Young People and Social Justice

By Alan Mackie, Doctoral Researcher, University of Edinburgh

Over the past couple of years I have been conducting research into the lives of a group of young people (aged 16-24) as they navigate their way to adulthood in a community in Scotland. What I am particularly interested in is issues of social justice – and in order to analyse the young people’s lives I am using a framework of social justice conceived by Nancy Fraser, a feminist and socialist who argues that for any society to be called ‘just’ every person must have equal opportunity to participate in social life on a par with their fellow citizens – what she terms ‘participatory parity’.

But what makes up participatory parity? There are three elements to this:

  1. Redistributive issues: That we all have the resources to take part in the normal activities of life – this includes adequate income, access to decent work, education and healthcare for example.
  2. Recognitional issues: This element refers to our identities and the respect we receive from those around us as well as the institutions that circumvent our lives. That we do not suffer discrimination (along the lines of class, race, gender and disability amongst others)
  3. Representational Issues: That we are able to take part in society, have a voice in decision-making – particularly in the political issues that affect our lives.

What is interesting, I think, is when we think about and read of issues such as poverty and inequality we often focus on the redistributive element of social justice. But what is clearly apparent when we broaden our focus is that the three elements described above interact with one another and work to cement exclusion and injustice.

I’ll offer up two examples. The first is that the young people feel utterly forgotten about by our politicians. Unable to secure even the opportunity to access decent and stable employment, they feel that participation in politics is pointless. Other research has found similar – issues of poverty and exclusion from the labour market weakens ties to community, society and participation in decision-making as well as the ‘normal’ routines of life. A young mum in my study, for example, was so ashamed of her financial predicament that she would hide away from family and friends. Unable to purchase the most basic (and most essential) of goods, her embarrassment and shame meant she became increasingly isolated and as a result her mental health suffered.

Second – many of the young people are self-excluding from accessing social security. Some of the young people doing this are already in impoverished households and so doing this is only deepening their poverty. And they are often supported in this decision by parents, partners and others. But why are they doing this? Many have told me that they do not want to suffer the social stigma that goes with accessing ‘benefits’ and going to the job centre. To do so would be ‘scummy’ and make them a ‘scrounger’. It has been clear in my research that the denigrating discourse that has become commonplace in media and political rhetoric around social security is impacting on the young people – whether affecting their own identity or their views on others accessing social security. We can see the recognitional and redistributive spheres intersecting here as institutional rhetoric affects the young people’s sense of self and impacts on their access to even the most paltry of incomes.

But what can be done? Firstly, we need to have a serious think about the employment opportunities currently around for young people who leave school with poor qualifications. All the young people in my cohort are desperate to find opportunities that offer stability – and if not stability, then at least the opportunity to access meaningful qualifications or meaningful skills that could allow them to visualise a more positive future. At the moment, I argue this is not happening.

The second and most important thing is to realise that the youth ‘phase’ has changed so markedly, and become so disrupted and extended, that it is no longer appropriate to treat it in the same way as we have in the past. We like to think that young people don’t need the same resources as the rest of us. That they can get by on very little, but the truth is that young people need the same as everyone else. They need food, clothes, access to decent housing, access to meaningful work and the dignity and respect that any of us need. And they need this now, not at some imagined point in the future. Social justice is not just for ‘adults’ – it is for us all.