Young Adults in France: Becoming Adult in the Context of Increased Autonomy and Dependency

Article excerpt

When we compare young French adults of between 18 and 29 years of age with their European counterparts, we see that the French live at home with their parents for longer periods of time, that they are less frequently inactive and more often students or unemployed than European average. A substantial number have their own means of support--employment generated income accounts for some 80% of their private resources and social security benefits for about 15%, which is again slightly above the European average. The fact that they live at home with their parents improves their standard of living which is among the highest in the community; poverty levels are close to the European average (Chambaz, 2001). These findings, obtained on the basis of an enquiry conducted on a representative selection of European households, confirm the view, adopted by the French media, politicians and administration, that the young adults of the present day, whether students or unemployed, are overgrown children (grands enfants) largely supported by their families and by the State (1).

Although international comparisons show that the living conditions of young French adults have decreased relatively less than those of other European countries, scientific, political and administrative commentaries on the new risks incurred by the younger population have steadily gained ground since the mid 90's. There is a growing concern about the increased dependence of young persons on adult communities and, in particular, on their own family. To designate this greater degree of interdependence between generations in the context of the progressive undermining of social insertion mechanisms, the expression "jeunes adultes" (young adults) has been adopted. The recent introduction of this category both in the administrative and scientific domains and by the media constitutes an invitation to researchers to examine the conditions that have given rise to it, and thus to better comprehend the coupling of two terms which, at first sight, would appear to be diametrically opposed: young and adult.

BIRTH AND MEANING OF THIS CATEGORY IN SOCIAL AND SCHOLAR DEBATES

The expression 'young adults' is gradually replacing other appellations such as 'post-adolescents' or, very simply, 'the young'. Moreover, it is being used 'across the board', so to speak, and applies equally to school-goers and to young job-seekers. In this way we are witnessing a more homogeneous treatment of young people after years of bracketing by age group (Cicchelli, 2002). This grouping follows from political and administrative recognition of the three major factors affecting today the young people (2): the deterioration of the professional insertion mechanisms available to young adults (Nicole-Drancourt and Roulleau-Berger, 2001; Ponthieux, 1997); the dilution of stages leading to adult life (Galland, 2000) and the extension of schooling to include higher education (Erlich, 1998). Notwithstanding the fact that each of these three factors has its own particular logic, they are generally treated jointly, and this raises the question of the dividing line between the care provided by young person's family and that provided by the State's social services with respect to the financing of studies and protection against unemployment and social alienation. More recent social debate on the subject tends to recognise more common ground between the young adult student and the young adult who is as yet insufficiently inserted into the social system: the demands for a 'statut etudianf (student status) are now abandoned in favour of a request for an "allocation autonomie' (autonomy allowance) for all young persons.

Moreover, it is as if in every official discourse and political solution envisaged and strongly advocated, the family was the sole agent responsible for the cost of 'socialising' the young. Such 'familialisation' of young persons, that is to say the assignment of youth care to the family (Labadie, 2001), became the most visible mark of the dependence between the generations. …