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Coming of age in Europe

About: C. Van de Velde, Devenir adulte. Sociologie comparée de la jeunesse en Europe [Growing up. Comparative sociology of European Youth], PUF.

by Christian Baudelot , 8 April 2008

Through a comparison between the paths taken by young people to reach adult life in a range of European countries, Cécile Van de Velde gives the sociology of youth a thorough makeover.

Cécile Van de Velde, Devenir adulte. Sociologie comparée de la jeunesse en Europe [Growing up. Comparative sociology of European Youth], Paris, PUF, « Le Lien social », February 2008.

Youth revisited

There did not seem to be a thing that was not known about French young people. Indeed, since the early eighties, many thoroughly researched pieces have recorded the difficulties experienced by young people from all social backgrounds in finding their place in society. The seventies oil crises have thoroughly muddled earlier pathways towards adulthood. There was a time when finding a steady job was the immediate prelude to moving out, forming a couple and starting a family. Not so today. The time devoted to education is getting longer for everyone, as does the gap stretching between quitting the educational system and holding down a job. The very French “educationalisation” of unemployment, combined with young people’s low participation rate and the correspondingly high unemployment besetting them, delay adulthood and make the transition more difficult.

Cécile Van de Velde’s study renews in depth this classical approach. First, she calls into question the conception of youth that underpins it. If youth is perceived as a transient state preceding the three steps requisite to accessing adulthood – steady job, own home, forming a couple – it is defined by a status-driven understanding of life’s ages confined within fixed and immutable bonds. However these stages, progressive, disrupted and reversible as they have become, are now bereft of any social benchmarking value. Traditional watersheds are becoming blurred: being an adult is no longer understood as an achieved state: there is always before you a horizon which recedes as you advance and reappears ahead of you even as you think you have overtaken it. Adulthood no longer reflects a status: it is but a prospect.

Four ways to become an adult

Strong in her methodology coup, Cécile Van de Velde proceeds to wield the tool on which she rests to readdress the question, namely the longitudinal exploitation of the European Household Panel conducted in four countries – Denmark, the United Kingdom, France and Spain. The first six waves of this panel cover people aged from 18 to 30 between 1994 and 1999; they detail the paths taken by young people towards family emancipation and social insertion in the four countries. The comparative angle revolutionises the classical approach because it sets the French situation against those in three other countries, chosen for the very reason that they are different. In those four countries the author closely analyses the social frameworks governing the experiences inherent to the process of growing up. She takes particular care in measuring the way State intervention, the education system and family culture structure the modalities of access to adulthood. But she also strives to figure out, on the basis of interviews, the meaning individuals give to their progress through youth. The empirically validated observation protocol observed is outstanding and the data treatment is flawless.

Hence the interest of results laid out in a clear-cut typology, which probably owes much to the way Serge Paugam – who supervised the thesis the book is drawn from – likes to analyse social dynamics. Four countries, four ways to become an adult: Finding oneself in Denmark, taking charge of oneself in the UK, slotting in in France, and settling down in Spain.

These four ways of becoming an adult are social constructs affected by the modalities around which the input of the State, education and the family interface in these countries.

Finding oneself, that is going through youth as a long period of exploration and experimentation aimed at personal development. Independence is achieved early, the paths taken are circuitous and broken, leisurely followed towards a gradual structuring of the self and the shaping of a social identity. This is the Danish way

Taking charge is the British way towards adulthood. This second experience of youth is shaped by its pursuit of personal emancipation; it is short lived and almost exclusively career-driven. Set on this course, young men and women must prove their aptitude for personal and financial autonomy and break loose from family and State tutelage under their own steam.

Slotting in is the French version of this model. The investment in human capital by means of education and qualification is the major agent. This spawns extended dependence on the family. The urgency of the operation is pervasive: one must integrate at all cost, as soon as possible, once and for all and for good.

settling down, conversely, revolves around belonging with kith and kin. Leaving home is the last stage in a three-phased process: steady job, marriage, house buying. That is the model favoured by Spanish young people.

The parallel (and solid) analyses offered by this limpid typology enable the readers fully to grasp the values guiding the way these experiences of youth hinge on social frameworks specific to each society: personal development for the Danes, emancipation for the British, social integration for the French and matrimony for the Spaniards. They will also see why French sociologists have been so hooked on the conception of youth as a clearly marked out age in life. They have inherited this model from the social frameworks that have moulded them and from the way the actors themselves perceive their youth as a transition towards ultimate integration.

An inspired probing of stereotypes

It will have become clear that this book represents a significant advance in the understanding of coming off age processes, which it has refreshed through its comparative methodology. The international sample and the cross-referencing of statistical data with interviews bring alive the sense young people make of their experience. This gives the French case, seen in the light cast by the three other countries, a whole new complexion.

This book is a masterpiece of clarity, written in a lucid language, it articulates in a rigorous and convincing way a subtle argument backed by the precise knowledge of all the noteworthy material written on the subject in France and abroad. I will however express three reservations. The opening methodological coup and its call for a Copernican revolution – youth is not to be seen as a state but as a progress – has not been fully implemented. The book bears many passages where the fossilization of this age of life endures through language: “paths of youth”, just “Youth”, “accessing adulthood” etc… Stereotypes are hard lived, especially in France!

It is also to be regretted that the boy-girl gaps have not been more closely addressed. We come away with the impression that the models described are more male than female.

The light cast by this clear-cut typology on the differences separating the four countries is penetrating. But everybody knows that though the model be pure, social reality is always murky and contradictory. Faced with such an ideal type, one is always left wondering what fraction of the population it truly accounts for and what the share of those, male and female, who have been left on the margins. A classical question that should on no account deter aspiring sociologists from conducting the exercise in other contexts, for Cécile Van de Velde has spearheaded it in a masterly way. A high quality international survey, explored through bold and creative lenses will always yield inexhaustible opportunities for further knowledge. Here is a book which gives pause for thought.

Article translated from french by Francoise Pinteaux-Jones.

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by Christian Baudelot, 8 April 2008

To quote this article :

Christian Baudelot, « Coming of age in Europe », Books and Ideas , 8 April 2008. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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