When do we become adults? Is it a question of finding a job, or leaving home, or establishing our financial independence? This is the question asked by Cécile Van de Velde, an associate professor at the EHESS (School for higher Studies in Social Science) in Paris, in her new book Devenir adulte – Sociologie comparée de la jeunesse en Europe (PUF, 2008), (“Becoming an Adult — A Comparative Sociology of Youth in Europe), which explores the different perceptions of this rite of passage, and the various interpretations of what is meant by “adult” in a geographical area that extends from Spain to Denmark.
In the course of your study, did you find that the experience of the transition to adulthood is largely similar in different European countries?
Yes, I think the various approaches to this issue have a lot in common, especially on the level of aspirations and shared values — the aspiration for an independent and autonomous life, the desire for self development, and the freedom to choose one’s own direction in life. At the same time, the circumstances that prevail in different countries inevitably have a major impact on the destiny of young people living there. This is especially the case when you consider the range of state benefits, variations in the job market, and differences in the way higher education is structured. It was the examination of these factors that led me to conclude that if they were given the choice, most Europeans would probably opt for a transition to adulthood that closely resembles the standard experience in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries.
Do you think perceptions of university and higher education have changed over the last 50 or 60 years?
In general, higher education is not the same as it was for previous generations. To put it in a nutshell, today’s generation have to study more to earn less. It’s true that over the last 50 years, higher education has become much more accessible, but it does not have the impact it used to have. For previous generations, a university degree was a ticket to social prestige and professional success. Today, a university qualification does not guarantee entry to privileged niche in the labour market or society in general. Nowadays, young people who are entering the job market after several years of higher studies often feel cheated, because they were told that education would inevitably lead to social integration, and this is no longer the case. The Mileurista movement, organized by young Spanish graduates who earn less than 1,000 euros a month, is evidence of a growing awareness of the diminished status of university qualifications.
What are the major differences that characterize the experience of young people in different European countries?
This question has multiple dimensions: a lot depends on relationships with family, the way qualifications are perceived in the job market, the outlook for the future, and on what it means to come of age as an adult. So individual experiences may vary, but broadly speaking, we can say that in Denmark, and on a wider level in Scandinavia, becoming an adult is a question of “finding yourself,” of choosing your own path, which is independent of the one chosen by your parents — and society offers young people plenty of time to do that. In more liberal countries like the United Kingdom, the emphasis is more on “personal responsibility,” that is to say on rapidly acceding to an “adult status” characterized by self-reliance. In France and other more corporatist societies, the transition to adulthood is usually viewed as a period that should be devoted to education, which will enable young people to enter a protective socio-professional niche. In Mediterranean countries, the transition period tends to be longer, and adulthood is defined by three essential criteria: a job, a home and a significant other.
In your view, which of these three models is most beneficial to young people?
I would say that the Scandinavian approach is the most beneficial. However, given the current economic crisis, we are not likely to see a trend towards the universal adoption of this model, which is largely dependent on a low rate of unemployment, and extensive state funding for education. In fact, the uncertainty prompted by the recession could result in a shift towards variations on the Mediterranean model in many countries in Europe.
Matias Garrido, Translation : Astrid vW