This article was originally pulished on the blog Exploring Youth Issues for my friend Alan Mackie, who is also researching the sociology and policy of youth at The University of Edinburgh.
I began my research into the deleterious effects of austerity on young people in 2011. At that time the consequences of the first Conservative government since 1997 were somewhat difficult to comprehend – we only knew that for those under 25 there was to be no let up.
At the time I was living in Nottingham no more than a half a mile away from a police station that had been petrol bombed during the now infamous English riots a few months prior. It was not lost on me that every week graffiti would reappear opposite the station stating ‘If you take our future, we will take it back’. Who knows whether it was one of the participants or a particularly self-important art school student who daubed the wording, it was emblematic of a time, and significant of a generation that knew for them there would be no boom, only bust.
It’s now 2015 and I am sat in Glasgow where the graffiti is council sponsored, yet the age has not ended. The Conservatives have returned and with them an ideology that sets generations against one another. For people like myself this is research manna; but for some young people it is becoming the only early adulthood they have known. My fundamental concern as a sociologist is the future of this conflict and within that what work and employment will become, or more accurately if it can ever become anything else at all.
There are two theories that are key to understanding this I believe, one well known, one less so. I would like to briefly highlight their importance:
The ‘risk society’ described by Beck (1992) sees the labour market as the motor of individualised risk. This individualisation manifests itself in the acquisition, proffering, and application of a variety of work skills which in turn creates a sense that failure to succeed is a failure on your part alone. If our current political narrative says anything it says this in bright neon lights. We saw this rhetoric writ large during the English riots and in policy after policy from the government that has followed (Workfare chief amongst them). Risk, in this case unemployment, is being mitigated solely for the benefit of the state as welfare quickly becomes a debate about who is undeserving rather than deserving – and whether that is immoral or simply unfair it is incredibly divisive.
In order to avoid this uncompromising reality a great many more young people are extending their education beyond secondary school whether it benefits them or not – with the explicit approval of the state. This expansion and elongation of education as such seeks to mitigate the risks of having too many unqualified jobseekers looking for the kinds of employment that now predominate in a post-industrial society (Bell, 1999). Thus creating a situation in which more and more young people are delaying their transition into work, or in the case of some idle PhD students postponing it altogether. That’s what work is for young people but let’s now ask what it can become.
Sociological debates concerning young people are underpinned by a normative understanding which views youth as inherently transitional; we ‘become’ someone. It is less common however to consider to what extent this ‘becoming’ is actually a cessation of something fundamental. Work when considered in a purely economic sense takes on a dutiful role, which gradually becomes apparent in young people’s perceptions of it (as I am finding quite distinctly in my own research). Given the political climate for this duty to be seen as something owed to the state as recompense for minimal benefits (Davies, 2014), it is perhaps time we asked whether our work and employment can extend to autonomous human activity, and increase the possibilities for individual self-fulfilment – or as the graffiti suggested, allow young people to take their future back.
I have attempted to approach this problem utilising a concept André Gorz refers to as the ‘dual society’. This is a conflict between the heteronomous and autonomous aspects of our lives and primarily concerns the distribution of work and the form and content of non-working time (Gorz, 1994). Gorz would argue that there isn’t a need to eliminate heteronomous control of work, but there is a need to delimit and subordinates its worst excesses in order to let the autonomous predominate. This was a fundamental concern of Marx, yet seems to be largely ignored by both his contemporary political advocates and those who espouse his name in sociology.
Gorz is often misrepresented as subscribing to a purely existential analysis, but with increased interest in ideas he pioneered in the social sciences like a Basic Citizen’s Income (BCI) there is now space to incorporate his analysis more widely. Our inability to gauge the value of activities and relationships which have neither economic worth nor societal utility, as exemplified by our resistance to the BCI, is in itself symptomatic of ‘the production of a world without sensory values and a hardened sensibility, which hardens thought in its turn’ (Gorz cited in Bowring, 1996). In essence we mitigate risk by simply withdrawing options altogether thereby giving primacy to the heteronomous aspects of our lives.
This is the future facing young people. The days of craftspeople have been replaced by a focus on human association and solving technical problems, so keenly articulated by Daniel Bell and Richard Sennett, to my mind the two great sociologists of the late 20th century. Customer service, a sector with the highest percentage of employees under the age of 25, requires workers to perform their task with enthusiasm and personal engagement with those they encounter. This lacks any thought or autonomy in one very expressive sense, but in a financially damaging one also. There is very little notion of building a career in these jobs or a ‘work identity’ which leaves participants without an attainable narrative of occupational development. We are introducing generations of young people to work by strangling any sense of freedom or creativity they might have…and we aren’t adequately remunerating them for it either – be it financially or in terms of sustainable opportunity.
Nothing reflects how we understand this problem, yet administer it in completely the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, than the 2010 coalition policy of the ‘Big Society’. Under the auspices of what has variously been referred to as civil society this was ‘a transfer of responsibility for meeting needs away from the public sector, to social enterprises, community groups, the private sector and individuals and families’ (North, 2011:2). This focus on community responsibility and a desire to create alternative services, is simply not present however when considered in regards to young people – and I have spent many interviews and days reading the research to find it. It is difficult to look at these outcomes and think anything other than autonomy is for those who can buy it (or be taxed adequately for it) but for everyone else and especially the young the whip hand remains raised.
If we continue to withhold the security of benefits, and postpone the autonomy of those young people who do work then I can safely say that twenty or thirty years from now this will no longer be an academic question but a serious threat to the prosperity of our youth. I hope at some point the government will take notice and that sociology will return to an understanding of work as the key site of social change – but I am not holding my breath.
Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Theory, Culture & Society. London, Sage.
Bell, D. (1999) The Coming of the Post Industrial Society. Basic Books, New York.
Davies, J. (2014) Rethinking Urban Power and the Local State: Hegemony, Domination and Resistance in Neoliberal Cities, Urban Studies, 51 (15), pp.3215-3232
Gorz, A. (1994) Capitalism, Socialism, and Ecology. Verso, London.
Bowring, F. (1996) Misreading Gorz, New Left Review, 217, pp. 102–122
North, P (2011) Geographies and utopias of Cameron’s Big Society. Social and Cultural Geography. 12 (8) pp. 1-11.