Article: Social enterprise and the paradox of young people and risk taking: A view from Australia

First Published: 14th November 2017 | Author: Michael Emslie | Tags: , ,

Are social enterprise opportunities a help or hindrance to young people? Michael Emslie presents some thoughts from an Australian context.

In Australia young people have emerged as a popular target for social enterprises and enterprising activities (Barraket, Mason and Blain, 2016). The reasons for engaging young people in enterprise-based projects include claims that they help address young people’s deficits in entrepreneurialism and risk-taking as well as prepare young people to thrive in risky futures characterised by uncertain labour markets and precarious work (Foundation for Young Australians, 2015, 2016a, 2017a). The risk category is also central to a good deal of policy concerning young people and underpins many agendas and programmes that aim to govern what many people claim to be young people’s ‘natural’ tendencies to experiment and take risks (Bessant, 2008). This article explores how differing and arbitrary accounts of the relationships between young people and risk help to justify enterprise-based initiatives into young lives that might not serve young people’s best interests.


The rise of the social enterprise

Social enterprises are a worldwide phenomenon that can be found in Australia (Victorian Government Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, 2017), the UK (Harding, 2004; Temple, 2017), Canada (Social Enterprise Council of Canada, 2017), and throughout Europe (Defourny and Nyssens, 2008; Social Enterprising Europe, 2013). Proponents claim social enterprises use the power of the marketplace to solve pressing societal problems, improve communities, provide people with access to employment and training, and help the environment (Social Traders, 2017). Social enterprises are considered to be part of a broader social movement that exists to benefit the general public and particular vulnerable communities, rather than shareholders and owners, and includes startups, social ventures, social firms, benefit corporations, change making and impact investment (B Lab, 2017; Galera and Borzaga, 2009; Logue, 2016; Teasdale, 2011).

Social enterprises and enterprise-based projects are widespread and flourishing in Australia’s social care and community services sector (Social Enterprise Awards, 2016). They are particularly popular in work with young people, for example, STREAT (2015), The Social Studio (2015), Charcoal Lane (2014), and Impact Social Enterprise (2017). Even schools are getting in on the enterprise for young Australians juggernaut (Camberwell High School, nd). In addition, students can pursue their interest in social entrepreneurship at Australian universities at a time when university educators globally are being encouraged to act as entrepreneurs (Compass, nd; Rae, 2010; RMIT University, 2017).


An example of the marketisation of human services

Social enterprises are often heralded as a cutting edge policy and practice innovation (Mason and Moran, 2014). At the same time, social enterprises can be seen as part of a long history of something referred to as the co-operative movement (Williams, 2016). Social enterprises can also be viewed as a manifestation of the use of market-based mechanisms and commercial strategies in the public and community sectors that have been popular in Australia since the 1980s and are claimed to reduce the financial liability of governments and improve economic welfare and wellbeing (Brussaard, Price and Watts, 2016; Harper, Anderson, McCluskey & O’Brien, 2015; Pusey, 1991). Elizabeth Povinelli (2011:22-23) suggests that social enterprises are currently thriving because they accord with neoliberal governmentality and reproduce ‘values according to market logic’ (eg., individual enterprise and self-responsibility) and produce a market value (eg., young ‘workers compensated and supported by nothing expect the market’).

Other features of current trends in social policy that social enterprises exemplify were suggested by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball’s declarations on what his Liberal government stands for – ‘believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise’ (Shepherd, Jean and Holderhead, 2017). Social enterprises align with Australian Government enthusiasm for promoting individual responsibility, choice, entrepreneurialism and all that this entails, including taking risks.


Is risk-taking good or bad for young people?

On the one hand, the fervour for social enterprise indicates risk-taking and all that is associated with it, such as experimentation and being entrepreneurial is positioned as good for young people (Headley and Moffatt, 2015). According to the Foundation for Young Australians, young people face a new work order characterised by significant disruptions, uncertainties and risks that will require them to be enterprising (Foundation for Young Australians, 2016b; Pearson et al, 2016). However, young people are revealed as ill-fitted and ill-prepared for all of this risky business. The Foundation for Young Australians is calling for a national enterprise skills strategy because it is claimed young people lack the key enterprise skills needed to navigate the complex career pathways of the future (Foundation for Young Australians, 2017b). On a similar note, Nicole Peterman and Jessica Kennedy (2003) and Rosemary Athayde (2009) argued that young people’s enterprise potential can and should be measured and fostered.

On the other hand, there is a long intellectual tradition that identifies risk-taking and experimentation as natural but bad for young people (Kelly, 2000). Here we see a lot of popular prejudices and classic stereotypes of youth as a period of storm and stress marked by risk-taking, experimentation, impulsivity, and testing the boundaries (Bessant, 2012; Tait, 2000). However, this account not only positions adolescence as a period of normal and expected risk-taking, but is typically viewed as harmful and dangerous and something that young people need to be actively discouraged and policed from doing (France, 2000).


Or can we have it both ways?

So which is it, is risk-taking and experimentation good or bad for young people? And are young people naturally equipped or deficient at risk-taking and enterprise? Another more sophisticated answer to these questions suggests there are different domains of risk that require young people to engage in risk-taking in different ways. According to this point of view, young people’s risk-taking should be discouraged in some risk realms, for example when the risks are to do with early school leaving (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2013); alcohol and drug misuse (Nathan, Hayden, Rawstorne and Jayasinha, 2016); dangerous driving (Scott-Parker, Watson, King and Hyde, 2014); radicalisation (Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department, 2015); and, suicide and self-harm (Daraganova, 2016). In other areas of risk, young people’s experimentation and enterprise should be promoted, for example when it comes to navigating precarious job markets, participating in the gig economy, setting up startups, and engaging in social enterprises. It seems that various social science experts, policy makers and professionals interested in improving the lives of young people want it both ways.


In whose interests?

All of this demonstrates that regardless of claims as to whether young people’s risk-taking should be discouraged or encouraged, it is possible to constitute young people as having deficits in taking risks in various ways (Kelly, 2010). Moreover, the problem is located in and with young people, who are constituted as having too much or too little riskiness. These differing accounts of young people and risk can be, and are used, to justify different interventions such as social enterprises into young people’s lives. However, are young people the problem or is the problem the cultural, political and economic contexts and expert discourses that conspire to produce many of the problems that young people face? And are young people’s best interests always being served by the programmes and practices that result from constituting young people as risk deficient? More to the point, are enterprise-based interventions that rely on arbitrary accounts of the relations between young people and risk-taking actually good for young entrepreneurs?

Social enterprises and other enterprise related activities do provide young people with opportunities (Ferguson and Islam, 2008). For example, young people can be revealed as capable, resourceful and resilient. Young people can also realise a sense of achievement, belonging and hope. Young people can also develop skills and capabilities, secure an income, and contribute to worthwhile social, environmental and cultural projects. However, these potential benefits are not the full story when it comes to assessing the desirability of social enterprises and enterprising initiatives (Gerrard, 2017; Pantea, 2018). In particular, enterprise-based projects do little if anything to change dominant policy approaches and other contemporary cultural, political and economic circumstances that many argue are harmful for young people and limit their potential to flourish and live good lives (Bessant, Farthing and Watts, 2017; Giroux, 2012; Kelly and Pike, 2017; Putnam, 2016; Rayner, 2016).

One criticism has an affinity with the critical theory tradition, think the Frankfurt School (Bohman, 2016) and Paulo Freire (1996), that suggests social enterprises accord with and reproduce prevailing neoliberal policies that value ‘the individual’ and ‘his enterprise’. Subsequently and paradoxically enterprise related activities contribute to oppressing rather than liberating young people because they reinforce the very conditions that produce a range of challenges and limits facing young people. These problems include a growing wealth divide between younger and older Australians (Wilkins, 2017); and the prospect that the younger generation will be worse off than their parents’ generation (Daley and Wood, 2014). Young Australians are also experiencing declining rates of home ownership (Committee for Economic Development of Australia, 2017); and increasing rates of mortgage debt (Wilkins, 2017). Young people in Australia also face high rates of youth unemployment (Muir, Powell and Butler, 2015); underemployment (Campbell, Parkinson and Wood, 2014); insecure employment (Crofts et al, 2015); and stagnant wage growth at a time when many already receive lower ‘junior’ pay rates (Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman, nd; Dixon and Borland, 2016; Foundation for Young Australians, 2016c). There has also been the removal of social support for young Australians (Emslie, 2014); and threats to cut and suspend welfare allowances to young people (Farrugia, 2016) at a time when levels of income support measures for young people and students in Australia are already described as grossly inadequate (Saunders and Bedford, 2017). Young Australians also face ongoing efforts to increase their education debts (Norton, 2016). It is difficult to see how enterprise related initiatives can disrupt, challenge and change the political, economic and cultural circumstances and policies that conspire to produce these problems for young Australians.

Another criticism of social enterprises and enterprising activities inspired by Michel Foucault (Burchell, Gordon and Miller, 1991) and governmentality theorists (Dean, 2010) similarly propose that they are far from benign. However, rather than simply oppressing young people, this criticism suggests that neoliberal policies and enterprise-based initiatives that are entangled with them can be understood as affording possibilities and limits for knowing, doing and being a young person. At the same time, young people actively enact these ways of being that might not always be in their best interests (Mansfield, 2000). In particular, according to this point of view, enterprise-related projects correspond with contemporary forms of government that produce and incite self-responsibility for dealing with uncertainties and risks and individualise achieving economic and social wellbeing (Kelly, 2007). In light of this, it is unsurprising that so many young people actively produce what Kelly described as ‘the entrepreneurial Self’ and energetically pursue education in social enterprises and other enterprising opportunities as a good and normal thing to do (Kelly, 2006). Lauren Berlant (2011) suggests, however, that young people’s investments in enterprising projects constitutes a relation of cruel optimism, in particular young people’s desire for enterprise is an obstacle to their flourishing. In other words, social enterprises promise the good life but as an example of neoliberal governmentality, they cannot be counted on delivering just that.


Managing a risk for young people

We should not forget that the current appetite for engaging young people with social enterprises and enterprising activities takes place at the same time there is no overarching Youth Policy that even comes close to trying to systematically address the range of critical challenges facing young Australians. We are led to believe that enterprise-based initiatives such as social enterprises can alleviate social problems and can deliver to young Australians the sorts of lives most of us want that include job security, permanent employment, and enough pay to plan weekly expenses around (Woodman and Jackson, 2016). It is fair to say that social enterprises hold many promises for some young people to gain employment, a sense of hope, and feelings of dignity. However, social enterprises and enterprise-based projects also carry dangers for young people. In particular, they can unwittingly contribute to the mess young people find themselves in by reproducing the cultural, economic and political conditions that have demonstrated to be harmful to young lives. A risk that needs to be managed is the tendency for governments, policy makers, researchers, and human service professionals to produce assumptions and expectations about youthful identities and risk-taking that are used to rationalise and justify interventions into young people’s lives such as social enterprises, but that often don’t serve young people’s best interests.

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Last Updated: 21 November 2017


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Michael is a lecturer in Youth Work at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia