Disadvantaged Youth

This text is drawn from www.goete.eu/glossary

The notion “disadvantaged youth” in general refers to young people with fewer chances to achieve goods such as education or societal positions. Definitions of disadvantage vary widely between countries and among the scientific community. Most definitions discern different dimensions of disadvantage such as economic disadvantage and refer to the causes of disadvantage, e.g the disadvantage of growing up in a disadvantaged area. Because of the difficulties to agree on a common definition, the European Union has chosen the concept of early school leaving as a benchmark for policy making.

“Disadvantaged youth” in many countries is used as an umbrella category which embraces all young people with fewer opportunities than their peers and in some countries other terms like youth-at-risk, vulnerable youth, disconnected youth or social excluded youth are preferred to describe social inequality among young people (Bendit & Stokes, 2003). In some countries, like Germany, disadvantaged youth is a codified legal term to structure access rights to support and “positive action” type of programmes. While this type of codification brings about enforceable rights to support, at the same time narrow or wide codifications run the risk of becoming labels associated with negative images (Walther et al, 2002). This aspect has been debated in youth research especially with the discourse on the rise of a new “underclass” (MacDonald, 1997) claimed by some researchers.

In different transition regimes, social inclusion, social exclusion and other issues of social inequality are addressed according to the emphasis put on structural or individual factors in explaining disadvantage. This is reflected in different policy measures. In the field of education, either young people are seen as disadvantaged because their educational transitions are affected by segmented education systems. Hence policies would aim at making structures of education and labour markets appropriate to compensate structural barriers to access. Or young people’s education and transition problems are explained as a consequence of education and socialisation deficits. In that case policies aim at the compensation of individual deficits.

Empirically, access to education and transitions in the life course are structured by categories of social inequality such as socio-economic status and class, gender and “ethnicity”. These categories impact the educational and career options available for a young person in an inter-sectional way and lead to different forms of social inclusion and exclusion.

In GOETE, disadvantaged youth therefore is understood as a policy concept that has to be understood in terms of the duality of structure and agency and with regard to context-dependent constellations of disadvantage rather than to fixed target or narrowly-defined problem groups. Therefore, rather than using it as an analytical concept, the GOETE study analyses the ways “disadvantaged youth” is socially and politically constructed.


Bendit, R., & Stokes, D. (2003). ‘Disadvantage’: transition policies between social construction and the needs of vulnerable youth. In A. López Blasco, W. McNeish, & A. Walther (eds.), Young people and contradictions of inclusion: towards Integrated Transition Policies in Europe (pp. 261–283). Bristol: Policy Press.

MacDonald, R. (ed.) (1997). Youth, the ‘Underclass’ and Social Exclusion. London: Routledge.

Walther, A. & Pohl, A. (2005). Thematic Study on Policy Measures concerning Disadvantaged Youth. Final Report. Download: http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/social_inclusion/docs/youth_study_en.pdf.

Walther, Andreas; Stauber, Barbara; Biggart, Andy; du Bois-Reymond, Manuela et al. (eds.) (2002). Misleading Trajectories. Integration policies for young adults in Europe? Opladen: Leske+Budrich.

(Axel Pohl)