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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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(p.xvii) Introduction

(p.xvii) Introduction

Between knowledge and economy: lifelong learning policies for young adults in Europe

Lifelong Learning Policies for Young Adults in Europe

Xavier Rambla

Siyka Kovacheva

Marcelo Parreira do Amaral

Policy Press

Despite significant improvements in social conditions and successive waves of wide-ranging technological innovations in the recent past, many young people still do not enjoy circumstances favourable to elaborating and pursuing their own life plans and choosing the course of their future. Furthermore, although the majority of member states in the European Union (EU) attempt to maintain relatively generous welfare states, in most of them too many youths find themselves in vulnerable situations and do not succeed in, or are excluded from, education and training. Against this background, policy makers have focused on lifelong learning (LLL) as a means of supporting young people to overcome situations of near exclusion, in particular through their integration in the labour market.

The concept of LLL stems from long and rich debates that emphasise different connections from early childhood to adult learning and stress the universal right to education.

In the EU context, LLL policies have a long history (EC, 2000, 2001) but only more recently have they focused on aspects beyond vocational (and recurrent) training for employment of adults, now extending to consider economic, political and social aspects for younger generations as well, including aspects of general and higher education but also support for groups exposed to factors of ‘social vulnerability’ (Riddell et al, 2012; Rasmussen, 2014). At the same time, the political focus on LLL has moved to labour market security and economic competitiveness and a stronger orientation towards human capital and employability.

LLL policies today bring together active labour market strategies, vocational education and training (VET) policies, adult education initiatives, and social welfare and support measures for disadvantaged groups that aim at creating economic growth and, at the same time, (p.xviii) guaranteeing social inclusion for young adults in vulnerable situations. While these economic and social inclusion goals are complementary, they are, however, not coextensive. Due to differing orientations, objectives and timelines, conflicts and ambiguities may arise and young people find themselves navigating between the pursuit of subjective meaning in constructing their own life courses and the search for marketable competencies and skills sought after in the economy.

In this book, we explore how LLL policies devised to support young adults affect the groups most exposed to situations of vulnerability. Education, labour market and social/youth policies are the focus and particular attention is devoted to how they are embedded in local and regional contexts that largely determine their ability to be effective. A central argument is that it is by looking into the specific regional and local contexts that policies are best understood and assessed.

In line with the attention to diverse contextual settings, this edited volume also examines how current European LLL policies construct the target groups of young adults and whether they account for the fact that young adults are a highly dynamic and heterogeneous target group in terms of socioeconomic stratification and living conditions, but also in terms of life projects, interests and possibilities. In this regard, the book looks into relevant social developments affecting young adults such as life course de-standardisation processes and the emergence of a new political economy of skills. These differing living conditions pose different challenges for young adults who have to cope with societal needs and expectations. Thus, not only do these expectations vary according to context, but so do the perception and understanding of young adults as a group.

In short, the themes addressed in the chapters relate to several fields of the social sciences, not least comparative education and youth studies, but the collection also aims at yielding social impact in that the book explores the possibility of designing coordinated policymaking at different geographical levels. At the same time as the EU exerts influence through recommendations addressed to member states, policy makers and civil societies are starting other multifarious and choral conversations on the living conditions and the biographical experience of young adults.

LLL between knowledge and the economy: tensions and synergies

The metaphor of LLL as navigating between knowledge and economy appears suitable for different reasons. It seems relevant since young (p.xix) adults actively engage in searching for learning and knowledge as well as for social and economic recognition, while also looking for guidance to find their way. Mostly however, the metaphor makes sense because the whole set of beneficiaries, professionals and institutions, but also living conditions and social structures as well as educational and labour market challenges and opportunities may be seen as the troubled sea in which young people turn to LLL to open up possibilities for them to create subjective meaning in constructing their life projects and life courses.

It is tempting to say that young adults simply need a compass with which to find their routes. However, the plurality of meanings, orientations and goals of LLL policies generate both tensions and synergies, particularly where policies encounter the real-life conditions of young adults, that is, in regions that display varying sets of functional relationships with European and national contexts and produce specific forms of embedding of these policies in the regional economy, labour market and education/training systems.

Further, the stakeholders of LLL do quite different things depending on their own view of the concept. Since some of them understand that education does not only take place in schools during childhood, they endeavour to read all educational practices that adults carry out through the lens of education theory and the right to education. For others, however, adults cannot devote their time to education if they are unable to make a living. Thus, many stakeholders think about LLL in terms of jobs, the labour market and the employability of individuals. This predicament is not only a philosophical debate but also a concrete consequence of the missions that international organisations, governments and civil societies nowadays pursue.

Since the 1970s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has stood for a wider view of LLL that encompasses all facets of knowledge. In this vein, people must not only learn knowledge, but they also need to complete certain tasks, and more importantly, become a certain type of person (Faure et al, 1972; Delors et al, 1996). Therefore, people can learn at different times and in diverse contexts throughout their whole life. Knowledge cannot be reduced to the experience of the young, who are obliged to attend schools for learning. It must be accessible and affordable for young adults, middle-aged and elderly people (Ouane, 2011).

More recently in 2014, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning has reaffirmed its conception of LLL in order to plan a mid-term strategy for the period between 2014 and 2020 (UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, 2014). The resulting definition portrays LLL (p.xx) as a continuous and multifaceted process that fosters professional and personal development in all aspects of life. This process intermingles with the most noticeable problems of equity insofar as many children do not have access to appropriate school education. Equity is also disrupted when school leavers eventually underexploit their academic skills in routine jobs. Additionally, UNESCO claims that values-led LLL is essential for such common goods as active and democratic citizenship and even peace building.

Despite acknowledging this approach, since the late 2000s the EU has adopted an understanding of LLL that prioritises employment (Papadopoulos, 2002). In fact, the European Commission (EC) established in 2006 a list of ‘key competences for lifelong learning’ that schools and institutions working in VET, adult education and higher education were expected to develop and implement. When it reviewed the progress of that initiative, ten years later the EC argued that these competencies provided very useful instruments to harness globalisation. Besides looking at the situation in each country, the review argued that those competencies were particularly necessary to face an array of challenging social transformations such as digital innovation, increasing intercultural contact and climate change. Thus, besides general academic skills, the recent approach emphasises the high relevance of entrepreneurship and digital skills (EC, 2018: 3).

This book analyses a large corpus of empirical evidence collected in 18 regions selected from nine member states of the EU. This evidence reports on the living conditions of young adults, the professional concerns of decision-makers and street-level professionals that deliver LLL through education, labour market and social welfare policies, as well as the personal aspirations of more than 150 young adults who are exposed to diverse factors of vulnerability. For all these people – policy makers, experts, professionals and young adults dealing with these issues – the dilemmas mentioned not only inspire philosophical debate and trigger political contention, but centrally highlight the evident, routine problems of their everyday lives and the questions as to the future of their immediate regional contexts and their own biographies.

Sources of empirical evidence

The chapters in this volume present findings from the European research project Policies Supporting Young People in their Life Course: A Comparative Perspective of Lifelong Learning and Inclusion in Education and Work in Europe (for short, YOUNG_ADULLLT).1 They draw on a large and coherent corpus of empirical evidence (p.xxi) collected and analysed between 2016 and 2019, covering several aspects of LLL and the social conditions of young adults in the first decade after their age of majority, that is, between 18 and 29. The project was designed as a comparative study focusing on Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom and brings together institutional and policy analyses; quantitative and qualitative research with young adults, employers and trainers/providers of education/training; cross-national comparisons of macro socioeconomic data on labour market and education and training; and in-depth case-study analyses of selected regions and LLL topics (see also Chapter 1, in this volume). The chapters included in this volume attempt to make sense of evidence from different sources. The analyses have integrated more than one of these sources and only a few chapters use one of them exclusively.

The data sets on which the chapters draw include, first, a quantitative data set with key aspects of the regional overall conditions of the population on NUTS (Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics) Level 2 (that is, at subnational level) was created in order to try to understand the contextual structure of enablements and constraints for young people, but also for policy makers. Data come from preexisting national and international databases – including Eurostat, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the European Labour Force Survey and European Social and Income Conditions – and were supplemented with local and regional data to account for specificities. In order to assure the validity of the comparisons across groups and time, a configurational invariance test was performed to check measurement invariance across the time span. The data for this analysis was collated for more than a ten-year span (from 2005 up to 2016), and focused on young adults, defined as individuals aged between 18 and 29 years, using, however, a pragmatic plurality of age ranges to overcome data limitations and select sound indicators. Analysis was conducted for 31 variables that aimed at assessing the mediating role of living conditions in LLL policy-making (see Chapter 9, in this volume).

Second, researchers designed qualitative interview research for three different groups. For all groups, common schedules were designed in English and subsequently translated into the diverse languages of the participating countries. The interviews were transcribed in the original language, but the researchers shared short two-page summaries in English. Coding was discussed and accorded in both online and face-to-face workshops. Biographical interviews with young adults (N = 164) introduced the interest in LLL in the most open way possible, so (p.xxii) that respondents felt free to elaborate on their own narrative. Further questions simply asked for clarification of interviewees’ previous comments, and ultimately, mentioned some cross-cutting themes that they had sidelined. Semi-structured interviews with managers and street-level professionals (N = 121) were conducted that focused on the interaction of LLL policies and young adults’ specific living conditions. These experts were allowed to present their views quite openly, but eventually, all of them were asked a similar set of questions. Finally, semi-structured interviews with key regional policy makers and stakeholders (N = 81) aimed at analysing skills supply and demand in local skills ecologies.

Third, researchers compiled a data set for analysis of policy documents that focused on orientations (interests, frames of reference) that influence skills and LLL policies and activities for young adults. The total corpus of documents (N = 129) came from grey literature and the institutional websites of public employment services, municipalities, chambers of commerce and any other relevant policy actors. The corpus also included other documents that expert interviewees had themselves mentioned.

Fourth, comparative case studies (N = 18) were conducted to analyse LLL policies and programmes at the regional and local level, identifying policy-making networks involved in shaping, formulating and implementing LLL policies for young adults. The case studies integrated the different data sets and methodologies and aimed at yielding knowledge on different patterns of policy-making in LLL by applying an interpretive approach to policy analysis (see Chapter 11, in this volume).

The chapters in this volume elaborate on the theories and methodologies that guided these research activities. In fact, the three parts of this book structure the findings through the perspective of strands of scholarship such as research on life courses, analyses of governance and theories of the cultural political economy. The next section provides an overview of the chapters.

Overview of the chapters

Between 2016 and 2019, the research analysed LLL policies addressed to young adults in 18 functional regions (FRs) located in the EU. Some chapters elaborate on the conceptual and methodological premises of the study. Others look into the definition of FRs and the observation of their socioeconomic conditions.2

Chapter 1 by Marcelo Parreira do Amaral presents and discusses the conceptualisation of the research. The research on LLL policies (p.xxiii) supporting young adults drew from recent theoretical developments including life course research, governance studies and the cultural political economy. Parreira do Amaral argues that these three complementary entry points help us identify and analyse the various aspects in their interplay of discourses, levels, actors and expectations, that is, spanning the topic from macro structures to micro issues. The chapter also describes the implementation of a mixed-method approach along sub-studies that generate complementary insights as different phenomena interwoven with the research object are analysed by approaching them from different viewpoints.

Chapter 2, ‘Coordinated policy-making in lifelong learning: functional regions as dynamic units’, by Marcelo Parreira do Amaral, Kevin Lowden, Valeria Pandolfini and Nikolas Schöneck, argues that FRs provide a useful concept to understand differences in the planning and implementation of education, the labour market and economic policies at regional/local level. The concept (FR) focuses on functional links that shape dynamic rather than administrative territories. The chapter discusses the implications with regard to a couple of illustrations of coordinated policy-making in the field of LLL.

Yuri Kazepov, Ruggero Cefalo and Mirjam Pot investigate in Chapter 3 the relationship between social investment (SI) and LLL, discussing how LLL can be integrated within a coherent SI strategy. They argue that the ideational principles and policy strategies of these approaches present significant overlaps, but also certain institutional complementarities that may underpin sound integration of labour market, education system and welfare state policies.

Chapter 4 by Xavier Rambla, Dejana Bouillet and Borislava Petkova deliberates on young adults as target groups of LLL policies. The chapter discusses the consequences of constructing these target groups of LLL policies in nine member states as well as the whole EU, and in specific FRs. In addition, the chapter explores to what extent the construction of these target groups draws on wider societal classifications of socioeconomic background (e.g. previous school performance), gender and ethnicity.

In Chapter 5, Queralt Capsada-Munsech and Oscar Valiente aim at proving an understanding of how national education and training systems provide different opportunities for young adults across socioeconomically diverse regions within and across countries. The chapter also addresses how actors involved in socioeconomically diverse regions adapt national education and training systems and LLL policies to the regional/local context, to support young people’s skill formation and later transition into the labour market.

(p.xxiv) Risto Rinne, Heikki Silvennoinen, Tero Järvinen and Jenni Tikkanen argue in Chapter 6 that policies have a vision of a desired society with rational individuals, which is built on a conception of a good or reasonable order of things. They argue that although much is discussed about individualised life courses, there is an underlying implicit norm concerning the characteristics of the desired life course. They aim at making visible the underlying assumptions and tacit implications beneath the ‘normal’ life course, how vulnerability is produced in policy texts and how the normalisation of so-called ‘vulnerable youth’ is governed. The chapter uses policy documents and interviews with policy experts and young adults from two Finnish regions.

In Chapter 7, Thomas Verlage, Valentina Milenkova and Ana Bela Ribeiro concur that currently the number of disadvantaged groups is increasing. Most at-risk youth have the fewest life choices. Often, their lives are marked by discrimination, physical disabilities, lack of education and employment, illness, lack of legal rights and other historically rooted practices of domination and marginalisation. Against this background, the chapter puts forward a review of the most recent key policy measures for equal education opportunities and social inclusion targeting the risk groups. Various aspects of adopted policy interventions for stimulating social and LLL inclusion are illustrated, and supplemented by a critical analysis in different EU countries. The conclusion is that the stakeholders have formulated the required strategic actions to guarantee educational equity for marginalised social groups, yet certain shortcomings continue to plague practical implementation.

Siyka Kovacheva, Judith Jacovkis, Sonia Startari and Anna Siri bring young people’s voices to the fore in Chapter 8. Young adults’ narratives of their trajectories through institutions and social structures are used as the starting point to grasp subjective interpretations of the individual life courses of participants in learning programmes beyond school and the ways in which this participation shapes their aspirations and life projects. The authors deal with the challenge of illuminating the complex relationship between individual agency and the social time and place in which young people’s lives unfold.

Chapter 9 by Rosario Scandurra, Kristinn Hermannsson and Ruggero Cefalo aims at providing an understanding of the contexts within which young people develop their biographies and transition to adulthood, and the link to the structures of opportunities and constraints such contexts provide. The chapter provides a comparative assessment of contextual living conditions and risk profiles of young adults in nine European countries and in 18 selected regional contexts. (p.xxv) The authors raise our awareness of the relevance of comparable data at the regional and local level, in order to overcome methodological nationalism and provide a more refined interpretation of social dynamics. By doing this, they stress the increasing need for more contextualised information in different social domains.

Tiago Neves, Natália Alves, Anna Cossetta and Vlatka Domović deal in Chapter 10 with the changing meanings of LLL policies and deliberate on the consequences for young adults and their life courses. The chapter discusses the tensions identified in the contemporary ‘growth and inclusion’ agenda for a so-called ‘knowledge-based economy’ as proposed by European strategies. The local assessment of these implications in nine European countries enables a comparative approach that renders common issues and diverging developments visible.

In Chapter 11, Mauro Palumbo, Sebastiano Benasso and Marcelo Parreira do Amaral argue for an interpretive approach to policy analysis in the field of LLL. The authors draw on case-study research in YOUNG_ADULLLT and pay particular attention to the narrative strategies adopted for the case analysis. They discuss three distinct narrative strategies of telling the story of a case while attending to various perspectives on the policy-making process and the varying entry points as well as to relational aspects. The chapter suggests how storytelling as policy analysis can help us advance from case to knowledge, for instance, by overcoming a one-sided perspective of policy-making to include addressees’ viewpoints in understanding policy-making while accounting for the complexity that characterises it on the ground.

The concluding chapter by Siyka Kovacheva, Xavier Rambla and Marcelo Parreira do Amaral takes stock of the insights developed in the other chapters of the book and enquires into how LLL policies are impacting and supporting young adults in their life courses. In ‘Navigating LLL policies in Europe: impacting and supporting young adults’ life courses’, Kovacheva and colleagues discuss how policies, in trying to cope with the complexities of contemporary societies, often attempt to normalise or re-standardise life courses, at the same time that life trajectories of young people become more and more diverse and dynamic. A further elaboration refers to the regional dimension of the insights yielded in different chapters on this volume. The chapter closes with remarks on what it means when LLL policies earnestly attempt to support young adults to find and pursue their personal goals – or as they write – navigate the difficult waters to find and reach their Ithaca.

(p.xxvi) In this vein, we invite you to follow the journey of young people across Europe as they brave the seas of social change to actively engage with LLL.



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EC (European Commission) (2000) A Memorandum for Lifelong Learning: European Communities, Brussels: Directorate General Education and Culture.

EC (European Commission) (2001) ‘Making a European area of lifelong learning a reality’, Communication from the Commission, Brussels, COM (2001) 678 final.

EC (European Commission) (2018) ‘Proposal for a council recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning’, Commission Staff Working Paper, COM2018 (24).

Faure, E., Herrera, F., Kaddoura, A.-R., Lopes, H., Petrovsky, A. V., Rahnema, M. and Ward, F. C. (1972) Learning to Be: The World of Education Today and Tomorrow, Paris: UNESCO.

Ouane, A. (2011) ‘Evolution of and perspectives on lifelong learning’, in J. Yang and R. Valdés-Cotera (eds) Conceptual Evolution and Policy Developments in Lifelong Learning, Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning, pp 24–39.

Papadopoulos, G. (2002) ‘Policies for lifelong learning: an overview of international trends’, in M. T. Ambrósio, R. Carneiro, F. Everiss, M. de Ibarrola, A. W. Khan, T. Linden, E. Motala, G. Papadopoulos and F. Pedró (eds) Learning Throughout Life: Challenges for the Twenty-First Century, Paris: UNESCO, pp 37–62.

(p.xxvii) Rasmussen, P. (2014) ‘Adult learning policy in the European Commission: Development and status’, in M. Milana and J. Holford (eds) Adult Education Policy and the European Union: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives (vol. 1), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp 17–34.

Riddell, S., Markowitsch, J. and Weedon, E. (eds) (2012) Lifelong Learning in Europe: Equity and Efficiency in the Balance, Bristol: Policy Press.

UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (2014) Laying Foundations for Equitable Lifelong Learning for All: Medium-Term Strategy 2014–2021, Paris: UNESCO. (p.xxviii)


(1) The YOUNG_ADULLLT project has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 693167. More information at: http://www.young-adulllt.eu/

(2) Quotes from interview material will be referred to by means of codes such as ‘E_AT_V_1’ for experts’ and ‘Y_IT_M_2’ for young adults.