Boyadjieva, Pepka; Ilieva-Trichkova, Petya (2017). 'The (im)possible agency in a situation of early job insecurity: Patterns of young people’s active agency with regard to education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The youth unemployment is a largely spread phenomenon in Europe nowadays and although there are various initiatives to reduce it (e.g. Youth guarantee), its magnitude continues to be alarmingly high. Thus, unemployment rates among the young people are even double or more than double, than unemployment rates for all ages (Eurostat 2017). To a great extent these rates were boosted as a consequence of the economic crisis in 2008 and can be attributed to the widening of the inequalities of skills and living conditions across Europe and within European countries, putting at risk the group of young people, especially those with low levels of education and living in areas with low economic development. However, it seems that little is known about the influence of youth unemployment on young people’s scope for exercising active agency decisions (and resilience) with regard to their education.

Against this background, the present paper aims to explore how the situation of early job insecurity affects young people’s scope for exercising active agency (and resilience) with regard to the decisions about continuing and improving their education. Conceptually, this paper draws on theoretical underpinnings of the capability approach (CA). This approach is found appropriate for the present study given three reasons. First, the CA is sensitive to disadvantaged groups. Young people who have experienced early job insecurity may be accepted namely as such a group. Second, because the CA views people, even the poor ones, as active agents (Alkire 2009) and shifts the focus away from seeing a person as just a vehicle of well-being, ignoring the importance of the person’s own judgments and priorities, with which the agency concerns are linked (Sen 2009). Such understanding of agency stresses on people’s active role and their capacity to change and transform reality in accordance with their conception of the good even in cases when they suffer from disadvantage. Third, it offers a fruitful perspective for rethinking education and lifelong learning (Walker & Unterhalter 2007; Boyadjieva & Ilieva-Trichkova forthcoming).

In general, agency implies active role of people in all spheres of life including education. It is believed that agency cannot be defined except in relations to the goals (Alkire 2009). However, we argue that it can also be defined in relation to the mediating processes through which young people advance the realization of their goals. Against this background, we define active agency as the mediating processes (interaction with others), through which young people convert available resources into new prospects and scope for real choice with regard to their education. Each mediating process could include and result in different actions. Thus, given the importance of resources and capability inputs and their role of mediating the scope of active agency of the young people who experienced early job insecurity and the extent to which they managed to convert the resources and the capability inputs they had into agency achievements or not, we introduced two main criteria for identifying different patterns of the effects of the situation of early job insecurity on young people’s scope for exercising active agency (and resilience) with regard to education: 1) Whether and how the scope of active agency was converted into agency achievement and the young peoples’ goals were (non)realized in new prospects with regard to education? and 2) What are the essential mechanisms through which agency is possible in the situation of early job insecurity?

We used the above-outlined theoretical considerations and these two criteria as an analytical prism for reading and analyzing a set of 170 life course interviews with young people who experienced early job in-security from two birth cohorts (1990-1995 and 1970-1975), in total equally divided between men and women, in seven European countries: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom. These interviews were conducted in 2016 within the Horizon 2020 project NEGOTIATE. This project examines the long- and short-term consequences of experiencing job insecurity or labour market exclusion in the transition to adulthood and has developed the guidelines for the interviews largely based on the ideas and concepts from the CA.

The preliminary results verify the existence of several patterns (mechanisms) of the effects of the situation of early job insecurity on young people’s scope for exercising active agency. First, we differentiate between two groups of patterns – of realized and of impossible (not realized) agency. Second, within each one of the groups we identified the following concrete patterns: 1. Patterns of realized interactions with institutions and individuals: self-relying agency, institutionally enabled agency, informally enabled agency and social commitment enabled agency. Each one of the patterns of active agency leads to and is realized through different actions, such as going back to school to finish interrupted educational programme, enrolling in a higher than the already completed educational degree, enrolling in a different specialty, enrolling in a certified vocational programme, attending courses for acquiring transferable skills, work-place learning, purposeful informal learning, etc. 2. Patterns of non-realized interactions with institutions and individuals, which include the following three patterns: disoriented and unmotivated agency, hampered agency, and blocked agency.

The identified patterns represent ideal types in Weberian sense. The patterns indicate essential mechanisms through which agency is (im)possible in the situation of early job insecurity. The paper provides a description of the identified patterns and used them as a tool for grasping the scope of active agency of young people with diverse backgrounds who have experienced early job insecurity and how these people exercised their agency. The study also shows that the elaborated patterns of agency of young people in a situation of early job insecurity provide a basis for: i) comprehensive comparative analysis from different perspectives and ii) identifying points of intervention for overcoming early job insecurity among the youth across Europe.

The present paper contributes to further revealing the heuristic potential of CA and widening its scope of application by using it as a theoretical framework for studying possibilities for active agency, and thus empowering, of a specific vulnerable group in Europe – young people experiencing early job insecurity.

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