Causes of youth marginalisation bedded deep in the structures of society – researchers see problems with individual-oriented approaches

While short-term solutions are employed in fixing the problems of young people classified as marginalised in society, researchers are calling for structural change and long-term funding.

Young people coming from different backgrounds are easily classified as marginalised and vulnerable, and Finnish society has targeted them with a broad range of measures and support systems. In recent years, the number of short-term support systems providing education, guidance, training and rehabilitation has increased.

“Based on our findings, measures and support systems can also be problematic,” says Associate Professor Kristiina Brunila from the University of Helsinki.

For the past two years, Brunila and her research group have been studying support systems and their wider consequences and connections under CoSupport – Interrupting Youth Support Systems in the Ethos of Vulnerability (2017–2021), a research project funded by the Academy of Finland.

Attention on societal structures, not individuals

“Our findings highlight that, through support systems and their inherent practices, challenges related to the life situations of young people are perceived as problems. These problems are linked with individual limitations and deficiencies related to the person and nature of young people, often leading to individuals being identified as insufficient in one way or another,” Brunila says.

Support may turn into problem-solving that does not, however, meet the needs of the young or promote their agency and participation. Young people and the professionals who work with them also express criticism towards support systems. In the end, however, their actions are limited by funding.


“The results of our research project can be interpreted more broadly as the advancement of individualisation connected with the market economy, in which societal and social problems and responsibility are perceived through the choices and actions of individuals. Our project turns the gaze from individuals to societal systems, getting back to examining those political actions and broader practices that are the primary causes of inequality,” Brunila explains.

The project’s findings highlight a number of issues:

  1. It appears that education and social policies provide young people with contradictory or impossible positions: certain kinds of activity, responsibility and participation in social involvement and discourse are expected of them, but, on the other hand, they are considered passive, immature and ignorant.
  2. Young adults and their activities are regulated through the allocation of sparse resources. At the same time, support systems offer them measures encouraging freedom of choice and entrepreneurship that are connected with bureaucracy, private enterprise and the third sector.
  3. In the public discourse, young people in particular are targeted with concerns about their political passivity, with the underlying causes often being looked for in individuals. Young people are considered to be disinterested, ignorant of politics and society, unskilled and incompetent in contributing to democratic discourse, as well as indifferent towards common affairs. Consequently, education in democratic citizenship provided by schools should commit to principles supporting the prospects of democracy where the prevailing unfair and marginalising social order is not perceived as inevitable.
  4. Alongside the Finnish language studies included in integration education, young adult immigrants are provided with retraining as well as studies in a range of knowledge and skills that are considered guarantees of future employment. Finding a job is considered the number one indicator of integration, leaving other significant factors on the sidelines. Unemployment, on the other hand, is considered to be caused by individual factors, even though immigrant youth often encounter discrimination and racism when attempting to find work.
  5. A global trend is also evident in Finland, where those born late in the year have a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed related medication compared to their peers. Research literature describes the phenomenon as psychosocial, with the school environment and its demands either ‘triggering’ ADHD in individuals or the ‘immaturity’ of children being interpreted as an activity and attention deficit disorder. Thus, attention is directed at the child, excluding questions on what such a phenomenon says about the school and the role of diagnostic models in school practices.

Datasets comprised of over 300 interviews

The researchers have collected material from all across Finland in educational organisations, prisons, outreach youth work, preparatory education, as well as guidance, rehabilitation and integration programmes, services supporting youth employment and education, and short-term projects.

A total of more than 300 interviews have been conducted with young people coming from different backgrounds, primarily from outside the sphere of education and professional life, and the professionals who are helping them.

The research dataset also includes documents, statistics and media presentations pertaining to political guidance.

Further information

Kristiina Brunila, project leader, phone +358 50 310 9827,

Website of the CoSupport – Interrupting Youth Support Systems in the Ethos of Vulnerability project

Project publications