Understanding the Policy Assumptions Made in Youth Employment Activation from a Capability Approach
Key to addressing youth unemployment is having employment activation policies that successfully support young people into employment. In the development and implementation of employment activation policies certain institutional assumptions are made about the best ways in which to move people into work. For example should the focus be on ‘work first’ rapid labour market entry, with little attention to job sustainability (McQuaid & Fuertes 2014)? Or should there be an effort to support personal development and the acquisition of long-term skills (Lindsay et al. 2007)? What are the barriers and enablers to youth employment that should be addressed by employment activation policy, and are supply or demand measures the most appropriate to support young people into work? At the EU policy level there has been an emphasis on employment and social inclusion, more jobs and better jobs, and ‘flexicurity’ (European Commission 2010; European Commission 2011; European Commission 2013). There are however, some who argue that the debate on the best ways in which to support young people into work needs to be reframed beyond these current approaches to focus on the opportunity individuals have to make choices that they have reason to value, proposing that the Capability Approach offers a useful perspective on the employment activation of young people (Egdell & McQuaid 2014).
It is in this context that this paper takes a Capability Approach to investigate the assumptions made in youth employment activation policy development and implementation, exploring how different actors define the ‘problem’ of youth unemployment. The paper explores how institutions have shaped the way in which youth unemployment has been framed. It argues that the Capability Approach offers a valuable framework that allows us to look more critically at how youth unemployment has been framed and the policy assumptions made.
The Capability Approach, developed by Amartya Sen (1992; 1985; 1998), is centred on the freedom and opportunity individuals have to make choices that they value. The Capability Approach has been used to examine labour market activation as well as the equalities and human rights, poverty measures, careers guidance and social inequalities in health (Burchardt & Vizard 2011; Abel & Frohlich 2012; Bussi & Dahmen 2012; Kana Zeumo et al. 2014; Egdell & McQuaid 2014; Robertson 2014). The Capability Approach, as developed by Sen (1992; 1985; 1998) provides a useful lens to understand the assumptions made in youth employment activation policy and the constructions of the barriers and enablers to youth employment in policy discourses and implementation. It challenges more dominant income or utility based approaches to understanding the causes of youth unemployment. A capabilities informed approach to youth employment activation implicitly recognises the importance of the resources (goods and services) a young person can access, as well their ability to utilise these – the ‘conversion factors’ (Sen 2009). The Capability Approach also acknowledges that choices may be limited by low expectations (Nussbaum 2000). As such the Capability Approach offers a useful framework to re-evaluate how youth unemployment has been framed, the assumptions made about the best ways in which to support young people into work, and how the barriers and enablers to youth employment have been conceived.
The work presented in this paper draws on ongoing in-depth mixed methods research undertaken in Scotland as part of an EU Framework funded study (SocIEtY: Social Innovation – Empowering the Young for the Common Good), in which policy assumptions in youth employment activation are explored from a Capability Approach. The paper provides a capability analysis of the narratives of stakeholders responsible for the development and implementation of youth employment policy, as well as of youth employment policy documents. To further understand the assumptions operated and valued by stakeholders responsible for the development and implementation of youth employment policy, results from Q methods interviews are also explored (see for further information about this method: Watts and Stenner (2012); McKeown and Thomas (2013)). In this approach stakeholders are presented with statements about young people and work and asked to sort these on a nine point scale from completely disagree to completely agree. The results presented highlight that employment policy focuses on: individual attributes and deficits, employability, and participation in any employment; rather than participation in ‘quality’ employment and wider issues such as wellbeing and satisfaction with life and the value attached to job outcomes. Policy does acknowledge the importance of ‘meaningful’ work. But how this is defined, and by whom, is not clear. Using Q analysis, the hidden preferences of, and variations between, stakeholders are revealed.
Conclusions are made regarding the implications of taking a Capability Approach to exploring the policy assumptions made in the development and implementation of youth employment activation policies. As such this paper provides insights into the informational basis of policy making. Brief comparisons are also made, drawing on findings from other countries represented in the SocIEtY project, looking at the similarities and differences between the UK and other European countries in terms of policy assumptions and constructions of the ‘problem’ of youth unemployment.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme FP7 under grant agreement n°320136 (see Article II.30. of the Grant Agreement).