Introducing the research of the first Policy Press-funded studentship: the transition to adulthood of young graduates across Europe

The transition to adult-life of the current twenty-something generation is often described by the media and in current policy debates as “extended”, “delayed” or “problematic”. In a very popular article appearing in the New York Times Arnett describes the psychological conditions of what he calls “emerging adulthood”. Recent cohorts of twenty-something are experiencing a delay in their cognitive transition to adult life, hence they think, behave or plan their life as if they are not yet adults.

Arnett’s analysis of emerging adulthood is useful for understanding the characteristics of current cohorts of young people: growing up in post-modern fragmented society (Beck’s “risk society”) has psychological implications in the transition to adulthood, in terms of ‘fragmentation’ or ‘social anxiety’ (Giddens, 1991). However, as Arnett’s analysis is American-centred and conducted with a development psychology perspective, it appears affected by an overall assumption on the central role of individuals. The role of structures in post-modern paths of transitions is a much less explored topic. Do young people currently have structures around them that permit a smoother transition to adulthood? In which respect do these structures influence their delayed transition?

These questions are at the centre of the recent PhD studentship funded by Policy Press which aims to explore these issues from the point of view of social policy and by using a welfare analysis. The main goal of the study is to show how different welfare structures influence the transition to adult life of young graduates in England, Sweden and Italy. British scholars like Furlong and Cartmel have already emphasised the importance of the structures in determining a different ‘quality’ of transition to adult life. Arnett himself pointed out in his analysis how “becoming an adult today means becoming self-sufficient, learning to stand alone as an independent person” (2004: 209). Welfare structures may be considered central in this analysis as they impact greatly on the “dependency” or “independency” of young people in the transition to adulthood.

This PhD study considers, in particular, the role of work, family and the state in transition to adulthood of young graduates from disadvantaged families. Debates regarding graduate studies and social mobility have mainly focussed on ‘access to higher education’. This assumes that the experience of young graduates would have been similar across social classes or that the increasing access to higher education of young people from disadvantaged families would have automatically improved social justice and social mobility. This type of assumption is currently challenged by pioneering studies regarding the social conditions of graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds in Anglo-Saxon countries, in particular in the analysis by Furlong and Cartmel in Scotland. As the burden of students’ loans and debts become diffused across Europe new issues emerge concerning social disparities of this type of transition to adulthood.

The studentship aims to address these issues using a European comparative analysis across welfare regimes of transitions and proposing methodological tools for the exploration of the psycho-welfare of youth transitions. These topics will be covered further in future posts.

Lorenza Antonucci

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