Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Robert MacDonald, Paul Mason, Tracy Shildrick, Colin Webster, Les Johnston and Louise Ridley (2001) 'Snakes & Ladders: In Defence of Studies of Youth Transition'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 4, <>

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Received: 21/11/2000      Accepted: 9/2/2001      Published: 28/2/2001


Although enjoying a period of renewed government policy interest and favourable research funding, youth studies has recently come under considerable intellectual attack, much of it from within. A common theme is that the major conceptual approach of most British youth research over the past twenty years - the sociological study of youth transitions - is not helpful in approaching 'the youth question'. The paper locates these recent critiques in terms of the development of 'two traditions' of youth research in the UK; a development which has served to separate structural and cultural analyses and so to limit the theoretical potential of the field.A recent qualitative study of young people growing up in Teesside, Northeast England is then discussed. Close analysis of the biographies of two of its participants are used as the basis for a reconsideration of the nature of transitions amongst 'socially excluded' youth and a discussion of some of the limitations of recent critiques of youth studies. The paper argues that the sort of research, methods and analysis employed here provide one example of how interests in the cultural and structural aspects of youth might be integrated. It concludes by reasserting the theoretical value of a broad conceptualisation of transition in understanding the social, economic and cultural processes that define the youth phase.

Social Exclusion.; Transition; Youth; Youth Culture; Youth Studies


Although enjoying a period of renewed government policy interest in its findings, and of relatively favourable research funding, youth studies has recently come under considerable intellectual attack, much of it from within. A common, central theme of these separate complaints is that the dominant conceptual approach of most British youth research - the sociological study of youth transitions - is now longer helpful in describing the changing situation of young people (if it ever was).

The first part of the paper locates such critiques in terms of the development of 'two traditions' of youth research in the UK over the past thirty years. The next section draws upon one recent study to illustrate how we might conceptualise youth transition in order to understand better the social, economic and cultural processes which define the youth phase. In conclusion, it is argued that much of the recent critique of the study of youth transitions is misconceived and that this perspective remains a fruitful one for youth studies.

Two Traditions of Youth Research and the 'Problem' of Transition

Bob Coles was one of the first writers to note how, in the mid-1980s, youth sociology was splitting into two separate trajectories (Coles, 1986). That youth sociology has developed into two distinct perspectives and that this separation hampers a more holistic study of youth are ideas that have now become axiomatic in youth studies (Jones, 1988; Griffin 1993; MacDonald, Banks and Hollands 1993; Gayle, 1998). In this section we review these ideas in order to contextualise some recent criticisms of youth studies.

These two approaches can be characterised as the youth cultural studies tradition (chiefly associated with the influential work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the mid-1970s) and the youth transitions tradition (perhaps typified by the ESRC's '16 to 19 Initiative' at the beginning of the 1990s). As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, several factors influenced the turn away from theoretically-driven, ethnographic studies of youth sub-cultural style and resistance (e.g. Hall and Jefferson, 1976; Hebdige, 1979) towards more empirically and policy oriented accounts of school-to-work transitions (e.g. Roberts, 1984; Walker and Barton, 1986).

One factor was the emergent, critical assessment of the CCCS's work. In what is still one of the most insightful critiques of sub- culture theory, Gary Clarke questioned:

'...the value of decoding the stylistic appearances of particular tribes during a period in which young adults are the prime victims of a state policy of manufactured unemployment...the time has come to turn our eyes away from the stylistic art of a few...' (Clarke, 1982: 1).

Empirical changes in the youth situation also motivated a shift away from cultural studies towards more 'social problems' oriented approaches (Griffin, 1993). From 1980 onwards - with the advent of Thatcherism, the 'collapse' of the youth labour market, soaring youth unemployment, and the expansion of youth training schemes - the academic gaze settled on the changing structural situation of young people and the steps they took from school-to-work (or unemployment and schemes). With the demise of punk apparently signalling the end of the post-war parade of resistant subcultures, youth cultures seemed less interesting and pressing to sociologists (and their funding bodies) than young people's 'fractured' transitions to adulthood. According to Ken Roberts:

'youth's new condition led to a boom in youth research, mostly policy- oriented research, which was weak on theory but strong in counting and profiling those experiencing education, training, jobs and unemployment, then charting their next steps' (Roberts, 1997: 62).

In the 1980s, then, the study of youth transitions became the main preoccupation of youth sociology and the questionnaire surveying of cohorts of school-leavers, rather than ethnographic observation of sub-cultural groups, became the dominant methodology.

The early 1990s brought some reanimation of youth cultural studies, largely as a response to the reanimation of youth culture itself. This 'new cultural turn' has coalesced around a common interest in vibrant and diverse club cultures and the proliferation of fragmented and ephemeral youth cultural styles and identities (Redhead, 1993,1997;Thornton, 1995; Malbon, 1999; Bennett, 2000; Muggleton, 2000). In the main these authors distance themselves from the class-based theory of the CCCS (and the more general interest in social inequalities found in transitions research). Post-modern theory and participant observation are distinctive features of this new trend in youth cultural studies.

The bifurcation of youth studies can be exemplified by two texts published in the early 1990s. Careers and Identities (Banks et al, 1992), was the main volume to emerge from the ESRC's '16 to 19 Initiative' and is firmly in the transitions camp. Redhead's (1993) Rave Off! Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture was the first in the new wave of youth cultural studies. Despite being published at the same 'moment' and sharing a focus on young people in Britain neither seemed to be in the least interested in the other's topics. Reading these books side by side one might imagine that the cultural and leisure lives of young people, as described by Redhead, were wholly detached from their lives as young workers, trainees, college students or the young unemployed, as described by Banks et al, (and vice versa).

This division still maintains and youth cultural studies remain marginal to the main(stream) thrust of the field. The current ESRC 'Youth, Citizenship & Social Change' programme (see is again dominated by transitions studies, even though the early research agendas argued that, this time, youth culture and identity would be integrated as core research themes (Bynner et al, 1997b). Interestingly, the programme director has said that this lacunae exists because the 'user group' and policy interests on the ESRC's commissioning board could not see the relevance of youth culture research to them (a topic which we will be returning to later) [1].

It is important to stress that the developments of these traditions of research are general trends introduced here for descriptive purposes. The separation of 'structural' from 'cultural' analysis has never been absolute either at the level of individual projects or in the field of youth studies as a whole. For example, some of the work associated with the CCCS placed particular emphasis upon combining cultural ethnography with a structural analysis of youth's economic and political condition (e.g. Willis, 1977; Hall et al, 1977). And a number of studies that had the restructured youth transitions of the 1980s and '90s as their main subject matter simultaneously used qualitative approaches to access the lived, cultural experiences of youth (e.g. Griffin, 1985; Brown, 1987; Hollands, 1990; Bates and Riseborough, 1993; Blackman, 1995) [2].

By the turn of the century, however, the perceived marginality of more 'lively', ethnographic and theoretically-driven studies of young people's cultural worlds and identities - and the perceived hegemony of 'dry', quantitative, empiricist and policy-driven mappings of school-to-work transitions - have led some important figures in the field to argue that youth studies is in a parlous, near moribund state (Jeffs and Smith, 1998; Miles, 2000; Cohen and Ainley, 2000). According to Miles, such trends threaten the 'very authenticity of the sociology of youth' (ibid: 11).

These critics offer different theoretical and methodological prescriptions for 'the way forward'; what Cohen and Ainley (2000: 88-9) see as 'a third space between a narrow empiricist focus on transitions and a quasi-anthropological concern with exotic instances of youthful deviance and difference' . It is not the purpose of this paper to consider the various 'answers' offered in these texts. Whilst there is much in their separate critiques with which we would concur, we are more concerned with assessing their depiction of 'the problem' of youth studies. They tend to agree that the over-riding failing of youth sociology over the past twenty years has been its preoccupation with the concept of transition. Cohen and Ainley (2000: 80) lambast what they perceive as the 'narrowly restricted' economism of a 'series of repetitive and redundant...transitions studies'. Jeffs and Smith are equally if not more scathing in their criticism:

'...the field of study has produced little of substance and certainly nothing fresh or original for nearly two decades. It has become more inward-looking. As a sub-discipline it is unlikely to disappear (although perhaps it should) as too many have invested too much in it...[but] it is likely to become increasingly irrelevant. Exhausted, reduced to picking over the minutiae of young people's lives and reworking its own tired models [of transition] it will stagger on...' (Jeff and Smith, 1998: 59, our additions in square brackets).

Miles argues that:

'The adopt a structural perspective on transitions has been counter-productive, primarily because of its failure to prioritize the actual views, experiences, interests and perspectives of young people as they see them, in favour of bland discussions, most commonly of trends in employment and education patterns...[T]he most damaging problem with the 'transitions debate' is that it has tended to take young people out of the youth equation...treat[ing] young people as troubled victims of economic and social restructuring without enough recourse to the active ways in which young people negotiate such circumstances in the course of their every day lives...(Miles, 2000:10).

Fergusson et al (2000) are less damning but also question the idea that there is now a mainstream transition and that the post-16 years are made up of orderly, logical and linear stages towards adulthood. A significant minority of teenagers in their study followed flexible and non- traditional pathways through the multiplicity of options now available in post-16 education, employment and training markets. Cohen and Ainley (2000: 83) make a similar point: 'young people simply do not view work and study in the linear sequential way implied...images about "pathways" and linear transitions from school via further study and then into the world of work and an independent adult way of life do not reflect the actual experience of growing up' . They, like Miles, call for a greater focus upon the different patterns of response that young people are establishing and the meanings of these changes for school leavers.

Contrary to these critics, we would wish to reassert the value of the transitions perspective. A key part of our argument will be that the model of transitions studies that they construct, and then attack, is one that we do not recognise as now holding the sort of sway in the field that it is ascribed to it. These critics tend to present a narrow and largely outdated picture of the nature of transition studies and underplay the theoretical potential of contemporary studies of youth transition. Next we draw upon one such study in an attempt to demonstrate how a central concern with transitions - broadly conceived - need not lead to accounts which are overly 'bland' and 'irrelevant', nor be restricted to issues of education and employment.

Youth Transitions and 'Social Exclusion' in Willowdene

The Project: Research Site, Methods and Sample

The study was undertaken in a neighbourhood called 'Willowdene' in Teesside, Northeast England [3]. Willowdene's 10,000 residents mostly reside in large estates of council owned housing. In the 1950s it was regarded as a desirable residential area but by the early 1990s it had become notorious for high rates of crime, particularly drug-related offending. Like Teesside more generally, it suffers from 'joblessness', poor health, educational underachievement and lone parenthood. Despite community regeneration projects, Willowdene is still marked by pockets of abandoned housing. Some streets contain up to 50 per cent void properties. It is in the top 10 per cent of most deprived wards in the country and provides a classic case of the entrenched and 'joined-up' problems of 'socially excluded areas' (see Johnston et al, 2000 for a fuller discussion and <> for a summary of findings).

The project employed qualitative interviews with 98 young people (aged 15 to 25 years), supplemented by periods of participant observation. The sample was not recruited in a statistically random way but opportunistically in order to gain access to different experiences of transition. It included youth trainees, college students, unemployed people, young parents, employees, young offenders, New Deal participants, the self-employed and 'fiddly workers'. Just under half of the sample were female and virtually all were working-class and of white ethnicity. The interviews investigated transitions by gathering detailed, retrospective accounts of individuals' biographies. They took place in place a variety of sites, were normally tape-recorded and lasted for about an hour on average.

Project Aims: Youth Transitions and 'Alternative Careers'

The central aim was to investigate youth transitions in a context of 'social exclusion' and to explore the range of 'mainstream' and 'alternative' careers that young people from one place evolved over time. Of special interest was how young people from the same locale and from (apparently) the same socio- economic background might follow quite diverse careers with markedly different outcomes in their twenties.

To this end we employed the notion of 'career' in order to help theorise the interplay of agency and structure in the making of youth transitions (Hodkinson and Sparkes, 1997). 'Career' implies that the varied experiences that make up youth transitions can take place in a particular sequence and lead to different destinations. Going beyond the narrow focus on school-to- work transitions (which did tend to dominate research in the 1980s and early 1990s), Coles argues that a further two transitions are also important. These he calls 'the transition from family of family of destination (the domestic transition); and the transition from residence with parents (or surrogate parents) to living away from them (the housing transition)' (Coles, 1995: 8). For Coles, each of these interact so that the status gained in one may both determine and be determined by that which is gained in another. A very simple example would be that becoming homeless might result in becoming unemployed, or vice versa. He says that, in addition, three interrelated strands influence these transitions: access to citizenship, which is shaped by state legislation and policy; the interaction between young people, their families and professionals; and the 'spatial structures' of localities as young people make choices at 'critical points'. Coles' framework reflects a shift away from overly determinist accounts of 'career trajectory' which were prominent in the early 1990s and a greater 'emphasis on the significance of individual action in the shaping of biographies' (Bynner et al, 1997b: 5).

One under-developed aspect of the youth transitions literature is a consideration of the 'alternative careers' that youth may develop in response to the restriction of formal economic opportunities. Craine (1997) has described the 'criminal careers' pursued by some young, working-class men - and 'the mothering option' adopted by some young, working-class women - in the context of high unemployment. MacDonald's previous research on Teesside (MacDonald, 1997, 1998) has investigated the variety of alternatives to jobs that were established by non-employed young people. Criminal careers and engagement in informal economic activity (small-scale self-employment, 'fiddly work', etc.) were also topics for the project discussed here.

Two Cameos of Youth Transition in Willowdene

In order to reflect some of the sample's diverse experiences, we present the biographies of two people selected from the research in Willowdene. We are not claiming that either case is typical. Nor do their accounts cover all the issues that became relevant to our analysis of the full sample. But neither are their stories isolated or unusual examples when compared with those of the others. Paul Mason conducted both interviews and the text presented in inverted commas is direct quotation.


Anthony was 17 years old when he was interviewed. Unusually for this project he was met on two occasions rather than one. The first interview quickly revealed that he was, at the time, under the influence of heroin. He contacted Paul a week later, to request a second interview.

As with a number of other participants, it was impossible to comprehend Anthony's story without inquiring about experiences before the age of 15 (which had been envisaged as the starting point for the biographical discussion). Anthony had been 'expelled' from his primary school at the age of 10 for disruptive behaviour: 'messing about, daft things'. Throughout his childhood and early teens he lived with his mother. His father was in prison for most of this time: 'he hit a bobby with an axe'. Anthony was then sent to a special school but consistently 'walked out and went home' because he felt he couldn't cope: 'there was, like, too many in the room, like too many kids'.

He was 'expelled' again at the age of 13 after being found in possession of illegal drugs (cannabis) at school. At the same time his family moved to Willowdene, from another part of Teesside, and he made friends with local teenagers, spending most days and evenings 'messing about, playing football and that. Basketball. Just go for a laugh. Get chases off people and that, what kids do innit?'. Around the age of 14 to 15, Anthony and his friends 'kept getting arrested all the time [for] just daft stuff, shoplifting...mooching [thieving from] sheds and daft things, but not proper house burglaries and things like that'. This early criminal career coincided with sporadic drug use (of cannabis) and drinking (alcohol) on the streets around Willowdene. At this age he had a negative attitude to serious drug users - 'dirty smackheads' in the local parlance. Anthony made efforts to cease his cannabis use and to avoid his shoplifting friends, with some short- term success.

At the age of 16 several events conspired to set Anthony on a more negative path. His cousin, who lived nearby, was released from prison and Anthony 'started knocking about with him all the time'. His cousin introduced Anthony to heroin use: 'I thought it was fun'. His cousin's parents were also long- term drug users and are now currently serving five years in prison for dealing heroin. Anthony smoked heroin for about six months, before moving onto injecting use (which continued over the seven months to the time of interview): 'we never had enough [heroin] between day, so we had to, like we used a needle to inject it...then the smoking wasn't doing nowt for me. You get a better hit...injecting it'.

From 13 onwards Anthony had had little consistent education. At 16, he some efforts to find a job, but with no school qualifications and - by that time - a criminal record, he had no luck: 'they don't want criminals or owt working in shops, do they?' He entered a Youth Training scheme that lasted for four months, then left for a job in a local food-processing factory that paid much higher wages (about 150 per week). This only lasted for two months because of heroin-related health and behaviour problems. At around the same time, his mother discovered Anthony was using heroin and involved in crime. She asked him to leave home and ceased providing any financial support: 'she doesn't wanna know me'. Anthony became homeless ('just dossing everywhere'). He had no source of income to fund his deepening heroin dependency (he was injecting four times a day at this point because he 'had more time to use it'). Anthony returned to shoplifting, commenced burgling houses and also committed a street robbery for which he was arrested and convicted. He spent 6 days in prison on remand and then received a probation sentence that he was currently serving.

His probation officer found him accommodation in a local hostel for the homeless and helped him enter a methadone programme (to wean him off heroin) which he was sticking to with only limited success: 'I need something to take the pain away and that, to help me. I just need help man. I'm fucking sick of it. Proper sick of it. It's doing me head in. I just need help - anything - to get me off it'.

At the age of 17, Anthony was severely depressed about his life. He was awaiting another court appearance for a burglary charge and still living in the hostel which he hated ('it's just full of druggies'). Heroin use there provided constant temptation. He said that he wanted to give up heroin and leave the hostel - 'in the end I hope I'm just gonna leave, see if I can go back to me mam's'. He was pessimistic, though, about the likelihood of this and what might happen if he did. He felt that at 16, prior to heroin, he 'had loads of choices' but now there were 'no choices'. He thought that returning to live in Willowdene was likely to lead to continued heroin use that would demand continued burglary. He said 'Willowdene is shit, it just does your head in...everywhere you go now there's drugs. So there's no point in saying I want so and so because there's too many drugs in the area. It's everywhere you go now, the drugs, everywhere'.


Holly was 24 years old when we interviewed her. She described herself as a 'good student' at school until her father died when she was 15. She reported receiving no emotional or other support at this time: 'I just seemed to have no one really so I just went wrong about things'. She started smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol after getting in with the 'wrong crowd', began to truant and her relationship with her mother began to deteriorate. She 'couldn't wait' to leave school and resented its rules and the teachers. She has never collected her GCSE results, as she didn't think that they would be worth receiving.

At 16, Holly joined a hairdressing Youth Training scheme, spending eighteen months in one salon before the owner closed the business. She began training at another placement but there was already a junior employee there who was given the majority of interesting work to do: 'they were just giving me all the daft stuff to do while she was getting everything to do, so I just left. And I left home at the time so I got in with the wrong boyfriend. Just went a bit wild'. She now feels 'gutted' that she didn't get any qualifications. By now she was 18 and her relationship with her mother was worsening. She moved in with her new boyfriend, a young man with a record of criminal offending. She left her training scheme unqualified and spent six months unemployed.

Holly managed to find various part-time jobs working in shops, all of which were gained through word of mouth. She began taking amphetamines and smoking cannabis, and sometimes would not eat due to her low-income (much of which was used for purchasing drugs). She remained with her boyfriend for around a year, despite his spells in prison. Through the mediation of her sister, she moved back to her mother's house. Her boyfriend threatened her (attempting to run her over with a car in one incident) and she fled to Brighton to stay with relatives until he went into prison again.

At this point, Holly started to see another boyfriend who worked as a DJ, and they moved to Manchester as he had some work there. Holly worked part-time in shops and occasionally worked in the same nightclub as her boyfriend. She also had a short-lived enterprise selling counterfeit perfumes, mainly to friends and family. She began taking large amounts of ecstasy and amphetamines. Although friends and family had expressed concern, it wasn't until one day in Manchester city-centre - when she overheard some girls commenting on how thin she was and when she saw her reflection in a shop window - that she decided to stop. 'I thought "what have you done?''; she weighed just over 4 stone. Holly and her boyfriend decided to move back to Teesside.

She retrained at college in beauty therapy (gaining an NVQ) and commenced a short-lived business enterprise with her boyfriend's mother (who never actually paid Holly a wage for her work). Holly returned to part- time work in a local clothes shop. Following a dispute with the manager (who was himself sacked for the way he treated staff) Holly was sacked and spent the next year unemployed. Holly wanted to find a job but was unable to do so: 'I was going to the Job Centre and even [they] were saying there's just nothing going, nothing worth having really...'. By now Holly and her boyfriend had their own house in Willowdene, and he had begun an HND course at a nearby university. Unemployment made Holly feel bored and de-motivated: she felt 'stuck in a rut'. Holly was placed on the newly introduced New Deal programme. During its 'gateway' period, she applied for more jobs: 'it was just you'd go on a Wednesday and sign on and do your job search. If there was some jobs going, apply for them, if not you'd just go home'. At the end of this initial period her Personal Advisor suggested that she begin an NVQ level 3 in Business Administration; this was the only option offered. Holly decided to do the course, which - at the time of the interview - she had been on for four weeks.

Holly, at 24 years, was beginning to feel more optimistic about her life and her future. She was enjoying having something to do, did her homework promptly every evening and was gaining confidence through giving presentations and learning new skills. She hoped that it would lead to a full-time job in administration, although she had received no career guidance toward this end. Holly hoped to leave Kelby in the future. Her boyfriend was beginning a degree, and she hoped that when this was completed that they could move south where she thought there would be more jobs and a better environment in which to raise a family. Although she liked her house in Willowdene she was scared of being burgled and felt intimidated at night. Her aim was to get married, have children and be 'just normal'.

Snakes & Ladders: Reconsidering the Nature of Youth Transitions

Next we explore these cameos to see what broader conclusions we can draw about youth transitions in Willowdene. Whilst they are based on only two of the interviewees' accounts, the arguments we make are pertinent to understanding - and drawn from an analysis of - the sample as a whole. We will also suggest that this analysis has relevance for the more general debate about the nature of youth transitions and the value of this concept in youth studies.

So, what do these case studies tell us?

Firstly, and most obviously, the transitions that they reveal are extraordinarily complex. They do not convey a simple, straightforward 'story'. The careers of Holly and Anthony involve a multiplicity of changing statuses over time, which are not connected in a linear or orderly fashion. During her school- to-work career, for instance, Holly had been a youth trainee, employed in a part-time job, unemployed, a further education student, self-employed, involved in illicit and informal economic activity and a 'New Dealer'. Some of these statuses were recurrent. Moreover, not only had Holly experienced fast changing and multiple training, educational and labour market statuses over time, she has also been involved with some of these different activities at the same time.

We do not claim this as a particularly novel observation. One of the studies within the ESRC's '16 to 19 Initiative' described youth transitions - and the problems of using simplistic notions of 'career trajectory' - in a similar way:

' is often immensely difficult to identify a coherent, unitary or linear trajectory from the mess and jumble of individual's biographies. Life is not as simple as the step-by- step model implied in this approach' (MacDonald and Coffield, 1991: 92).

This point has been reiterated in other, more recent studies of youth transition (e.g. Craine, 1997; Hodkinson and Sparkes, 1997; Raffo and Reeves, 2000). The recent critics of youth transition studies are right to argue that a neat, normative and mainstream school-to-work career is hard to identify for a substantial number of young people. However, writers who continue to find value in a perspective on youth transitions have made this point for some time.

There is a more particular problem of method here as well. The majority of transitions studies have traditionally relied upon postal questionnaire surveys that tend to require respondents to note (from memory) their education/ employment status (in the singular) at selected points over the post-16 years. The complexity of these two stories demonstrates the problem of attempting to chart young people's transitions in this way. Furthermore, we can see from Anthony's case - which was reconstructed for us in two, lengthy, face-to-face interviews - just how difficult it can be to get a clear understanding of exactly what happened, when and why. Even here, with the opportunity to check, probe and inquire in detail, and even when the transcripts were subjected to careful reading by the researchers, it was hard to grasp the sequence of twists and turns in his biography. And he was only 17 years old. People like Holly had spent several more years out of school and had even more complex stories to tell. This would seem to pose considerable methodological challenges to youth transitions research which relies upon standard, questionnaire survey-based methods.

Secondly, we can observe the unpredictability, insecurity and contingency of (some) youth transitions. If we were able to 'freeze frame' Holly's biography it would be difficult to foresee with any certainty the next steps along the way. For instance, despite starting out as a trainee hairdresser, Holly was seven years later commencing training in business administration. The schemes that Holly entered and the jobs, self-employment and informal economic activity she found later were typified by their insecurity and temporary nature. Early biographical experiences can have important, cumulative effects. Failing to gain a qualification from a training scheme or a decent reference from a job, or picking up an early criminal record, meant that Holly and Anthony were severely hampered in the subsequent search for secure employment. The next steps along the way were heavily contingent upon what had happened previously and insecure, unpredictable careers could be established very early on with limited opportunity to start afresh in new, positive directions.

Thirdly, the cameos indicate the significance of 'critical moments' and life events as turning points in individual biographies (Coles, 1995; Hodkinson and Sparkes, 1997). Some studies within the current ESRC programme are attempting to explore this further (Bell et al, 2000; MacDonald and Marsh, 2000). Participants in this study talked about how encounters with adult professionals (e.g. an unsupportive teacher, a sympathetic probation officer) 'turned' the course of their lives one way or another and reflected back on such 'critical moments' in trying to explain their current situations. Changing family situations (e.g. parental separation, the bereavement of a parent) were particularly crucial in shaping later transitions (Allatt, 1997). The most obvious example here is the death of Hollys' father when she was 15 (and what she described as the lack of emotional support that accompanied this). Until that point she regarded herself as a 'good student'. She then 'went off the rails'. Holly interpreted her subsequent truancy, delinquency, drug use and general lack of purpose as being rooted in this event: 'I just went wrong about things'.

Fourthly, these case studies confirm the importance of understanding how the different aspects of youth transitions inter-relate. They remind us that there is more to 'becoming adult' than simply making a transition from school to work and that experiences external to this career can have dramatic impact on individual biographies. The analysis of the interviews involved transposing main events and experiences (in relation to school-to-work, family, housing, criminal and drug careers) onto a grid that traced these out year by year. This allowed us to visualise how these 'career lines' interacted at particular ages and their consequences. For Anthony, experiences in all these careers came together with dramatic personal consequences around the age of 15 to 16 years (e.g. failing to get educational qualifications, becoming homeless, losing a job, doing crime, and commencing serious drug use).

Although school-to-work, family and housing careers were revealed as important in understanding transitions, this study would suggest that the analytical net might be cast even more widely, especially if we are studying young people in 'socially excluded' areas like this. It would be impossible properly to comprehend Anthony's current situation without having - as well - a central focus upon his drug-using and criminal careers. The transition that this young man was making had the fact of heroin use at its core. By the age of 17 everything else - his housing situation, his relationship to family and friends, his marginality from employment, education and training, and his criminality - were explainable only in relation to his drug use.

Fifthly, these case studies indicate the importance of tracing youth transitions over the longer-term. Previous youth studies have often had a narrow focus upon the 16 to 19 years. But by looking backwards into the late childhood and early teenage years we can glimpse how the overall direction of individual transitions are originally established (Allatt, 1997). And by looking forwards we can track the outcomes of these early careers to see where they lead as people enter their early and mid- twenties (Jones and Wallace, 1992). At 24, Holly was in a long- term, steady relationship. Like most others, she aspired to conventional adult goals: to get married, have children, buy a car, to live in a safe area, and to secure a full-time job. She saw the New Deal programme as a way of getting back on track towards these goals after her earlier problems. Anthony had even more modest aspirations - to get off heroin, to return to his mother's house in Willowdene and to get a job. In both instances it would be very difficult to predict success.

Sixthly, these case studies illustrate the complex relationship between personal agency and structural constraints in the shaping of youth transitions (Evans and Furlong, 1997; Rudd and Evans, 1998). Although both individuals made clear decisions reflecting their own agency at certain times (e.g. to commence a Youth Training scheme or not), these must be considered within the context of the post-16 institutional structures which shape opportunity. Holly experienced repeated spells of unemployment despite attempts at finding work. It would be difficult to interpret this economic marginality in terms of individual choice. She did choose to enter the New Deal programme but was given no choice about the sort of New Deal option she was enrolled on. Given that failure to participate in New Deal can result in the withdrawal of unemployment benefits, we suggest that Holly's 'choices' are only very partial examples of individual agency. Another of the interviewees put it beautifully: 'I try to make the best of the choices available but I have no control over what choices are it's a mixture, I control my own destiny to a certain degree'.

Seventhly, research on youth transitions can incorporate an analysis of youth culture if it is interested in the way individual biographies are created over time. The study of the structural aspects of transitions and the policy questions that flow from this (e.g. the way that the changing, pre- and post-16 institutions structure opportunities for youth and influence processes of 'inclusion' and 'exclusion') need not blind us to the study of youth cultural experiences and identities. If we take 'youth culture' broadly to refer to the meanings, values, identities and practices that are shared by different youth groups (rather than restricting ourselves to a semiological reading of the stylistic codes of the 'spectacular' few), we would argue that an adequate analysis of transitions necessarily involves exploration of youth culture. Indeed, some of the most interesting, recent accounts of youth transitions have shown how youth (cultural) identities are 'made up' in relation to the changing markets of post-16 education, training and employment and the 'new urban economies' (Ball et al, 2000; Fergusson et al, 2000).

According to the evidence of our study, the nature of youth transitions - and the processes of 'inclusion' and 'exclusion' that are contained within them - cannot be understood in isolation from an understanding of the relationship of individuals to local youth cultural forms. We would also argue that an analysis of the latter would not be successful without reference to the changing location of young people in relationship to the opportunity structures that prevailed for them, i.e. without understanding patterns of youth transition (Shildrick, 2000).

We stress the plurality of local youth cultural forms here because even in one neighbourhood it was clear that different groups of young people subscribed to different, gendered definitions of what it meant to be young, working-class and from Willowdene. These variegated cultural identities were in part developed in articulation with - and expressed through different orientations towards - formal institutions, particularly the school (see Brown, 1987). Even in a place beset by all its notorious problems, many in the sample adhered to quite conventional cultural identities and values in respect of schooling, training and working and struggled to put these into practice as they moved through the limited options around them.

Others had become distanced from these 'mainstream' activities (even if they clung on to 'mainstream' goals). In order to comprehend biographies like Anthony's we need to understand the appeal of regular school truancy, of crime and of drug use. This leads us into an investigation of the powerful attraction of local peer networks, of the informal cultures and identities of 'the street', of the value placed on becoming/ being (seen as) a young man with a particular style of resilient, 'hard' masculinity, of the excitement of crime and of the increasing importance - in Willowdene at least - of local drug cultures, drug-using identities and drug markets. For a substantial minority of young men (and some young women), these elements of local youth culture played a crucial role in establishing early patterns of school disengagement. And for some in this group, disengagement from school and engagement with local youth/ drug cultures became the foundation for longer-term processes of 'social exclusion'.

Referring back to the earlier discussion of how issues of youth cultural identity had been missed out of the new ESRC research programme, we would argue that, rather than being irrelevant to policy questions, that this sort of study of youth culture is highly pertinent to them. It also suggests that some of the potential of older criminological and sociological theories of sub-culture - with their emphasis upon the way that youth cultures emerge as localised, class-based 'solutions' to material inequalities - may have been too quickly forgotten in the policy-driven turn towards mappings of youth transitions in the 1980s and '90s.

Finally, the accounts provided by Anthony and Holly demonstrate the importance of locality in shaping transitions and identities. Both felt that the area in which they lived circumscribed their life chances. The interviews as a whole made repeated reference to local crime and criminals and to the heroin problems of the area. Holly constantly feared being burgled by local drug addicts. For her, being a young person in a place like Willowdene is: 'shit, it is shit really. If you haven't been brought up with a family who can do things and pay for you to do things, then you haven't really got a chance'. Holly now imagined her future outside of Willowdene; somewhere with more job opportunities, where she might feel safe and 'be normal'. Anthony used similar expletives to describe Willowdene even though he had been part of the criminal and drug-using groups who generated some of the most immediate social problems for people like Holly. He too accounted for his life experiences in terms of local opportunities (for trouble, for crime, for drug use). Anthony and Holly had different stories to tell and coped with the general difficulties of growing up in Willowdene in different ways. Neither biography, though, can be properly understood in isolation from the local context from which it evolved.

Summary and Conclusion

We have described a recent research project that employed the concept of transition to understand the experiences of young people growing up in one 'socially excluded' area. Recent national, policy analysis has painted a similar picture of the interconnected problems facing 'socially excluded' youth (Social Exclusion Unit, 2000 or see <http://www.cabinet->). With this example we hope to have shown, contrary to the criticisms currently prevalent in the field, that a focus on transition does not necessitate the use of overly deterministic models of young people in which questions of individual agency are pushed to the theoretical margins. Nor does it demand 'dry', quantitative methodologies in which the experiences and voices of youth go unheard. Qualitative research that foregrounds the biographical narratives of young people can provide insight into the longitudinal processes of transition through the institutional frameworks that structure the youth phase. At the same time, we have argued, this approach to studying transitions calls for, rather than excludes, an investigation of young people's lived, cultural experiences and identities. As such, the sort of research, methods and analysis employed here provide one example of how interests in the cultural and structural aspects of youth can be integrated.

In conclusion, then, we reassert the value of a broad concept of transition within the sociology of youth. To be clear, we are not signing up to the rather primitive model of transition that has been attacked by its recent critics. Theoretical debate and conceptual refinements of the past ten years - which have stressed the active role of young people in creating biographies made up of a range of different careers - would seem to us to invalidate many of these current criticisms (see Evans and Furlong, 1997; Bynner et al 1997a; Coles, 1995; Wynn and Dwyer, 1999). A recent study by Ball et al (2000) is an excellent example of how the concept of transition can be employed empirically to generate sensitive and sophisticated accounts of youth experiences.

In the preceding pages we have described what we understand the nature of youth transitions to be in Willowdene. We stressed their complexity, unpredictability and their insecure and contingent nature. Because sociologists have reached for a variety of adjectives ('long', 'broken', 'fractured') to try to convey the way that transitions have been restructured does not mean that we need to follow Jeffs and Smith (1998) in despairing of the whole idea of transitions per se. Discovering empirically that the transitions that some young people make are (now more) messy, complicated and circuitous, and that the steps taken some times lead sideways or backwards, rather than upwards and onwards, does not require that we jettison the concept of transition. Concluding that transitions have been extended into other life-phases, and that the destinations to which they lead are now less clear and less easily obtainable for some, does not mean that they are any less interesting (as implied by Cohen and Ainley, 2000).

Despite Miles' (2000) protestations about the narrow focus of youth sociology on educational/ employment transitions, research that also explores the interaction of family and housing transitions is now widespread in the field [4]. From the evidence of our research, we have added criminal and drug-using careers to this list. Others studies are now also researching the 'careers' that young people make through leisure and social networks (MacDonald and Marsh, 2000; Shildrick, 2000). We stressed the importance of understanding the way that personal agency, critical moments, youth cultural forms and social structural constraints operate together to generate the shape and direction of individual youth transitions. And finally we emphasised how local social, economic and cultural factors provide the context in which these transitions are embedded. For us, these analytical themes and research topics, and the methodological approaches implied, provide a fertile grounding for future youth studies.

To conclude, perhaps we need to be even clearer about why we wish to retain the concept of youth transition, especially when it has generated so much critical heat of late. Presumably Jeffs and Smith (1998: 59) would read these pages as another example of how youth sociology has been 'reduced to picking over the minutiae of young people's lives and reworking its own tired models' . A key element of their overall critique is that a variety of socio-cultural changes have robbed youth sociology of its subject matter: that youth lifestyles now permeate the life course (with middle-aged adults aping youthful activities); that youth transitions have become extended beyond what has normally been taken to be the youth phase; and that important transitions are undertaken in periods other than in youth. They conclude that, as a consequence, youth studies - particularly the study of transitions - has become 'irrelevant'.

We agree with many of the separate points made by Jeffs and Smith but we disagree with their conclusion. For us, 'transition' is useful as a general, overarching concept; a metaphor that does not presume a particular sort of content, direction or length at the level of individual experience. Because the details of individual transitions are often unpredictable and change in relation to wider societal and historical developments these are empirical questions for sociological inquiry. For us, the primary sociological, political and policy relevance of the study of youth - and the main reason why it is worthy of further investment - lies in the fact that youth remains a critically important period in which individual life chances are established.

The concept of transition predisposes us towards a study of youth that is fundamentally the study of youth as a life phase. A study of youth remains essentially a study of the shifting social, economic and cultural processes that shape this period of the life course: this is what gives 'youth' its meaning. As Roberts puts it: 'youth is a life stage, neither the first nor the last, and as such is inherently transitional' (Roberts, 2000:3, our emphasis) [5]. Our research in Teesside has shown this. Experiences in childhood sometimes impact dramatically upon the twists and turns of individual biographies later but it is in youth - when individuals first encounter the wider institutions of social and economic (re)production outside of their family of origin - that the nature and direction of this transition solidifies and becomes difficult to change. Whilst the consequences of the school- to-work, family and other careers that make up youth transitions are not completely irrevocable, most find it difficult to escape them in adulthood.

Of course, youth sociology is more than the study of individual fortunes. The stories of Anthony and Holly are of interest to us because they reveal more widely shared, social experiences. They show how young people interpret and act towards the different structures of opportunity which are allotted to them by virtue of their class and all the other socially structured inequalities that still divide youth. Through the study of the transitions of people like Holly and Anthony, we can glimpse the wider processes that generate such different outcomes for young people as they reach adulthood: processes which continue to mean that some get a lot where others end up with very little. The appeal of youth sociology is that it offers a privileged vantage point from which to glimpse processes of social structural (trans)formation and, as such, to generate analyses of theoretical relevance beyond the confines of youth studies. In studying the transitions of working-class young men and women in Willowdene we are not only observing 'the snakes and ladders' of individual biographies but also the way that the familiar social divisions and hierarchies of society are reproduced and repopulated.


1 Programme director, Liza Catan, gave this answer at the 'Youth Research 2000' conference, University of Keele, September 2000.

2 None of these studies were primarily about youth sub-cultural style in the sense developed by the CCCS. They were all attempts to explore the cultures of young people in relationship to two of the institutional domains identified, but then largely overlooked, by the CCCS as being centrally important for sociological analysis of youth culture: work and education (Clarke et al, 1976).

3 This paper is based upon a project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We thank them and the University of Teesside for their support. We are particularly indebted to the young people in the study for their participation. In order to protect their anonymity all real names have been changed. Les Johnston, Robert MacDonald, Paul Mason, Louise Ridley and Colin Webster undertook the study. Tracy Shildrick contributed here to the discussion of its findings in relation to debates about youth transitions. We are grateful to Jane Marsh and Mark Cieslik for their comments on earlier drafts of the paper.

4 Certainly, some researchers do still work with rather narrow, positivistic notions of 'school-to-work' transitions and employ normative models of 'good/ successful' and 'bad/ failed' transitions. Equally certainly, it would be incorrect to portray such an approach as being dominant within the study of youth transitions.

5Roberts (2000) has argued that the basis for youth studies should remain the study of school-to-work, family and housing transitions. His conclusion is similar to that reached here:

' is in the course of making [these] transitions that social class, gender and ethnic divisions among young people widen, deepen and are consolidated. These divisions are then reproduced in other areas of young people's lives. This is just one respect in which it is impossible to explain what is occurring elsewhere until the sub-structure of young people's lives (their school-work and family/ housing transitions) has been analysed properly' (Roberts, 2000: 6).


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