Every summer, Sydney’s newspapers contain accounts of drownings at surf beaches or fishermen swept off rocks. The hazards of the ocean inevitably result in the loss of irreplaceable lives. Yet the sense of tragedy is magnified if the person happens to drown while swimming between two red-and-yellow flags - the area patrolled by lifeguards.
Conversely, those who swim outside the flags, while their deaths are no less tragic, are more likely to be viewed as somehow complicit in the disaster that befell them, a view summarised in the oft-heard phrase “they knew the risks”. In extreme cases, we might feel no sympathy at all for those who are dragged out to sea from precarious rocky fishing-spots - we might shrug and say “they brought it on themselves”.
What is going on here? Why is our society predisposed to treat the same fate differently, based on the relative location of swimmer and flags? Why are councils so solicitous in erecting signposts and educating swimmers to swim between the flags? To what mystical power do we ascribe the ability of rock fishermen to “bring upon themselves” a killer wave?
And what has any of this to do with young people navigating the overlapping years of formal education, career initiation and adulthood? An explanation can be found in the cultural assumptions behind “risk” and “youth transition” which underpin many social and political judgments concerning education and employment.
This article identifies a positive feedback loop between the political uses of risk and education as tools to distribute accountability among young people, perpetuating many of the perceptual errors in which our society is caught.
In recent decades, Ulrich Beck and Mary Douglas emerge as two key theorists of risk. Beck’s explanation of risk, grounded in economic and political philosophy, emphasises the discontinuities between contemporary society and earlier forms of modernity. Conversely, Douglas’s account, based in anthropology, emphasises the continuities with which risk has replaced “sin” or “taboo” to perform the socially-essential functions of apportioning blame.
Beck elucidates the probabilistic, indeterminate nature of risk as being when we feel “no longer trust/security, [but] not yet destruction/disaster”. Risk exists forever in potentia. It is not real; but nor is it fantastical. To be “at risk”, there must be a non-zero chance of the feared disaster occurring. Moreover, Beck proposes that individuals modify their behaviour in the presence of risk - usually seeking to act in manner that reduces the amount of risk they feel.
An important implication of this view is that, if the feared event never occurs or is forever deferred, the risk can exist, and so influence behaviour, indefinitely (the fear of terrorism being a cogent example).
Beck’s central claim is that the ever-present behavioural influence of risk is the defining characteristic of the late-modern period, setting us apart from earlier societies, in a mould he termed “risk society”.
As for “youth transition” this is referred to as the period, usually years long, during which young people conclude their secondary education and eventually emerge as acknowledged adults engaged in an independent household and or career. During transition, youth are said to make “biographical decisions” concerning further education, vocation, family, sexuality and recreation: and they may oscillate between the socially-recognised youth and adulthood phases.
Youth in transition are, to borrow Beck’s phraseology, no longer children/family but not yet adults/workers. Living as they do in a fluctuating identity phase-space, youth are the very quintessence of risk, and remain so as long as their indeterminate status holds.
A corollary of Beck’s thesis, echoed by Anthony Giddens, and especially pertinent to youth in transition, is that in risk society, the formerly stable elements of modern identity formation - family, education and work - have been overwhelmed by global economic and political forces. Indeed, throughout developed countries, there is much empirical evidence that youth transitions are taking longer and follow a less predictable course, coupled with a higher likelihood of unemployment, than in the immediate post-war generation.