Youth policy topics Youth policy topics

Lifestyles and living conditions policy framework


Lifestyles and Living Conditions are fundamental fields to the understanding of youth specificity and culture, of their concrete social conditions of existence, and also of the close relation between their behaviours and the structure of opportunities and constraints - defined both at a national and at a European level - in which they occur. Although profoundly inter-related and of extreme importance both for the scientific and policy arenas, the analysis and application of evidence and knowledge on these matters in the policy-making and policy-informing processes are made difficult by the very nature of these subjects themselves (see report Nico, 2009). First, because Living Conditions and Lifestyles are often measured through different indicators and very frequently also through distinct methodologies (with a stronger presence of qualitative and/or a comprehensive approach when it comes to the culture and lifestyles of young people, and a stronger presence of statistical approaches concerning the topic of living conditions), and secondly, they have also been target of different political interests, agendas and priorities. Thirdly, besides different methodology and policy applicability, these aspects are also very closely related to private spheres of life, either concerning family matters and the sociability networks and cultural practices of young people, which all together makes them less directly reachable to policy recommendation, design or assessment.

For these reasons, the present framework aims solely to provide some approaches and data on these topics, as well as to relate them to relevant European documentation on the matter. An updated version of this document (since early 2009, Nico, 2009) necessarily takes more or less explicitly into account the current Global Recession being experienced in Europe and its ramifications to youth situation, namely the "unprecedented levels of unemployment and the risk of social exclusion and poverty" (Joint Communication, 2012); production of new data and establishment of a limited set of indicators in the study of these topics; and the role of young people in the growth strategy Europe 2020. A framework on these issues has also to take into account not only these well-known current economic circumstances, but also future both short and long term consequences for young people (ILO, 2012). In this sense, Statistical Portraits and Flash-barometers on youth are absolutely welcome, but insufficient in content – by excluding qualitative and subjective information - and in analysis – by only including the current situation on youth people and thus contributing to the lack of both retrospective and prospective data and the subsequent diachronic analysis. Young people are, thus, both subjects and objects of these analyses, and therefore:

"Young people need to be fully recognised as important stakeholders in all levels of decision making processes that affect them, not just because they will have to endure the extreme economic and social consequences of climate change and the depletion of natural resources, but also because they can help find solutions to current problems by contributing a new and fresh perspective" (pp. 7). (Resolution for the United Nations Conference on sustainable development 2012, 2011)

Living conditions and Lifestyles must also be taken into account as being highly affected by other spheres of life. In the Joint Communication on the 2012 Joint Report, for instance, social inclusion is considered as a ramification of education and training and health and well-being as well as a ramification of employment and entrepreneurship. This can indeed be confirmed in the 2012 Joint Report approach on Social exclusion, which "brings about a vicious circle of unemployment or low-quality employment and poor living conditions with limited access to education and training, health care and ‘social and community networks and activities'". Not surprisingly, as a result, between 2010 and 2012, "most Member States report having a national youth strategy or a cross-sectoral plan targeting youth" and "the creation of new cross-sectorial partnerships and development of joint projects and initiatives in the youth sector should [continued to] be supported" (Joint Communication, 2012).

To sum up, although in real live and in policy-making processes these dimensions are inter-connected, the method and data behind each one are considerable different. While Living Conditions may refer to the subjective-objective concept of quality of life, wider social issues such as the social structure, social inequalities within and between the countries, and the endurable question of how, in this context, to design and apply effectively transversal European policies; Lifestyles tend to refer more to the concepts of well-being and healthy lifestyles, which on their turn involve, as will be seen later on this text, many subjective (perceptions and self-reports) and objective indicators. For this reason, it is not possible to present a background of European policies and outcomes concerning Lifestyles and Living Conditions as if they were one cohesive topic. In consequence, these dimensions are going to be presented three parts, on the following topics: Family and Housing Transitions, Leisure Time, and Health and Well-being.

Family and housing transitions

Leaving the parental home, entering a partnership, having children: these are all both important demographic events and meaningful social markers in one's life. Transition to adulthood is a "demographically dense period of multiple transitions" (Rindfuss, 1991), even when we recognize that this period has been extended in time, and that some adulthood markers are increasingly postponed or avoided by younger generations. This postponement is, more than a cultural issue, a consequence of major social changes and differences in European Societies, some of them unequivocally positive such as the extension of the educational trajectories, others clearly contributing to dynamics of social inequality such as the difficulty in entering and staying integrated in the labor market, the lack of housing availability and affordability, and the lack of family-friendly programs and incentives.

Some demographers have raised the question of the emerging "new demography" that together with the increase of life expectancy and the decrease of fertility patterns all over Europe is characterized by the postponement of leaving the parental home for the first time (Vaupel, 2000 e Kohler, 2000 quoted by Billari, 2004: 16). This happens not only as a consequence of longer educational trajectories, or of social and cultural norms from each country, but also as a side effect of a tentative prevention from poverty. As is stated in the 2012 Joint Report:1

"The risk of becoming poor is closely linked to the timing of departure from the parental home. In fact, some studies have found that moving out of the parental household is the ‘strongest predictor behind youth poverty'."

The second demographic transition was characterized by some of these phenomena, made possible by scientific and technological change but also, maybe above all, by cultural, value and social change across Europe. The recent economic scenario may lead us to question if a third demographic transition is not at the edge of happening in Europe, one that is less value-oriented and more involuntary (because caused by the high rates in youth unemployment, specially in some countries), of high rates of mobility and migration, as well as increased decline in family formation and fertility. This is from a diachronic approach, where new policies of incentive and protection to fertility and parenthood are urgently needed, as well as programmes that facilitate, either through rent or loan incentives, the difficult access of young people and young couples to housing. This will approach the serious and worrisome demographic issues and prospections made on the 2012 Joint Report, where it is reported, among other things, that between 2000 and 2010 most of the European countries have seen their percentage of young population (15-29 years old) decrease (southern and eastern countries) or increase not more than 9% (according to Eurostat 2010 data), and the fertility rate is prospected to be below the replacement level.

From a synchronic approach, however, we find a great deal of heterogeneity between European countries concerning the living conditions standards (Eurofound, 2010) the pace, timing and occurrence of these events. The individualization of life course, and the choice of biographies produced in the process, may benefit, first, from public strategies and programmes concerning the conciliation between school, work and family and secondly, from efficient housing markets and policies. These conditions produce positive consequences throughout the life course and are usually mostly found in Scandinavian countries. Research has indeed found that in many aspects, such as leaving home for instance, country heterogeneity is far more relevant than generation heterogeneity (Nico, 2011). These are good news but also a challenge for policy-making. On the one hand, current heterogeneity between the countries can facilitate the collection and exchange of good practices instead of treating inaccessibility to family formation (namely the level of affordability of childcare services, according to Eurobarometer 355 ‘Poverty and Social Exclusion) and housing as an inevitable product of time, of social change or social norms of each country. In this sense these indicators have to be dissociated from "cultural issues", for that can become counterproductive in terms of production of policy: "The reasons why some young people stay longer with their parents in some countries than in others include several cultural factors, and are therefore useful as a contextual indicator, rather than linked to a specific policy field" (European Commission, 2011). On the other hand, it makes the establishment of a transversal and not nationally designed policy making towards family and housing more difficult.

Having said this, there are at least three areas where the development of youth policy could have very positive outcomes in young people's lives: 

  1. Family policies are necessarily "outside the scope of the EU policymaking" (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 2005:5), even though individual choices concerning family life are affected by other policies. This is one of the reasons why the White paper on Youth strongly suggests "taking better account of the ‘youth' dimension in other policy initiatives". This is also why "the creation of new cross-sectorial partnerships and development of joint projects and initiatives in the youth sector should be supported" (Joint Communication, 2012).
  2. Family-work conciliation arrangements are influenced indirectly by the Lisbon targets, by the housing and education systems and also by an intergenerational support and relation (stated namely in The Social Policy Agenda (2006-2010)). In this sense, "supporting young people's transition from education to the labour market, for example by strengthening possibilities to reconcile private and working life" and also "supporting young people's autonomy and well-being as well as their access to decent living conditions" were highlighted as issues that should be regarded as priorities for the Council of Europe youth policy and action (Declaration on the Future of the Council of Europe Youth Policy – Agenda 2020). The European Youth Pact, also strongly encourages the member States of European Union to produce measures for reconciling family life and working life.
  3. "Housing has a crucial significance for young people" (2012 Joint Report).  The access to affordable housing is not only linked to the specificities of national housing markets, but also to the "burden of sustaining their own household" and the financial resources to carry it. Therefore, it is highly related with the level of difficulty of entering and staying integrated in the labor market. "One way to overcome the housing problems of young people is to offer social housing to those with low incomes"(2012 Joint Report).
Leisure time

Popular perceptions of leisure range from availability of free time, to ‘non-work time', to ‘self-time' or to ‘fun time'." (Azzopardi in Furlong et al, 2000: 53.). It can be used ‘actively' and ‘passively'. Leisure studies have stated that while active leisure involves a significant application of physical or mental energy, passive leisure does not. In this matter, it should be underlined that, according to European Youth Trend Report (2009), that although approximately 45% of young people regularly go for a walk, biking or practice sports (physical energy), and that 25% regularly read (mental energy), the remaining important activities (such as regularly meeting friends, go dancing, go out to drink, to eat -40%, using the Internet and playing video games -21%, watching TV and listening to music -17%, and going to the cinema, theatre or concerts- 16%) represent a more passive use of leisure time. (European Youth Trend Report 2009).

Nonetheless, "more passive" uses of leisure time are not necessarily less positive ones. As is stated in the 2012 Joint Report, the participation in cultural activities "can promote active participation in community life and foster political awareness and engagement. Not least of all, cultural participation is considered essential for furthering the mutual understanding, social inclusion and integration of different national, ethnic and linguistic traditions, and for combating discrimination and social exclusion". Young people are also more in more frequent in contact with friends and neighbours (Eurofound, 2009), which may also promote active participation in community life and "often feel the need for adventure as travelling" which "has always been a source of knowledge and personal development" (Eurostat, 2009). However, the relation between social inclusion and participation in cultural activities and the purchase of cultural goods and services is not as simple, since the participation in many of the mentioned leisure and cultural activities involve a priori financial resources and, sometimes, geographical location circumstance's. 

Nevertheless, the World Youth Report of 2005 already recognized the important role that young people, even through their leisure activities, can have in the promotion of social inclusion, while the 2007's Report identifies healthy leisure as one of the priority areas which require urgent attention, and states that "poverty and a lack of access to education and opportunities for structured and constructive leisure activities may leave young people vulnerable to negative peer pressure". Sports is not only one of the ways of spending free time in a healthy way, but it often functions as a promoter of healthy lifestyles, having a powerful societal role (White Paper on Sport (2007)).

"as confirmed by research conducted by the United Nations, leisure time is important in helping young people achieve a broad range of positive outcomes for their social, emotional, vocational, physical, cognitive and civic development and engagement" (Report Youth -  Investing and Empowering, 2009

These statements emphasize the positive aspects of leisure and the opportunities to access them. "Leisure is an arena for autonomy, self-direction and fulfilment; leisure concerns the "intelligent" use of time for relaxation, and the availability of and accessibility to resources (…), the commercialisation of leisure has created as many choices and advantages as it has created inequalities and disadvantages". (Azzopardi in Furlong et al, 2000: 61). For this reason, "ensuring young people's equal access to cultural, sporting and creative activities" was considered a priority for the Council of Europe youth policy and action (Declaration on the Future of the Council of Europe Youth Policy – Agenda 2020).

Having said this, there are at least two arenas where the discussion of lifestyles, on a policy approach, can be and is made:

  1. Culture and Creativity is one of the main fields of action in which the objectives of European cooperation in the youth field should, be developed. It thus can constitute a mean for enhancing public health, strengthening the prevention of and fight against racism and violence and promoting volunteering, active citizenship and social inclusion and solidarity (among other). There are many dimensions that can be studied on the leisure topic: Leisure Culture (leisure time spent, preferred activities, budget), Media Culture (cinema attendance, magazine audience, radio audience), Body Culture (practicing sports, expenses in clothes, expense in cosmetics) and Music Culture (production, reproduction and consuming).
    A presentation of a typology of leisure activities is therefore discouraged by the multi-referential identity of our contemporary society, as was highlighted in the European Youth Trend Report 2009: "young people can no longer be defined as an age group, a culture, a music style, a picture, a story... A fragmented society has complex cultures. Young people regularly switch cultures and mix different cultures simultaneously. The combination of cultures is structured, but the choices within them are not.(…)".
    In 2011, a set of important indicators on this subject where selected and presented (European Commission, 2011):
    1. Performing/taking part in amateur artistic activities (Share of young people (15-30) who declare that they have participated in any of the following amateur artistic activities at least once in the last 12 months: Playing a musical instrument, singing, acting, dancing, writing poetry, photography, film-making);
    2. Participation in cultural activities (Share of young people (aged 15-30) reporting that they have participated in any of the following cultural activities in the last 12 months: Visited historical monuments (palaces, castles, churches, gardens, etc.), museums or galleries, been to the cinema or a concert, a theatre, a dance performance or an opera)
    3. Participation in sports clubs, leisure time or youth clubs/associations or cultural organisations (Share of young people (aged 15-30) reporting that they have participated in activities of a sports club, leisure time or youth club, any kind of youth association or cultural organisation in the last 12 months),
    4. Learning at least two foreign languages (Young people in upper secondary education (ISCED level 3 general programmes, excluding vocational and pre-vocational education) learning two or more foreign languages).
      A presentation of a typology of leisure activities is therefore discouraged by the multi-referential identity of our contemporary society, as was highlighted in the European Youth Trend Report 2009: "young people can no longer be defined as an age group, a culture, a music style, a picture, a story... A fragmented society has complex cultures. Young people regularly switch cultures and mix different cultures simultaneously. The combination of cultures is structured, but the choices within them are not.(…)".
  1. Healthy lifestyle's importance and constructive role in young's people lives has been emphasized by the World Youth Report of 2005. In, the 2011European Commission staff working document on EU indicators in the field of youth, there are three areas and behaviors considered as important indicators to be monitored in respect of healthy lifestyles of young people, smoking, obesity and use of alcohol  (to see a full list of health indicators consult European Community Health Indicators Monitoring and next section of this policy framework). The aspects will be developed in the next section, dedicated to health and well-being. 
Health and well-being

"A healthy mind in a healthy body" (Joint Communication, 2012)

Since the WHO's 1948 definition of health, this may be a good way of describing a good state of health. In fact, since 1948 health has been defined as a "state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity" (WHO, 1948). In spite of some conceptual and analytical problems with this definition, the important aspect to be highlighted here is that since then, the analysis of healthy lifestyles and/or behaviors has included aspects other than mere physical ones, and health has been understood as a dynamic condition. This allowed health issues to be in the centre of the concerns of the youth lifestyles for "among young people, health should be considered in its widest sense." (State of young people's health in Europe, 2000).

"Health and well-being are fundamental socio-economic pillars of all societies. Health is a basic human right and a driver of social and economic development" (World Economic Forum, 2013)

Other definitions are more adequate to our contemporary society and take into account the importance of age: "a dynamic state of well-being characterized by a physical and mental potential, which satisfies the demands of life commensurate with age, culture, and personal responsibility" (Bircher's, 2005). This allows us to underline the legitimate importance and relevance of young people's health, even when its main characteristics are a life expectancy at the age of 15 of approximately 66 for girls and 60 for boys and a good self-rate of their health by 75% (State of young people's health in Europe, 2000). Youth is, in this sense, a moment in life where "mortality is still low and severe chronic diseases are rare". The younger population (18 to 24) also show a lower proportion of reported unmet needs for medical examinations than the older population (1.5% vs 3.1%) (2012 Joint Report). Young people also show higher levels of life satisfaction, although it tends to decrease with age (Eurofound, 2010).

Nonetheless, this period of life also requires a considerable awareness towards risky behaviours that can damage young people's social position and their health (World Youth Report of 2005). A healthy living is indeed "influenced by social and environmental determinants as well as specific risky behaviours – especially tobacco use, unhealthy diets, harmful use of alcohol and physical inactivity. The lack of access to basic prevention, treatment and care further inhibits healthy living. All these factors are interconnected and influence everyday decisions" (World Economic Forum, 2013). 

Health should also be understood as an instrument for social inclusion, empowerment and active citizenship of young people (European Commission White Paper of 21 November 2001). Not only health itself, but also access to health care "is an important aspect of social inclusion". The self-reported unmet need for medical care was, therefore included among the EU youth indicators important to approach social inclusion (2012 Joint Report) Youth has been taken into account in "a number of policies, of which anti- discrimination and health are the most prominent." ( In 2008, the European Council, through the Resolution of the Council on the participation of young people with fewer opportunities, also encouraged the member states and the commission to "support young people in adopting a healthy lifestyle and include this specific target within their health policies, with a particular focus on young people with fewer opportunities". Accordingly, the European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being (2008), defined the following priority: prevention of depression and suicide; mental health in youth and education[2], mental health in workplace settings, mental health of older people and combating stigma and social exclusion (for some of these issues see also the Consensus Paper on Mental health in Youth and Education 2008). Young people are considered a special target for health initiatives, in particular in what concerns the unhealthy practices of smoking, alcohol related harm (see European Commision, Special Eurobarometer 331, 2010), nutrition, obesity and drug- use (see European Commission, Flash Eurobarometer, 2011). (Joint Communication, 2012)

In this sense, the major EU indicators of health and well-being selected are (European Commission, 2011):

  • Regular smokers (Share of daily cigarette smokers in the population aged 15-24.
  • Obesity (Young people 18-24 with a Body Mass Index of 30 or above).
  • Alcohol use past 30 days

Cause of death of young people

  • Suicide (Deaths caused by suicide per 100 000 inhabitants aged 15-24)
  • Psychological distress (Young people (15-24) having had psychological distress during  the past four weeks)
  • Injuries: road traffic: self-reported incidences (Proportion of individuals aged 15-24 reporting to have had a road traffic accident, which resulted in injury for which medical treatment was sought during the past 12 months).

More indicators could have been added to this list, specially taking into account the current European economic scenario. Health and well-being can and must be discussed in their relation to the labor market, both in terms of occupational health – work conditions while the individuals are integrated in the labor market - and in terms of long-term consequences of periods of unemployment (Global Employment Trends for Youth, ILO 2012). In fact, health and well being has always been a consequence, among other things, of the work conditions regarding security and hygiene at work, which in fact and in large portion justifies the well-known correlation between social background and life expectancy. The fact that young people are one of the most vulnerable population to work precariousness and to poor work conditions, it could be then stated that working conditions among this age group could also be an important indicator to be added to the previous list. Deterioration of health and well being is also, on the other hand, a short, and more importantly of all, long term, consequence of unemployment, which is, and always has been, more frequent among young people. This is an underlined idea by the Global Employment Trends for Youth, ILO 2012, which basing on recent researches, states that youth unemployment "may hurt happiness, job satisfaction and health for many years thereafter (Morsy, 2012)", "up to two decades later", some say (Bell and Blanchflower (2010)". Unless these ideas are incorporated as concrete indicators, the amplitude of these consequences cannot be measured and ultimately targeted by youth policies.

There is a really crucial problem here and we need to do this together. None of us acting individually has the levers to influence lifestyle choices; we are coming together to pool our respective strengths as stakeholders, to overcome our boundaries and mobilize together for action, in line with our respective roles and responsibilities (Martin Seychell, Deputy Director General DG SANCO, European Commission) (World Economic Forum, 2013)

Besides this, in the paper prepared to support and provide background on the White Paper "Together for Health: A Strategic Approach for the EU 2008-2013", it is stated that "it is important to promote health and prevent disease throughout the lifespan, including by tackling health determinants such as nutrition, physical activity, alcohol, drugs and tobacco consumption, environment and socioeconomic factors. (…) This involves redesigning health policies and actions to target different age groups." It's also important to promote parents involvement in these actions (to take into account the parents' point of view see the results available in Parents' views on the mental health of their child 2009). Moreover, in the decision No 1350/2007/EC, establishing a second programme of community action in the field of health (2008-2013), youth health is underlined, through the statement that "The Programme should place emphasis on improving the health condition of children and young people and promoting a healthy lifestyle and a culture of prevention among them".

To promote healthy lifestyles, sports has an important role. In this sense, the topic of "Health and sports" constitutes one of the fields of action for "improving access and full participation of young people in society". The Recommended Policy Actions in Support of Health-Enhancing Physical Activity, 2008 (in the An EU Strategy for Youth – Investing and Empowering, 2009) are:

  • "Implement the Council Resolution on Health and Well-being of Young People and encourage youth fitness and sport by applying the EU Physical Activity Guidelines17;
  • Promote training opportunities on health for youth workers and youth leaders;
  • Encourage cooperation between health and youth policy makers, and youth involvement in health policy;
  • Mobilise all stakeholders at local level to detect and help young people at risk
  • Develop tailor-made information on health for young people, particularly those at risk of social exclusion, and mobilise youth information networks;
  • Encourage peer-to-peer health education at school and in youth organisations".

Other aspects related to physical activity can be found in Special Eurobarometer on Sport and Physical Activity, 2010

1. 2012 Joint Report of the Council and the Commission on the implementation of the renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field (EU Youth Strategy 2010-2018).

Text drafted by Magda Nico for the partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of Youth.