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Class decides young adults' options

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Social background plays a major part when young adults consider their chances of fulfilling their professional dreams. Old structures go and the individual takes centre stage, forcing people to carry responsibility for their own success or failure. No matter where you work, the group matters less and less.

"Self-confidence, family and network support all play a major part when young people want to make their professional dreams come true. We see an increasingly fragmented working market," says Gunnar Gillberg, doctoral student at the Department of Work Science in Gothenburg.

In mid May 2009, working life researchers from all over Sweden presented their findings at the Gothenburg conference "Work in people's lives". Gunnar Gillberg was one of them. He looks at what jobs young adults aspire to. He explores 20 to 29 year-olds' perceptions of work, as well as the structural conditions influencing their choices. Gunnar Gillberg bases his research on interviews with 22 young adults. Ten of them are training with Kaospiloterna, a entrepreneur and project management education which is very much geared towards future labour markets. The others work at Volvo, in the traditional manufacturing industry. 

The new generation looms

Young adults will soon dominate the labour market. 40 percent of Swedes who were in employment in 2003 will have retired by 2015. It is therefore safe to assume the way young adults view their chances in the future labour market will be a force that will shape that market.
Gunnar Gillberg's paper, presented at the Gothenburg conference, concluded that young adults face a level of individualisation their parent generation never knew. People are increasingly asked to rely on their own resources. This means self-confidence and the ability to rely on support from home become more and more important factors.

"I'm surprised that class is still so important for how people regard their lives and possibilities. Social conditions do play a major role, but in a different way than before. Today it is more about what resources you carry with you from home, while society no longer offers the safety net it once did," says Gunnar Gillberg.

Two worlds

The young adults attending Kaospiloterna are facing stiff competition. Theirs is  an elite education. They come from resourceful homes and have received a lot of support and encouragement. They are self-assured, have good grades and strongly believe they'll fulfil their professional dreams. They will decide their own terms of employment and work will form a very important part of their lives. Work simply IS life, and they are tough on themselves in order to succeed. Some of them have a fear of failure, and feel expectations are high from parents and friends, as well as from society as a whole. Society simply expects success, or you are regarded a looser. You can sum up these young adults' visions of future working life in three terms: space to flourish, self-realisation and autonomy.

"These young people embrace the possibilities given to them by individualisation, and take risks to realise their own goals. At the same time they are incredibly hard on themselves and risk getting exhausted," says Gunnar Gillberg.

Those working for Volvo are happy to share their dreams about work - at least the interview to them is a welcome break from the routine. They've got homogeneous backgrounds. They are working class and their parents lack higher education. Most say they started this work while waiting for something better to come along. They've let chance govern, and many describe their current job as a chance encounter too - even though some of them say they're happy with where they are. But several of the interviewees say they feel a bit stuck in their present situation. They've grown accustomed to steady work and the monthly pay slip. They view further education as expensive, difficult and time consuming work, and many also have bad past experiences with school. There is a fear of taking up further education. They are influenced by their class, but can no longer call on society's help to find a solution to an uncertain situation. 

Obvious loneliness

"People lacking in resources or self-esteem used to be able to lean on the strength of society, the companionship at the work place, or seek safety in belonging to a certain class. Those structures seem to play less of a role today, which means children in working class families will also be aware of modern society's greater degree of uncertainty. In an uncertain world, the dream of security becomes the dream of a house, family and children," says Gunnar Gillberg. 

An increasingly lonely working life is the sign of the times, where the individual carries great responsibility while the possibility for protection from society diminishes. Gunnar Gillberg compares these changes to what happened in the change-over from an agricultural to industrialised society. That shift brought in the social safety nets we know today. Many Swedes are still trade union members, but like for the rest of Europe, the number of young members is falling.

"Trade unions are loosing their role as a power base for the under-privileged, and they face a huge task in reclaiming the initiative," says Gunnar Gillberg.

Gunnar Gilberg

Gunnar Gilberg, svensk forsker

is a doctoral student at the Department of Work Science in Gothenburg.


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