The interview was conducted by Lenart J. Kučić on July 10, 2010.
When young people in European cities start burning cars, occupying the faculties, and throwing well measured granite cubes into the Parliamentary windows, youth issue becomes an important political theme. Youth protests are frightening for adults, since they are touching their deepest parental fears and remind them that the society is less friendly than they see it themselves – it is unpredictable, uncertain, with no real prospects and no hope that someday it will be better – which is first felt precisely by young people.
How to make boring European projects interesting
Therefore, youth protests do not only trigger the usual mixture of indignation, compassion and moral panic, but also stir up the field of youth policy. Politicians, state secretaries and European officials start looking for the causes of the riots, reviewing statistics on youth unemployment, start counting school drop outs and calculating how much damage will the unemployed and unmotivated youth make to the national economy in the coming decades. Then they start to order research, which would tell them, why young are prolonging their studies, live with their parents, why they are not interested in politics, and, in addition, the research should suggest fast and practical measures to address the “youth problem”. Such approaches are usually ineffective because youth is treated as a problem or – more recently – as an unexploited human resource. However, policy makers forget that young people are not some kind of a uniform statistical category, but a very diverse group of individuals who are trying to get by in society as best as they can and are able, as youth researcher Andreas Walther of the University of Frankfurt points out. Survival strategies, motives and life decisions of young people are highly dependent on the environment in which they live, therefore no, even the most extensive pan-European survey of youth, cannot give a universal prescription on how to design a successful youth policy. It can at best remind us of how complex societal problem we are trying to understand and how deceptive it is to judge the young according to our own image, Walther added.
Over the recent years you have been involved in most major European research projects in the field of youth. Can you, on the basis of these projects, assess how European institutions, which are financing these projects, understand youth policy?
This can already be seen from the calls for applications, which are prepared by national and European institutions. Young people are mostly seen as a part of the labour market – sometimes as a problem, other times as an opportunity, depending on the current political rhetoric. Some years ago we have primarily dealt with reducing the economic damage and costs, which is caused by youth unemployment, while today we are thinking about how to motivate, how to change educational system, and how to better manage human resources and use human capital, which is hidden in young people in order to accelerate (smile) economic growth. All these projects are very instrumental. Their main purpose is to provide information, which would enable politicians and European officials to justify their economic, social and educational policy.
And create an impression, that these are not political decisions but expert decisions?
If policy is supposedly based on scientific facts, its political status is hidden and with it also the need for social consensus. Let's take a concrete example. In Germany a few years ago a lot of agitation was caused by the news that our students are ranked very low on a comparative scale of PISA, by which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) identifies their “readiness to face the future challenges”. German policy was not only agitated by low classification - and the slap to the German education system - but also the OECD’s warning that extra twenty points in PISA in the next twenty years means also a $ 200 billion more revenue in the German economy and the creation tens of thousands of new jobs. I am telling these numbers by heart, but anyway, such was the main argument, which led Germany to subordinate its educational reforms almost entirely to a single goal: to improve the ranking of German students in PISA.
And although educational systems thus became only a means to achieve the best possible results on some comparative scale?
Or to meet educational standards prescribed by this scale, although there was almost no general debate of what these standards really are and what educational goals they are trying to reach. I am certainly not saying that young people should be learning the same contents by the same methods as 20 years ago, but it is still a telling fact that the German society did not consider necessary to discuss what are the objectives of educational process and what should the new role of teachers and students be, but simply slackened to the pressure of alleged economic arguments.
Alleged because the writers of these reforms are not critical enough in their choices of economic arguments. These documents are in a way created like this: a younger national or European official, who must quickly prepare a certain strategy, asks institutes and other research institutions, whether they are familiar with “any research”, which is analysing economic consequences of unfinished education – of young people, who from these or other reasons do not finish school or are excluded from the education system. Researchers think a little and they – for information only – send a link to a certain American study, which has calculated that every young person, who does not complete his/her education, will potentially burden the country for more than half a million dollars – because it is more likely that s/he will become a criminal, which will require more police on the streets, increasing costs of imprisonment and rehabilitation… Already in the next step it may happen that this study becomes an official part of the German or even European educational strategy, although it may be completely useless for our environment. Moreover, it is not clear what the results of such studies actually tell us. Will we try to keep the children in schools at any costs, so that we will not have to pay this half a million dollars one day? I am caricaturing a bit, but a lot of strategies and policies are actually created in this way.
Why did the numbers become so important even in the areas, which once were not so obviously exposed to economic calculations – education, culture, health…?
Because it is necessary somehow to convince the financial ministers to spend more budget money on these areas (smile). However, such a strategy is two-fold. Education, for example, may indeed receive greater financial resources, but this will also strengthen the weight of questionable economic arguments.
Is it not that also researchers have adapted to this two-fold strategy? In one of Europe's largest youth research projects GOETE, where you are involved, you will try to figure out how can the European educational systems contribute to the building of a "knowledge society" - which is a typical economic-political cliché.
We (the researchers) are in a quite ungrateful position. We have to all the time look for ways for getting the money, which would allow us to explore-research at all, and at the same time we try to retain some research criticism within these narrow frameworks; we try to develop our projects in such a way that they will not come down only to acquiring information which our financers would use to scientifically justify their economic, educational and social policies. Once you know the rules of the game, you realize that these opportunities are fortunately not so rare. Therefore, with some skills it is possible to include qualitative methods in majority of the projects; these methods try to figure out how young people really live, how they are coping with the challenges and what do they actually think. Especially so in pan-European projects.
Although European projects are usually considered as extremely bureaucratic?
European projects offer significantly more research opportunities, as it may seem when reading their complex tender documentations. In Germany, I can usually apply only those projects where I know already in advance what the results should be, because only in this way my assessors know how to determine whether the project was “successful”. At the same time I always have a feeling that German research projects are intended primarily for the reproduction of the German scientific community, which decides, what the real science is and who will share national research projects. At the EU level such control is much harder to implement, since the bureaucracy in euro-authorities is not as homogenous as those in the national states. Euro-crats are namely a very curious mixture of extreme neoliberalism, sincere social-democratic mentality and the desire to rescue the world (smile).
How do you avoid cynicism in this system as you describe it?
Indeed, there are many reasons for cynicism. Thinking about how projects have to be designed in order to obtain money for research, taking into consideration who will evaluate them, what will their real effects be, it is difficult to avoid the cynical reflections about our work. Our possibilities as researchers to influence the youth policy are extremely limited. In practice we can be already satisfied if our findings are present in some strategic document – albeit in the wrong context and without real possibilities that anyone would consider them. However, I already successfully resist cynicism, because I get many small victories in my work. Maybe it sounds unusual, but for me it is a great pleasure when I think about how to transform these boring euro-projects into something interesting despite all the constraints. This might help attract ambitious researchers across Europe, maybe help some young researcher to assert her/himself and I am also learning something new about the life of the European youth. Although I am very critical of the motives and ways in which politics finances and uses youth research, I still believe that without these researches it is impossible to design a successful youth policy.
What is successful youth policy to you?
My personal definition is very simple: policy, which helps young people to be able to decide for themselves about their lives. This means many things: access to education, possibilities of becoming independent from their parents, working in chosen occupation, freely expressing personal views, real possibility to influence the politics and society,…
Is any European country close to this ideal?
When our institute IRIS was comparing youth social policies across EU countries, we have not found such a perfect ideal, but we did find out that some countries are much closer to it than others. We were interested, how EU members take care about social security of young people, how they promote their education and employment, what are their measures in solving young people’s social problems, what is the role of families and the like. In general, countries can be divided into 5 groups. First is the Scandinavian group, the second consists of UK and Ireland, third of continental countries, forth of Mediterranean countries, fifth of post-socialists countries. In the last group we have also placed Slovenia. If I considerably simplify, at the end we could clearly see that youth, social and educational policies differ especially by the attitude of countries and their institutions towards an individual.
Individual as a citizen?
Yes, precisely citizenship is a category in which majority of differences occur. In the Scandinavian societies individual does not serve to his/her country, but the country is a community of all individuals – citizens. Country is therefore not distinct from the citizen and is not superior to him/her, but has to enable him/her the active citizenship, which means a possibility of choice and means, with which s/he will realize those choices. And since also their institutions are derived from the individual, they are ready to respond to his/her changed needs and thus also to the changes in education, labour market and elsewhere.
This is quite the opposite in the continent – an individual is considered as a sort of subject of the country.
Germany is known for its paternalistic approach to citizens. Bismarck’s legacy from the 19th century is still present in the whole system and so is the question of how to organize the society together with the help of the country and its institutions. Therefore, rather passive role is expected from the citizen – fulfilling their duties, but not the co-creation of society. Attitude of country towards an individual of course also influences the attitude of an individual towards the country; in Germany people expect that the country will govern things for them – look for their employments or provide the lacking knowledge – while in Scandinavian countries individuals are convinced that the country has to mainly offer the opportunities so that they can do this by themselves.
Similar as in the UK?
In the UK and in Ireland they also argue for an autonomous individual, however, this is no longer a citizen in a Scandinavian sense, but an entrepreneur, who works in an open market. Therefore, the country has much less responsibility towards them than in Scandinavian countries and offers practically no incentives or help to the individual. Also, youth is considered only as a temporary phase, which has to end as quickly as possible with gaining economic independence; therefore, UK and Ireland promote early recruitment to the labour market and deliberately limit social support and other measures, which allegedly postpone employment. On the other hand, youth policy in other two groups of countries is very well summed up in the statement of young Italian woman, who said that young people feel alone. If you have family and friends, you manage somehow. If not, you are left alone and you cannot count on anybody, least of all on the country…
Researchers of youth in the post-socialist countries have often pointed out that their countries have, due to the lack of money and political will, long abandoned concrete youth policy, and limited themselves to improving statistical indicators. Higher education is among the victims of such an approach, since countries are non-critically establishing universities and increasing enrolment and thus postponing the problem of youth unemployment and at the same time raising formal level of education, with which they are even bragging.
I am familiar with such warnings; however, I am somewhat reluctant to them. Namely, there are many much worse environments for young people in this world than faculties; in addition, student status is socially acceptable, positive and influences well on the self-esteem. What is better to tell your friends? That you are studying or that you are doing third category jobs because you have no other choice? These are not irrelevant questions, although they cannot be captured by economic analyses or eliminated by frequent reproach that young people today are simply unmotivated. That they are not motivated to accept every job that appears at the labour market – no matter what they were studying or what they are interested in? That they are not motivated when they send hundreds of applications for work and working practice, but do not even get a response? We are often forgetting that all our decisions need to have a meaningful place in our personal biographies. If we decide to study the language because we wish to become a high school teacher, we cannot be excited about low paid translations of some user manuals. If we anyway accept this kind of work, we will probably want to believe that it is only temporary – a detour on our way or a way how to earn money for our rent.
What happens when young people figure out that this kind of jobs are not only temporary, and that they simply will not get better opportunities with their education?
In the debates about young people I repeatedly encounter two deeply rooted views. According to the first, unlucky young people are always passive victims of harsh social changes, while according to the second, young people are opportunists, which choose the most comfortable options – prolonging the studies, receiving unemployment benefits or living with their parents. The first view is patronizing and underestimating, the second is moralistic. What does it mean that young people prefer to study than working 3rd category jobs? That they prefer studying instead of working? That they are opting for comfort? That education is a value to them? Let’s try to get into their skin. On the one hand they know that education is still important for their future and career success, on the other, experience show them that education does not ensure jobs or social status. This means that they will probably deal with education in an opportunistic way: they will try to graduate as fast and as easy as possible and at the same time constantly look for other opportunities.
Why do we so resent this opportunism of youth, if it is perhaps only a rational response to the circumstances in which they have found themselves?
This resentment is deeply rooted, since it is derived from the belief that precisely young people are the agents of positive societal changes – which is a legacy of revolutionary 60s of previous century. However, any resentment is very unfair, because it was precisely young people who felt first that the values of these revolutionary years – education, social activism and responsibility – will not bring them any security. Therefore, they have started to live above all in the present, and hedonism has become their dominant life philosophy. This certainly does not mean that young can no longer imagine a better world. They just no longer have a grand plan: what should be done to change something that we could all live better. Today almost no one believes in such a plan, therefore all political protests have to be first of all entertaining, open, without rules or belonging, since already tomorrow a new agenda, new entertainment, new opportunity for socializing can emerge.
Which is true not only in politics or searching for employment, but also in their private lives
Of course! If the future is uncertain, it is not wise to attach too much to one person, one job or one ideal. What if already tomorrow I get a better opportunity or if I find out that there are also more important things in life than global warming? Adults and traditional institutions understand such thinking as unreliability, lack of commitment, lack of seriousness or as egoism. I believe that this is almost the only possible rational behaviour for young people today – if we are able to understand that young people see the world in a considerable different way than us. This does not mean that I approve of their philosophy; it just means that I cannot judge it that easily.
Institutions would probably wish the future would be more predictable and young people more diligent. But – is it not precisely this hedonistic, unattached and infinitely flexible individual an ideal worker of post-industrial capitalism, the kind that today’s advocates of economic growth and knowledge society only wish for?
This doubt is probably reasonable (smile). In the last decade countries are reducing the importance of their institutions, because they are shifting increasingly more responsibilities to their citizens. In doing so, the juvenile “hedonistic” way of life in the present can become an unexpected ally. From conversations with young people we can see that today they often pose a very reasonable question: why would I even grow up if this is boring? Is it not much more interesting to stay unattached, flexible and always doing something new? Like this uncertainty gets a much kinder face. A human resource, which offers him/herself on the labour market, invests in additional training and is ready to incessantly compete for work, is an ideal labour force for today’s employers. Those, who internalize this world view, no longer consider her/himself as a victim of political and economic system. And thus also a desire to protest or change the society disappears.
Andreas Walther is professor of Social Pedagogy and Youth Welfare at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. As a researcher or a project manager he has been involved in many major European research projects in the field of youth (GOETE, UP2YOUTH, FATE ...). He is interested in life transitions of young people, their public (non-)involvement and European Youth Policy. Currently, he Managing Director of the Institute of Social Pedagogy and Adult Education and Director of the Research Centre "Coping and Education in the Life Course" www.spf.uni-frankfurt.de
See also: http://www.lenartkucic.net/2010/07/10/andreas-walther-raziskovalec-mladine/, photo: Uroš Hočevar