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by John Bynner and Walter R. Heinz
26th March 2021

In times of unprecedented economic and political turbulence, young people face multiple challenges in shaping their transition to adulthood. The impact of digitalisation on identity needs to be seen, in the context of rising social inequality, as lying at the interface of social structure and agency in young people’s lives.

This tends to be manifested in their experience of education, training, employment, family life and political participation. Furthermore, in today’s world there needs to be an additional focus on the effects of digitalisation, fragile European Union institutions, Brexit, material and mental stress arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-present shadow of climate change. Systemic challenges for national and European youth policy also reveal the special importance of social media and the resources young people need to actively shape their life at critical turning points.

Guided by studies of young people’s lives in England and Germany we can see how economic, political and cultural change in the 21st century has affected the social contexts and outcomes of the pathways young people take in becoming adults. In referring to the European Union’s youth policy, the distribution of resources and youth unemployment needs to be documented, in terms of social justice and its consequences in everyday experience.

A core issue is how social class, digitalisation and national differences in welfare policies are influencing young people’s access to education and professions. To what extent are the institutional arrangements that structure the routes to adulthood a crucial mechanism in the distribution of life chances? Are young people’s prospects dependant on the extent to which participation in the political process is promoted and taken seriously, including the mobilisation of campaigns via the internet? Since pre-existing social injustice is becoming more visible in the effects of the pandemic on youth transitions, do young people have enough of a voice in developing strategies for recovery?

To understand young people’s achievements, worries and dilemmas – and their causes – families need to incorporate identity and agency in their communication and direction. The construction of identity from social encounters has become difficult in the digital age. Identity –capturing individual differences beginning in childhood and tending to stabilise in the teens – lays the foundations of adulthood, but depends on the individual’s social, educational and occupational experience.

Here education and training play an important role in building skills and capability in young adults’ identity. However, their development is characterised in today’s times by a fast-moving leisure culture, closely if not exclusively linked to the internet, complicated by uncertain job and educational opportunities. A further complication has been the speed of digitalisation, and the current restrictions and uncertain timescale of the COVID-19 recovery. Effects on family life and living standards have been unevenly distributed, with an ever-widening impact on social inequality. For example, working from home and pursuing schoolwork from home both require suitable equipment which tends to be available only to the better-educated families.

Increasing rates of emotional and mental illness among young people have been one of the unexpected and most disturbing consequences of the recent pandemic.

In such a situation the exercise of personal agency in searching for solutions requires the mobilisation of resources within the family and in the wider community. Networking via social media brings its own challenges, demanding vigilance, honesty and avoidance of deception. Such prescriptions extend to counter parts in family functioning in which parents can both share tips and learn from their young people about how to avoid the perils of fake news.

The building of agency underlines in a broader sense the central role of education and training in a digital society and the need for new thinking in its delivery and content. Because of the ever- accelerating technical transformation, such development also draws attention to the challenges that management of education and the delivery of the curriculum must face – subject to debate and resolution at all levels of the system. In time, the whole of vocational education, including such elements as apprenticeship, may expect restructuring in favour of a model based on lifelong learning. Much of post-school education, including university provision, will also follow suit by extending, for example, the period for engagement, again to match societal and occupational needs. A major part of the process will be a focus on the development of digital proficiency from an early age, now recognised alongside literacy and numeracy as a basic skill.

Achieving such goals assumes of course a level playing field in terms of the finance provided to support them. Starting at the level of computerisation for all, the experience of the pandemic has revealed how far we have to go. Poverty and deprivation has ruled out for many families any possibility of educational participation. At a time when employment becomes increasingly uncertain for many youngsters, the time has never been more pressing for bridging the gap. This is the message for all concerned citizens including policy makers and young people. Without equal access to the opportunities offered by the digital society, the pathway to the future could be bleak.

John Bynner is Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences in Education in the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the University College London Institute of Education.

Walter R. Heinz is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Psychology, and Senior Faculty member of the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences at the University of Bremen.

Youth Prospects in the Digital Society coverYouth Prospects in the Digital Society by John Bynner and Walter Heinz is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

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