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Sitra Trends: inequality set to grow

Debate, research or action? Jukka Reivinen addresses the question of how best to address the growing social exclusion of young people...



This series of articles – Sitra Trends – reviews the trends listed by Sitra during October 2014, from a variety of perspectives. This article is the fourth in the series.

The debate on rising social inequality has once again taken centre stage, and research has shown that the social exclusion of young people is one of the Finnish public’s greatest concerns. How should we address this issue: through more discussion, research or action?

The social exclusion of children and young people has been the focus of several discussions among political decision-makers, professionals working with children and young people, and researchers and citizens. This issue has also risen up the agendas of policymakers, alongside demands for rapid action to resolve it.  Within the research community, concern is growing about the narrow scope of action favoured by political players, as well as political populism and the oversimplified and mechanical approach being taken to complex phenomena. The crisis facing the public finances and the need to reduce social costs may also have added fuel to the fire in these discussions, in which the emphasis has been placed on the financial implications of social problems. This favours a viewpoint which reduces the individual to an economic unit measured and valued on the basis of social costs and work output or lost work output.

Individual “moral panics”, such as familicide, school shootings and rising youth unemployment may also have contributed to the intensity of the debate. The discussion has been dominated by the idea of a mounting crisis and growing threat, rather than the notion of providing all citizens with an equal opportunity to lead a worthwhile and valuable life, or of taking a positive attitude to the future. Experiences recounted less often about children and young people, such as school bullying, loneliness and the lack of future prospects or having no sense of belonging, have often been overshadowed in the media by more sensational issues.

The discussion on young people’s well-being has run aground on the “rocks” formed by the difficulty of arriving at a clear definition of their well-being. What criteria should we use for determining whether a young person is marginalised or a child is at risk of social exclusion, and to what extent are such criteria relative, culturally determined or contextual? And then there is the question of the impartiality and possible motives underlying any criteria used. To what extent is defining social exclusion dependent on an individual’s personal perception of his or her status or ability to have an impact, based on either conscious or pre-determined choices, or a level of anomie that is already a fact? Or are society’s expectations and consensus on how one should live one’s life, or its understanding of what individuals owe to the community, of overriding importance?

Reams of statistics and research data are available on young people and their circumstances, attitudes and future prospects.  The Council of Youth Affairs has been publishing an annual Youth Barometer since 1994; in more recent years, this has been drawn up in co-operation with the Youth Research Network. The council, network and the National Institute for Health and Welfare have been jointly publishing the Young People’s Living Conditions Yearbook since 2001. Over the years, the theme of social exclusion has been discussed in several volumes belonging to these publication series. In the 2012 Young People’s Living Conditions Yearbook, Sami Myllyniemi and Mika Gissler note that the marginalisation and risk of social exclusion cannot be measured as such; to produce measurable parameters, the related information needs to be set within an operational context. However, the selected parameters can produce highly divergent views of the quality and scope of the phenomenon in question.

The categories, limits and the institutional nature of statistics can also lead to “statistical exclusion”. In his review “Hukassa – keitä ovat syrjäytyneet nuoret?”, Pekka Myrskylä reports that, according to statistics produced in 2010, the number of marginalised young people aged between 15 and 29 totalled 51,341 (approx. 5% of the age group). Such young people are not in post-secondary education and do not have a place of study or a job. Of this group, 32,511 young people (approximately 3% of the age group) have not registered as unemployed job seekers and nothing is therefore known about them. Myrskylä calls this group the “hard core” of marginalised young people. Without meaning to downplay the problems these young people are possibly, perhaps probably, facing, we might ask what percentage of this number reflects a genuine social problem and what proportion can be attributed to technical limitations or statistical anomalies?

However, despite the problems involved in defining social exclusion and the assumptions built into the criteria selected, the public debate has mainly focused on social exclusion from education and the labour market – the most typical and easily identified and measured institutional points of social integration. By no means is social exclusion a binary “yes/no” phenomenon; it is a continuum, a complex process in which an individual gradually drifts beyond the reach of institutions. Feelings of being an outsider, inadequacy and detachment from society can lead to problems in finding employment and have various socio-economic effects, such as health inequality. Such processes can be cyclical, self-perpetuating and reinforcing. While there is certainly more than one way to lead a good and satisfactory life, involuntary drifting towards the margins is not in the best interests of the individual or society.

Society’s reactions

The year 2013 saw the publication of three summative and extensive reviews on the topic of social exclusion among children and young people (Ristolainen et al. 2013; Sipilä and Österbacka 2013; Notkola et al. 2013). In addition, at the end of its term of office the Advisory Board on the Health and Welfare of Children of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health published a review of the state of services for children, young people and families, and recommendations for the further development of such services (Pelkonen et al. 2013). Last year, the working group on effective child protection also completed its work (Kananen et al. 2013).

It is noteworthy that all of the above-mentioned reviews were commissioned by national political actors (Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Finance, Parliament of Finland’s Audit Committee, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health). Since the work was conducted by eminent researchers and experts from Finland, we can be certain that sufficient expertise was applied. It is highly likely that the agencies commissioning the reviews set a well-defined framework; naturally, this affects the perspective adopted by the results in each case. Since the focus was on Finland, only a limited amount of international benchmarking was included. This may be justifiable on the grounds that an international perspective would have required a much more comprehensive and in-depth analysis of individual cases, as well as cross-cultural comparisons of cultural and system-related practices.

Nearly all of the reviews present similar proposals for further development, some at a general level and others in more detail. The proposals include demands for the better co-ordination of services for children, young people and families and the creation of a one-stop shop service concept; recognition of the need for customised services; greater multi-professionalism among the relevant actors; foregrounding of the responsibility of municipalities (albeit that they are currently experiencing financial difficulties); prevention and early intervention rather than corrective measures; and more impact assessments (cost analyses) of various practices.

The paradoxical nature of the situation is highlighted by the fact that, despite broad recognition of what should be done, the political will to engage in a complete structural overhaul is lacking, the required changes are too difficult in political terms or individual actors fail to intercommunicate, or actively pull in opposite directions.

There is no overall view or co-ordination. In the name of performance management, administrative duties have been scattered among fragmented business units. The resulting customer/service-provider configuration has led to partial optimisation and short-termism. Lack of co-ordination of the overall impact has led to a situation in which, wherever it has been possible to rattle the customer from pillar to post (i.e. from one administrative sector to another) such an unfortunate procedure has been viewed as the best option.

Extremely limited and short-term resourcing may also have contributed to creating an approach that is utterly unfit for purpose. As Matti Rimpelä points out, these young people begin with a negative attitude towards society. Municipal framework budgets and savings favour firefighting and retrospective and problem-based measures over a preventive approach. Resource-starved local authorities provide only those services which they are absolutely required to. Framework budgeting algorithms take no account of the cost impacts of preventive measures. Can well-being and social exclusion services be based on a system which scrutinises service use and prices only, while ignoring service impact?

And so the world is changing

The social exclusion of children and young people cannot be resolved in isolation from the rest of society and its trends and developments. Social inequality is increasing, equal opportunities are little more than a pipe dream and the socio-economic consequences of this, such as differences in health and well-being, and even life expectancy, have grown (Aittomäki et al. 2014). As a Nordic welfare society, by global comparison Finland does well in many respects. However, current trends are nevertheless a cause for concern.

Now more than ever, while the majority of the population has the material basis for freedom of action, some people are struggling just to make ends meet. The number of children living in poor families has increased since the post-recession years of the 1990s – almost tripling between 1995 and 2007. Poverty among such children has proven to be a risk factor affecting life management skills later on (Salmi et al. 2009). The evidence also suggests a strong tendency for economic disadvantage to be inherited. Post-secondary studies, working life orientation and ambition tend to run in the family. One’s level of education – or rather lack thereof – is the key risk factor in terms of dropping out. Socio-economic differences are not the only risk factor involved in social exclusion, but income differences do matter.

People are not born at working age; neither is there any intention, at least for the time being, of seeing people end their lives while still part of the labour force. We should therefore avoid thinking of young people as no more than future adults of working age. Children, young people, working-age adults and older people should primarily be regarded as full members of society rather than as producers or consumers, or as homo economicus set against GDP. After all, society adds up to much more than an economically optimal system.

This begs the question of why discussions on the social exclusion of young people continue to be based on a “campaign-centric” idea of saving them and getting them back on track. Whatever their impact, individual small-scale projects and schemes tend to hog the limelight in bursts of momentary publicity. But even successful practical trials can be wound up with no attempt to apply them more broadly, or such activities are restricted in scope from the outset. The wait for more effective co-ordination continues.

Today’s young people were born into a more complex world that is changing more quickly than ever. We are living through an active phase of globalisation that is radically changing aspects of life such as work and the related requirements. While the physical labour requirement will reduce, an emphasis will be placed on the need for special skills and a multi-talented approach. General uncertainty will increase and life will become fragmented and less predictable.

At the same time, competition is being lauded as the prime arbiter in life and a culture has sprung up in which success is worshipped. Being ordinary and average is no longer sufficient to justify one’s place and earn the approval of the community. A culture based on cohesion and collective responsibility has fallen out of fashion. This easily leads to feelings of inadequacy. Individuality as a cultural ideal, freedom of choice as a norm and an end in itself and too much responsibility for one’s personal choices too early in life can prove too much for many young people.

Freedom of choice and taking responsibility for one’s choices and their consequences can also have a positive outcome, if young people are given the tools they need to make the right choices and if the basic foundations of their lives are in place. Combined with much more strictly defined social norms, the ambivalent nature of freedom (is it to be understood as “freedom from” or the “freedom to do” something?) raises a fundamental question: Do individuals become marginalised, or does the system marginalise them?

What next? – The challenges facing society and research

In supporting children and young people, the primary goal must be to support families, homes and other growth environments, rather than simply focusing on identifying young people at risk of social exclusion. Classification of young people as marginalised or at risk of marginalisation may include a risk of stigmatisation which, at worst, could further lessen their chances of standing on their own two feet. Constructive follow-up measures are therefore always required.

At its best, targeted support also requires a broader understanding of who are truly the key adults in a child’s life. In practice, supporting the mother must be the primary objective. If the parents or other adults close to the child lack what it takes to cope with everyday life, a growing child or young person may lack the required support or protection during key stages of growth, or when life becomes difficult.

The old flight-safety idea of placing the oxygen mask on your own face first and only then on that of the child sitting next to you, is an excellent reminder of what is required here. Finding the strength to care. We need less diagnosis and more support – a clear change in the discourse from pathology to positivity. We cannot continue with the strict “we will report all thefts to the police” attitude.

Preventive action includes the provision of universal services, but this must leave room for customised support, particularly for parents and young people who have not been dealt the best hand in life. A recent topic of public discussion has focused on the idea of demanding something in return for social security, which has been renamed “participative social security” in this context. The idea is that, in return for welfare payments, there must be a certain proven impact in terms of improved life management skills among the potential target group. However, the motivation for such changes must not be hardening attitudes or moralistic social categorisation based on disapproval of “freeloading”.

Making benefits conditional will not help people, who are already in difficulty and lacking life management skills, to get to grips with their lives. Peer groups as a tool for enhancing the social inclusion of individuals and as support in life planning are more effective than top-down carrots and sticks, or should we say “sticks only”. The interface between intervention and support and individual responsibility needs to be based on a well-informed perspective on the carrying capacity of both society and the welfare recipient. This is not a question of earned rights and responsibilities. There is a great deal of political debate on this topic at the moment.

What role does research play in this? The three broad-based reviews mentioned earlier surveyed measures and practices targeted at the prevention of social exclusion (Ristolainen et al. 2013; Sipilä and Österbacka 2013; Notkola et al. 2013). All three reviews note that there is next to no research data on the impact of activities aimed at preventing social exclusion. While several small-scale or national experimental practices may be having an impact, no systematic method exists for studying their effect. The reason for this may lie in the impact assessment dilemma: the difficultly in clearly defining what is being measured and how. Perceptions of the possible impact of measures are often based on the individual, subjective opinions of experts. This represents a major challenge for future research on the topic. Another, almost equal challenge lies ahead in terms of our political system; in what ways can or will such research data be used in decision-making?

The world is globalising, whether we like it or not. But this is no reason for fatalism. Perhaps Finland is not suffering from a “mental sustainability gap”, but from excessive fatalism concerning the continuous and intensifying requirement to adapt – to fit into an externally created framework whose narrowness we ourselves have overestimated. New proactive and constructive practices will never arise from such an overly constrained approach, which will merely encourage us to turn in ever decreasing circles.

A sustainable, stable and healthy society must be based on a feeling common to all of its members, whether young or old, that their contribution is meaningful and that they form part of their community. “Simple, small steps” thus includes a culture of acceptance that does not demand any more, from citizens of all ages, than they are able to give. This applies to education, working life and any other aspect of society, as well as living within and being an active member of a community. A certain amount of social cohesion is required to maintain the bonds that hold a society together. This makes the prospect of any increase in distrust between sections of society truly worrying.

Further reading (in Finnish):

Autio Minna, Eräranta Kirsi and Myllyniemi Sami (eds.): Polarised youth?, Young People’s Living Conditions Yearbook 2008, Youth Research Network/Finnish Youth Research Society, publication 84; Council of Youth Affairs, publication 38; Finland’s National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health (Stakes), Helsinki 2008.

Kananoja Aulikki, Oranen Mikko and Lavikainen Marjo: Toimiva lastensuojelu. Working Group final report, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Reports and Working Group Memorandums 2013:19.

Myllyniemi Sami (ed.): Basic Value Estimations, Youth Barometer 2007, Council of Youth Affairs, publication 37; Youth Research Network/Finnish Youth Research Society, publication 79, Helsinki 2007.

Myllyniemi Sami (ed.): Welfare and well-being, Youth Barometer 2012, Youth Research Network/Finnish Youth Research Society, publication 127; Council of Youth Affairs, publications 46, Helsinki 2012.

Myllyniemi Sami and Gissler Mika, p. 68-69, in Pekkarinen Elina, Vehkalahti Kaisa and Myllyniemi Sami (eds.): Lapset ja nuoret instituutioiden kehyksissä, Young People’s Living Conditions Yearbook 2012, Youth Research Network/Finnish Youth Research Society, publication 131, National Institute of Health and Welfare, Council of Youth Affairs, Helsinki 2012.

Myrskylä Pekka: Hukassa – keitä ovat syrjäytyneet nuoret? EVA Analyysi No 19, Elinkeinoelämän valtuuskunta 2012.

Notkola Veijo, Pitkänen Sari and Tuusa Matti (eds.): Nuorten syrjäytyminen – Tietoa, toimintaa ja tuloksia? Parliament of Finland Audit Committee publications 1/2013, Parliament of Finland 2013.

Pelkonen Marjaana, Hakulinen-Viitanen Tuovi, Hietanen-Peltola Marke and Puumalainen Taneli (eds.): Hyvinvointia useammille – lasten ja nuorten palvelut uudistuvat. Lasten ja nuorten terveyden ja hyvinvoinnin neuvottelukunnan loppuraportti, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health Reports and Working Group Memorandums 2013:36, Helsinki 2013.

Rimpelä Matti: Nuorten syrjäytyminen politiikan, toiminnan ja tutkimuksen haasteena; Mitä voimme oppia lähihistoriasta? Presentation at the annual SKIDI-KIDS seminar organised by the Academy of Finland “Syrjäytymistä ja hyvinvointia – kuka määrittelee ja kenen ehdoilla?” on 22 May 2013 in Tampere.

Ristolainen Heidi, Varjonen Sampo and Vuori Jukka: What do we know about the effectiveness of policy measures in reducing social exclusion and welfare differences among children and young people? A review and assessment of the effectiveness of policy measures, Prime Minister’s Office Reports 2/2013.

Salmi Minna, Sauli Hannele and Lammi-Taskula Johanna: Lapsiperheiden toimeentulo, in: Lammi-Taskula Johanna, Karvonen Sakari and Ahlström Salme (eds.): Lapsiperheiden hyvinvointi 2009, National Institute of Health and Welfare, 2009.

Sipilä Jorma and Österbacka Eva: Enemmän ongelmien ehkäisyä, vähemmän korjailua? Perheitä ja lapsia tukevien palvelujen tuloksellisuus ja kustannusvaikuttavuus, Ministry of Finance publications 11/2013

Published earlier in this series:

Skills will challenge information

Stable employment becoming a thing of the past

Power relationships will shift


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