chapter  2
25 Pages


The processes by which young people make the transition to adulthood have

been the subject of attention from governments and social scientists alike since

the „discovery‟ of adolescence in the late 19th Century (Coté and Allahar 1995: xiii) and the subsequent emergence of „youth‟ as a phase in the life cycle. Mainstream approaches to youth transitions have traditionally rested on two common

sense assumptions, both of which stem from a combination of psycho-biological

conceptions of adolescence and structural-functionalist theories of social sys-

tems. First, youth is a period of irresponsibility in which proper attitudes and

values are formed and fixed (Parsons 1966: 92), such that young people require

a variety of institutional forms of adult guidance – formalized systems such as schools and specialized youth services, for example – in order to ensure their effective integration into adult society (Smith 1983). Second, since young people are regarded as sharing a set of common biological and psychological

characteristics, youth has historically been seen as a unitary category (Coté and Allahar 1995: 5-7), understandings of which have downplayed social divisions within youth in favour of the presumed commonality of its experience. In turn,

these common sense notions of youth irresponsibility and youth as a unitary

category have underpinned a tendency in mainstream (positivist, empiricist)

studies to explain the failure of youth transitions to function smoothly through a

combination of institutional and individual dysfunction. That is, problems

stemming from the economic sphere (a lack of employment opportunities) have

been located simultaneously in schools (which fail to make young people em-

ployable) and in young people (who render themselves unemployable). Accordingly, while institutionalist literatures have focused on various remedial meas-

ures aimed at overcoming the shortcomings of education systems in preparing

youth for work (active labour market policies, vocational training programmes

and careers guidance services, for example), psychological and sociological

literatures have often constructed „cultural deficit‟ models in attempts to explain why some young people appear better equipped for the labour market than

others (for a discussion, see Griffin 1993: 27-61).