Disconnected Youth? Social Exclusion, the ‘Underclass’ & Economic Marginality

Robert MacDonald

Abstract

Most young people in the UK make relatively ‘successful’, unproblematic transitions from school to work and adulthood. What do we call those that do not? Labels imply explanation, not just description. Terms with academic and policy currency tend to define such young people by something they are not or by their presumed social and economic distance and dislocation from ‘the rest’. How we might best describe, explain and label the experience and problem of so-called ‘socially excluded’, ‘disconnected youth’ is the focus of the paper.

It draws upon extensive qualitative research with young adults growing up in some of Britain’s poorest neighbourhoods, looking particularly at their labour market transitions. Some of the problems and inaccuracies of underclass theory and orthodox conceptualisations of social exclusion are discussed in the light of empirical findings. Following CW Mills, the youthful biographies described are set in a wider panorama of social structure and economic opportunity, particularly the rapid de-industrialisation of the locality studied. Understanding these historical processes of socio-economic change leads to the conclusion that, in short hand, ‘the economically marginal’ is the best descriptive label of the research participants and ‘economic marginalisation’ is the best explanation of their condition.


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