Disadvantaged young adults in Germany – first impressions from our research

  • Inspiration, News
  • 25.05.2024

As the German team of the Involve project, we have started a first round of individual interviews and focus groups in two different places: a small town (of circa 20,000 inhabitants) and a medium-sized city (of circa 250,000 inhabitants), both situated in former “West Germany”. In each of these locations, we established a cooperation with a local association that supports young adults who face various types of difficulties. One of these organizations is attached to a large umbrella organization of the Protestant church, the other has ties with the German trade union movement. Both these organizations carry out measures commissioned by the Jobcenter, i.e. the German labor market services. What these programs do, for example, is to help disadvantaged young adults find a place for vocational training or a job; to obtain a school-diploma; or to find out what they want to do in life. Clients are also supported in dealing with day-to-day challenges, such as those related to the fields of housing, health and access to welfare benefits. Within the legal framework set by the German social code, the measures are conceived by the local organizations themselves. Organizations compete, in their respective regions, for public funding and for having clients assigned to their programs by the Jobcenters.

In each case, we engaged with a group of approximately 15 young persons, males and females. In the small town, the group is aged between 18 and 20, whereas in the bigger city, the group is slightly older (between 21 and 23 years). In the former group, there is a large fraction of persons who came to Germany as refugees only a few years ago, some are looking out to be naturalized as German citizens soon. In the bigger-town group, most are German citizens (about half of them with migration background). Up to now, we have completed a total of ten individual interviews and seven focus-group sessions with the young persons, as well as one interview with four social workers in one of the organizations.

What emerged from our research so far is that these young people are deprived in various important life dimensions. They often experienced a difficult childhood (and in some cases grew up in a children’s home, separated from their parents because of major family issues). Several faced discrimination and/or mobbing, which led them to have bad results at school or even to leave school without a diploma. Several suffer(ed) from depression and other psychological problems (e.g. attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Our respondents tend to live in situations marked by socioeconomic and educational deprivations. As a consequence, many have difficulties in formulating life-goals and aspirations (which indicates a low “capability to aspire”).

As far as democratic participation is concerned, most of these young persons are so immersed in the problems of their “private” lives that they remain largely un-politicized: they tend to be disinterested in politics and sociopolitical topics and to remain politically passive (i.e. not to engage in any form of politics, including through association-membership, participation at demonstration, signing a petition or else). While they are thus mostly absent from democratic processes, they also do not to trust politicians, governments or public institutions and do not feel represented by political parties (and thus not to participate in elections). We hypothesize that the supportive work done by the organizations, mainly aimed at solving personal, education- and work-related problems, lays the basis for some democratic participation further down the line. Participants in our sample show a very heterogeneous degree of competences, and those who struggle to find a day structure or to formulate a personal view that they can communicate to others, face the largest obstacles on their way to democratic citizenship. It becomes clear that democracy depends not only on education in terms of information and knowledge, e.g. of democratic institutions and policy options. Democracy also depends on very basic prerequisites, like persons’ capacity to constructively deal with difficult life situations, to attend a gathering, to function in a group, to follow a discussion, etc. In a way, we consider that successfully mastering these steps is already a form of democratic behavior in itself: Most of our respondents may think rather in local and private terms, but even in these limited contexts, their behavior can express (or not) the principles of democratic society.

The young people accepted more or less enthusiastically to participate in the research process––they seemed to enjoy it, especially the individual interviews. However, given the conditions described above, it is challenging to truly empower them for concrete political action. For example, it was sometimes difficult to develop policy proposals in the focus groups, and while some participants were very vocal and articulate, others remained silent. Of course, processes of empowerment require time. Unfortunately, the programs in both organizations last for at most one year, minus summer holidays, excursions, etc. We hope to remain in contact with at least some of the participants for continuing our work with them after the current programs have finished. In addition, we plan to start with a new set of participants in at least one of the two organizations in October 2024, possibly preparing cross-talks with relevant deciders already at the outset. Our hope is that working towards a concrete goal (i.e. the preparation of, for example, a public event or of a debate with relevant political actors) may instill a more proactive dynamic in the collective work, thereby helping the young people to develop aspirations for political change and to raise their voice.

Francesco Laruffa; René Lehwess-Litzmann

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