Riskillä merkityt. Lapset ja nuoret huolen ja puuttumisen politiikassa

Timo Harrikari
Youth Research Network 2008

Setting the task

In this study we analyse, in the light of eight empirical analyses, changes that have taken place over the past 40 years in the management of Finnish childhood and youth, and factors which have caused these changes. Of particular interest is the change in management style seen against the background of the broader transition in Finnish society since the 1990s. Finnish analyses of children and young people have nearly unanimously confirmed that many things changed in the lives of children, young people and families with children during the period of economic recession in the 1990s and thereafter. The time following this recession has left us with a lasting impression that political interest in children, young people and families could increase, but there would have to be a qualitative change in its themes and tone. Clarifying what this change would be is one of the central tasks for this study. Furthermore, as Anglo-American influences have come to be a significant resource in Finnish social policy, the question arises, to what extent have they also shoved their way into Finnish child welfare and youth policy?

This study is made up of eight empirical analyses, each of which, with its own way of framing the question, data set and methodology, attempts to answer the study’s broader questions and cast further light on the changes which have happened. Parliamentary records, political and administrative documents, broad sheet and tabloid newspaper reporting, crime prevention and security programmes, and municipal surveys, among other things, have been used as data sources. 

Research findings, conclusions and procedural suggestions

Our research findings point to a change in political administration concerning children, young people and families with children in post-recession Finland. Interest in children, young people and families has increased, but it is qualitatively different than in pre-recession politics. The debate since the 90s has been distinctively stamped with a powerful concern and fear for children and young people.

Demographic and political shifts within the Finnish parliament go some way in explaining the qualitative and quantitative increase in interest in children, young people and families. In post-recession Finland this interest has been primarily of a right-wing conservative sort. The opposition policies of Finland’s National Coalition and Centre Parties have regularly related to the theme of traditional Christian moral teaching. Midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century social background as an explanation for concerned reactions weakened, but the amount of concern expressed in debate on the floor of Parliament has remained high. In other words, concerns for children, young people and families, and a sense of crisis in relation to them, have been spreading through the Parliament and becoming entrenched there.

Themes of concern raised by the conservative movement, characterized by low levels of tolerance and normative assumptions associated with these concerns, have interestingly become standards of political governance. They are tied to a new form of management, risk politics, which shows clear Anglo-American influences. The starting point for risk politics is a shortage of public resources. Themes of concern and suffering, familiar from parliamentary debate, have become its core issues. As means of reacting to these threats, various conceptual innovations based on the vocabulary of Anglo-American criminology (zero tolerance, risk evaluations, curfews) have been introduced; as well as an orientation towards early, swift and significant intervention; which in turn speak of lowering tolerances concerning children and young people, increasing intolerance and increasing interventionism in public sector operations. The shift towards more control-oriented action has been carried out through political manoeuvring, in many cases in the “grey area of control”. The spread of risk political discourse and practices, and their entrenchment in arenas of official work, can be seen, for example, in various multi-professional practices, in which those in the police profession have arisen in a new way since the 1990s as experts on childhood and youth. This has been advanced by the breakthrough of so-called broad security consciousness, which can also be seen in the mass media. The tabloid press in particular tends to point out isolated cases (of young people committing murder, for example) and built up partially unsubstantiated images of a growing threat posed by young criminals.

In a broader theoretical framework, the influences of risk politics refer to a change in means of controlling childhood and youth, which is considered to be characteristic of late modern society. The three central concepts of risk politics are concern, risk and shortage. In concern discourse the reality surrounding children and young people looks unpredictable and dangerous. “Risk” is the epistemological lens of the ontology of concern, through which they attempt to pick out the worst imaginable and most likely threats of the concerning reality. Shortage is an obsessive symptom and control-sensitive means of managing those stressed in a way typical of the late modern age, at the same time realizing the need for savings in the public sector.

This study as a whole raises questions about the quiet and gradual changes taking place in the societal atmosphere affecting childhood, youth and families with children, in which we see a growing intolerance and attempts at greater control. The basic current of welfare policy upon which the Nordic welfare state is based can still be seen, and it is in many respects planted in the institutions of Finland’s child welfare policy; but risk political management, in which welfare questions are easily translated into simple matters of intervening in children’s and young people’s suffering, has made a powerful entrance over the past fifteen years. The basic assumptions of risk political management easily build on distrust towards children, young people and families; produce official practices which override their functions and opinions; and instrumentalize the period of childhood and youth as a future resource for the national economy as the population in general ages.

On the basis of this research a few viewpoints arise which are more functional principles to be applied over a fairly broad range of applications than direct operational suggestions. First of all it would be important to pay attention to building trust between different age groups in the population. Secondly, in place of the control-oriented atmosphere which the under-age population is faced with, we should work on developing a sustainable principle of solidarity. Thirdly, it should be kept in mind that the public policy bodies organizing these practices, and their accomplishments, cannot be set aside as a de-politicized area of risk management. Fourthly, “apples and oranges” should each go in their own boxes. The goal of reducing suffering, which leads to reduced potential for youth work, cannot serve as a sustainable guiding principle for welfare policy directed towards children, young people and families. Promoting welfare means – in addition to emphasizing the principle of protection in public debate – taking children’s participation, citizenship, activity and autonomy seriously; without the fear that they would immediately be considered to be competent actors in fields that require an application of the principle of protection. This requires the means last mentioned above: holistic and multi-level weighing of sustainable social policy actions directed towards children and young people, in which we must attempt to break free from “single issue movements” and simplifications, and explicate the interests of particular professional groups as well.