Relational life paths – life management of individuals? Agency and guidance of young people on the margins of education and work

Sanna Toiviainen


The thesis focuses on the construction of young people’s agency, which is studied using the narratives of seventeen NEET young adults aged 18–24. Ohjaamo (One-Stop-Guidance Center) and Avoin ammatiopisto (open vocational college) in North Karelia provide the specific context of the research. 

Agency is defined in the research as relational and narrative agency, which are considered from a framework of social constructionism. The concept of relationalism highlights the intersubjective and social dimensions of agency and their participation in the construction of agency. The young people are regarded as active, socially constructed agents who live and steer their lives as narrative subjects. The research also deals with the construction of agency in relation to the professional vocational guidance work carried out with the young people. The narrative and relational agency is studied by examining the young people’s biographical narratives and narrative positioning, and also the narrative environments in institutional environments, such as Ohjaamo and Avoin ammattiopisto, and broader cultural and social narrative models, which are used by the young people.

The summary of the thesis aims to answer two research questions: how is the relationality in the young people’s agency evident in their biographical narratives and how is agency positioned in the institutions that frame the young people’s lives and in the contexts of guidance work. In this research, the contexts of guidance work mean Ohjaamo and Avoin ammattiopisto in North Karelia and the various professionals, who are present in the young people’s lives or have visited them and who are part of the young people’s public support and service network.

The research data comprises semi-structured biographic interviews with 17 young people and follow-up interviews with 12 young people. The interviews were carried out on two occasions over the years 2014–2016 in the contexts of Ohjaamo, which was developed in the Nuorten tuki (youth support) project in North Karelia (ESF period 2010–2014), and Avoin ammattiopisto, which provides preparatory education. The interview data is complemented with a three-month observation period, from March to May in 2014, spent at Ohjaamo and Avoin opisto and group interviews with professionals in the cooperation network of the Nuorten tuki project. Ethnographic and narrative research methods have been applied in the data collection and analysis.

In the light of the research results the relationality of the young people’s agency is evident in their opportunities to not only access but also to identify and gain acknowledgement from their various resources. The worth (or worthlessness) of the resources identified by a young person seemed to be defined to a high degree and mutually in the social communities that the young person was part of. The young people often found practical value for their resources in areas of their lives other than an educational context, such as in their family, with friends or in paid work. Their educational backgrounds emphasised negative experiences of school as a community and learning environment. However, their narratives on Ohjaamo highlighted a sense of community and social support.

Though the young people based their narratives on culturally dominant discourses of normative youth and active, independent and responsible individual agency, Ohjaamo, as a community, offered opportunities for hearing and providing other narratives. In particular, meeting peers at Ohjaamo and hearing their biographical narratives and experiences offered the young people valuable situations to break down discourses of a normative youth, construct counter narratives for the culturally dominant narrative models and thus produce alternative meanings also for their own life experiences. Thus, the observations in this research bring out opportunities for narrative construction (and deconstruction) of agency in relationships and communities.

The results also show how the young people’s agency and resources supporting their coping after Ohjaamo were not only closely intertwined with the various relationships in their lives but also with the possibilities to influence that presented in the institutional environments and the establishment of mutual trust relationships with the adults at college. One of the main observations in the research is that the more socially marginalised a young person becomes, the more important it is for them to have a certain type of social resilience and ability to remain optimistic also in the face of adversity. This resilience is in turn connected with the young person’s social support network, which may be strong or very weak. This observation describes the current state of the Finnish welfare society in very harsh terms: the procedures of support structures and service networks at schools and educational institutes do not reach the young people in the weakest and most vulnerable situations sufficiently well and these young people are often forced to rely on their own support networks alone.

The results also support the observation that guidance taking place within an institutional framework contains both formal and informal cultural demands on a young person’s agency and the expectation of a certain type of behaviour. The young people who were interviewed had very different experiences of the guidance based on whether the process progressed at the young person’s pace – on the young person’s own terms or based on voluntariness – or whether they felt that the goals of the guidance work were dictated by the professionals or institution without any opportunity to have an impact on creating them. Young people who were used to receiving professional help and who had received support also found it easier to deal with institutional practices and discourses.

The results show that a successful guidance relationship for a young person is built on comprehensive meetings that accommodate the young person. This may require the professional helping the young person to have a relatively close relationship with the young person and to get to know the young person in the contexts of their life. When organising guidance work this requires a mobile and long-term approach that observes the young person and gets them to participate. This is challenging to implement if the guidance is strongly tied to institutions and their systems, environments, procedures and goals. Good foundations for a guidance process are offered in environments such as Ohjaamo by professionals who are not bound to the operational framework of a certain institution and the opportunity to receive guidance that enables more participation and takes place in the community. The key resources that are possessed by a young person and that are also central for the guidance process can become evident in meetings that are youth-oriented, accommodative, supportive and communal.

The relational and narrative aspects of the research and the results analysed make it possible to approach the challenges faced by young people in the construction of agency in a new way in educational, social and youth policy. The research results steer the discussion more towards structural problems that weaken young people’s functional ability, service practices that make it harder to build up a guidance relationship, the educational system’s difficulties in identifying and supporting young people’s skills and learning, the significance of the social community at school for the young people’s agency and marginalisation, and the importance of relationships and the community in young people’s construction of agency.

Keywords: agency, guidance, narrative research, young adults, service systems, Ohjaamo