Introduction We live in a changing world. One such theoretical explanation of this change taking place in the late twentieth century was that of the emergence of a risk society. A risk society is characterised by technological and scientific innovation and production, and increasing complexity, resulting in uncertainty, less structured influence and decisions to be made with unpredictable outcomes. ‘Concepts of risk society… have implications for how we understand… key concepts which underpin social sciences’ (Cieslick and Pollock 2002), and in particular have a major influence in the field of youth studies.

One such concept in the field of youth studies is that of transitions, which has had much debate upon definition and usefulness in addressing youth lifestyles. To address whether this risk society forces a reconceptualisation of youth transitions, I will look at: 1) what this risk society actually means and affect it has upon young people, 2) the concept of youth transitions, and 3) what it would mean for a reconceptualisation of youth transitions, and is this what is actually required. In addressing these core issues I will endeavour to argue that due to these changes in the late twentieth century there does need to be a reconceptualisation of youth transitions, however the major concern is with what this reconceptualisation actually looks like, rather than whether or not it is inevitably forced. Risk Society Defined The closing decades of the twentieth century saw some significant changes take place which had a major impact on society.

These changes are being felt, not just on a local level, but a global level also. List changes. Some suggest that these changes illustrate the emergence of a post modern era, others have suggested Post-Ford ism, Ulrich Beck rejected the idea of postmodernism and saw the world as moving into a second phase of modernity (Giddens 2001: 677). In this new modernity institutions are becoming global, there is a detraditionalisation of cultural practices, families, employment and social interactions are much more unpredictable, and the old industrial society is disappearing. According to Beck, in place of this industrial society, a ‘risk society’ is emerging (1992: 9), characterised by features which create a sense of, what post-modernists label as ‘chaos’, Beck would label as uncertainty. Marriage, for instance, used to be a straightforward stage in ones life transition, where as today, divorce rates are high and many choose to live together without getting married, and one must look at the risk, and without certainty of the outcome, make a decision.

As science and technology advance with its many benefits also comes its risks: ‘environmental pollution, food poisoning, anxieties over medical procedures and drug treatments as well as concerns over dangerous transport systems’ (Cieslick and Pollock 2002: 3), decisions on genetic modification of foods must be made without a clear understanding of what will be the final outcome and so forth. It is in this society of new global risks, detraditionalisation, and increasingly more fluid social interactions that Beck’s theory of ‘risk society’ emerges. Beck’s risk society can be divided into two ‘central interrelated theses’, one concerning reflexive modernisation and the other concerning risk (Lash & Wynn in Beck 1992: 1). In order that society continues to evolve, the modernisation process must be ‘reflexive’.

Reflexive in the sense that the risks and hazards associated with the scientific and technological advancement of this second modernity era have never been seen before, and the calculation of such risks can be valued as mere speculation at best. With detraditionalisation and globalisation, the continual development of technology and science, and the breaking down of barriers such as class, race and gender, individuals are forced to become more reflexive in their personal lives, in order to handle the complexities of this modern risk society. In this reflexive modernisation, time and space are no longer bound to a specific place, to face-to-face interaction, or tradition; the internet, global financial markets, the mass media, sporting events etc. all transcend boundaries of past eras. Social relations are no longer bound by locality; expertise is an example of how socials relations are no longer bound by inter-personal ties. In such a world much doubt is created within the individual, and people have ‘no alternative but to develop individualised and reflexive approaches to… life… in their search for trust and… security’ (Cieslick and Pollock 2002: 4) Beck articulated risk like this: ‘the concept of risk is a modern concept. It requires decisions and attempts to render the unpredictable consequences of civil decisions predictable and controllable’ (Beck 1991).

Risks do not refer to actual damage that threaten destruction, but rather to a state where the ‘perception of threatening risks determines thought and action’ (w WWI). It seeks to articulate that which could possibly happen unless something is done, knowing some empirical informative patterns and relying on uncertain outcomes to make decisions. With the war on Iraq, the pro-war campaigners had acquired certain empirical data and yet had to make a decision within a certain degree of uncertainty, based on what might be the outcome if they didn’t act. Risks can now be both local and global simultaneously, and could be seen to be moving away from natural risks, like hurricanes and floods, to man-made risks. Individuals are forced to respond to risks in different ways than seen previously, and young people particularly are faced with many more options; opportunities and hazards, than ever before. Young Peoples Life Patterns in a Risk Society The considerable changes that took place within society in the closing decades of the twentieth century, has brought with it many challenges and opportunities for young people.

It could be seen that most scholarly work on the area would agree that the changes that have taken place have indeed ‘led to a wider reshaping of young people’s lives and their transitions to adulthood’ (Cieslick and Pollock 2002: 8). In a risk society young people’s life patterns are forever changing, and becoming far more complex than those of the younger generation. Many ‘young people are now… creating their own portfolios in preparation for later life’ (Dwyer and Wyn 2001: 25), in reflex to the risks of this new modernity. Where as in generations gone by an employee would keep within the same career path and / or company for life, today young people are being told that majority of the work is short term, and that they must be flexible, ambitious and proactive. Individual lifestyles and behaviour can no longer be predicted by concepts like social class (Furlong and Cartmel 1997: 8) and the family. Consequences of the risk society such as the insecurity of employment, changing pattern of family formation, the restructuring of youth labour markets, and the changing shape of education, have had major impact upon the way in which young people’s lifestyles are shaped.

Young people no longer have their life laid out before them. Furlong and Cartmel (1997: 6) metaphorically illustrate youth lifestyles in the 1960’s and 1970’s using a train journey. During school young people board trains determined by structures of class, gender and education, with different trains bound for different destinations. People develop strong ties with those on the same train, sharing similar experiences and journeys – reinforcing the class system. Once boarded a train it is very difficult to change course, with little opportunity for change. In risk society, the journey could be illustrated by the closure of railways (set paths for youth to follow) with the individual’s destination now reached by car.

With the driver able to select their route from a wide range of options, having control over direction, speed and comfort, increasing the risk yet of getting lost and ending up now where, but also opening up a whole new world of options. In this modern world young people embark upon transitions to adulthood that has no certain end point, with many risks and opportunities along the way. With this change in youth lifestyles comes a dilemma in sociological studies, the need to reconceptualized the notion of youth transitions. The Issue of Definition As Beck puts it, ‘we need ideas and theories that will allow us to conceive the new which is rolling over us in a new way, and allow us to live and act within it’ (1992: 12). Youth transition can often take on a double meaning. On one hand the imagery of the word ‘transition’ implies a state of change and progress, where as ‘youth’ implies a distinct un-moving category.

Wyn and White put forth the notion that it only appears that we are dealing with a process of fluid change, but by looking at youth as a transition to adulthood, in reality one only offers a view of youth as a ‘steady progression through… stages, to a set end point: adulthood’ (1997: 95), which does not reflect young peoples’ experience in this risk society. Youth can be defined differently in different cultures. ‘In contemporary Western societies the age of our physical body is used to define us and to give us meaning to our identity and actions’ (Skelton and Valentine, 1998: 2). The defining of this period in life known as ‘youth’, no matter how it is spelled out, does serve an important function in enabling us to understand some of the issues and complexities in society and social interactions. Youth Transitions Defined Most problems arise in representing youth as a transition to adulthood, because of the fact that ‘youth’ has ‘become increasingly fragmented and diffuse’ (Wallace, 1998: 217) because of the changes in the last decades of the twentieth century.

There is an increasingly diverse range of styles of living, rather than following a stout series of stages and ending up at a particular end-point, a young person today, can pick and choose, ending up at a place that in the past was unconventional, but now very much acceptable. In transitioning to adulthood: securing economic self-sufficiency (Cote 2003), leaving home, getting married and forming a family, ‘may be more problematic at the turn of the 21st century than in previous eras… no modal pattern reflects the experiences of youth today’ (Cote 2003). The youth experience of transitioning to adulthood is a complex one, with many variables and defining factors. Any representation of youth needs to attempt to take these factors into account, and at the same time, recognize it will fall short and consider the consequences it will have on labeling ‘youth’ a particular way. For instance, according to Miles, ‘young people’s experience of life in a risk society is all too often portrayed as entirely negative in nature’ (2002: 58), the impact of this needs to be recognised and taken into account. Reconceptualisation of Youth Transitions Because of Risk Society Furlong and Cartmel suggest that the changes that have taken place in creating this Risk Society are ‘significant enough to merit a reconceptualisation of youth transitions and process of social reproduction’ 6).

Steven Miles would agree seeing the problem as ‘essentially a conceptual one and that in turn, this problem lies not so much in the study of the subject… youth researchers are generally content to pursue the same methodological and conceptual avenues that they have always pursued. They do not feel the need to address structural and cultural simultaneously’ (2002: 65). Beck would add that ‘more urgently than ever, we need ideas and theories that will allow us to conceive the new which is rolling over us in a new way, and allow us to live and act within it’ (1992: 12). The problem does not lie in the issue of whether or not youth transitions need to be reconceptualized, but rather what the reconceptualisation looks like. The concept of transition ‘focuses on the way structures affect how young people grow up’, youth studies have a tendency to over-theorize about cultural implications and over-research the structural effects, seeing them as two separate entities, where as young peoples actual experience in contemporary society revolves around the point where they meet (Miles 2000: 10-11).

Rudd and Evans suggest that because of the tension between the young person’s individual opportunity to shape their route through life, and the ‘overarching, often unmediated, influence of deterministic social structures on their lives’ (1998: 60), in analysing youth transitions in risk society, there is a need to explain the incompatibility that exists. ‘The challenge is to try and disentangle agency from structural influences’ and to do this one needs ‘to follow young people’s ‘agency’ over an extended period of time… look [ing] at both the micro and macro levels and how these impact on students perceptions of their degrees of control’ (Dwyer, Peter. et al. 1998). Conclusion We live in an evolving society in which notions of how society operates and functions will continually need to be reconceptualized, revised and updated. Society operates on many levels. It operates on the micro and macro level, demonstrating the contrast between individual choice and the overarching structures which greatly influence these choices.

There are also many varying individual factors that do influence young people, which could never be captured in a theory – by the time it was, society would have changed and the theory would be no longer as useful for changing the present circumstances. It is in this tension that the concept of youth transitions must be reconceptualised. There is no evidence to suggest, from any leading school of sociological thought, that the understanding of youth lifestyles and that transition period that occurs, accurately portrays the true experience of young people today. And I would add that because of the fluid nature of the young persons existence, coupled with the idea that society is continually changing, there will never be a theory which encapsulates all of what it means to be a young person.

This does not negate the sociological study of youth, but rather gives perspective. The study of youth, gives us a good reflection of society, and at best, gives us a somewhat limited understanding of social processes and structures, and provides a way forward in this modernisation process. As a result of significant changes that occurred in society in the last few decades of the twentieth century, society has changed dramatically. The emergence of Beck’s ‘risk society’, in this late modern era, has seen a significant change in the way in which young people live out their lives. Young people are faced with an increasing number of hazards and opportunities, brought about mainly by scientific and technological progress, yet with this progress there is no set path through the myriad of choices, and no guarantee of a fixed destination. The conjecture is not in the notion that perhaps youth transitions needs to be reconceptualised, but rather what this reconceptualisation should look like and whether or not it could truly represent what youth experience in reality.

Just as other influential sociological ideas were born out of times of great social and economic change, could this be another? I would suggest that this transition into a new modernity, coupled with Beck’s risk society, will result in key sociological ideas being birthed.


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