Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


K Roberts, G I Osadchaya, H V Dsuzev, V G Gorodyanenko and J Tholen (2002) 'Who Suceeds and Who Flounders? Young People in East Europe's New Market Economies'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 4, <>

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Received: 13/5/2002      Accepted: 26/9/2002      Published: 30/11/2002


The main question addressed in this paper is what happens when the usual sociological predictors (family background and educational attainment, for example) fail to predict labour market success and failure The paper presents evidence from surveys conducted in 1999 among 1300 25-26 year olds in Moscow, Vladikavkaz and Dneipropetrovsk which shows that this was indeed the situation in these places, and probably in most other parts of the former Soviet Union also. Our analysis also draws on evidence from focus groups conducted in Moscow and Dneipropetrovsk during 2002 with a total of 25 recent university graduates. All these young people were 'succeeding' according to the definition of success adopted in our analysis. It is argued that in the new market economies young people's prospects really have become unpredictable: that there are no efficacious but so far overlooked social or psychological variables. Young people's ways of coping with their chaotic conditions are identified: 'keeping faith' with customary reliabilities, off-setting risks, and endeavouring to de-couple their personal prospects from macro-realities. The paper concludes by evaluating competing explanations of the new unpredictability. It is argued that specifically post-Soviet economic trends and conditions in the 1990s are wholly responsible, and that, irrespective of whether the economies recover or remain depressed, the unpredictability of success will most likely be a short-term phenomenon.

East-Central Europe; Education; Labour Markets; Youth

Aims and Methods

The principal issue in the following passages is what happens when we (sociologists) cannot answer the title question despite possessing what is conventionally regarded as the relevant evidence. What can sociology do when its normally good predictors fail to work? What do young people do when there are no clear routes or signposts to success or ways of safeguarding against failure?

The new evidence presented below is from interview surveys conducted in 1999 among samples totalling 1300 25-26 year olds, 500 each in Moscow and Vladikavkaz (capital of North Ossetia, Russian Federation) and 300 in Dneipropetrovsk (Ukraine). The samples were selected at random from electoral registers covering electoral tracts which were chosen so as to capture adequate numbers of young adults from all the main types of family and educational backgrounds. These samples, and the information gathered from them, were deliberately comparable with the equivalents in earlier (1997) investigations in Armenia, Tbilisi (Georgia), and Donetsk and Lviv (both in Ukraine) (see Roberts et al, 2000). We can be confident, therefore, that the conditions described, which were common in all the research locations, are widespread in the former Soviet Union, but we do not extend this claim to the entire post-communist world. The countries of Central Europe and other first-wave EU accession states have had different transitional experiences. In these countries the initial shock of market reforms may have been just as severe as elsewhere, but recovery has been faster, and normal (in the Western world) relationships between social indicators (between education and income levels, for example - see Domanski, 2000) have now been established. Our quantitative findings are complemented by evidence from four focus groups held in Moscow and Dneipropetrovsk in 2002, attended by a total of 25 recent university graduates. The participants were chosen partly on the basis that they were all 'doing well' in the labour market on our own, but, as we shall see, not necessarily according to the young people's own interpretations of their situations. No focus groups were held in Vladikavkaz because, due to the security situation, it was impossible for the Western researchers to visit.

At the close of the twentieth century the countries of the former Soviet Union were peculiar places. These are modern urbanised societies with the full range of government activities, modern health services, and educational systems with high participation rates in the upper secondary and tertiary levels. The peculiarities arise from most of their industries having ground to a halt in the early-1990s, and often remaining in this condition ever since. The economic motors on which all else depended seized-up. This happened when the communist system of central planning was dismantled and plants lost various combinations of supplies and orders, with domino-type repercussions. There were bouts of hyper-inflation. Personal savings were wiped-out. Real pay shrank alarmingly. Governments' real incomes shrivelled and most of the countries became dependent on international financial institutions.

As in all other market economies, the impact has been uneven. Some factories have retained their orders and supplies, usually due to the exceptional enterprise of plant directors or local politicians. Western organisations have established bases in the countries and created some extremely good jobs for locals. Some new private businesses have thrived. Very small minorities became multi-billionaires when national resources sought, and other businesses able to trade successfully on world or domestic markets, were privatised (see Hoffman, 2002). A few state and former state organisations, such as TV stations, have been able to operate profitably within the countries. Some of the remaining state enterprises have developed shadow existences wherein profits are made for their senior managers (and their 'protectors'). Exchanges of favours and gifts (bribery and corruption) have become endemic. The countries have been transformed rapidly from among the world's most equal into some of its most unequal societies. Some citizens have prospered, but most are pathetically poor by modern yardsticks. Typical (official) monthly salaries for school and college-leavers in 1999 were in the USA $50 to $100 range. Households would grow their own food when they were able to do so, and generally make and mend. Official unemployment remains low (most is unregistered) whereas under-employment - people in jobs where there is insufficient work to keep them fully occupied, or where the pay is extremely low - is widespread. Here we consider which young people succeed, and who flounders, amid these conditions.

Why should Western sociology be interested in these matters? It is partly, but not only, simple curiosity, wanting to know what is happening in the new East. Sociology is especially capable of finding out because it is the most theoretically and conceptually self-critical and open of all the social sciences. No sociologists are likely to emulate the economists and political scientists who apply their favoured models then complain that the subjects are not performing the scripts correctly. The collapse of communism has led to the most thorough systemic changes that are likely to occur in any modern society in our professional lifetimes. It is an opportunity to apply, and also to interrogate critically, to develop and when necessary to modify, what have been, up to now, reliable theories about - well, about many things, but these include how transitions to adulthood are accomplished, links between social origins and destinations, and the determinants of labour market success.

What is Success?

There are, of course, many ways of defining success. It may mean having a satisfying job, or one where an individual's particular capabilities, maybe developed in education, are fully used. Nevertheless, the definition adopted here should not prove controversial. It means having a full-time job and a total income of at least $120 a month. Floundering means being in the labour market but without a full-time job (employed part-time or casually, or unemployed), or working full-time for less than $50 a month. This leaves a middle group, the largest in our surveys, who were 'getting by' earning $50 to $120.

These figures look, and are, extremely low by Western yardsticks. In Western Europe and North America, $120 a month is dire poverty. But everything is relative. Dollar equivalent figures (using prevailing market exchange rates) are a poor guide to local purchasing power and standards of living in the present-day former Soviet Union. When salaries are low, locally produced goods and services are correspondingly cheap. Thus the new market economies have become binary economies. On the one hand, there are the economies in which most local people work and from which they make purchases. Then there is another economy used (as workers and consumers) by foreigners and rich locals. Suffice it to say that, at the time of our investigation, a personal income of $120 was regarded as doing reasonably well in all the research locations, though this sum would not allow an entire household to live decently, and everyone agreed that it was impossible to maintain any standard of decency on $50.

In what follows we apply the same floundering (less than $50 a month) and success (at least $120) thresholds in all three research locations ignoring the facts that Moscow offered far more opportunities to obtain a decently paid job, but also had higher living costs, than either of the other places. Relative thresholds, separating the top and bottom, say, 20 percents in each place, would obliterate the fact that the young people were much more likely to be succeeding if they lived in Moscow. Trying to take account of variations in living costs would be hazardous. The main prices that were higher in Moscow were for housing and entertainment. However, most respondents were still living with their parents, and most of those who had moved into their own places had either inherited the dwellings from their families or had purchased them outright for cash (or had the dwellings purchased on their behalf) and were not, therefore, coping with hefty loan repayments. The range of leisure facilities that was available in Moscow simply did not exist in either Vladikavkaz or Dneipropetrovsk. Our thresholds are arbitrary, but not unrealistic (see below), and although applying the same thresholds in all three locations is insensitive to the differences between them, it is no clumsier than any of the alternative procedures.

Among those who were in the labour market at the time of our interviews in Moscow, Vladikavkaz and Dneipropetrovsk, just 3 percent had personal incomes in excess of $500 a month. These people would probably be described (in the West) as 'new Russians' and their equivalents in Ukraine (though not truly rich Russians), but, as we shall see, most of those concerned rejected the label. Another 13 percent in the interview surveys had incomes in the $120 to $500 range. So altogether 16 percent were succeeding on our definition. Forty-six percent were in the middle group and were 'getting by' (according to our classification). Sixteen percent were unemployed, and another 22 percent were in part-time, casual, or full-time jobs where the pay was less than $50 a month. So altogether 39 percent were 'floundering' or 'failing' on our definition, over twice as many as were succeeding. The countries' socio-economic profiles had become bottom-heavy.

Which jobs supplied good incomes, meaning at least $120 a month? The young people with such jobs were most likely to occupy management or professional positions in private sector companies. However, the converse was not true. It was not the case that most respondents with management and professional jobs, or most private sector workers, or even most private sector managers and professionals, had incomes above our success threshold. Whichever way jobs were grouped, only minorities of those concerned had incomes in excess of $120 (see Table I). Overall, professionals and managers were no more likely to have such incomes than manual workers, and the same applied to the self- employed. Perhaps surprisingly (to anyone unfamiliar with the new east), there were some full-time students, some part-time and casual workers, and some unemployed individuals, with incomes in excess of $120 (see Table II). These findings testify to the existence of vibrant second economies in the respondents' countries, and, in some cases, to the fact that crime can be more lucrative than employment.

Table I: Types of jobs and labour market success
Own businessFamily businessManagementProfessionalClericalManual
Current Labour market status
Full-time employed
$500 and over 3 5 8 7--
Marginal employed613323282418
Unemployed 810 3 5 4 2
n=382160 265 115 147

Table II: Total incomes by main positions, 1999
EdFT JobOther jobUnemployedTotal
Over 500 1 4 11 3
121 - 50092110317
51 - 1203342443440
21 - 50 4629393933
Up to 20 11 5 622 7
n=89 568 11789 939

The point is that success and failure did not map clearly onto conventional labour force divisions. Overall, neither managers, professionals nor the self-employed were particularly high-earning groups. So exactly what did success depend on?

Predicting Success and Failure

Within our data we discovered some very familiar relationships. In Table III the sample is divided into five family background groups with up to 4 points awarded depending on whether each subject's mother and father had received higher education, and whether their jobs were professional or management. There were three main types of secondary school that the samples had attended: general (comprehensive) schools, academically specialised schools (usually in foreign languages, but sometimes in maths, physics or engineering), and technical or vocational schools. Attendance at an academically specialised secondary school had been most common, but still exceptional, among the young people from the top family background group. Attendance at a technical or vocational school, in contrast, had been most common, but once again was untypical, within the bottom group on the family background scale. Majorities from all kinds of family backgrounds had attended general (comprehensive) secondary schools. Class effects were more pronounced in tertiary education. The proportions who had proceeded to higher education rose step-by-step as the family background scale was ascended: from 31 percent to 64 to 66 to 79 then to 91 percent.

Table III: Family Class and Education
Family Class




With higher education
Ac specialised sec 4 9 5 613
Vocational 1 3 1 2 2
No higher education
Ac specialised sec 1 3 5 4-
Comprehensive50312516 8
Vocational18 3 5 2 1
n= 14568 112 110 131

Table IV: Education and occupations
Last occupation
Management171310 5 6 4
Clerical3317 515 816
Manual 2 819102941
Farm- 1- 5 2 0
Other 7 1329452626
n=58 4882120 31884

  1. Academically specialised secondary plus higher education
  2. Comprehensive plus higher education
  3. Vocational plus higher education
  4. Academically specialised secondary only
  5. Comprehensive only
  6. Vocational only

The types of occupations that the samples had entered were related to their educational backgrounds in the expected ways. Those who had been through higher education were the most likely to have obtained professional and management jobs (48 percent to 62 percent depending on the type of secondary school attended) whereas only 18 to 35 percent from the various types of secondary schools who had not proceeded to higher education had entered such jobs (see Table IV). However, when labour market outcomes were measured in terms of incomes, the relationships with educational and family backgrounds were gravely weakened (see Table V). Higher education graduates, and respondents who had attended academically specialised secondary schools, were doing better, but only slightly better overall, than others in their age group. Family background proved almost completely unrelated to labour market success measured by income: the proportions who were succeeding and floundering were very similar in the top and bottom family background groups (see Table VI).

Table V: Education and income
Total income
Over $500 10 4-4 1 1
$121 - 500281520261915
$51 - 120334625443631
$21 - 50283130133544
Up to $20 3 425 13 9 8
n=40482023 32972
* As in Table IV

By far the best predictor of labour market success (measured by income) was place of residence (see Table VI). No-one in Vladikavkaz made the success threshold, and only 6 percent in Dneipropetrovsk against 37 percent in Moscow. If the CIS was a single labour market, Moscow's magnetism would be powerful.

It is hardly surprising that the participants in our Moscow focus groups recognised their good fortune.
'In Daghestan (the young women's home republic) to earn $100 a month is a dream that can never be fulfilled, but in Moscow it is realistic for me to earn $550 a month, so I can give myself a decent life here... It's a higher level of living. There's more opportunity to realise yourself, to earn money, and there's more freedom to live. Here you are constantly doing something and you get something back.'
This latter remark was from a young woman from Vladikavkaz who had no intention of returning to live in her home republic.
'Other regions are five years behind Moscow. Living conditions are better here. Incomes are higher. There are more companies. It's easier to get a job... This is the cultural centre of Russia. There's more entertainment and things like that. There are great differences in infrastructure in Russia. Elsewhere it can be difficult to buy things... I need at least $500 a month to meet my needs. This is the cultural difference. In Moscow young people spend a lot on entertainment, and we're not so family-based... Moscow is a state within a state. Going abroad is not the question. Moscow offers sufficient opportunities. I prefer to stay-in present-day Russia.'

The young people in Dneipropetrovsk did not disagree with any of this, but they differentiated among places that were 'not Moscow'.
'The bigger the place the better....There are more opportunities in the biggest cities...Capital cities always get attention and investment. In Ukraine Kiev is best. All kinds of jobs there are better paid... But Dneipropetrovsk is OK. It's far better than being in a village.'
Most of the young men in the Dneipropetrovsk focus group (but none of the women) had already travelled (to Moscow and other parts of Russia) to earn money.

Gender was another reasonably good predictor of labour market success: the men were doing better than the women. English language and computing skills were also related to labour market success, but we must emphasise here that more males were floundering than succeeding, and likewise among those with good English, and with all levels of skills in computing. Living in Moscow was the only circumstance which pushed chances of succeeding ahead of risks of floundering. Apart from place of residence, the other predictors all performed poorly. Even in groups where chances of success peaked, risks of failure were greater.

Table VI: Labour Market Success
1 + 2201337- 6
4 + 53045295236
n= 376 506 338 306 238

Table VII:
Family ClassSecondary edHigher ed
HigherLowerCompAc specVocationalYesNo
1 + 219151633161814
4 + 535393929413642
n= 312 516 6906595 445 437

Table VIII:
1 + 221171320242618 8
4 + 53931432931313545
N= 190 283 440939 125 175 138 401

1 and 2 = succeeding
3 = getting by
4 and 5 = floundering

How should Sociology Respond?

Apart from asking what young people themselves do (see below), how should sociology respond when it is unable to predict labour market success and failure?

i. Try harder, look again. One possibility is that the failure is one of measurement: that we have not identified the really efficacious variable or variables, or have not measured them properly. There is no way of being certain of this. How can anyone be sure that they are not missing something that exists but awaits discovery?

What might we have missed? 'Connections' is the answer that some researchers would give. 'Social capital', to use the sociological jargon, is said to have become of over-riding importance in post-Soviet labour markets, and to be gaining rather than diminishing in importance over time (Clarke, 2000; Yakubovich and Kozina, 2000). Now it is certainly the case that 'connections' was the main way in which our survey respondents had obtained their jobs. Formal labour market institutions were under-developed. So when asked who had helped them most when seeking work, all groups of respondents named their families or friends, or said that they had relied on themselves. The same applied when they were asked who they would turn to in the future. There were quite large differences, possibly clues to labour market success, in the answers given by the young adults who were succeeding and those who were floundering. In the past the most successful group had relied less on their families and more on their friends. In the future they expected to depend more on their friends and themselves, and less on their families, than respondents who were floundering. On this evidence, useful friends would appear to be the really crucial form of social capital. This has been the case when young people in the former Soviet Union have set-up in business. Families have been the most common source of financial assistance, and friends of information and advice (see Roberts et al, 1998). Young adults find that it is their age peers who really understand the new labour markets. Of course, this begs the questions as to why some people's friends are more useful than others, and whether this type of social capital is cause or consequence of labour market success. Probably both.

The point we wish to make is that the importance of social capital is more likely to be a consequence than determinant of the condition and operation of post-Soviet labour markets. Faced with huge numbers of adequately, often more than adequately, qualified applicants, how else are hirers to sift? We suspect that previous commentators, even some original researchers, have misinterpreted their evidence when they have imagined that they have discovered something unique, specifically post-Soviet, or a carry-over from the 'telephone rule' and the informal role of favours under communism (see Ledeneva, 1998). Connections are extremely important in Western labour markets. All researchers in this area must know about 'the strength of weak ties' (Granovetter, 1974). In Western countries we know that, at any level of educational qualification, a higher class family background increases the likelihood of an individual obtaining a better-than-average job, then experiencing subsequent career progress, and that connections, sometimes the so-called 'old boys' network', is part of the explanation (Roberts, 2001). Families in present- day Russia are not out of the ordinary when they 'look after their own'. A difference in Western countries is that economic capital and cultural capital usually accompany, and may partly conceal, the operation of social capital. In the 1990s in the ex-Soviet Union, most families, even the better-off, were not able to use economic resources to do things such as purchase private education. This may well happen in the future. Indeed, there is evidence that it has already begun to happen (see Tomusk, 2000), but the cohort in our study was ahead of such developments. Nor, for this cohort, had the ex-Soviet republics' credentialising systems developed in ways that would have enabled 'sponsored' students to gain marks of distinction. Again, this may well come about in time. In the meantime, families and friends have had to rely on 'crude' connections.

That said, connections had not worked for all the young people in our investigation. Even those from the top family background group (both parents with higher education and professional or management jobs) who should have possessed useful connections, were more likely to be floundering than succeeding. Virtually everyone in every country (all over the world) must know, or know of, someone from a privileged background whose career has benefitted from this. They may also know, and in the former Soviet Union they are more likely than in most other places to know (judged from our findings), individuals from advantaged backgrounds who have floundered.

It is never possible to prove a negative, that something does not exist, but we are unconvinced that there is a hidden variable, called 'connections' or anything else, which, except in a tautological sense, if measured accurately would enable us to account for most of the variance in labour market success in the former Soviet Union. Obviously enough, the connections of the young people who were succeeding had proved the most useful, but this is not to say that there was any prior way in which the value of these connections could have been established. In our view, success and failure really had been unprecictable, and therefore inexplicable, in conventional sociological ways at any rate.

ii. Concede to social psychology. The argument here is about the allegedly heightened role of 'the self' in the post-communist market economies. 'Individual' explanations of success are popular among some young people, especially the more successful young people, throughout the new east (see Roberts and Jung, 1995, and see below). Some writers have attributed problems of adjustment to market conditions to the persistence of a 'communist mind set' - an unwillingness to take the initiative and a dependence on institutions (see Melich, 1997). They argue that what counts now is not so much family and educational background as the self - whether a person is active and entrepreneurial. Self-directed, flexible personalities are said to experience the least problems of adjustment, and to be the most likely to thrive in the new market economies (Slomczynski, 1999).

Our evidence on this is mixed. On the one hand, the young adults who were succeeding appeared to have coped better than others with career set-backs. They were no less likely than other respondents to have been made redundant or dismissed for other reasons. They had held more jobs overall, but were more likely than others to have avoided unemployment. On the other hand, the successful group did not appear to have been distinguished by taking the initiative in keeping their careers moving. They were less likely than other respondents to have left jobs of their own accord, and to say that it was possible or more certain that they would migrate within their own, or to another country, at some time in the future. In terms of socio-political attitudes, there were usually only minor differences between those who were floundering, getting by, and succeeding. Overall the successful group was not more pro- reform than the others. They were on some questions, but not on others. The clearest difference was that those who were succeeding were the most likely to attribute poverty on the one hand, and wealth on the other, to the failings and hard work respectively of those concerned. Well, they would say that, wouldn't they! Were such attitudinal differences causes or effects of the different groups' labour market experiences? We cannot say for certain.

Sociologists, ourselves included, will be understandably reluctant to hand-over any issue to another discipline, but in this case the evidence of social psychology offering more powerful explanations is unconvincing.

iii. Pure luck. Another possibility which, in our view, needs to be treated seriously, is that chance, pure luck, should be incorporated into sociological explanations (see Keil, 1978). Some millionaires are made by lottery. Sociology normally proceeds on the assumption that variance should be explained. Anything unaccounted for is regarded as a sign of weakness in the measurements, or the omission of an efficacious factor. But maybe pure luck plays a role not just in formal games of chance but in the normal course of life in all societies. Maybe the amount left to chance varies. Who has succeeded, and who has floundered under post-communism could have been due more to chance than anything else: joining a state enterprise, or a private business, that has happened to thrive, or having a contact who knew someone or something that just by chance turned out to be useful. In recent times sociologists have had much to say about 'risk'. Is risk any different from chance? Can we measure it? Surely the unpredictability of outcomes is the most satisfactory of all possible measurements.

iv. Explaining disciplinary failure. All sociologists will surely concur that how and why success and failure have become difficult to account for in the former Soviet Union is itself a problem that needs to be explained. Seeking explanations of the abnormal can often produce insights into the processes that ordinarily sustain normality. These explanations may also provide clues as to whether the relevant conditions in ex-Soviet countries since the early-1990s are likely to persist, or even become more widespread. We will return to these matters shortly.

Young People's Responses

These are crystal clear. They have been responding in three main ways which are not necessarily alternatives: the same individuals may do all three simultaneously.

i. Keeping faith. The first, an extremely powerful and widespread response, has been to keep faith with old predictors (of success). Young people continue to act as if the old route maps, or what they have been told about how Western-type market economies work, remain valid. In fact their 'faith' has often intensified. They assume for practical purposes that current conditions are temporary and that before long things will become normal.

So there has been no flight from education as the reliability of career returns has nose-dived. Quite the reverse: young people have been prolonging their education. In part, this can be explained in terms of sheltering from unwelcoming labour markets, but there has also been a widespread assumption that, when and if they are working properly, the new market economies will demand higher standards than the old system. Young people and their families assume (again for practical purposes) that their countries are still in transition. So the young people opt to prolong their own life stage transitions (Roberts et al, 1999). The vast majority of the respondents in Moscow, Vladikavkaz and Dneipropetrovsk endorsed the view that it was important to be well-educated and qualified for one's profession. Support was most solid (88 percent) among those who were already earning over $500 a month, but over two-thirds of those who were floundering in the labour markets agreed.

Another group of young people who have been 'keeping faith' are those who have taken low paid state sector jobs. Amazing though it may seem, plants have often continued to recruit, and young people have taken jobs, even when there has been neither sufficient work to occupy, nor money to pay, existing staff. All concerned have expected, or at least hoped for, a return to normality: that either market forces or more effective government will revive the economies in general and their own plants in particular (see Roberts et al, 2000). It is also relevant that plant managers in the former Soviet Union have not usually regarded it as their prerogative to separate workers from 'their' jobs and all the accompanying benefits that were available in more normal times, and similar feelings have applied to denying footholds in the workforces to local school-leavers.

Moreover, for young (and older) people, public sector jobs have retained certain attractions. They are clearly official and legitimate. Even today, private enterprise may be considered somewhat suspect, and not without reason for there can be few private businesses in the ex-Soviet Union that do not circumvent the law in some way or another. Also, work regimes in the pubic sector have usually remained lax. It is still often possible, indeed necessary, to have a second job, and to take extended leave if other commitments, or opportunities, require this. A young woman in one of the Dneipropetrovsk focus groups who was embarking on what would be, at best, a modestly paid academic career pointed out that, 'Nowadays there are always plenty of opportunities for university staff to take additional jobs in private businesses'. The participant in the Moscow focus group whose family was in Daghestan had retained a state sector job in her home republic despite the fact that she was able to 'visit' this job only during her holidays and had no immediate intention of returning to live in Daghestan. In some public sector jobs there have been possibilities of obtaining unofficial streams of income by accepting presents (bribes) from members of the public. Also, as explained earlier, some state enterprises have developed shadow existences alongside their official presences, and some (not necessarily all) employees have been able to derive unofficial benefits. It has often been possible to use company tools and materials for private purposes. The work regimes in the new private sector economies (and in the reformed public sectors in Cental Europe) are very different.

At this point we must make it clear that few of the young people concerned have been confident either that qualifications will be rewarded, even eventually, or that state enterprises will recover. In both cases it has been more a matter of either feeling unable to risk assuming that this will not happen, or having no better option than to act as if keeping faith. The post-Soviet worlds in which today's 20-somethings have grown-up have always been unreliable places. The up-coming generations have every reason to regard unreliablity as simply normal.

ii. Hedging bets. This has been another widespread response. It is adopted by individuals and households. The same person may have a state sector post and another private sector job. Sometimes the private sector job will be self-employment (the micro beginnings of what might one day be a substantial enterprise). In ex-communist Central Europe self- employment is nearly always a full-time occupation. State jobs, when retained, require people to work proper full-time hours. Also, in these countries people are now confident that the reforms are secure and that there will be no return to the old system. They believe that the market economy is permanent and that small businesses have a future. It is different in the former Soviet Union where even young businessmen (there are far fewer business women) who are doing extremely well (in terms of earnings) are reluctant to let go of their positions and connections in the official state sector (see Tholen and Roberts, 1999).

Young people also hedge bets when they combine paid work with study. Those in employment may continue their education on a part-time basis (engaging in qualification accumulation). Those who are basically students are very likely to take part-time or even full-time jobs, if possible, partly for the income, but also mindful that these might eventually become their main occupations.

Households have survived post-communism by generating several streams of income. A sole wage or salary has rarely been sufficient to maintain an entire household. So families have often off-set risks. One person may develop an enterprise while others continue to work as employees. The same household may consider it prudent to maintain stakes in both the private and public sectors (see Roberts et al, 2000).

iii. Privatism. Post-communist youth have not responded to their new circumstances by becoming politically active to demand acceptable labour market destinations or, at least, clear routes to success. Quite the reverse: the mass political activity - the street marches and the demonstrations that sometimes stretched from day-to- day, week-to-week and even month-to-month - evaporated almost as soon as independence was achieved (or conferred) in former Soviet republics, and as soon as the communist rulers were ousted in East-Central Europe.

Needless to say, most of the actual effects of the reforms have been completely unintended, unforseen and unwanted by most. A reaction of most young people has been to tacitly abandon confidence in all big institutions. They trust no politicians or parties. Cynicism towards politicians is common among young people in Western Europe, but it is even higher in the new east (see Roberts et al, 2000). In Moscow, Vladikavkaz and Dneipropetrovsk cynicism was highest among the highest earners. Over three-fifths of them, but also over a half of those who were getting by and floundering, argued that politicians were more interested in themselves than the good of the countries. Young people feel similarly towards businesses. They know that even 'quality' organisations with Western bases can pull-out of the countries at short notice. NGOs are regarded similarly. Most are under-resourced and ineffective. There are always suspicions that the more substantial NGOs (which are always state-sponsored or have foreign backers) exist mainly for the benefit of those who fund them or the paid officials.

So what do young people do if they believe that all big institutions are untrustworthy? Dependence on families and friends has intensified. Private life has become if anything more important than it was under communism. Individuals feel that the only people they can trust are close friends and family members. It is within these groups, not larger political or any other organisations, that young people plot personal success, or survival, strategies. They know that the conditions amid which they live are unreliable and try to secure their own futures irrespective of developments in their wider contexts. Hence, young people de-couple expectations for their own, and their countries' futures. Everywhere in the ex-Soviet Union young people are far more likely to be optimistic about their personal prospects than about the futures of their countries. In Moscow, Vladikavkaz and Dneipropetrovsk, optimism for themselves personally and for the countries was highest among the top earners (71 percent of these respondents expected their own situations to improve, and 27 percent thought the same way about their countries), but the crucial point here is that among those who were succeeding and in all the other 'success' groups also, more of the young people expected their personal situations to improve (30 percent to 71 percent) than felt this way about their countries (17 percent to 27 percent) No more than 10 percent in any of the 'success' groups expected their personal situations to deteriorate.

De-coupling assessments of one's own personal, and one's wider society's prospects, is common, indeed normal, in some Western countries, and especially in Britain and America. Under communism, and to a lesser extent in the more social democratic or corporatist countries of continental Europe, people are more likely to feel that their own prospects are inextricably bound-up with the fortunes of larger collectivities - the firms, cities and countries - in which they are based, and with which they identify (see Bynner and Roberts, 1991). Under communism nearly all the people did in fact share in their countries' good times and bad times. They have learnt quickly that market economies, especially unregulated market economies, are very different in this respect.

The focus group participants in Moscow and Dneipropetrovsk illustrated all the above responses to uncertainty. Collectively they argued among themselves about the determinants of success.
'It depends on education in spite of everything else... It's personal characteristics... Ambition... No, it's just luck, meeting the right person or having a relationship with someone in power, then you don't need education... It's down to me. I set the goal, and I'll reach my goal...No, it's all done through families.'
Most of the young people in the focus groups had already held two, three, four or more jobs. Some had two or more jobs at the time of the focus groups. They knew that their positions were not secure. They had obtained their current main jobs in a variety of ways.
'I replied to a newspaper advert... to an internet advert... I just left my CV with the company... it was a personal contact... I was asked to join the firm... It's my father's business.'

Their main jobs were similar to those occupied by Western graduates at a similar career stage. They were in senior clerical, sales, junior professional and management positions. Counting all sources of income, those in Moscow were all earning between $400 and $1500 a month but they did not feel that they were rich or even 'new Russians'. 'They (new Russians) own companies, own houses, and have a distinctive appearance. The label has negative connotations in Russia... To be really well-off you need to earn at least $5000 a month.' None of these young people were politically active. Incomes were lower in Dneipropetrovsk: only one person was earning over $400. The rest were earning between 100 and $400 a month, and they were doing well by local standards. None felt rich. '$1000 is quite OK. We know people who earn that much. They're all running businesses...You really need $2000 to be rich. You then have more freedom and can be more self-assured. Very few people earn that much. They're all business people who earn a lot of money on the black market.' It appears that in every country, Britain included, 'real success' is always defined as a level above whatever the definer has achieved.

Explaining Post-Soviet Unpredictability

Our argument, then, is that, in post-Soviet youth labour markets, outcomes that involve income really have become unpredictable. We have seen above how young people cope. Some have their own explanations for the uncertainty amid which they live. We have ours - a sociological explanation which can and will be tested, but only with the passage of time.

One possible explanation that must be rejected is that here we have an example of an unfolding global postmodern condition in which modern structures loosen, life courses are individualised, and young people must navigate onwards with no reliable maps because no roads are clearly laid-out. The sociology of youth is urged to abandon discourses about career routes and trajectories, and to adopt cultural analysis as a means of making sense of young people's situations and behaviour (see Cohen and Ainley, 2000). Although ex- Soviet youth's situations bear some resemblance to this picture there are simply too many facts which do not fit. First, the post-Soviet condition has arisen through economic regression not progress, and in the Western world all the modern predictors of labour market attainments remain in splendid working order. Second, on entering post-Soviet labour markets young people do not meander haphazardly or purely in response to their own inclinations, but are quickly locked into specific labour market segments (Roberts et al, 2000). Our focus group members had all clambered into, and were seeking to remain in, and preferably to move upwards within, the 'Westernised' segment. They knew that doing this required them to remain alert, constantly seeking better positions.

Confronting an exceptional case (the ex-Soviet Union) forces us to ask why labour market outcomes to youth transitions are normally predictable. The predictability arises from the inter-play between the ways in which employers sift and select applicants, typically attaching considerable weight to educational qualifications, and how families and young people mobilise the economic, social and cultural assets at their disposal in pursuit of whatever confers access to good jobs (like educational qualifications). There is no evidence that with the break-up of the Soviet Union or the end of communism, any of the parties (employers or families) immediately changed their normal behaviour. What happened was that the number of good jobs shrank dramatically. Simultaneously, links between earnings and occupational status were severed. Suddenly there was a surfeit of suitable applicants for all kinds of good jobs. For the small number of really good jobs there was an excess of applicants who were well-educated, from 'good' families, and who, in addition to their principal qualifications, could offer further skills such as English language and acquaintance with information technology. What could recruiters do? The evidence suggests that they have indeed used connections (social capital). They will no doubt have made informal assessments of suitability and uncertificated skills. Otherwise they will have hired whoever happened to be in the right place at the right time.

A comparable situation could arise elsewhere without economic collapse, if, for example, there was a sudden upsurge in the proportion of young people achieving prestige qualifications. There has actually been such an expansion (in university educated young people) in the UK since the 1970s, though in this case the change occurred more gradually than the collapse of communism. Nevertheless, employers have been faced with not just the opportunity, but a need to become more selective. Firms offering the most attractive jobs have been able to restrict their searches to what are now described as the best universities, and they have paid greater attention than in the past to graduates' degree results, and their performances in secondary school examinations as well. Sifts have thereby become more thorough. Those surviving have then faced hours, sometimes days, of role play and personality tests (Brown and Scase, 1994). For young people in the UK, labour market returns to higher education have become less predictable. Nowadays only a minority obtain what have hitherto been regarded as graduate jobs (Wolff, 2001). Investment in higher education has become more risky. But already families with the necessary resources are seeking to control these risks by ensuring that their children attend good secondary schools at which they will obtain the examination results needed to impress the best universities, and employers subsequently. Thus the efficacy of the old predictors of success is most likely to endure.

There are already indications of comparable processes operating in the former Soviet Union. In our investigation employers were rewarding attendance at academically specialised secondary schools (which, at the time of our investigation, were being retitled as lycees or gymnasiums), but 'advantaged' families in the birth cohort in our investigation had not already begun using these schools to any significant extent. Young people from such families were acquiring English language and computing skills, usually uncertificated. Our prediction is that everything will tighten-up: that families with the means will ensure that, in the future, their children are given the best of all possible starts in life (see Markowitz, 2000), and that employers will learn how to sift and select candidates so as to hire the most suitable. Thus transitions from school-to- work will be re-institutionalised and predictability will return irrespective of whether the post-Soviet economies recover.

This prognosis is consistent with the views expressed in our focus groups.
'The weak connections between education and labour market success will be temporary. Russia is moving towards Europe.'
When asked how they would educate their own children the young people in Moscow and Dneipropetrovsk expressed a preference for private education (at certain stages) and stressed the importance of foreign languages.
'I'll send them to a good kindergarten where they'll learn lots of different subjects, maybe foreign languages, but otherwise I'll make sure that they learn languages at home... I'll send them to a private kindergarten. The state ones have too large classes and illnesses are spread around... I'd like them to attend a specialised foreign languages secondary school... I'll pay for their higher education... Education is very good in Russia but I'd like them to go abroad for languages... I'll use a private school in Moscow, then a state university, then a foreign school.'
One young woman in Dneipropetrovsk was already paying for her pre-school daughter to learn English. It is likely that, when they become parents, these young Russians and Ukrainians from our focus groups will be earning enough to realise their aspirations. If so, they will play their parts in re-establishing normal relationships between family origins, educational attainments, and labour market outcomes.

We will be able to tell within 10 years if this forecast is sound. In this event, the entire diagnosis offered above may not be fully substantiated but it will gain massively in credibility.


The research on which this paper is based was funded by INTAS (award 20468).


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