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Generation Nowhere: Rethinking Youth through the Lens of Un/under-employed Young Men

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Generation Nowhere: Rethinking Youth through the Lens of Un/under-employed Young Men
Revised version for publication in Progress in Human Geography

Dr. Craig Jeffrey

Assistant Professor in Geography and International Studies

Department of Geography Box 353550

University of Washington


WA 98195


Telephone 001 206 543 5870


Generation Nowhere: Rethinking Youth through the Lens of Un/under-employed Young Men
Rising educated un/under-employment among young men is a key feature of neoliberal economic change. This paper reviews recent research on the strategies of educated un/under-employed young men in the global south to stress the importance of class, politics and environmental transformation for an understanding of contemporary youth geographies. Trans-national reflection on the lives of educated un/under-employed young men provides a vivid case study of how human geographers might combine political economic analysis with recent theorizations of subjectivity formation and fluid identities.
Keywords: global south, youth, unemployment, class, politics, gender, space

Generation Nowhere: Rethinking Youth through the Lens of Un/under-employed Young Men
I. Introduction
Young men in Meerut College, north India, have started a club called “Generation Nowhere”. Generation Nowhere meets once a month to lament the declining value of north Indian degrees and the scarcity of local employment opportunities. Its members have typically spent over two decades in formal education. None possess secure salaried work. In March 2005, I met one of the members of this club, Vedpal, sitting by a statue of Gandhi near the centre of the college. I asked him whether he maintained any hope of things changing in the future. Vedpal replied:
Of course there is hope. The world runs on hope. But what can we do to when 42,000 people apply for a single government post? The Indian government has given us the encouragement to become educated, but they have done nothing to encourage the creation of jobs. We are losing the will to live.
Rising educated unemployment is a key feature of the lives of young people in India and other areas of the globe, and of growing concern among governments, international organizations and activist groups. Education has failed to open up expanded employment opportunities for young people across large swathes of the planet. The spread of images of success based on prolonged participation in schooling and subsequent entry into professional or white-collar work has encouraged parents to invest time, money and effort in formal schooling. In the global south especially, but also in many northern contexts, widely different forms of neo-liberal economic change have simultaneously undermined the opportunities for educated young people to obtain stable and well-paid work. Thus arises one of the most unsettling paradoxes of contemporary neoliberal economic transformation; at almost the precise moment that an increasing number of people formerly excluded from mainstream schooling have come to recognise the empowering possibilities of education, opportunities for many of these groups to benefit from schooling are disintegrating (Jeffery et al., 2004).
While the broad contours of these social issues are well understood, there have been few attempts to examine comparatively the strategies that young people adopt to negotiate educated unemployment. This paper acts as a corrective. I critically review recent research on the practices of educated young men in parts of the global south - Africa, Latin America, and Asia - and use this discussion to develop a new conceptual framework for understanding the geographies of marginalized youth. The paper addresses youth geographies most explicitly but it draws on ethnographically-informed research conducted within a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology and political science. I place particular emphasis on research on South Asian youth, who comprise a substantial segment of the world’s educated unemployed population (Ul Haq, 2003).
Recent geographical work on youth has contributed to inter-disciplinary understanding of subaltern agency by showing that young people are active and creative social actors. Among the key achievements of this research have been examinations of young people’s distinctive role in making, politicizing, and imagining space (Valentine et al., 1998; Hyams, 2000; Thomas, 2005), trans-national interconnections between young people’s strategies (Katz, 2004), and the role of age and generation in fracturing people’s experience of space and political change (Aitken, 2001). But the continued Euro-centrism of most youth geographers restricts their capacity to analyse processes of global transformation. I argue in this paper that sustained reflection on the lives of young people in the global south highlights themes that are not often emphasized in youth geographies, especially issues of class, politics, and environmental transformation.
In addition, the paper contributes to human geography as a whole by demonstrating the key significance of a new generation of educated un/under-employed young men in processes of cultural, political and spatial change. At a theoretical level, the paper highlights the continuing value of Bourdieu’s work for an understanding of political and economic dynamics. Distinct from reviews of Bourdieu’s theoretical schema by other political and cultural geographers (e.g. Cloke et al., 1995; Crang, 1997), I argue that Bourdieu’s work illuminates and helps explain the experiences and trajectories of educated un/under-employed young men in Africa, Asia and Latin America. When brought into conversation with the work of Willis (1977; 1982), Foucault (1977) and Butler (1990), Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts offer a useful foundation for studying marginalized youth more broadly.
The paper is concerned both with outright unemployment and underemployment, often defined as dependence on involuntary part-time work, intermittent unemployment, and/or involvement in poorly remunerated labor (Prause and Dooley 1997: 245). In other cases, scholars use underemployment to denote the under-utilization of skills, especially educational capacities. Distinct from this search for key measures of underemployment, this paper considers how young men themselves come to perceive themselves as “underemployed” or “unemployed”. Employment or the absence of work often powerfully shapes people’s subjectivities and political strategies a point which emerges strongly in ethnographies of unemployment (Campbell, 1993; Levinson, 1996) and in recent geographies of work (Castree et al., 2003). The paper also links to recent critical labor geographies (Herod 1997; Gidwani, 2001; Castree et al., 2003; Chari, 2004) and to accounts of working youth in the global south (e.g. Punch, 2000; Bello and Mertes 2004; Katz, 2004; Robson, 2004; Dyson 2006), by showing how the underemployed may actively shape broader labor regimes, for example through negotiating new forms of fallback work within the informal economy or migrating in search of employment.
The paper concentrates on un/under-employed young men.
My discussion relates primarily to young men aged between 16 and 30. This definition of young people reflects how ideas of youth have been stretched in varied global settings. Young men’s inability to move quickly from school or university into secure employment has created a generation of educated men in their later teens and twenties who often remain unmarried, are unable to establish financial independence, and are widely identified as “young” (Ruddick, 2003). This generation is older than those discussed in much sociological and anthropological literature, but, like “youths” discussed in other contexts, these young men commonly define themselves as distinct from adults, are engaged in an active search for employment, and remain preoccupied with questions of culture, style, and respect.
The paper is structured into a further five sections. Section II briefly reviews three key themes in the inter-disciplinary study of Western youth: the decline of class, rise of fluid identities, and erosion of young people’s involvement in class-/party-based politics. This provides a framework for discussing educated un/under-employed young men in the global south, whom I introduce in the next section of the paper (section III). Sections IV and V – on class and politics respectively – form the core of the paper. I use a review of recent studies of educated un/under-employed young men in Asia, Africa and Latin America to argue that class and formal politics remains central to the strategies of threatened youth in the global south and to argue for the continued value of a cultural production approach to young people’s lives. The penultimate section focuses on the changing geographies of educated un/under-employment, and in the conclusion I draw out the wider implications of my review for youth geographies and human geography more broadly.
II. Western youth

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