– CHAPTER 5 –
5: A waste and a burden?
Young and unemployed in the Swedish Barents region
In an increasingly globalized world economy, with a labour market demanding flexibility and higher education, some regions are more exposed to the perils of unemployment than others. However, few studies have described individual effects of unemployment in such exposed regions. Yet, this chapter aims at making such a contribution by illuminating how young adults experience unemployment, and how they cope with their situation in three exposed municipalities in the north of Sweden: Vännäs, Älvsbyn and Överkalix. These municipalities – in the geographical periphery of Sweden – are all situated in the Barents region.
In general, young people have weaker positions on the labour market than other groups, and are, therefore, more deeply affected by fluctuations in the economic situation (cf. Hagquist, 1997; Hammarström & Janlert, 2002; Ungdomsstyrelsen, 2007: 125). Still, young people in the Barents region are especially exposed, because they live in the geographical periphery, where the labour market is even more sensitive to fluctuations than elsewhere. In addition, infrastructure is limited and migration is widespread, especially among the young population. One of the municipalities chosen for this study, Överkalix, has for example experienced a decline in the population by 28 per cent during the last twenty years (Kommunfakta, 2006). Furthermore, the three municipalities in this study – Överkalix, Älvsbyn and Vännäs – all have high unemployment rates among youths compared to the national average. Figure 1 shows the proportion of unemployed youths between the age of 18 to 24 in the three municipalities compared to a national mean.
Figure 1. Proportion of young unemployed (age 18-24) (governmental interventions included) 1994 – 2006 in Överkalix, Älvsbyn and Vännäs, compared to the National mean (per cent).
Source: Kommunfakta, 2006. Note: In 2007, the percentage of unemployed people between 18 and 24 was 10.1 per cent in Överkalix, 8.7 per cent in Älvsbyn, and 4.8 per cent in Vännäs (Swedish Public Employment Service, 2007).
Both Överkalix and Älvsbyn are rural areas in Barents, and their unemployment figures clearly exceed the national mean. Vännäs, however, can be said to belong to the more urbanized regions around the city Umeå, and here the proportion of unemployed adults is very small (1.8 per cent 2008, Swedish Public Employment Service, 2007). Yet, unemployment among youths is substantially higher (5.1 per cent 2008, ibid). Figure 1 shows that young people, especially in Överkalix and Älvsbyn, were struck hard by the economic crises of the 1990s (cf. Hagquist, 1997; Starrin et al., 2002: 11). It is likely that youths in these regions are also exposed to the current economic crisis.
Scholars have shown that unemployment has psychological consequences for individuals (Härenstam et al., 1999; Gullberg & Börjesson, 1999; Rantakeisu et al., 1996). Exclusion from the labour market is usually accompanied by exclusion from other spheres of society as well. The economic hardships resulting from unemployment, and the so-called ‘shameful effects’, have negative social consequences, and often result in deteriorating individual health (Hammarström, 1986: 21; Starrin et al., 2002: 11). To be excluded from the labour market implies a demanding and insecure existence. This is even more obvious in an exposed region like Barents, where a great number of young people periodically are forced to deal with insecurity and uncertainty resulting from unemployment. Still, it is unclear how unemployment affects young people in the long run.
This study analyses the way in which unemployed youths in the Barents region, a geographical periphery in Sweden, acknowledge their living conditions outside of the labour market. Young people with limited education and weak, or non-existent, relations with the labour market have to make some hard choices, and balance between different strategies: Move or stay? Act or retreat? The aim of this chapter is to analyse and understand how young people in the Swedish Barents region, under contingencies of restricted personal resources and opportunities, develop different coping strategies to deal with unemployment. Still, although respondents from three relatively different municipalities in the region are included in the study, the aim is not to explore a potential relationship between geographical areas and coping strategies. Instead, the aim is to develop an understanding of how unemployed youths in general can handle their situation as being unemployed in a geographical periphery.
In the following, I first discuss material, methods and analytical perspectives. Four coping strategies are introduced, inspired by Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, and I also discuss concepts related to the theories of Anthony Giddens. Second, I present my analysis of the interviews from the lenses of the four coping strategies. Third, the conclusions are summed up, and the wider implications of the study are discussed.
METHOD AND MATERIAL
The three municipalities selected for the study – Vännäs, Älvsbyn, and Överkalix – are situated in the Swedish Barents region. A primary reason for choosing these cases is that they all suffer, and have suffered, from high levels of unemployment among the young population. Nevertheless, the sample is by no means representative in a statistical sense. Instead, in order to fulfil the aim – to create a better understanding of the situation for young unemployed people in the Swedish Barents region – 15 in-depth interviews have been carried out. A criterion for selecting interviewees was that the respondents were registered as unemployed at the local employment office (Arbetsförmedlingen). The first contacts with the respondents, living in these municipalities, were made possible with help from these offices. The empirical material is based on semi-structured interviews, lasting between one, and one and a half hours. Some interviews took place at the local employment office, while others took place at the homes of the respondents. At the time of the interviews, the respondents were all between 20 and 24 years of age: eight male and seven female. Thirteen respondents had completed upper secondary education, but none of them had higher education at the university-level. Moreover, the respondents had a rather loose connection to the labour market. Within the group, working experience was restricted to part time employments, mainly within the health and service sectors, whereas some of the respondents had no experience whatsoever. Hence, a common characteristic of the majority of the respondents is that they have completed upper secondary education, but have limited access to, and experiences from, the labour market. As a result, it could be argued that they all experience a life situation that is insecure and risky.
The interviews concerned attitudes towards education and work, and were also aimed at understanding how the respondents perceive and acknowledge their situation in relation to the labour market, along with leisure activities and other interests. In addition, questions concerning where the interviewees would like to live, what their economic situation looks like, along with their plans for the future, were included in the interviews.
It should be emphasised that an initial analysis was made already when I was in the process of collecting the data material; in this process it struck me as obvious that all interviewees experienced an insecure and risky life situation. Furthermore, all of them had seemingly limited personal resources – no formal education apart from upper secondary education, limited working experience, economic strains, strong geographical ties, etc. – on a labour market with high entry barriers. Yet, in spite of these similarities, they appeared to employ significantly different ways of coping with their situation. During the course of collecting the material, I asked myself why some of them are active and optimistic while others almost seem to surrender to their fates. Considering the similar conditions of the respondents, how could it be that some of them live a seemingly normal life within the local community, while others are completely excluded from society? In order to answer these questions the analysis proceeded, inspired by the theoretical approach of Pierre Bourdieu (1990, 1991, 1993). Viewed from the lenses of Bourdieu’s theories, the labour market in the Barents region could be seen as a field where individuals make more or less conscious efforts to position themselves, and ensure their long-term social existence (Bourdieu, 1990: 31).
In order to understand how individuals position themselves on different fields, Bourdieu has developed the concept of capital. Individual background, experience, and resources can be viewed as different types of capital. Others who ascribe value to this type of capital recognize individuals possessing it. Bourdieu (1991) discusses several different aspects of cultural capital, but the most important type in this particular study relates to education. Depending on the degree of what I choose to call educational capital, different options are accessible to the individual on the labour market. In this study, however, most respondents share the same level of education – i.e. upper secondary education – and, therefore, the concept educational capital also points to the strive for more education in order to gain additional access to the labour market. Still, since practically oriented skills are demanded in the region, the present educational levels of most of the respondents should be sufficient in order to create some opportunities on the local labour market. Therefore, I use the term educational capital to relate to basic practically oriented upper secondary education as well.
Yet another important concept discussed by Bourdieu is social capital. Social capital – i.e. access to networks, friends, social contacts and so on – have proven to be of great importance to individuals trying to establish themselves on a local labour market (e.g. Heggen et al., 2003). This also turned out to be true in this study. In small communities – such as the municipalities in this study – central actors on the labour market are often acquainted. Depending on local recognition, along with the position and reputation of the family, access to networks in small communities can either limit or create opportunities. Social capital together with educational capital is, therefore, important when individuals try to position themselves on the labour market, which I intend to show in the following. The question that remains is what induces some individuals to act, while others instead are inclined to retreat.
In order to understand individual approaches on the labour market field, I once again relate to Bourdieu, and his notion of habitus (Bourdieu, 1990: 53). The habitus of each individual – i.e. cognitive roadmaps, and patterns of thinking and acting – depends on what he or she believes to be capable of. Habitus, in other words, is as a package of individual experiences and dispositions, emanating from the social and cultural background of the individual (Broady, 1991: 25). Hence, habitus forms how we perceive our surroundings, how we reason, and act, as well as the choices we make in a particular situation: in this case habitus affects how young people act on a highly restricted, or even closed, labour market. Habitus is also an unconscious ‘structure’ shaping thought and action among individuals, in this case the respondent’s way of dealing with unemployment.
When studying how individuals cope with exposed situations, like the unemployed youths in this study, it could also be useful to assess processes of individual meaning making. Anthony Giddens (1991) talks about a contemporary predicament where traditions loose ground and individuals are forced to make active lifestyle choices. The choices are made through reflexive processes, and they are related to efforts to form a life trajectory that is felt to be meaningful (Giddens, 1991). These kinds of processes are related to coping with ‘structural interruptions’, such as a personal situation of being unemployed. There has to be a meaning and one cannot cope without a sense of meaning; that is what reflexivity and ’meaning- making’ among other things is about.
The concept ‘coping’ in this chapter primarily relates to the discussion drawing on Bourdieu, as presented above, and is employed in order to understand different embedded strategies to manage unemployment, and, specifically, the respondents’ experiences of being unemployed. Coping is normally defined as ‘the constantly changing cognitive and behavioural effort to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’ (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984: 141). Thus, coping has to do with responses to a discrepancy between contextual demands or conditions and the resources to act available to an individual. In this study, coping specifically concerns reactions to an insecure and risky situation, resulting from unemployment, combined with limited structural and personal resources. Coping, thus, concerns individual strategies, conscious or unconscious, to restrain and handle stressful life situations (Ahmadi, 2008: 82). Moreover, in the context of this study, coping relates to educational and social capital and individual habitus, along with individual meaning-making.
Four ideal-typical coping strategies (displayed in figure 2) have been developed, drawing on the theoretical concepts and perspectives discussed above, as well as the results from my interviews. These ‘ideal types’ encapsulates the relationship between social and educational capital, on the one hand, and action-propensity on the other. I will give a few examples. Respondents claiming to have access to social networks and contacts with previous employers, while also claiming to be active and independent ‘job-searchers’ are categorised as having social and educational capital. These respondents also show a propensity to act on their own, and, therefore, their strategy to cope with unemployment is called action. Other interviewees express lacking propensities to act on the labour market. In spite of having social and educational capital, these respondents convey that they are attempting to adapt to other spheres of society than the labour market. Therefore, their strategy to cope with unemployment is categorised as that of adaptation. A third category, labelled expectancy, concerns respondents who seem to lack capital, and working experience, but still tries to approach potential employers actively. Finally, when respondents neither have working experience nor contacts with society at large – lacking capital as well as a propensity to act on the labour market – they are categorised under the label passivity.
Figure 2. Four strategies to cope with unemployment in relation to available capital and propensity to act.
The four ‘coping strategies’ are obviously ideal typical constructs. They are aimed at illuminating important features of how young people can think, and the choices they can make, depending on their backgrounds, experiences, perceptions, and expectations. Needless to say, the categories represent simplifications of reality and they do not have the pretension of giving a comprehensive view of real-life strategies to cope with unemployment. Instead, they indicate focal differences in ways of coping with an uncertain situation. In the following, I will present my analysis of the interviews, thereby illustrating the four ‘coping strategies’ in practice.
The strategy of action
Following the discussion above and the categories displayed in figure 2, the interviewees employing what I refer to as the strategy of action come from families with pronounced capital forms. They have social networks which they make use of when they contact potential employers. Most of these youths have completed theoretically oriented upper secondary education, and they are considering further studies, even when this implies moving. During the interviews, a positive view of the future could often be sensed. These individuals, moreover, appear to be active in searching for information, in order to get a position on the labour market.
Even though the labour market in each of the municipalities in this study is severely restricted, none of the respondents categorised as belonging to the strategy of action passively accept their status as unemployed. Instead, they are constantly looking for new opportunities, and they make use of their comparatively extensive networks of contacts, inquiring as to whether local employers are in need of labour, even short term positions and temporary help. Additionally, these respondents have either been raised by parents with academic backgrounds and degrees or by parents that are self-employed entrepreneurs. Their parents, moreover, often hold central positions within the local community or in the geographical surroundings. Furthermore, as already mentioned, the respondents tend to have studied theoretical programs in upper secondary school, and at present they often have active plans to proceed with university studies, if their situation so requires. Consequently, these respondents aim at expanding their educational capital, which is something that generally is believed to open up a wider range of opportunities on the labour market; in the typical middle class home, where most of the respondents in this category were raised, education is normally perceived as a road towards future career opportunities (Jönsson et al., 1993: 89-97).
The respondents categorised as employing the strategy of action are well aware that there is no demand for their theoretical education on the local labour market. Yet instead of looking for permanent employment locally, one respondent believes that her perspective has to be widened, and she expresses hopes in a future as a self-employed entrepreneur. In fact, this particular respondent has plans to pursue such an alternative because she is eager to remain in the local community. On the other hand, another respondent plans to move to the south where she believes that the labour market is significantly better than in the Barents region. This respondent says she became aware of this when she spent a year at a boarding school in the capital of Stockholm, where she worked part-time, during evenings and weekends, within the service sector.
Yet, at present (at least at the time for the interviews) all respondents categorised as utilising the strategy of action consider their personal situation to be relatively constrained, with limited employment opportunities. Because of her status as unemployed, the first respondent referred to above, has no economic means to start her own business, and the other one only has restricted means – i.e. money – which delays or even thwarts her plans to move south. Accordingly, these respondents are left with the only option of actively seeking information about temporary employments in the local community. Still, since they have significant amounts of social capital, they do have opportunities. Because of their backgrounds, and their networks, they are well known in the local community. In the interviews they also stress that they, themselves, have a self-evident task to actively look up local employers, which they are familiar with, in pursuit of potential positions, albeit only on a temporary basis. This means that they, as a result of their social capital and habitus, frequently visit potential local employers in order to attain a position on the labour market. When asking one of the respondents if the employment office helps her getting at job, she responds in the following way:
Help? From the employment office? I don’t know. I haven’t had that much…Honestly – I don’t accept help from the employment office. I just don’t. Instead, I look for a job on my own. It is much better. You know, I went there saying: Hey, I am unemployed, I want a job. You know, I have lived in this municipality since I was 14 years old, so they (the employers) already know who I am.
This story illustrates how individual habitus structures courses of action as well as rules of conduct in certain situations. Similarly, the other respondent sees no other way out than to act, and attempt to take personal charge over her exposed situation. Along these lines, she has a hard time understanding why ‘others’ rely on governmental, and municipal, employment agencies (Arbetsförmedlingen) in the pursuit of a job. Even so, the youths employing the strategy of action also express the constant insecurity that follows from being unemployed. One of them expresses this in the following way:
Will I manage this month, will I survive? There is a constant feeling of worry. /…/ This is the first time that I realized that, okey: I am not going to study, and I don’t have a job, so I panicked, and started calling local businesses.
Bourdieu’s concept of habitus can help us understand statements like this one. The stories told by the respondents categorised as belonging to the strategy of action illuminates the significance of social capital when looking for a job on a small, local, labour market. Even if this constant pursuit is considered demanding, the habitus of the respondents deems it absolutely necessary. The relentless pursuit, and the eagerness to always “step in” to fill potential sick leaves, sometimes leads to employment opportunities. This attitude characterises the respondents employing the strategy of action, which means that they have a closer relationship with the labour market than other youths in this study; their positive experiences from the past, and their possession of social and educational capital creates flexible, and probably better, opportunities. Most other youths in the study seem to lack the ‘know how’, of these respondents. The youths who utilise the strategy of action have reflexive abilities, and a flexible outlook, combined with a habitus that is beneficial when trying to gain access to the labour market. In the cases of these particular respondents, these individual attributes creates a self-evident and natural – whether conscious or unconscious – strive to advance themselves, and to find strategies to counteract unemployment and find a position in society. These characteristics, however, make the respondents employing the strategy of action unique to this study.
The strategy of adaptation
The individuals in the study employing what I refer to as the strategy of adaptation also seem to possess social and educational capital in Bourdieu’s terms. School presented no significant problem to them, but – contrary to the individuals employing the strategy of action – neither moving away nor proceeding with studies at the university are considered viable options. Instead, they have strong ties to the local community, which means that they are adapting to the situation, and biding their time, because unemployment seems to be the only option for the time being.
‘Good things comes to those who wait’ is a statement that could be said to encapsulate how these respondents approach unemployment and insecurity. Instead of actively seeking job opportunities, they are developing social strategies to live a life that is as normal as possible, in times where structural conditions do not seem to allow work for everyone. Yet, the respondents are aware of the fact that the local labour market is closed, and will remain so until the economic situation improves, or the current workforce retires. Through their social networks – they have a great deal of social capital – they are aware of the poor conditions plaguing local industries, and they are constantly prepared to apply for jobs, in case positions open up locally. Most of these respondents have working class backgrounds, and they tend to live with their parents. Their economic situation allows nothing more. Moreover, the respondents belonging to the category ‘adaptation’ normally have vocationally oriented educations which should be demanded among the local industries. One of the respondents is a carpenter. He claims to have looked for supplementary training from the local employment agency (Arbetsförmedlingen), which potentially could improve his chances on the local labour market. However, the training that is offered takes several years, and, therefore, this respondent has chosen not to invest further in his educational capital. This rather passive, or congested, approach towards the labour market, resulting in short-term plans, is characteristic of young people from the working class (Bjurström, 1997: 334). Instead of actively planning for the future, the local employment office as well as the educational system in general are often criticized, and blamed, for failing to supply specific occupational training.
The respondents employing the strategy of adaptation have strong ties to the local community, and these ties constrain how they think and act. The carpenter referred to above has his roots in the community, but has only spent of few years of his adult life there. Previously he lived in the south of Sweden, and had a job as a carpenter for a major construction company. The local community, however, seem to matter more than finding a job in the rest of the country. He illustrates this attitude by saying:
I have had a couple of job offers in the south again, but I am not moving. They (unemployment office) are not happy, but they cannot force me to move. I like it here. So jobs just have to turn up here.
This line of reasoning illustrates that the local community appears to matter more than actual job opportunities to working class people in rural areas (Svensson, 2006). It seems like the respondent quoted above feels that he is a part of the community, and that his self-biography is created through it. The community is also ascribed meaning, by spending time there.
Another respondent belonging to the category of adaptation is comfortable in what some would label the periphery of Sweden, even though it clearly is the centre to him. Proximity to the familiar seems to overshadow all other alternatives. His educational capital, which is exclusively based on vocational training, was acquired in a larger city because it was not supplied locally. After having completed this education, however, he chose to move back to his parents. In the interview he disputes the widespread idea that one would have to move to another area or a larger city in order to get a job. Instead, his identity is firmly attached to his home village, and his hopes for the future are restricted to finding a job there. This respondent has previously had casual jobs and temporary positions within hunting and tourism during the summer. Also, some trainee jobs, supplied by the municipality, have provided him with work experience.
A characteristic feature of young people employing the strategy of adaptation, however, is that they experience long periods of unemployment, especially when the employment office run out of trainee jobs. These young people tend to have an enduring belief that the local community eventually will offer some opportunities. In the process of waiting for temporary closed structures to open, they attempt to normalise the situation, focusing on how to retain their position in other spheres of the local community, apart from the labour market. Their social capital is maintained by engagement in the hunting, and club activities, as well as socialising with friends and acquaintances in the local community. The young man in the example above tells the following story about his daily life:
I usually get up around eight thirty. I make breakfast, and stuff like that. Then I call some friend who has a job to check if I can go there, and have some coffee and maybe help out a bit. Then I go down to the Youth club, and chat with the people that work there and meet some people. After that I go by my dad’s job and have a cup of coffee.
Following this statement, the respondent clearly does not lack social capital. It also seems like he is active in contacting potential employers because he is indirectly helping out at different work places in the municipality, steered – as it seems – by his habitus. Nonetheless, he does not have any considerable hopes that his activities in different spheres in the local community will lead to a job. Instead his various engagements seem to be routines, developed in order to maintain social networks, normalise his life situation, and reduce monotony that comes from being unemployed. The strategy of adaptation, characteristic of individuals like this young man, can be said to imply a rather weak reflexive ability concerning individual contributions to changing the situation. Instead, the possible solutions that are brought to the fore in the interviews are associated with society, and structural conditions beyond the reach of the respondents themselves. Adopting this strategy does not imply that they surrender to a situation of marginalisation or even alienation, but rather that they adapt to it. They have no significant demands on their life situation. Coping with unemployment means to normalise the situation, to try to a life as normal as possible without making too much fuzz about it.
The strategy of expectancy
The interviewees whom I have categorised as employing the strategy of expectancy, all come from working class backgrounds, but contrary to the strategies presented above they have severely limited social capital in the shape of networks in the local community. Even their educational capital is limited, in the sense that the education they do have is not demanded on the local labour market, and studies at the university seem to be out of the question for the time being. In spite of being distant from the labour market, with negative experiences from encounters with employers, they keep on looking for jobs. This relentless drive is so strong that it almost seems irrational to an outside observer.
None of the respondents categorised as belonging to the strategy of expectancy has any significant experiences from the labour market, but they still tend to express a sense of hopefulness. Like the two previous strategies, these individuals are basically aware that the labour market is saturated, but it seems like a hard thing to accept. Instead they are constantly looking for alternatives, and potential openings, that seem more or less rational. As with the preceding strategy, their educational capital is not in demand on the local labour market, and therefore their educational capital is limited. One respondent has an aesthetic education from upper secondary school. She grew up in a small village close to the municipality, and she moved there some years ago hoping to get a job within retailing or care. In spite of spending several years in unemployment, she actively looks for work wherever possible, with all imaginable employers.
Another respondent, a young man, also grew up in a small village but has chosen to move to the municipality. He decided to do so because he believed that the municipality could offer a specific vocational training in upper secondary school. He grew up in a single parent home, with his mother. His mother, however, moved south as soon as he entered into upper secondary education.
Common for the respondents employing the strategy of expectancy is that they often have moved to the municipality from other areas, and, as a consequence, their social capital at their new place of residence is limited. In some cases they are in relationships, but their partners also tend to be unemployed, thus restricting their social capital even more. The only social network they have in the local community consists of their families and acquaintances of their boyfriend or girlfriend. Contrary to the interviewees analysed under the two preceding categories, they have no relations with local employers, and their efforts to contact them have so far been fruitless. In addition, due to their long-term unemployment their economic resources have become severely restricted. One of the respondents is supported by well-fare checks, while another receives money for food and rent from his mother; the reason is that he claims that he does not want to be a burden to society. Yet, the distance to the labour market seems to increase even further as time goes by. After several years of unemployment, one of the respondents sums up her experiences:
One should always try to sound positive and make the impression that everything is OK. But, it might not be that good. I mean, not always at least. Shouldn’t the social welfare office start wondering why I have not gotten a job thus far. You start summing up in your brain. Have I looked enough, or is the there something wrong with me?
Judging from this story, social background mixed with negative experiences from the past, as well as negative notifications from employers, start leaving psychological imprints. At the same time, however, a constant reflexive process concerning self-image, possible courses of action, and possible solutions characterises the respondents categorised as employing the strategy of expectancy. Therefore, each new job mediated by the employment office sparks hopeful expectations, and, subsequently, new sources of disappointments. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are indeed present. Hence, in their reflexive process their sense of self is questioned, and it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain an identity and high self-esteem. Sometimes the drive to maintain a positive self-image is so pronounced that it seems irrational. One illustration of this is a male respondent who, despite his lack of working experience, believes that an executive post at a multinational corporation is a viable option for him. Hence, in the relentless strive to establish a position on the labour market, some expectations become unrealistic. Furthermore, in an attempt to retain what can be described as a comprehensive biography, this respondent talks about an alleged job within child care:
Respondent: I have a temporary position at the moment. I step in every now and then, at day care centres and kindergartens and so on. That is the only job I have at the moment, and it is not that often, but anyway…
Linda: Approximately how often?
Respondent: Well, when was it? Last week it was two days. I signed up in September last year. And I have been there at least five or six days since then. Since September last year, that is not a lot.
At a closer look, the ‘job’ is a handful of working situations within a period of six months. By a similar token, another respondent claims to have a job in child-care, but a closer look reveals that she cannot even remember the last time she worked there. To me it is obvious that these respondents have a great need for self-explanations; they wanted to tell their story. In other words, through reflexive action, they wanted to make a painful situation appear better than it actually was. It is quite clear that societal structures, beyond their control, have forced their life trajectories into paths which they had not expected. Furthermore, the lack of social and educational capital undoubtedly plays a role in their dilemmas. However, at this point they have to make sense out of their situations. That is what ‘meaning-making’ is all about. Sometimes meaning-making can include maintaining simple everyday routines, as illustrated by one of the respondents:
Even if I don’t have a job, I get up early in the morning and I go to bed early in the evening. I have routines. You have to! Even if I don’t have anything to get up to. Well, except for my dog.
A common characteristic of the interviewees whom I have categorized as belonging to the strategy of expectancy, is an outspoken concern about being a burden to society. For this reason, all imaginable, as well as unimaginable, options are welcome. Hence, contrary to the strategy of adaptation, these youngsters express a desire to move wherever work is offered. However, barriers related to lack of social and educational capital, along with a structuring habitus, which does not help them, seem to hold these individuals back.
The strategy of passivity
Like the previous strategy, all respondents whom I have categorised as employing the strategy of passivity come from working class families, and they all have limited social and educational capital. Within this category some interviewees also dropped out of upper secondary education, which implies that they lack educational capital altogether. In addition, none of them have any direct experience from the labour market. They are seemingly passive, and when it comes to looking for a job they rely on, and sometimes blame failures on, the local employment office. All in all, these youths seem marginalised in all spheres of society
The respondents employing a strategy of passivity seem to have adopted a very inactive attitude, and they almost seem to have surrendered to their fates as being unemployed. None of the interviewees seem particularly keen on doing something about their personal situation. Instead, their approach can be summarized in the following words: “what happens, happens.” Thus, none of these respondents express clear ambitions to position themselves on the labour market, and, as a result, this responsibility falls exclusively on the employment office.
Moreover, all of these respondents grew up in families with working class backgrounds. In addition, and contrary to the categories analysed under the headings above, most had problems finishing upper secondary education and some of them even dropped out ahead of time. According to the respondents, school took too much energy. Hence, they lack educational capital, which usually means that most doors are closed on the labour market. This is unless they somehow manage to catch up with their interrupted upper secondary education. In one of the interviews, one respondent talks about how he was offered a job at a car shop, provided that he finished upper secondary education. Along similar lines, some of the respondents claim that they have discussed vocational training programs at the educational office which could prepare them for jobs that are in demand on the local labour market. Yet, moving away is not an option to any of them. One respondent clearly expresses this reluctance when we discussed alternatives outside of the local labour market:
Why should I move? Should I move just to flip hamburgers? Then, I want guarantees that I get a job, and not move just to take random chances. It feels dull to move to some job, you really don’t want to have. A job you might as well get here. Then it doesn’t matter anyway.
The resentment towards moving away is obvious. Without any educational capital, however, the quoted respondent is not competitive on the labour market in a larger community. Moving would thus constitute a risk, which the respondent seems unwilling to take. Moreover, all of these respondents lack working experience. In spite of this, after demands from the employment office, one of the respondents claims he has taken part in a project for unemployed adolescents, which lasted for one year. Still, similar to the previous example, she describes the difficulties in finding a position on the labour market, along with her own seemingly passive role in this quest:
It is not that easy to get a job, I think, at least not in small place like this. I am not that up to date right now…Now, I know something is going on in the local shops. Anyway, that woman from the employment office called the other day, wondering if I would be interested in working there. But I did not have time to ask about specific details… Apart from this I don’t know. I guess health care needs people, but I really don’t know much more.
This passive approach could at first glance seem irrational. Knowing, however, that the job offered by the employment office is a trainee position, which will not lead to an actual job, the quoted respondent assumes – and probably rightfully so – that there is no real demand for her on the labour market. All efforts she makes have so far been in vain, because she lacks educational capital. This fact might reinforce her passivity, which, in turn, may explain why she even stops looking for information about jobs. When asked, the respondent maintains that it is pointless to keep on looking for something that she will never find anyway. However, the indifference regarding job searching is combined with her strong emphasis on the fact that she is not a liability to the unemployment benefits since her partner supports her. In fact, relations to her own family and to the family of her partner, represent the only networks she has access to. She describes her social situation in the following words:
I don’t’ hang out that much with friends. Most of them have moved, and our family has been rather locked-in since dad passed away. I guess I mostly spend time with my sister…
Following this story, it is fair to say that the social capital of the quoted respondent is limited at best. This is also the case with the other respondents employing the strategy of passivity. When asked, another, male, respondent basically tells the same story. His social capital is limited to his own family. Hence, both of these two respondents are almost in a position of “social isolation” (cf. Heggen et al., 2003: 22), disconnected from society at large. In the interview, the young man goes on and explains that the only occasions when he contacts the rest of society is when he makes his compulsory visits at the employment office, and when he buys groceries. The rest of the time is spent at his partner’s family farm, which is situated a couple of miles outside of the regional centre. This respondent also expresses that it is important to him not to be viewed as a burden to society, and, therefore, he doesn’t demand unemployment benefits. He describes his relation to the rest of society in the following way: It feels like I am at the lowest level, and that I am a burden to others…
In relation to the background, experiences, and attitudes to the labour market among people categorised as belonging to the strategy of passivity, support from society is probably necessary if these youths ever will have the opportunity of getting a job. This is especially true in the Barents region.
The study sketches a picture of how 15 unemployed youths, with limited educational capital and working experience, cope with, and undergo, their situation in a geographic periphery in Sweden. It is more or less commonplace to view unemployed people as one category of individuals, marginalised or excluded from conditions and possibilities in main society (e.g. Raaum et al., 2009). However, after analysing 15 interviews it seems clear that different individuals can develop quite different strategies to cope with their life situation, its difficulties and opportunities, due to their backgrounds, experiences and individual ways of acknowledging their situation.
In this chapter, different categories of individuals are presented as varying coping strategies, in which propensity for action is related to social and educational capital in Bourdieu’s terms: (i) The strategy of action refers to unemployed individuals possessing capital that is valued by the local labour market, and a habitus guiding them to act in an appropriate way, which is likely to give results. (ii) The strategy of adaptation also refers to young people in possession of educational and social capital. Contrary to the first strategy, however, these individuals do not acknowledge their own role in finding employment. They do not seem to spend much time to circumvent the excluding structures of society, but instead focuses their energy on maintaining their positions in other important spheres of society. (iii) The strategy of expectancy refers to individuals whose social capital is severely restricted. Yet, their reflexive abilities induce them to take action, with the hope of attaining a future position on the labour market. However, repeated failures and recurring disappointments eventually leave psychological marks, and hopelessness seems to replace hope. (iv) The strategy of passivity is the last strategy, which refers to individuals that combine a lack of educational and social capital with apathy. These people, more or less consciously, isolate themselves from most spheres of society.
Basic education, which is something that most of the respondents in this study have, is normally seen as a way forward on the labour market. Yet, the study shows that not even the ‘right’ education is enough. It also takes the ‘right’ person with the ‘right’ social capital in order for local employers to open up their eyes to them, ascribe them value, and open doors to them (cf. Heggen et al., 2003). The study illustrates that young people from middle class families, with a theoretical educational capital, have better opportunities on the labour market than young people with working class backgrounds, with vocational educations that the labour market should be demanding. More research on the potential ‘gate keepers’, and the possible excluding role of employers is, therefore, required.
This chapter also paints a picture of how 15 youths in the Barents region experience insecurity in an environment with limited opportunities, and where the structural interruptions in individual life-trajectories have to be dealt with. For those who possess educational and social capital that are valuable to the situation, an embedded propensity to act (habitus) tend to guide their life forms in a positive direction, at least in some spheres of society (strategy i and ii). It is much more difficult to develop an acceptable life trajectory, or to maintain a comprehensive personal life, for those individuals who find themselves in a more negative process of social exclusion (strategies iii and iv). In these cases coping concerns reflexive processes, in Giddens terms, in which a meaningful existence is created in spite of a severely marginalised situation. Individuals attempt to manage an uncertain situation. Most of the respondents were very open about their own situations and tried to cope with their lives in a meaningful way. The stories told varied from rather desperate strategies for finding opportunities on the labour market to almost complete isolation from society.
Coping with life situations and life chances is basically about balancing restrictions and opportunities, which are formed through individuals’ backgrounds, experiences, skills, and ‘thought systems’. The available educational and social capital, and habitus, steers individuals. In an exposed situation, individuals, in spite of structural breaks, attempt to build an identity and endurable life forms that are meaningful, personally and contextually. Evident is also that they want to be “understood” and met by positive understanding. Their situation is not just focused on getting a job. Unemployment in geographically peripheral areas often implies that life is put on hold, and that hope is constantly weighed against despair. It is a constant chase: either you win or you lose. And, important to acknowledge, nobody wants to be a waste and a burden, nobody wants to be seen as a waste and a burden, and nobody wants to feel as a waste and a burden.
I would like to extent my gratitude to Lars-Göran Karlsson and Karl Loxbo for useful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of my manuscript. I am especially grateful for Karl Loxbo, assisting me when translating my manuscript to English.