Double helix of employability and precariousness in EU youth policy discourses

This blog post is a simplified summary of an academic paper, that we have written with Dr. Karen Pashby and Assoc. Prof. Kristiina Brunila. Original article is in review.

The global financial crisis that started in 2008 hit young people in Europe especially hard, causing mass youth unemployment that lasted for several years.  This low rate of youth unemployment became a major concern in the European Union and to tackle this ‘youth problem’, the EU governing bodies responded with multiple policy initiatives (for example, the Youth Guarantee). With the help of so called ‘soft’ governing methods introduced in the Lisbon Strategy these policy initiatives have been implemented in most EU member states. These policy initiatives affect the vast majority of young people living in EU member states, and their background assumptions and discourses need to be analysed. To do so, as a part of my Ph.D research project about policies and practises targeting young people seen ‘at risk’ of  social exclusion and marginalisation, we analysed European Commission and Council documents related to young people with a focus on 1) identifying the discourses that are evident in the EU policy steering, 2) tracing how these discourses construct a particular truth about young people, and 3) detecting how they become taken for granted and ultimately hegemonic in current policy as part of an encompassing neoliberal ethos. Main question was, what are the norms and ideals towards which young people are been steered.

In the EU, youth policies are executed and determined under ‘soft governing’, mainly with the policy mechanism called the Open Method of Coordination (OMC). OMC was originally introduced in Lisbon strategy at year 2000 and is by definition a ‘soft governing’ system for promoting and executing goals set by both the EU Council and the Commission. OMC works through 1) Setting goals for member-states by The European Commission, 2) Creating reference tools to reach pre-defined benchmarks, 3) establishing ways to communicate and change experiences between member states 4) making conclusions about best practices, and 5) recommending future action based on previous information. The distinctive feature in the OMC is the promotion of deregulation, and creating governing solutions where private and non-governmental organizations are invited to be a part in the decision-making on local levels.

Although the worry of young people and their participation to society was raised in EU policies far before the financial crises, after 2008 and following mass youth unemployment intensified that worry to unforeseen levels. Measures and initiatives to tackle youth unemployment followed: most notably the European Commission and Council launched specific youth policies, such as the Youth Guarantee  and Youth Employment Initiative. Both of these initiatives were directed at addressing the consequences of the recession and mass youth unemployment, and were implemented in EU member states through OMC. We have argued along with other researchers, that that OMC gives legitimation to neoliberal way of arranging government – that is arranging governing based on ideals of free competition, freedom of choice and deregulation. This is especially the case with areas, that used to be sole responsibility of individual nation-states—such as education, social policy and youth policy. These policies and their implementation has led to a promotion and cultivation of neoliberal rationality and individuality, mainly through different short-term education and training projects and programmes.

Under neoliberalist ethos, the role of policy and governing in general has shifted from legislation towards providing opportunities for markets and economic principles to operate. From this point of view, neoliberalism works as a rationality that considers young people as a flexible resource, that can be both invested in and made self-responsible for their opportunities in the markets of life. Neoliberal governing in youth policies has led to a situation, where previously political issues, such as social welfare, employment and education, are constantly de-politicizing, and where decision making relies on seemingly neutral and measurable economic reasoning, benchmarking and best practices. Governing this way relies on hegemonization of certain discourses – ways of repeating language and speech around certain issues and subjects in a way, that works as both legitimation and means to implement certain policies.

Based on both previous research and results of this research project, two discourses seem to be hegemonic – or in other words self-evident and seemingly neutral – in current European youth policy discussion: discourses of employability and discourses of precariousness. Employability of individuals is often presented as a key to accessing the labour market and addressing issues like social exclusion. Although employability has multiple definitions, in policy steering it has been defined in a narrow sense— either as different skill-sets, characteristics or qualifications enabling movement within and into labour markets, or as an individual quality or character of being employable. Employability is constructed through a focus on what is assumed to be lacking in terms of skills and policies for today’s knowledge-based or post–industrial societies. These include flexibility, adaptability, and willingness to develop and educate oneself constantly. In its policy use, increasing individuals’ employability is introduced as a solution to varieties of different social problems, including unemployment, social exclusion and marginalization, and understood this way it works as a tool for forging social cohesion.

Employability as concept is closely related to and intertwined with the concept of precariousness. Precariousness of work life and precarious ways of existing mean insecure and volatile human situations that are linked to the labour market dynamics. Precariousness itself is not a new concept, but its use has intensified after the global financial crises at 2008 when the amount of people living with insecure employment on increased on a global scale.  Precariousness of young people is no longer perceived as a phenomenon of ‘exception’, but instead is in the midst of a process of normalisation, especially in western societies.

We found that in EU youth policy, discourses of employability and precariousness seem to form a ‘double helix’, or in other words they work in alliance as a mutually reinforcing discourses promoting and constructing neoliberal rationality. By this we mean that discourses of employability seem to work from the assumption that young peoples’ labour market options are precarious. This, in turn means that individuals’ employability must be enhanced in order to mitigate the risk of unemployment and future precariousness. In EU policy settings this produces the assumption that young people with different skills for employment are constantly competing in scarce labour markets and thus for individuals to manage and cope individuals’ employability skills must be constantly enhanced, measured and evaluated. As a result, in the state of constant competition individuals’ situations grow more uncertain and even more precarious than before. Discourses of precariousness and employability construct ‘at risk’ as a constant condition for all young people; preparing oneself to survive precarious conditions is seen as a requirement for a productive life.

We would also suggest based on our analysis, that the financial crisis and its aftermath provided an opportunity to introduce the neoliberal ethos about competition, individual responsibility for one’s future and the need to develop oneself constantly through emergence and hegemonization of discourses of young people ‘at risk’, employability, and the precariousness of labour markets. A significant implication of this trend is that systemic issues including poverty and discrimination arise as extra deficits that individual skill-development and vague ‘investment to human capital’ can solve.


Katariina Mertanen, Karen Pahsby, Kristiina Brunila