Why it's a bad time to be young

8th October 2004 at 01:00
THE CHANGING STATE OF YOUTH. By Phil Mizen. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-73950-7, pound;17.99

Every older generation bewails the state of today's youth, but this book concludes that it really has become tougher to be young now, at least for most young people.

As the author says, "this is a bleak assessment" but his case is sustained through chapters on key aspects of the state of youth starting with education. How today's young people became the most tested generation ever is related to the changing state of work, the subject of the next chapter, which covers the insecurities of entering the new "flexible" labour market.

This links to the next chapter, on social security. Here underqualified youth are matched with deskilled labour through the introduction of workfare-style benefits, conditional upon attendance at a "provider of learning and skills". Exclusion from waged work enforces prolonged dependence upon families but, as Mizen shows, the changing state of the family means many are less able to bear this burden. Consequently, "The changing state of law and order" details familiar figures such as the 10-fold increase in youth offending from 1955 to 1990.

The chapter also traces the state's response with curfews, tagging and "the most rapid growth in the custody of young people in British history".

What is to be done about all this? It is one of Mizen's arguments that the failure of welfare policies led successive governments to distance themselves from responsibility for them by turning to a new market-driven state.

But New Labour has not "simply tried to ape the exclusionary politics of youth evident in the monetarist strategy" nor has it returned to Old Labour's "traditional strategy of inclusiveness".

Instead, the "joined-up" policies of the social exclusion unit have reinforced "age as an important means of division, one which allows government to manage social relations in ways that obscure those forces that are ultimately responsible for determining the structure of contemporary social life".

Here, Mizen is having a pop at academic youth studies that announce a postmodern fragmentation of "youth" into the shards of individual experience. But he is also indicating a practical way forward that starts with "refusing to mimic the political imposition of divisions through age and the arbitrary separation of the fortunes of young people from those of their families and communities."

The sharp argument and concise summaries in this book make it valuable reading for all 'providers of learning and skills' to "angry and defrauded youth".

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