Social marginalisation begins when trust ends

Tarja Tolonen was appointed lecturer specialising in the marginalisation of children and adolescents from among 30 candidates. She believes marginalisation is not the result of the actions of individuals, but rather inflexible institutions blind to all but the adults’ perspective are to blame.

Today’s youth is a popular topic of discussion, but few can really empathise with young people’s situation, suggests Tarja Tolonen, the first lecturer in Finland to specialise in the marginalisation of children and adolescents.

“We have started talking about marginalised young people,” Tolonen says. “which is a horrible label to put on anyone. I would much rather talk about marginalising processes or factors. Or about what happens when a child or adolescent becomes vulnerable to marginalisation.”

The precise definition of marginalisation is still up for debate. The education sector focuses on school dropouts, and segments of the government think mainly about youth unemployment. Tolonen points out that, young people themselves often describe marginalisation as a lack of friends and a withdrawal from social connections – similarly to psychologists and psychiatrists.

According to Tolonen, “A young person may be surprised to hear him- or herself described as marginalised, if he or she has a healthy network of friends. There are so many definitions of what constitutes a good life. If the surrounding community mainly consists of unemployed people, a child or young person will not consider a job as the defining factor in his or her life.”

What is the real problem?

The larger problems include a teaching culture that repels young people in their early teen years, the catastrophic housing situation in the Greater Helsinki area and adults with calcified professional identities who only protect interests in their particular field, lists Tolonen.  But it’s not all bleak: outreach and preventive youth work and the slowly improving cooperation between authorities offer a ray of hope.

“Every year, thousands of young people leave school after the ninth grade, never to return,” Tolonen states. “This means their education consists solely of comprehensive school. Something happens between the seventh and ninth grades. Sometimes the reason may be problems in the family, sometimes it’s the learning methods. Book-focused learning does not suit everyone, and may in fact obscure the skills of certain students."

Appropriately, Tolonen intends to take a critical perspective on institutions in the research her new position will involve.

“Many problems are structural in nature,” she continues. “For example, marginalisation in the second generation means that there was a point in their family’s life when they did not get the help they needed. Maybe it was unemployment or an illness, but the family’s support networks failed them.”

Tarja Tolonen does not believe tighter control would help get the supposed “truants” back to school. For example, the suggested extension to the period of compulsory education would not reach the group of young people for whom it is intended.

And if society is trying to get young people to work, it should generate new jobs. Young people are not to be underestimated. They will notice if they’re being kept off the streets with labour policy education or traineeships which involve little more than making the coffee.

As Tolonen asserts, “If you want to engage young people, you have to give them real jobs and real responsibilities.”