The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education will be available via subscription on September 26, 2018. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or learn about librarian resources.

Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, EDUCATION ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 September 2018

Transitions, Justice, and Equity in Education in Finland

Summary and Keywords

The ethos of vulnerability plays a central role in shaping cross-sectoral youth transition policies and their implementations. Despite good intentions, the ethos of vulnerability emphasizes personal accountability and stigmatization. This is the situation in Finland, where young people tend to be recognized through the prism of inherent vulnerability, with a parallel notion of the self that is damaged and fragile. This “turn inward” to the self does not necessarily help to see problems as societal but as individual, which may perpetuate systematic inequalities.

Keywords: transitions, equity, justice, education, young people, ethos of vulnerability, Finland


Young people today are commonly conceptualized as “vulnerable,” especially those having difficulties in making the transition to education and work (Brown, 2014; Ecclestone & Brunila, 2015; Fawcett, 2009; Fionda, 2005). Several sociologists have argued how the intertwining of concern about vulnerability, risk, and fragility, and the idea of building resilience among young people has been embedded widely in policy arenas (Ecclestone, 2015; McLeod, 2012; Ecclestone & Lewis, 2014). Nevertheless, wider analysis of vulnerability and how it is operationalized in cross-sectoral transition policies remains limited.

Although the idea of transitions as linear and progressive has been widely critiqued, it is still true that there remains a thriving policy about the best ways to help young people prepare for and support transitions. Although these transition policies and practices are seemingly benevolent, they may actually reinforce social exclusion, which they aim to tackle in the first place. In Finland, critical evaluation has been especially salient as it challenges the widespread view that Finland exemplifies Nordic welfare as integral to equality.

As we have argued previously, extensive investments have been made to reintegrate young people who are considered as “vulnerable” or “at risk” into education and work situations (e.g., Brunila et al., 2016; Kurki & Brunila, 2014). These investments are based on a wide variety of political initiatives, including nearly all levels of government, ministries, educational institutions, private companies, and cross-sectoral networks. In addition, the so-called Youth Guarantee (2013), at both European Union (EU) and national levels, works as a key governmental strategy to prevent the social exclusion of young people (Brunila & Mertanen, 2014). In Finland, under the Youth Guarantee scheme, thousands of unemployed young people are being directed into publicly funded or nongovernmental organization (NGO)-based short-term projects, internships, and preparatory education programs in order to secure their desired integration into a society.

Integration into society by enhancing emotional well-being has become a routine feature of diverse policies, programs, projects, and other initiatives. In addition, initiatives that build emotional well-being and mental health (often referred to as therapeutic education) and thus try to prevent problems in the future have generated widespread support from the state and EU (Ecclestone, 2012; Ecclestone, 2015; Wright & McLeod, 2015; Brunila, 2012). Perspectives related to vulnerability are centered on the activities associated with these initiatives. These activities include youth work, youth education, training, guidance and rehabilitation projects, preparatory programs, as well as adult and community learning, programs for emotional education and pedagogy, happiness and well-being, anger management and behavioral training, as well as peer mentoring and life-coaching as part of the whole-institution support systems.

In this article, we discuss the ethos of vulnerability in relation to cross-sectoral transition policies and their implementations for young people. As we have earlier argued, vulnerability is associated not only with young people having a history of mental health or learning problems, but also with young people considered disadvantaged, disabled, ethnic minority, and/or those with a criminal background (Brunila et al., 2016). Bringing data on all these groupings together and thinking in discursive terms help analyze how certain discursive constructions in relation to cross-sectoral policies and their implementations are appropriated while others are considered irrelevant or even threatening (Petersen, 2008; Davies, 1998; see also Brunila & Mononen Batista-Costa (in press). By focusing on the cross-sectoral policies and practices that target 17- to 29-year-olds outside education and/or work, we show how, despite good intentions, the ethos of vulnerability tends to emphasize personal accountability and stigmatization. However, we follow Judith Butler in thinking of the subject-in-process as the effect and redeployment of power (Butler, 2008; see also Foucault, 1985). From this perspective, it becomes possible to understand the subjectivity of young people as being in flux, changeable, and unstable but also as a crucial focus for political understanding and action. This is because the subjectivity of young people is the product of the discursive practices that name it, not a substance or an essence that exists prior to it.

New governance and the ethos of vulnerability in youth transition policies

Young people generally are among the most vulnerable groups in society, and this is especially true in the current crisis.

(European Commission, 2012)

Current policies and practices have created the so-called yo-yo transitions that are nearly a rule among many young people, with repeated movements back and forth between education, training, employment and unemployment (Lundahl, 2011). In one sense, the key concerns have changed very little over the decades. However, we seem to be witnessing a new, more hybrid model of governing. The cross-sectoral transition policies and their implications have started to enhance dependency between individuals, groups, organizations, enterprises, officials, and the state in order to solve the problems of welfare politics (or the lack of them) with market-oriented project-based interventions (Ball, 2012; Olssen, 2008). We link this model of governing with something that has been called a shift from government to new governance. This shift refers to a market-oriented attempt to introduce territorially unbounded public and private actors, operating outside of their formal jurisdictions, into the decision-making processes of political institutions (e.g., Brunila & Ryynänen, 2016; Ball, 2012).

This shift is in accordance with what Stephen Ball (2012, p. 12) has argued about the new policy assemblages with a diverse range of participants who exist in a new kind of policy space that is somewhere between multilateral agencies, national governments, NGOs, think tanks, and advocacy groups, consultants, social entrepreneurs, and international business, in and beyond the traditional sites and circulations of policy making. In our work, we have combined the ideas of new governance and governmentality. In addition to new governance, governing in relation to youth transitions in the ethos of vulnerability represents a form of governmentality (Brunila, 2012). We understand that as organized policies and their implementations through which individuals are governed (Rose, 1999), governing of transitions extends the ethos of vulnerability even further as a form of governmentality. The overall effect is to widen those depicted by policy makers, professionals, and young people themselves as “vulnerable.”

We consider new governance as one form of neoliberalism—a contingent and incoherent process of governing people through economic theories of so-called free markets, free competition, and freedom of choice (Rose, 1999; Harvey, 2005; Miller & Rose, 2008). The idea that connects our study of vulnerable young people to neoliberalism is that of governing people through their freedom, via individualization and responsibilization (Rose, 1999). In the neoliberal policies and practices lie the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom in the form of the ethos of vulnerability that transforms the neoliberalis neoliberalization of our societies into enfolded nomads of isolated individual deviants and pathological norm breakers (Foucault, 1980).

In Finland, the traditional ethos governing youth policies on empowerment and voluntary participation is increasingly being challenged by short-term interventions, ideologies, and practices that approach social problems as individualized risks and problems. A view that these young people should be managed more closely has created hundreds of publicly funded youth programs and new companion professions such as learning professionals, coaches, mentors, and evaluators. These programs are usually mandatory and operate at a “transition point,” that is, the stage between compulsory and postcompulsory education. Participation is mostly mandatory.

Similarly, the role of education seems to be slipping away from knowledge-based education to skills training and even infantilization (Biesta, 2006; Furedi, 2009). Education has started to focus more and more on enabling and supporting people, especially in becoming more accountable for their role in the labor market with proper emotional skills (e.g., Brunila & Siivonen, 2014; Ecclestone, 2012). Consequently, various kinds of labels are being attached to those young people who are failing to make successful transitions from school to work, isolating them from broader structural conditions (Ecclestone, 2015; Kurki & Brunila, 2014). Terms such as EBD (emotional and/or behavioral difficulties), SED (severe emotional disturbances), SMI (severe mental illness), ED (emotional disturbance), and BD (behavior disorder) are some of the labels attached to young people in transition, in addition to the more common ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and ADD (attention deficit disorder).

A number of sociological and educational studies have argued that educational policies and practices, both explicitly and implicitly, repeatedly construct and conceptualize young people outside education and/or employment as vulnerable (Brown, 2014; Ecclestone, 2015; Ecclestone & Brunila, 2015; Fawcett, 2009; Fionda, 2005; McLeod, 2012; Simmons & Smyth, 2016). As Kate Brown (2012) has shown, there is a long history of employing the concept of vulnerability in the management, classification, and categorization of various groups of people in social policies and practices (see also Ecclestone & Brunila, 2015). In this article, the ethos of vulnerability is considered as a policy imperative changing expectations and practices related to young people. According to Brown (2012, 2014), this so-called ethos of vulnerability is strongly related to bureaucratic condescension, selective systems of welfare, paternalism, and social control. In Western societies, the popularity of vulnerability has been increasingly linked to the management of risks where fear has become central to our experiences of everyday life (Furedi, 2004). Ecclestone and Hayes (2008), among others, have argued that the thinning out of communal ties, along with the individuation of social problems, has led to a state of vulnerability in which all human experiences seem to require expert advice (see also Furedi, 2004). However, it is important to note that vulnerability has been linked to the discussion of the more precarious conditions of life in Western countries (e.g., Butler, 2004 Berlant, 2011). Lauren Berlant (2011) has argued that the increased vulnerability of global citizens should not be dismissed as a tragic consequence of capitalism.

The rationale behind using vulnerability as a basis for social policy and practice has a strong moral base, but it tends to be constructed within a wider, cultural climate that emphasizes cost efficiency (e.g., UNICEF, 2007). In this article, youth disengagement, exclusion, and alienation from education and work are recast as causes, outcomes, and manifestations of individual psychoemotional vulnerabilities. Here, individually and therapeutically oriented interventions aimed at increasing the access of young people to education and work present emotional well-being as a form of social justice in its own right. Consequently, these interventions offer opportunities to learn how to carry individual choices and responsibilities, and how to become trainable in the education and work markets (Brunila et al., 2016; Ecclestone & Brunila, 2015). This study further strengthens the idea that unemployability and lack of education are individual psychoemotional deficiencies rather than deriving from structural societal inequalities.

Data and analysis

In this article, we focus on cross-sectoral policies and practices that target 17- to 29-year-olds outside education and/or work. In Finland, the provision of practices, that is, the programs and initiatives targeting them, is organized by various educational institutions, municipalities, or associations and is funded either by the EU, ministries, or the government. We analyze data from seven separate studies that are part of the research project entitled Youth on the Move. Revisiting the ethos of vulnerability in the era of market-oriented education (2014–2017) led by Author 1.1 In this research project we ask how politics, policies, and practices shape the interests of young people, including those outside education and work. We develop our critical research by analyzing cross-sectoral politics and practices regarding education-to-work transitions and how they influence young people considered vulnerable or at risk. We argue that by exploring the ways in which transitions of “vulnerable young people” are constructed by policy makers, professionals, academic researchers, and young people themselves, alleged assumptions about transitions can be challenged, thereby giving young people more room to develop their own interpretations, responses, and actions.

Altogether, the datasets include policy and youth program documents and guidelines, news reports, as well as interview and ethnographic data. While the amount of data is rather extensive, they have been used selectively for the purposes of this article, focusing on policy and youth program documents. The data have been read jointly in order to gain an understanding of how the ethos of vulnerability in youth transition policies and their implementations plays out.

All of our multiple data have been read together in order to understand how the ethos of vulnerability operates in cross-sectoral policies and practices. The analysis permits an examination of the multilayered policies and practices regarding the ethos of vulnerability, as well as some of the consequences for young people. In our analysis we look at the policies and practices in terms of discursive power by acknowledging that the relationships of knowledge, discourse, and power are productive and regulative. We consider policies and practices encompassing the interrelations and connections involved in governing, According to Foucault, the concept of power acknowledges the influences of social and political relations on policy, beyond the immediate political arena. As Foucault has argued: “there are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise and constitute the social body, and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated nor implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse” (Foucault, 1980, p. 93). Therefore, in this study, discursive analysis of policies and practices is crucial for defining how the neoliberal era has an immense influence on transitions. We argue that neoliberalism cultivates societal transformations, which not only transforms but also governs the subject and defines social processes and behavior. Accordingly, the analysis highlights how policies could carry political, economic, and certain knowledge that are shaping the policy as merely a text, as well as the vulnerability of youth.

We understand discourses regarding cross-sectoral transition policies and their implementations as not simply describing young people but also as a form of governing that creates them as both objects and subjects. Our attention is directed to transition policies and implementations in relation to the ethos of vulnerability as discursive practices, meaning especially knowledge formations. The focus is on how knowledge is produced through plural and contingent practices across different transition sites (Bacchi & Bonham, 2014). This kind of analysis enables us to view the structure of the forms of power connected to transition policies and practices in the ethos of vulnerability.

Raising a skilled and resilient subjectivity

“Choice” (---) is not understood as single rational act, but as discourse and practice located within a network of multiple and relational discursive practices. (--) A discourse of choice, for example, adheres to a discourse of freedom in such a way that choice is valorized as a personal and social good, and as a mode of taking one’s place within a democracy (providing of course the “right” choices are made). Discourses of choice and freedom are, in this way, conflated within a market economy as freedom of choice.

(Bansel, 2007, p. 248)

One of the big changes neoliberal order has brought about is transforming survival into an individual responsibility as Bronwyn Davies (2005, pp. 9–10) has claimed. Defined in individual terms and subjected to neoliberal redefinitions, the notion of survival focuses specifically on the economic survival packed with a set of specific skills. Of these skills, the capacity to earn money is, inevitably, the most important one, together with entailing flexibility, responsiveness, and responsibility for self. Thus, it is no surprise that the focus is on the individual level, as the following policy extracts demonstrate:

In many countries payment of benefits is linked to the participation in an activation programme. Sanctioning benefits if young people do not participate in the Youth Guarantee would be a means by which to ensure that young unemployed people do take up the offers made to them, therefore limiting the impact of unemployment scarring. There are however also caveats to such an approach as particularly vulnerable young people might then take a further step away from employment services and be even more difficult to reach. Thoroughly tailored individual action planning and placements can prevent dropouts from occurring in the first place.

(EU Commission, 2012)

There is increasing concern that many of them (NEET(not in education, employment or training)young people) cannot prosper. High rates of child poverty, poor health, school drop-out and unemployment among a too large number of young people, indicate a need to review the investments Europe is making in its youth starting earlier (…).

(EU Commission, 2007)

In this programme, everyday life management means that the child or young person is capable of taking responsibility for his or her life, personal finances and emotional well-being, considering his or her development stage. The continuum of programmes seeks to enable all children and young people, regardless of background, to reach their full potential as individuals, members of groups and citizens.

(Child and Youth Policy Programme 2012–2015, implements the EU’s Youth Strategy)

In these extracts, the individualization for prospering or economic survival intertwines with the notion of employability. Employability is understood as a set of “correct” skills and characteristics that guarantee entry to the labor market. These skills require constant adaptation to changeable demands and more flexible patterns of work and learning (e.g., Brunila et al., 2016). Peter Kelly has stated that young people in transition have been a target of various authorities who develop individuals into a particular form of personhood, which he describes as the entrepreneurial self, and a form of personhood that sees individuals as being responsible for conducting themselves in the business of life as an enterprise, a project, a work in progress (Kelly, 2006). This is how unemployment becomes repeatedly constructed as a problem of the individual.

In addition, in these extracts the young person is both vulnerable and necessarily competitive. Young people are expected to be responsible for taking care of themselves and not be dependent on society. Emotional well-being is highlighted. It also seems that young people are left with two choices: survival or social exclusion. Their survival comes at a price of becoming the outcome of the neoliberal context, which demonstrates that the discourse affected by neoliberalism is dysfunctional and a distortion of the young people’s capabilities. The policies and practices are influenced by market demands and tend to create a skilled individual who possesses knowledge generating economic value, where the learning focus has shifted from “learning to be” to “learning to be productive and employable” (Biesta, 2006), even if at the expense of the individual’s mental and emotional being.

As we have argued previously (Brunila et al., 2016), the ethos of vulnerability tends to predispose all young people to develop dysfunctions at some time in their lives. It follows that interventions, especially early interventions, impinge on those young people showing signs of risk and increasingly on all young people. The following list further demonstrates how vulnerability is attached to a vast variety of characteristics:

Low self-esteem, fragile self-image, criminal mind, too dependent, depressed, antisocial, mentally unstable, vulnerable, inpatient, angry, broken identity, lack of problem-solving skills, impulsive, lack of metacognitive skills, learning difficulties, speech defect, lack of initiative skills, confused, needy, unclear, tense, gullible, anxious, resentful, lack of emotional skills, lack of vigilance, lack of life management skills, lack of social skills.

(Extracts from youth program documents such as final reports, web pages, and leaflets, 2010–2016)

Interestingly, these characteristics seem to be predispositions that pose a threat to young people by endangering their “normal” development. The ethos of vulnerability seems to resonate with the therapeutic orthodoxies about the legacies of emotional damage, emotional barriers to life and learning, emotional baggage, the state of denial or repression, dysfunction or manifestation of isavowal (see also Ecclestone & Brunila, 2015). In the documents analyzed, young people are positioned either as vulnerable victims of their internal and external circumstances or as social actors responsible for their own destinies. This tends to lead to simplified and dichotomized representations of young people’s circumstances and behaviors that produce naturalized prescriptions (Burman, 2008).

The following excerpts from youth program reports illustrate the interventions and activities of well-being and mental health provided for young people and migrants within the ethos of vulnerability:

Education of emotions means monitored activities that direct the recognising of emotions. With the help of this method, a young adult can learn new ways of behaving and surviving. It can influence the forming of an individual’s self-esteem, social skills and morality.

(Youth Project document, 2000s)

From the customer’s point of view, emotion-based matters can be the most critical aspect of survival.

(Youth Project document, 2000s)

Migration can be a mentally difficult process. Only a few can be prepared for how stressful integration can be. Many immigrants feel strong emotions and reactions, which may confuse and scare. All may seem strange and difficult. Also feelings of despair are common. This, however, is [a] completely normal reaction to change. Information helps to understand and accept feelings. This will make it easier and helps move forward.

(Extract from project report on mental health services for immigrants, 2015)

Typical initiatives for young people outside education and work include short-term programs for emotional education, happiness, and well-being, and behavioral training, as well as peer mentoring and life-coaching as part of the whole-institution support systems (e.g., Brunila, 2012; Kurki & Brunila, 2014; Ikävalko & Kurki, 2014). In program documents, young people’s lives are repeatedly presented as problematic and challenging. Young people are labeled with different kinds of personal deficits and emotional problems. They are described as experiencing personal struggles, but, following their participation in emotional work or other types of therapeutic activity provided by programs, they may become survivors and autonomous selves.

The ethos of vulnerability tends to educate and train subjectivities that are suitable, obedient, and independent, such as self-discipline and self-responsibility, and as a result, enables young people to become what they are expected to become. They then comply with such demands in order to be recognized as properly flexible, active, self-disciplined, and responsible. According to Davies, “one of the consequences of the shift of responsibility from social/society to [the] individual has brought about is increasing vulnerability which is especially evident in the sphere of working life: workers are disposable and there is no obligation on the part of the ‘social fabric’ to take care of the disposed” (Davies, 2005, p. 9.) This means that we all are obliged to compete against one another in order not to become one of the disposed—and if disposed, it is often constructed as personal rather than structural failure. Thus, individual responsibility, competitiveness, and vulnerability form an entangled knot in the quest for (economic) survival (Brunila & Ryynänen, 2016).

We are especially concerned here about the relationship with the ethos of vulnerability and societal differences. These types of policies and implementations, as we have analyzed, tend to be useless when problems young people experience are, for example, gendered or racialized but considered as problems of individuals instead of discursive practices. Young people, especially those with working-class and/or racialized backgrounds, are assumed to lack “appropriate” skills or attitudes suitable for the disciplines of waged work (Furlong, 2013; Griffin, 1993; Author 3, Author 4, & Niemi, submitted). Consequently, proliferation of individually based interventions emerges where the deficiencies and pathologies of the individual are attributed to peer or family-based cultural backgrounds, which are generally constructed in negative terms (Ecclestone, 2015; McLeod, 2012). Thus, this type of “blaming” rests on the construction of specific “social problems” that must be explained through a set of stories in which the individualizing discourse takes an important position (e.g., Bottrell, 2009; Griffin, 1985, 1993).

The shifting role of education

This [youth unemployment] poses a serious threat to social cohesion in the EU and risks having a long-term negative impact on economic potential and competitiveness. EU institutions and governments, businesses and social partners at all levels need to do all they can to avoid a ‘lost generation’.

(EU Commission, 2012)

The EU has defined eight key youth competences fundamental for developing the EU’s knowledge-based economy and maintaining its global competitiveness. Those competences range from communication skills to mathematical, digital, and entrepreneurial proficiencies. There is a certain framework for this knowledge that should be promoted. Unemployment among youth is linked to “low-knowledge skills” (Brine, 2006), and youth are supposed to upgrade their knowledge from low to high. Previous knowledge is suppressed, as it does not comply with the specific competences set by the EU.

In the knowledge-based economy, the management and predictability of knowledge have received increased emphasis. It is therefore no surprise that specific knowledge is “privileged” (Jackson, 2009) and that those individuals who do not conform to the demands and acquire the lifelong learning key competences are at greater risk of being excluded because they are contributing to further vulnerability (Nicoll & Fejes, 2008). Youth programs that are supposed to carry potential benefits for “vulnerable youth” and for Europe as a whole have become a political fad, shifting the aims and potential of lifelong learning onto a different path. This shift has contributed to building knowledge hierarchies rather than equal opportunities among “vulnerable youth.” Although knowledge levels vary from one person to another, the problem lies in legitimizing certain knowledge over other (Jackson, 2009). The individual behavior is steered and knowledge is constrained, where each person has to have the ability to assimilate to the context and its demands (Medel-Añonuevo et al., 2001). This type of governing tends to (re)produce normative ways of being and doing, as well as ideas about the right kind of knowledge and knowing. At the same time, youth are expected to transform the skills acquired into productive outcomes.

In the ethos of vulnerability, resilience becomes an ideal skill whereby learning to carry one’s own choices and responsibilities, as well as learning to become developmental and trainable, is considered as being skilled in the right way. This ideal resilience is in connection with the illusion of individual autonomy, which is created as a consequence of “autonomizing” the self and making it accountable. Thus, human beings should be addressed as if they were with certain types of individualized subjectivity as well as with similar kinds of feelings, hopes, and dreams waiting to be recognized and fulfilled to their highest potential.

Based on our analyses, the lack of employment and/or education becomes a lack of employability—that is, a personal deficiency that can be “cured” by enabling education and by participating in individual-based interventions that improve one’s employability and willingness to adapt and manage the changeable demands of the labor market. This way the ethos of vulnerability fosters an ideal in which the internal world of the individual becomes a site where problems of society are raised (see also Furedi, 2004).

At first glance, the self-centeredness of the ethos of vulnerability may seem far removed from the neoliberal ideals involving competitiveness, performance, efficiency, and the compulsion to succeed in order to cope with the market economy. However, as we have argued, they tend to work together to shape an autonomous, self-responsible, enterprising, flexible, and self-centered ideal self of the neoliberal order.

In this context, we share Lukianoff and Haidt’s (2015) concern about the shifting role of education. Instead of “turning inward,” Lukianoff et al. discuss the ways education could and should strengthen the subjectivities and identities of students, and they recommend fostering the teaching of critical thinking and resisting what they call “emotional reasoning.” Particularly worrying is that what is seen as improper, unnatural, or disturbing is the education of young people to become politically active, or should we say, politically radical—that is, enhancing the possibilities of critical thinking through analysis of the exploitative system of neoliberalism.


Policy categories of vulnerability to worsening structural risks tend to keep expanding into a more diffuse spectrum of psychoemotional vulnerabilities (Ecclestone, 2015). In Finland, it is crucial to acknowledge the ethos of vulnerability because there is a largely unchallenged view that it exemplifies Nordic welfare as integral to educational and social justice. According to our results, the ethos of vulnerability is forming a compelling strand of discursive power that permeates policies and practices related to transitions, encompassing subjects that can be known and spoken about. It is for this reason that we wanted to further understand how vulnerability changes expectations and practices related to young people and the extent to which we should regard these changes as educationally and politically progressive.

We acknowledge that some researchers address vulnerability as a more progressive attribute, as a contingent nature of humanity or as a universal dimension of identity (see further Ecclestone & Goodley, 2014; Butler, 2004, 2009). However, in this article we have focused on vulnerability as a policy imperative and went beyond its generalized and individualized notions of young people. We challenged the interest in individual-based problems in an effort to help understand the problems young people face in today’s society.

The ethos of vulnerability strengthens neoliberal policies and implementations that respond and support individuals instead of aiming to solve problems as societal and structural. Our data show that the perceptions of young people outside education and employment rest on predispositions such as vulnerability, deficiency, and proneness to disaffection. Presumed deficiencies may be seen as the result of at-risk status, unemployability, and inadequate personality characteristics, instead of admitting the existence of the exploitative structures and systems of neoliberalism. Various kinds of policies, initiatives, and programs become presented as the primary means to prevent disaffection, and alleviate the worst effects of the presumed deficiencies and their desirable outcomes are described in the means of freedom of choice, consumerism, and individualism. Psychoemotional interventions and behavioral training can be quite useless when problems young people experience are gendered, racialized, and classed (Gillies, 2011, but they should be considered as problems of individuals instead of discursive practices producing gendered, racialized, and classed subjectivities.

The policy and program documents show that young people need to be kept busy and out of trouble, away from the official unemployment registers and in touch with the vital disciplines of waged work and acceptable (active) citizenship. Our analysis illustrates the ways in which the ethos of vulnerability features heavily both in formal policy texts and in policy implementations, and especially in various kinds of youth programs.

In our analysis, individual responsibility, competitiveness, and vulnerability are entangled in the quest for (economic) survival. This article has sought to raise a critical debate with regard to the shift of responsibility from social/society to the individual, which has increased vulnerability. It seems that neoliberalism has found a pervasive way to harness the whole personality for its use, shaping it more effectively by focusing on the idea of stable identities as well as emotions in order to shape flexible and adjustable subjectivities. In terms of cross-sectoral policies and their implementations for young people, we should further explore the alliance of neoliberal order and the ethos of vulnerability, and look more closely at how they work together and with what kinds of consequences. This effort is crucial to understand as the transitions that young people make stem not so much from the individual but from the conditions of possibility.

Neoliberalism and the ethos of vulnerability tend to shape the notion of subjectivity in a similar way: by enhancing the illusion of individual autonomy as a consequence of the “autonomization” and “accountability” of the self. In this alliance, the hierarchy involving reason and emotion exists, but in terms of more efficient governing in the ethos of vulnerability, the focus shifts into a hierarchy between emotions where some emotions are cultivated and others are ignored or considered irrelevant. The ability to control emotions and perform the right kind of emotions comes into play.

Thus, in education the ethos of vulnerability tends to become more and more powerful. As a consequence, young people get heard as “resilient” by recognizing their vulnerabilities, injuries, and emotional problems including anxieties, low self-esteem, and stress. We have argued that vulnerabilizing problems inadvertently undermines subjectivity and direct resilience to the ideal of neoliberalism. The neoliberal discourses work by disguising their real purposes: providing legitimation for shaping people to become more governable and eventually more economically productive subjects. Accordingly, educational programs in the neoliberal discourse serve as a political plot that forces the training of youth to become a procedure. In that sense, individuals have to define and redefine themselves and their skills to facilitate the policies to be pursued in achieving their objectives. The main problem is linked to the unelaborated idea of the subjectivity and the failure to tackle questions of societal differences, inequalities, hierarchies, and ethics. It is crucial to widen the debate about the subjectivity, especially now when both neoliberalism and the ethos of vulnerability tend to shape the notion of subjectivity in a similar way leading to a stronger societal division of people.


Bacchi, C., & Bonham, J. (2014). Reclaiming discursive practices as an analytic focus: Political implications. Foucault Studies, 17, 173–192,Find this resource:

Ball, S. (2012). Global Education Inc. New policy networks and the neoliberal imaginery. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bansel, P. (2007). Subjects of choice and lifelong learning. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(3), 283–300.Find this resource:

Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Biesta, G. (2006). What’s the point of lifelong learning if lifelong learning has no point? On the democratic deficit of policies for lifelong learning. European Educational Research Journal, 5(3 & 4), 169–180.Find this resource:

Bottrell, D. (2009). Understanding “marginal” perspectives: Towards a social theory of resilience. Qualitative Social Work, Research and Practice, 8(3), 321–339.Find this resource:

Brine, J. (2006). Lifelong learning and the knowledge economy: Those that know and those that do not—the discourse of the European union. British Educational Research Journal, 32(5), 649665.Find this resource:

Brown, K. (2012). Re-moralising “vulnerability.” People, Place and Policy, 6(1), 41–53.Find this resource:

Brown, K. (2014). Questioning the “vulnerability zeitgeist”: Care and control practices with “vulnerable” young people. Social Policy and Society, 13(3), 1–17.Find this resource:

Brunila, K. (2012). Hooked on a feeling: Education, guidance and rehabilitation of youth at risk. Critical Studies in Education, 54(2), 215–228.Find this resource:

Brunila, K., Ikävalko, E., Kurki, T., Mertanen, K., & Mikkola, A. (2016). Revisiting the “vulnerability ethos” in cross-sectoral transition policies and practices for young people. Research in Comparative and International Education, 11(1), 69–79.Find this resource:

Brunila, K., & Ryynänen, S. (2016). New Rules of the Game: Youth training in Brazil and Finland as examples of new global network governance. Journal of Education and Work. Published online June 9, 2016.Find this resource:

Brunila, K., & Mertanen, K. (2014). Nuorisotakuu ajaa projektimarkkinoille. Uutistamo. Available at

Brunila, K., & Mononen Batista-Costa, S. (in press). Becoming Entreneurial: Transitions and unemployed youth. Power and Education, 8(1), 19–34.Find this resource:

Brunila, K., & Siivonen, P. (2014). Preoccupied with the self: Towards self-responsible, enterprising, flexible, and self-centred subjectivity in education. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(1), 56–69.Find this resource:

Burman, E. (2008). Deconstructing developmental psychology. 2d ed. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (2004). Precarious Life: The powers of mourning and violence. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (2008). An account of oneself. In B. Davies (Ed.), Judith Butler in conversation. Analyzing the texts and talk of everyday life (pp. 19–38). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Butler, J. (2009). Frames of war: When is life grievable? Brooklyn, NY: Verso.Find this resource:

Davies, B. (1998). A body of writing 1990–1998. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.Find this resource:

Davies, B. (2005). The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal regimes. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1), 1–14.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K. (2012). From emotional and psychological well-being to character education: challenging policy discourses of behavioural science and “vulnerability.” Research Papers in Education, 27(4), 463480.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K. (2015). Vulnerability and wellbeing in educational settings: The implications of therapeutic approach to social justice. In K. Wright & J. McLeod (Eds.), Rethinking youth wellbeing: Critical perspectives. Springer: Singapore.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K., & Goodley, D. (2014). Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorizing post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability. Discourse, 37(2), 175188.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K., & Hayes, D. (2008). The dangerous rise of therapeutic education. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K., Hayes, D., & Furedi, F. (2005). Knowing me, knowing you: The rise of therapeutic professionalism in the education of adults. Studies in the Education of Adults, 37, 182–200.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K., & Lewis, L. (2014). Interventions for resilience in educational settings: Challenging policy discourses of risk and vulnerability. Journal of Education Policy, 29(2), 195–216.Find this resource:

Ecclestone, K., & Brunila, K. (2015). Governing emotionally-vulnerable subjects and the therapisation of social justice. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 23(4), 485–506.Find this resource:

European Commission (2007). Promoting young people’s full participation in education, employment and society. Available at

European Commission (2012). Proposal for a council recommendation on establishing a Youth Guarantee. Available at file:///C:/Users/KB/Downloads/Council-Recommendation-YG_EN.pdf.

European Commision (2012). EU Youth Report. Available at

Fawcett, B. (2009). Vulnerability: questioning the certainties in social work and health. International Social Work, 52(4), 473–484.Find this resource:

Fionda, J. (2005). Devils and angels: Youth policy and crime. Oxford: Hart.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1985). The history of sexuality. Vol. 2. The use of pleasure. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Find this resource:

Furedi, F. (2004). Therapy culture: Cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Furedi, F. (2009). Wasted: Why education isn’t educating. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.Find this resource:

Furlong, A. (2013). Marginalized youth in education: Social and cultural dimensions of exclusion in Canada and the UK.’ In K. Tilleczek & B. Ferguson (Eds.), Marginalized youth in contemporary educational contexts. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier Press.Find this resource:

Gillies, V. (2011). Social and emotional pedagogies: Critiquing the new orthodoxy of emotion in classroom and behaviour nanagement. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32(2), 185–202.Find this resource:

Griffin, C. (1985). Typical girls? Young women from school to the job market. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Find this resource:

Griffin, C. (1993). Representations of youth: The study of youth and adolescence in Britain and America. Cambridge: Polity Press.Find this resource:

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Ikävalko, E. & Kurki, T. (2014). Tutkimuksen rajoilla kuljeskellen. In Brunila, K. & Isopahkala-Bouret, U. (Eds.), Marginaalin voima! Aikuiskasvatuksen vuosikirja 51. Helsinki: Kansanvalistusseura & Aikuiskasvatuksen tutkimusseura.Find this resource:

Jackson, S. (2009). Learning through social spaces: Migrant women and lifelong learning in post-colonial London. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 29(2), 237253.Find this resource:

Kelly, P. (2006). The entrepreneurial self and “youth at-risk”: Exploring the horizons of identity in the twenty-first century. Journal of Youth Studies, 9(1), 17–32.Find this resource:

Kurki, T., & Brunila, K. (2014). Education and training as projectised and precarious politics. Power and Education 6(3), 283–294.Find this resource:

Lloyd, M. (2005). Beyond identity politics. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2015). The coddling of the American mind. The Atlantic, The Education Issue September 2015. Available at this resource:

Lundahl, L. (2011). Paving the way to the future? Education and young European’s paths to work an independence. European Educational Research Journal 10(2), 168179.Find this resource:

McLaughlin, K. (2011). Surviving identity: Vulnerability and the psychology of recognition. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

McLeod, J. (2012). Vulnerability and the neo-liberal youth citizen: A view from Australia, Comparative Education, 48(1), 11–26.Find this resource:

Medel-Añonuevo, C., Ohsako, T., & Mauch, W. (2001). Revisiting lifelong learning for the 21st century. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education.Find this resource:

Miller, P., & Rose, N. (2008). Governing the present. Cambridge: Polity.Find this resource:

Myrskylä, P. (2012). Keitä ovat syrjäytyneet nuoret? EVA analyysi 9/2012.Find this resource:

Nicoll, K., & Fejes, A. (2008). Mobilizing Foucault in studies of lifelong learning. In A. Fejes & K. Nicoll (Eds.), Foucault and lifelong learning: Governing the subject (pp. 118). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Olssen, M. (2008). Understanding the mechanisms of neoliberal control: Lifelong learning, flexibility, and knowledge capitalism. In A. Fejes & K. Nicoll (Eds.), Foucault and lifelong learning: Governing the subject (pp. 34–47). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Petersen, E. (2008). Passionately attached: Academic subjects of desire. In Bronwyn Davies (Ed.), Judith Butler in conversation. Analyzing the texts and talk of everyday life (pp. 55–68). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Rose, N. (1999). Powers of freedom. Reframing the political thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Simmons, R., & Smyth, J. (2016). Crisis of youth or youth in crisis? Education, employment and legitimation crisis. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 35(2), 136152.Find this resource:

UNICEF (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, Innocenti Report Card 7. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre: Florence. Available at this resource:

Walther, A. (2006). Regimes of youth transitions: Choice, flexibility and security in young people’s experiences across different European contexts. Young, 14(2), 131150.Find this resource:

Youth guarantee (2013). Available at

Wright, K., & McLeod, J. (2015). Rethinking Youth Wellbeing: Critical Perspectives. Melbourne: Springer.Find this resource:


(1.) Author 1’s study focuses on educational and training programs for young people experiencing unemployment, poverty, prison, and educational failure. Author 2’s study focuses on the formation and (new) practices of peer support of young adults with the background of mental health problems with special focus on the guided functional peer support (GFP) model and culture house projects. Author 3’s study focuses on psychosocial support provided for migrants and refugees. Author 4’s study critically analyses how the identities of young migrant learners are being shaped through the Finnish integration policy and lifelong learning. Author 5’s study is related to the training of young people considered “at risk.” Author 6’s study focuses on the psychotherapeutic education of primary school-aged children and youth. Author 7’s study is related to governmentality and focuses on the genealogy of vulnerability ethos of young people.