Youths, between Globalisation and Plural Identities

Maria-Àngels Roque

Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

Despite the numerous conferences and surveys on youths undertaken in Northern, Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries, the assertion made at the end of the seventies by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in an interview about youths and their first job is still relevant: “Youth is only a word.” This assertion, which years later became an authoritative sociological article, has filled page after page and provoked theoretical confrontations between those who try to establish a delimitation of the category of “youth”. Although there is a naturalistic current based on the phases of life, most specialists consider that youth is a statistical tool that can be used for different ends. When we speak of youths, we are dealing with quantitative criteria (age groups) and qualitative criteria (civil status), and there are increasingly more studies that exploit both categories. Bourdieu demonstrated that the existence of diverse types of youth makes the definition of a public policy difficult. We have always found qualitative criteria in the world of anthropology, with its rituals and preliminary stages. Stages that prevailed until the sixties and that coexist in communities where ritual practices marked the classes of age and sex. The anthropological studies reveal how the emergence from youth and entrance into adulthood are essentially social. Talcott Parsons defined youth culture or adolescence as the “culture of irresponsibility,” in contrast to that of responsibility characteristic of adults. In this respect, he was not too far from the definitions typical of traditional societies with their marked standards. Today, however, the situation is complex and the stages are difficult to define, in part owing to the profound social transformations, such as the increase in schooling, the difficulty of finding the first job, the delay in marriage age, the change of values and the variety of lifestyles that coexist.

The United Nations World Youth Report 2007 summarises some of the main global trends in terms of youth in the following way: “The review of regional experiences suggests that young people the world over are in a better position than past generations of youth to contribute to development. However, there are still far too many who face barriers and constraints arising from their backgrounds or from the social environment in which they live. Regardless of their place of birth or current residence, young people continue to experience similar sets of difficulties that impinge on their healthy and timely transition to adulthood. Apart from health, education and employment issues, such areas as poverty reduction and the availability of opportunities for volunteer work and for the advancement of young women and girls continue to present a challenge.”

What do we understand by becoming an adult? Returning to the surveys: in Mediterranean countries it means finding a job, a home and a partner; in France, having a secure social and professional position; in the United Kingdom, becoming financially independent; in Denmark, “finding” oneself. A feature of being an adult or mature is that it is not obtained or achieved but is attributed or received. Contemporary society praises the image of youth, based on aesthetic criteria, while it undermines the situation of youths as individuals. This paradox, comprehensively dealt with by Andreu Domingo and Jordi Bayona in this issue of Quaderns de la Mediterrània, is especially paradigmatic in the Mediterranean basin, where the breach between the two shores is relevant for demographic studies and the theories of the clash of civilizations. However, the forward-looking analysis of factors such as migrations or fertility rates highlights the reduction in the number of youths in the Mediterranean area in the next few decades, a phenomenon whose scope will depend ultimately on the political and socioeconomic framework of each country.

In terms of young people, in general, it can be said that despite the prevailing economic and political differences they are children of the same civilisation: the civilisation of the media and consumption. It is clear that the cultural impact of globalisation differs from one country to another, and even within each country. On the one hand, globalisation can be seen in the hybrid forms of music, fashion and rebellion against “tradition”. On the other, economic globalisation is reflected in the numbers of unemployed youths, who have been unable to use their qualifications effectively and find themselves marginalised in inappropriate professions, or are fully occupied with obtaining their basic needs. Currently, this situation seems to be the same on both shores.

Youths between 15 and 24 make up the largest age group in the Arab populations of the Mediterranean, and also the group that suffers most in terms of visibility and employment. The opportunities for personal development of youths in these countries are very limited, above all for women, owing especially to social shortcomings in education and culture. In the European Mediterranean, youths between 16 and 29 also make up the group with the highest unemployment rate. The revolts that took place in Greece in 2008 have much to do with the precarious situation of youths, even those with a job. In Spain there have never been so many university graduates, but at the same time such a high number of students leaving school at 16. In order to know what Spanish youths think and to establish a comparison of values with other European youths, Javier Elzo has in recent years carried out several studies to analyse these values based on behaviours, aspirations and specific feelings. This data allows significant conclusions on Spanish youths and their European contemporaries, such as their greater permissiveness in terms of private behaviours or the general leaning towards localism over universalism. Continuing with the surveys, we should note the one carried out by the journal Babelmed, in which young journalists interview women aged between 20 and 30, who talk about their expectations of love, living with a partner, sexuality, motherhood or work. The results of this research, undertaken in nine Mediterranean countries (Algeria, Egypt, Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Turkey), present some similar elements between regions in diverse aspects. Even so, there is still a great North-South divergence in subjects considered taboo, such as sexuality. Although work is a synonym of independence and Mediterranean women attach great importance to maintaining at least a financial independence, this can take second place after motherhood. Continuing with the gender perspective, if when talking about youths the new technologies are an obligatory reference, the economist Cecilia Castaño points out that the sustained increase in the number of computer and Internet connection users seems to indicate that the first digital divide – defined in function of access to technology – can be resolved in the future. However, she warns that the second digital divide, related to the skills necessary to obtain all benefits of access (digital literacy), affects women more than men, even among the young.

In the debate we are trying to stimulate in this Quaderns de la Mediterrània dossier, dedicated to youths and the Mediterranean challenge, the voices and the themes are plural, as is the form of approaching them. The education specialist Nader Fergany considers that, despite the notable achievements in the quantitative expansion of education in Arab countries in the 20th century, the education level is still deficient in the qualitative aspect. The main reason for this is illiteracy, in particular in women, owing to a basic non-universal education and to the selective exclusion of girls and the marginalised from the most elitist branches and higher levels. Fergany considers that education reform could contribute to human development individually and socially, and warns that governance and private initiative are required to carry out this reform, which is a multidimensional and interactive task.

While the negative consequences of globalisation are a motive of consternation in the Arab region, the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) also represent, as a global mechanism, a mixture of challenge and opportunity, as pointed out in their articles by the sociologist Azza Karam and the political scientist Mohammed Ibahrine. According to these specialists, the main challenge falls to the governments confronting the rapid transformations of societies. The mobile phone is not just an object of personal communication; in the Arab countries, it is also a multifunctional personal device. The mobiles equipped with new modern features such as Internet access, cameras and MP3 players have become very popular, especially among adolescents, who have played a very active role in adopting the multifunctional mobile communication services and making them their own. Ibahrine wonders if this dissemination is provoking social and political changes related to communication and, to argue this, explains how mobile phones can become a tool of social mobilisation, just as happens in European countries. According to Karam, the massive flow of information through the mass media also represents a challenge for youths, as it leaves them “caught between two worlds” (the real conditions they live in, in some cases, are far removed from what they see, hear and come to expect). These challenges are reflected in the values, habits and behaviours of youths, in particular, and also influence their linguistic, artistic and intellectual production. All this, in its turn, causes havoc in the institutions dedicated to social education, so that some have come to perceive globalised culture as a direct threat to the identity of youths and their sense of belonging. This “threat” becomes more important as education and economic levels decline.

Sylvie Floris affirms that current youth, being very plural, presents breaches that, in order to avoid conflicts, can only be repaired through links of interculturality, which permit better understanding. In this respect, she argues that governments must support the association networks, the promotion of education and the use of Internet, the main leisure activity that fosters fundamental aspects of interculturality given that youths, by using it, share, exchange and “act together”. The voices of committed youths in the Euro-Mediterranean association world are critical of this, but consider it very necessary: thus, Xavier Baró formulates a connection between association movements and the development of citizenship from the perspective of organisations and youth work. Although he recognises that there are important differences between the distinct realities of the Euro-Mediterranean area, he highlights some common elements seen in the development of cooperation strategies between youth associations. This cooperation includes elements of meeting, exchange and training among youth leaders and educators of these organisations, as well as the promotion of networks that can create free and democratic youth councils. Filippo Fabbrica explains that many young Mediterranean artists are currently carrying out artistic projects with social ends, thus showing that creative needs can effectively take on social responsibilities, especially in the most disadvantaged areas and with the most vulnerable groups. Mouhammadi Benbouzid, for his part, considers that the different collaboration programmes between the European Union and Southern Mediterranean countries have always made an absolute priority of education and integration of youths in the social and economic life of the region. Thus, since the constitution of the Mediterranean Youth Forum in 1998, some very important progress has been made allowing youths on both shores the possibility of developing their expectations and improving their possibilities for social action. However, we must go further. For greater transparency and awareness, it is absolutely necessary to build a policy of dialogue with the countries of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and with civil society, but also including the youth organisations in the preparation of national programmes and plans with a view to their implementation in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy and Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. To encourage this dialogue, in 2008 the IEMed and the Anna Lindh Foundation organised the first international short story contest “A Sea of Words”, whose winners are published in this issue.

Finally, we complete this issue of Quaderns de la Mediterrània with several articles which introduce us to the challenges that will accompany the existence of the Union for the Mediterranean, as well as two interviews that point out the necessary link of the Nordic countries with the Mediterranean and, specifically, the Swedish European Presidency during the second half of 2009. Moreover, it is important to note the testimonies and reflections of two renowned writers, the Palestinian Mourid Barghouti and the Israeli of Sephardic origin Abraham B. Yehoshua. Memories, separations, but always with the objective of finding new shared strategies.