Young people are rarely as demonic as politicans portray


Howard Williamson, CBE, is Professor of European Youth Policy.

My interest in the sociology of youth derives from my personal background and subsequent youth work experience. Most of my childhood friends went to secondary modern schools, leaving at the age of 15 to do manual work of various kinds. I had an ‘elite’ secondary education on a publicly funded scholarship to a direct grant school, where it was almost inconceivable that you did not go to university (when less than 10% of young people went on to higher education). 

Later, as a young youth worker, I was conscious of the very different transition trajectories, aspirations, social perspectives and cultural behaviour of different groups of young people, and the different life chances these conferred.  I have been interested in these things – family background, schooling, leisure time activity, training and employment, health and lifestyle behaviour including substance misuse, and youth offending – ever since.

Every prospective student is still, or has been young. All have their personal experience of their youth. They should always be ready to relate this to others – within their same cohort and across the generations. What is different, or has changed? What seems, perhaps surprisingly, strikingly similar? What kinds of resources have been available to others compared to yourself? 

Two classic Sociological texts that might give you a theoretical framework for some of this thinking are The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. These help you to stand aside from your own experience and to look at it from different perspectives. 

In terms of studies of youth, I always recommend Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte, and Hooligan by Geoffrey Pearson. The first, written in 1943, helps us to think about the relationships between young people as they ‘hang around’ during their leisure time; the second portrays the society’s contemporary fears of young people throughout history, arguing that the same anxieties about ‘troublesome youth’ constantly recur in the context of a mythical nostalgia about more peaceful times roughly thirty years before.  Young people have always been troublesome, but rarely as demonic as politicians and the media portrays – and if they have been, then so have their parents!

My own research on young people has spanned a range of what I call ‘policy domains’ – leisure time and ‘citizenship’; education, training and employment (or the lack of it); housing; disability; health; and crime.  I am committed to a ‘public sociology’, one that is policy relevant, and so have been fortunate to have contributed to a range of policy initiatives directed towards young people at Wales, UK, European and UN levels. I like to think that I take both my academic knowledge and my practical youth work experience to the table when I am part of these discussions. 

Currently, I am mainly involved with reviewing national youth policies in many European countries, on behalf of the Council of Europe. However, I also maintain a connection with a group of men, now in their mid-50s, who were young offenders in their early teens when I first met them. I have known them for over 40 years and have researched and written about their lives over the years.  My first book about them, published in 1981, is out of print and hard to get, but my more recent follow-up The Milltown Boys Revisited (Berg 2004) has attracted considerable interest and critical acclaim.

The big issue for today’s young people, in the UK and beyond, is the climate of austerity, quite unprecedented levels of youth unemployment, and its implications for social cohesion, political engagement and personal well-being.

We need not only to understand the impact of austerity on young people and how this is being experienced by them, but also what institutions (not only governments, but major charities and big business) might do to address their current difficulties and support their effective transitions to adulthood.

Much is made of promoting youth participation in civic and political life. Considerable concern is expressed about the radicalisation of young Muslims. Far less attention is being paid to the reactionary forces that often exploit the anxieties of the ‘indigenous’ young about multiculturalism and immigration (where was any commentary about UKIP and the young?) or too the worsening mental health conditions of many young people.  Limited attention is paid to questions of mobility and emigration amongst the young.

These, and many more issues are up for debate. And that is what is needed. Sociology provides perspectives, ideas, theories – sometimes abstract, sometimes grounded in strong supporting evidence.  It is for us to explore and context them.