaping the life courses of young adults: an interpretative analysis of orientations, objectives and solutions’, Comparative Education, 55: 1–18. doi: 10.1080/03050068.2019.1619333