Youth Transitions: Choice Biographies?

Youth Transitions: Exploring choice and complexity in youth transitions today, as opposed to forty years ago.


‘Back in my day, kids had to grow up – we did our schooling, we got a job, and we moved out of home, and had our own families…’ starts the cycle of lectures from an earlier generation, and each new generation starts their own. The implication is that young people are ‘failing to grow up in a timely manner’ (Wyn 2004, p. 1). Youth become ‘passive victims of discourses that proponents from a prior generation proclaim as inevitable truth and reality’ (Dwyer & Wyn 2001, p.205).

Are the transitions of today’s youth comparable to those of earlier generations? No, they are not. While there are obvious similarities, completing a ‘transition to adulthood’ has become much harder to achieve. It has become more complex, and based more on choice than forty years ago. Theorised as a result of processes of individualisation (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002), the ability to self-direct the life course is not all good news; it also puts individuals at greater risk. Our Late modern society has become a ‘risk society’ (Beck 1992, in Thomson 2007, p. 79).


This progression into Late Modernity has made considerable changes to patterns of transitions. Coles (1995, cited in MacDonald et al. 2001, para. 3.4) identifies three ‘interrelated’ transitions; from school to work, from family of origin to family of destination and from childhood home to independent living. In the past, transitions were considered linear, sequential, choice limited, and highly gender specific; this is no longer the case. It is now uncommon for the ‘markers’ of adulthood (completed education, permanent fulltime job, financial and physical independence from ‘family of origin’, and a family of one’s own) to be reached in the traditional youth period, ‘and for some youth are realized only in their late twenties or early thirties – a time of life that extends far beyond common conceptualizations of adolescence’ (McCarthy, Williams & Hagan 2009, p. 233).

Taking a biographical approach (Henderson et al. 2007), we see that youth of today follow varying pathways to adulthood. Studying digital narratives, a form of ethnography, we can identify these pathways, and the effect on youth. The linear transitions of the past, such as Barker’s (2011), who identifies her transition to adulthood as following ‘a linear biographical pattern’, one in which she ‘married early’, had children, and cared for them at home are no longer the norm; transitions now are considered to be ‘prolonged’, ‘parallel’, ‘fragmented’ or ‘multidimensional’. (see Bradley & Devadason 2008, Settersten Jr. 2007, Molgat 2007)

‘entry into adulthood has become more ambiguous and occurs in a more gradual and variable fashion than half a century ago.’ (Settersten Jr. 2007, p. 252)

The development of a ‘post-industrial’ economy, characterised by dominance of the service and knowledge sectors, an increasingly casualised workforce, including women and youth, globalisation, and continuing inequality has created a ‘risk society’. The processes of individualisation that society has encountered have led to the disintegration of social forms, once a basis of support and identity. This has had far-reaching effects on the youth sector, with school-to-work transitions, domestic transitions, and housing transitions all changing; greater autonomy, greater choice, however also increasing complexity, and risk.

‘The evidence in these studies indicates that many in the younger generation are developing new ways of their own for dealing with risk and uncertainty of outcomes’ (Dwyer & Wyn 2001, p. 80)

School to Work Transitions

It is becoming apparent that the school to work transition is losing emphasis, with a large percentage of youth actively pursuing part time work during schooling. While this is not completely ‘new’, it is more prominent because of the increase in number, and the identification that this is choice, rather than actual necessity. Dwyer and Wyn (2001 p. 82), in their ‘Life-Patterns’ research, have identified that it is actually a minority that either don’t work, or would prefer not to, during their education.

Education is now forcing important life-course decisions on young people. With pre-requisites for most university courses, and specific outcomes being targeted, responsibility for planning an entire portion of the life course is expected at a young age. Dwyer and Wyn (2001, p. 80) consider youth to be pragmatic, making decisions that allow them to follow aspirations, while navigating ‘structural’ influences. They go on to discuss post-compulsory education, and believe that youth are finding outcomes ‘less straightforward’, and that they ‘take longer to achieve.’ They consider this to be due to a move to ‘more flexible and deregulated labour markets’ (Dwyer & Wyn 2001, p. 184).

Youth have other difficulties accessing post-compulsory education. There are limits on places, and costs are high, which adds considerably to the risks. Not taking the right subjects, not specialising enough, being too highly specialised, underqualified by inexperience (without opportunity to obtain it), or simply that the jobs are not available, or no longer exist, are all risks needing to be managed by youth through the education continuum. Heinz (2009, p. 5) claims that today’s ‘post-industrial service society’ is forcing youth to make decisions that help them become ‘flexible participants in volatile labour markets’, and they are having to ‘navigate multiple transitions with uncertain outcomes’.

Those uncertain outcomes are now absorbed into changes in the ‘nature of work’. Increases in technology, credentialism, domination of the service and knowledge industries, and normalisation of women and youth into the workforce have played major roles in reducing job opportunities, and changing many previously full time positions to part-time or casual. This highlights the complexity of ‘going out and getting a job’, as many of the older generation were able to assume. ‘Financial independence’ becomes even more difficult to achieve. Bradley and Devadason (2008, p. 130) consider the ‘fractured’ transitions of today’s youth, combined with their low earnings to have caused this generation to have an increased dependency on their families, or the state. This, they claim, will have a distinct impact on retirement savings.

Youth and adults alike are increasingly turning back to education, in various forms. Trew (2011) discusses undertaking several vocational courses over a number of years, while working in various jobs, looking for ‘an answer, and enjoying the learning’. This is important to note in the youth context, since early leaving, or having no qualifications provides a strong likelihood of disadvantage, with UK figures from 2003 showing 55 percent of males and 16 percent of females not in either regular employment or fulltime education/training (Inui 2009, p. 180).

These changes highlight the complexity of school-to-work transitions today, and the number of opportunities to exert agency; however it is recognised that these choices are often forced, and limited by circumstance.

Domestic Transitions

The increased complexity does not end with school-to-work transitions. Domestic life is undergoing major changes. Where once you were ostracised for pre-marital sex, you married within a range of socially ‘suitable’ mates, you had a family, and any marriage difficulties were largely hidden, and lived with ’till death does part’, today it is socially acceptable for: co-habitation prior to (or in place of) marriage, a large range of ‘mixed marriages’ (race, gender or religion), single-parenthood, and blending of families.

The ‘individualisation of the family’ (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002) has led to family relationships becoming ‘elective’. Single parent-hood, and divorce no longer create the disapproval that it once did, and the threat of, or impending custody action forces children and youths to ‘choose’ who their family is, for a given value of choice (see Kaltenborn 2001).

These ‘elective relationships’ have led to a reduction in the influence of the family of origin on partner choice. This has allowed greater freedom in forming youths’ own partnerships, which can be seen in Vine’s (2011) narrative; she entered into her ‘first serious relationship’, and moved out with him a short time later, ‘much to the horror of [her] parents’. It is also noted that young parenthood, co-habitation with a partner, ‘alternative’ lifestyles and the social acceptance of ‘uncommitted’ social and intimate relationships are all less stigmatised than in the past. These particular choices can still be seen negatively, as was the case for Nolan (2011), when identifying as gay; she writes ‘it was difficult for them to understand’, and goes on to say she faced estrangement, separation and loss. Over time, this attitude changed, when ‘[her] family came to see that being gay didn’t change [her]… It was only a small part of [her], one that helped [her] belong’.

Youth may have a more complex domestic life, and the choices they have socially are considerably greater than in the past.

Housing Transitions

In spite of all this choice in the domestic sphere, the lack of access to appropriate housing is still a major obstacle for youth undertaking the ‘transition to adulthood’. In the past, with education usually completed between 18-22, permanent, full time jobs available on completion of these studies, land or established houses for purchase or rent readily obtainable, or accessible opportunity for boarding with others, getting housing outside of the family home was considerably easier. With prolonged education transitions, and returns to study, the obstruction to obtaining housing is often financial. With full-time jobs in shorter supply, and shortages on available housing for either purchase or rent, prices have increased. These inflated costs of living have made it extremely difficult for youth to access housing outside the family home.

Difficulties in accessing housing are compounded when family changes lead to youth homelessness. As seen in figures quoted by Lawrence (2005, p. 284), youth are twice as likely to require accommodation due to homelessness. This can be clearly identified in Silk’s (2011) narrative, where a breakdown in family relationships led to her being ‘kicked out’ of home at 16. She described her ‘life trajectory’ as ‘irrevocably altered’ by this experience. Living for a time with her brother, and in a share house with friends, it took considerable agency to get her life on track. By considering the combination of domestic and housing transitions, the negative effects of individualisation and the complexity of youth housing transitions can be visualised. Choice is a distinctive feature, however in some cases, this is a choice between the ‘lesser of two evils’.


Complexity and choice is an increasing factor in youth transitions. Decisions are placed in the hands of youth early in the life-course; these decisions affect them throughout life. Interrelated transitions, and the associated markers are harder to achieve; some are achieved late, and some may never be completed. Through various researcher’s findings, and this analysis, combined with a biographical approach, it is possible to determine that this complexity, and level of choice is new; a certain increase on forty years ago. While similarities in transitions exist, these can be seen as the early beginnings of a shift to a ‘choice biography’.


Beck, Ulrich, Beck-Gernsheim, Elizabeth 2002, ‘Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences’ SAGE Publications, London.

Barker, Donna 2011, ‘Digital Narrative Barker.D_1’, YouTube ™, Digital Narrative. Retrieved from

Bradley, Harriet and Devadason, Ranji 2008, ‘Fractured Transitions: Young Adults’ Pathways into Contemporary Labour Markets’, Sociology, Vol. 42, Iss. 1, p. 119-136

Dwyer, Peter, Wyn, Johanna 2001, ‘Youth, Education and Risk: Facing the Future’, RoutledgeFalmer, London.

Heinz, Walter 2009, ‘Youth transitions in an age of uncertainty’, in Andy Furlong (ed) ‘Handbook of Youth & Young Adulthood: New Perspectives & Agendas’, Routledge, London.

Henderson, Sheila, Holland, Janet, McGrellis, Sheena, Sharpe, Sue, & Thomson, Rachel 2007, ‘Inventing adulthoods: a biographical approach to youth transitions’, SAGE Publications, London.

Inui, Akio 2009, ‘NEETs, freeters and flexibility: Reflecting precarious situations in the new labour market’, in Andy Furlong (ed) ‘Handbook of Youth & Young Adulthood: New Perspectives & Agendas’, Routledge, London.

Kaltenborn, Karl-Franz 2001, ‘Individualization, Family Transitions and Children’s Agency’, Childhood, Vol. 8, Iss. 4, p. 463 – 498

Lawrence, Jeanette 2005, ‘Young People in Transition: Challenges and Opportunities for Contemporary Australian Youth’, in S. Richardson & M. Prior (eds), ‘No Time to Lose: The Wellbeing of Australia’s Children‘, Melbourne University Press, Australia.

McCarthy, Bill, Williams, Monica and Hagan, John 2009, ‘Homeless youth and the transition to adulthood’ in A. Furlong (ed) ‘Handbook of Youth and Young Adulthood : New Perspectives and Agendas’ Routledge.

Macdonald, R., Mason, P., Shildrick T., Webster, C., Johnston, L. and Ridley, L. 2001, ‘Snakes & Ladders: In defence of studies of youth transition’, Sociological Research Online, Vol. 5 No. 4. Available online at (accessed 01 March 2011).

Molgat, Marc 2007, ‘Do Transitions and Social Structures Matter? How ‘Emerging Adults’ Define Themselves as Adults’, Journal of Youth Studies, 10: 5, 495 — 516

Nolan, Alecia 2011, ‘My First Project’, YouTube ™, Digital Narrative. Retrieved from

Settersten Jr., Richard 2007, ‘Passages to Adulthood: Linking Demographic Change and Human Development’ European Journal of Population, Vol. 23, No. 3/4, pp. 251 – 272.

Silk, Charlotte 2010, ‘youth_and_society_digital_narrative_sp4_2010′, YouTube ™, Digital Narrative. Retrieved from http:

Thomson, Rachel 2007, ‘A biographical perspective’, in M Kehily (ed), ‘Understanding Youth: Perspectives, identities and practices’, SAGE, London.

Trew, Daina 2011, ‘Transition’, YouTube ™, Digital Narrative. Retrieved from

Vine, Kathryn 2010, ‘SGY130 DIGITAL NARRATIVE’, YouTube ™, Digital Narrative. Retrieved from

Wyn, Johanna 2005, ‘Youth, Risk and Education’, in S. Richardson & M. Prior (eds), ‘No Time to Lose: The Wellbeing of Australia’s Children‘, Melbourne University Press, Australia.


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