Youth making tracks. Winners and losers

20. November, 2001


Ilze Trapenciere

Ziņojums konferencē Veidojot pilsonisko kultūru Centrālās un Austrumeiropas valstīs,2001. gada 19. - 21. novembrī

One could agree with me that major life choices are made during youthood period. What is youth? Debate over this issue prolongs for centuries. We agree that youth is a socially constructed stage of life course. Youth typically does not have an established occupation and financial independence. Youth does not have stable political priorities and preferences. In this article we should analyze youth as young people within age group from 16 to 29. Of course, this is not a homogenous group, but includes at least three various and quite different stages of youthhood and transitional stages towards adulthood. At the late teens age crucial choices about future have to be made and transition to adulthood starts. These choices are not made in isolation. In the Baltic countries youth has to go through at least double transition: besides transition to adulthood everybody has to go through social, economical and political transitional period of the country. Not only social class, gender, place of residence and ethnicity influence young person’s future, but also changing social situation and relationships play a role in shaping aspirations, characterized by lower standard of living for one part of population and becoming rather rich for other. Here we should speak also about the youth resources during the double transition. Youth resources I understand as capital: economical capital, cultural and social capital, and emotional and family capital. Various forms of capital and accumulation of these forms of capital are rather important both at the starting position towards adult life and during the transition to adulthood, and through one’s adult life, as well.

On one hand, youth is a transitional category without stable position and stable attitudes, and is more dependent as any other age category. On the other hand, youth supports new technologies and further development. In this sense it is the backbone and value generator of the modern world.

General characteristics of youth in terms of capitals.

We may compare youth life and transition to adulthood with a track. By the concept of track we presume it as a way of focusing the effort on the young person for making his/her best way into society. Tracks refer to both the making of one’s own spoor (if, for example, comparing young person’s track with start in skiing competition) or career route when moving ahead and to the perspective for getting somewhere and/or making career in one’s own life. Here we focus on the engagement of the young individual in the making of his/her own life as integration into society and the role of various conditions in making one’s own life. By that we mean that the social contexts organize the individual career as the basis of track.

Young person uses societal conditions in the making of his/her own track, his/her meaningful activities and self understanding, and there are many social factors that influence the track or spoor (career) when going ahead. If speaking about young person’s integration into society in terms of skiing, a skier needs several things when choosing his/her own spoor and succeed in the competition (See Table 1).

Table 1. Start Capitals that influences youth integration and success into society

The model is rather simple.

Snow, sun, wind and other weather conditions are rather objective and necessary conditions or categories for a skier. Usually young person may not choose him/herself these objective conditions: when to start competition, chose better weather conditions and chose one’s own track. These are political, economical and social conditions of the country or appropriate regional development. In the context of transitional countries weather conditions are changing rapidly and it is impossible to predict will there be sun or wind behind the next hill. In this sense the importance of readiness to changing weather conditions plays great role and young person should be ready to compete. First, one needs appropriate equipment: good plastic skis, which are good for changing weather and snow conditions, costume and boots (economical capital). To participate in skiing competition or just cross-country skiing one needs also to know-how. Particularly, when the weather conditions are changing rapidly or are not favoring the skiing, one needs to be well trained to manage not only with ups and downs of hills, but also with rapidly changing weather conditions (social and cultural capital – education and training). Besides, one needs to have a strong will to climb the hill and to manage with difficulties (emotional capital – learned at early age in family). It is important to have a feeling of emotional support, friends around to feel more emotionally secure (emotional capital and social networks). Some track would favor women’s and some track will favor men’s competitiveness, although it seems that young men are more aggressive and stronger and have better chances to win.

For those experience in skiing in this particular or similar environment the skiing is easier than for those who have never experienced that: in some sense in labor market or higher education for the urban youth it is easier to compete than for rural youth. Both economical and social, and emotional capital plays significant role here.

To read the map or understand the signs quickly, one needs to understand the symbols on the track: dominating culture, knowledge of languages. In this sense it is not only the cultural and social capital. Here one could speak about the ethnic differences.

One might be interested to take another competition in hope that weather and skiing conditions will be better, the hills will not be so steep and the spoor will be nicer, and will be easier to be among winners. This we compare with the migration plans and reasons for migration.

Let’s start. Who participate in our competition and what about weather conditions? The competition is rather serious.

Do all young people have equal conditions and opportunities?

In 1991-2 in all the Baltic countries new legislation on compulsory education was adopted: since 1992 the duration of compulsory education was 9 years or age 7-15 (18) (instead of compulsory secondary education before 1992). This means that the average educational level is decreasing for the younger age group 15-19. Vocational training system also shows some decrease in the number of vocational schools and the number of students in the vocational training. In Latvia, for example, the number of enrolled students (per 10000 population) into the vocational training and special secondary education has decreased nearly for half in comparison with 1990. This means that on average the level of education is and will be higher for the age cohorts of 20-24 and 25-29 years old than for younger age cohort.

If comparing the political, social and economical situation in the Baltic countries in general, we see that Estonia is somehow better in economical terms, but all three countries show similar pattern of development. In general, changes going on in the society in all the Baltic countries have affected young people in several ways, giving more freedom, developing their activities. In this case changes have made young people more engaged and responsible about their own lives. It means that they have become participators in the making of their life tracks. Some young people have better opportunities, some not so favorable. (Plastic skis or wooden ones, for example). If opportunities are not so favorable, they may turn out against the individual. In this way, the opportunities of youth might create youth problems and problem youth.

Within each youth age group we have to differentiate those young people who became financially independent, by starting their own adult life. In this sense we should divide youthood into subgroups according to youth social status (and accordingly to their level of economical independence): (1) youth, that continues full time secondary education, (2) vocational school students and lower college students who receive stipends, (3) employees, (4) unemployed, (5) women on maternity leave. Marginalization of various subgroups young people happens in financial terms, within education, etc. Here, also family background pays a crucial role. Sociological surveys (2, 3, 6) show that many young people become losers in the competition. They lack necessary economical capital, skills for participation and they might become isolated from the peers.

Role of family background.

For the major part of youth their living and housing conditions are based on the living and housing conditions of their parents’ family. In this sense family is the factor that should be analyzed first. Studies (2, 3, 6) show that youth have better chances if coming from a full family, family members having regular job and income. Also parents’ educational level is a rather significant factor. The NORBALT study (1994, 1999) confirms that more youth from full families are in education. When characterizing living conditions in the Baltic countries in general, HBS (7) show a growing polarization in between the poorest and the richest quintile. In general, welfare is becoming a priority of small groups and some sort of poverty line is a reality for families with several children (in the poorest quintile 40% are households with children).

The importance of family background for young people is increasing in access to human capital, economical, cultural and social capital. Family background or the conditions for mastering the problems of youth life is significant factor in Latvia, but not in the sense that young person may overcome all youth problems if she or he comes from a good family. The family may help youth integration into society and youth from educated homes may expect more financial, economical and psychological support from their parents.

If youth economical situation does not improve drastically, soon we would speak about explanation of poverty in terms of individual cultural handicap or about marginal inefficiency in the functioning of life chance distribution among youth.

On one hand, to become more competent in the modern world, more young people all over the industrial world stay in education for a longer period of time. On the other hand, several problems emerge. Because of unemployment and restricted means for further education low skilled or low educated young people experience problems in getting a job. At present they have no possibilities for further education or job, or speaking in terms of skiing track – shortage of track. The main channels of that are:

  • Leaving school, without graduating from basic education,
  • Graduating from general education, without skills and training,
  • Very young women with children.

Differentiation and polarization process within youth shows the importance of social capital in gaining one’s occupational and social status during the transitional process.

Employment and unemployment.

Young people are in vulnerable position in the labor market. Of the working young people, every third does not feel secure about their work position (See Table 2). We have to admit here that majority of the working youth (aged 16-19) has not completed secondary education that has been compulsory until 1992. When analyzing the most vulnerable groups in employment security respect within different age groups we see that young people in Latvia feel the most insecure. In Lithuania the general unemployment risk is probably somehow lower but younger groups seem to be the most vulnerable there, too. Estonian data show opposite picture: youth seems to be in more secure position than older age groups.

Table 2. Fears to loose job


Unemployment is closely correlated with levels of educational attainment. Youth unemployment in the Baltic countries is most heavily concentrated on those who only received up to 8 years of education, and declines consistently as the level of educational participation and attainment increase. For the less qualified, unemployment rates are much higher for women than for men whilst for the most qualified and educated the rates of unemployment are similar.

Among the unemployed are those with the poorest resources:

  • many of them could be regarded as educational failures;
  • many already have parental responsibilities;
  • many have suffered the effects of some other social disadvantage at home;
  • many of them have started vocational training but have given up.

There are two basic theories concerning the effects of youth unemployment: youth unemployment would create an explosion in the form of either radicalism or complete passivity. More concrete effects of youth unemployment are possible: unemployment might result in work shyness, alcoholism, delinquency, quickly developing mental disorders, forming of deviant subcultures, general rejection of common norms and values, etc. (4) Marienthal study from 1930s describes that unemployment causes social isolation, passivity, increasing difficulties in family relations and mental problems. It is problematic to generalise these findings for present day unemployment in the Baltic countries that have not experienced unemployment during decades.

Some other findings generalize that youth unemployment also causes criminal behavior, increasing consumption of alcohol (Kuusi, 1978). According to the NORBALT study (2, 6), unemployed young men eat less healthy, use more alcohol and take a minor interest in social life and politics than young men working or studying.

It is commonly believed that youth unemployment causes passivity, isolation and decrease in general social activities, and increasing alcohol consumption. The study gives an insight on the level of activities. Unemployed young people are less involved in physical activities and any social or political activities. NORBALT study shows that affiliation with youth organizations correlate with education (less educated are more likely to be outside youth organizations), age (the youngest are more passive) and sex (girls are more passive than boys).

Social networks.

Women tend to have more people in their networks, to have more contacts within orientation family and friends, to have a larger variety of relationships, to have more frequent contact with their network members, and also to receive support from multiple sources than do men. Women take responsibility of old parents, and other members of their networks.

Social networking is more intensive in rural areas than in big cities. Family networking is particularly more frequent for those living in the country with parents than for migrants. Here the question of distance, money and visa plays dominating role.

In the cities and towns social networks of young people are generally related to friendship ties, based on school friendships or after school activities and less on neighborhood. However, other study show that majority of young people have strong friendship ties (Pranka, 1997). Socializing with friends take majority of leisure time for the younger age cohorts of less educated youth.

In rural areas, majority of social networking is neighborhood based.

Social activities and political involvement.

A feeling that a common person is excluded from power persists. In Latvia more than half of young people are of that opinion. The explanation for this would not be only low rate of political involvement. They feel excluded because of the dissatisfaction regarding existing politics concerning youth issues, employment politics, etc.

Another justification for the feeling of non-participation in the political life seems to be the dissatisfaction regarding increasing poverty.

Political party system is developing in the Baltic countries and rather few young people are eager to participate there. Emerging multiparty system has an amorphous nature and the developing democracy seems to be forever changing, with parties appearing, splitting, dissolving and merging. As such, efforts directed at image building by political organizations in the Baltics are simultaneously undermined by the identity crises that accompany this process.

Traditionally, two indicators measure organized activity of young people: the percentage of those belonging to some organization and the frequency of participation in organized activities (organized participation).

Majority of young people do not belong to any social or political organization. If, for example, in 1985, the youth affiliation to the main official youth organization Komsomol was voluntary free and the affiliation reached 80%. Nowadays the situation is quite different: young people are rather passive. About 97% of young people do not belong to any youth or any other formal organization. This does not, however, mean that all the young people are socially isolated. Social interaction takes place among many informal groups. As written somewhere else most common way of using one’s leisure time is meeting friends in a small non-formal friends group consisting of few friends (1995).

Youth life is, of course, an individual challenge, but it is a challenge which is affected and directed by different social and material conditions. (In this making of the individual track youth democratic and associative participation has become a central life condition.)

Young winners.

Now we have shortly followed the track of young people and let us see who the winners are and who are the losers (or those who have advantages to become winners). The winners will be those who:

  • Have well situated two parents (middle class entrepreneurs, new rich). These are also the only children. In other terms, the potential winners would be those with higher economical capital;
  • Have gained better education, better manners, language skills (those with higher resources of social and cultural capital);
  • Living in the city.

In general, we could say that there are not large differences between young people of different nationalities. There are young people with high resources among all the ethnic groups, and also those with poor resources are among all ethnic groups.

Integration into the society will be definitely easier for those with better resources and higher economical, social and cultural capital. As the starting positions of young people are becoming more and more differentiated, it seems that also the status of winner or loser will be more dependent of various capitals of young people.

1. Helve, H., Bynner, J. (1996), Youth and Life Management. Research Perspectives. Helsinki University Press.
2. A.Aasland (ed.), (1995), Living Conditions in Latvia, Riga.
3. I.Koroleva, R.Rungule, S.Sebre, I.Trapenciere (1999) Latvijas jaunatnes socioloģisks portrets, Rīga
4. Siurala, L. (1982) Effects of Youth Unemployment, Helsinki School of Economics
5. Titma et al (eds), (1995) Youth Path of Life, Minsk.
6. E.Vaskis (Ed.), (2001) Living Conditions in Latvia – II, Rīga, CSP.
7. E.Vaskis, (2001) Nabadzības indikatori, 2001., Rīga, CSP
8. M.Pranka (1998) The role of Social networks.
9. Mājsaimniecības budžeta apsekojumi, 1995. – 2000. raksts

Creative commons licence allows you to republish the content for free, with no change or improvement. Reference to the author and providus.Lv is required. Please support us with your donation!