Parley with Dr. Howard Williamson, Prof. of European Youth Studies, University of South Wales

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Dr. Howard Williamson is currently the Professor of European Youth Policy at “Faculty of Business and Society, University of South Wales, United Kingdom”. He was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List 2002, for services to young people. As the Indian Parliament reduced the age of juvenile offenders to 16 in cases of heinous crimes such as rapes etc., let have a look what Dr. Williamson has to say about it or how does he predict the consequences of the same.


Sir, you took up a career in social policy and went on to specialize in Youth in the European context. A profession like such is certainly a path less taken here in India, and I’m assuming it must also have been so in Europe when you graduated. What motivated you to take up this profession?

Well you’re absolutely right, there was no career path that I have taken. But I did it. I desperately wanted to combine practical work with young people and academic work on young people. That was my interest. I was a youth worker as a teenager, I was a volunteer youth worker as a student. And when I got my first degree and went on to do my doctorate on young offenders, so that’s my connection with the law. And I after that wanted to combine these two approaches, there was no job to do that, so for many years, I was a part time worker, a part time practical worker with young people and a part time academic researcher. And that gives me the sort of unique profile that takes you and many people by surprise. By the end of the 1980s I had serious doubts as to whether I had taken a sensible decision. Most of my friends were in middle management and rose in their profession and I was doing rather odd jobs. But then the third thing appeared which is the policy role: the triangle.

And at first it rose in the UK then in the EU and then in the Council of Europe, and more recently in the United Nations. People liked my particular blend of experience, practical and academic and so I became more and more involved in policy work as well and that strengthened the distinctiveness of my particular profile. But it is not really a career path that you can recommend, there isn’t one.

What are some of the major problems that you have been able to identify that youth face, across nations, and specifically in the European arena, that needs more attention and focus?

Well the biggest issues in various parts of the world for various reasons is employment or lack of employment but that produces  a linked and connected challenge that is the challenge of education and what is the relation of education in the local market. In Europe there has been a strong message for at least 10 years that we want to create a knowledge based economy.

Many young people have extended their education in college getting college degrees and now they are not able to find employment that is commensurate with their qualifications and at the local lower level ‘jobs’. And that squeezes a particular group of unqualified early school leavers out of the labour market altogether, so the education and employment issue is will probably be the most burning challenge in Europe and many other parts of the world.

The other big issue which is much less discussed across Europe is health and perhaps these are actually connected. Many young people are really very confused about the world that they’re living in and the future that they may have or not have or the type of future that they will like to have. And there is a lot of research that suggest that mental health problems do rise when people feel socially dislocated. It is not about poverty and disadvantage per se.  There is much more evidence that young people  are very isolated. Many young people today feel disconnected from the older generations, from their communities but of course they are very strongly connected through the social media. And we do not really know whether the social media will be able to bless young people or whether it will be a curse or a nightmare.

We have stories to suggest both at the moment.

Do you think the world has undervalued the importance of academia in the field of policy making and, most importantly, the involvement of the youth in such decision-making processes?

Well there are two separate questions, the first one about listening to the academics: policy makers are usually pretty dreadful at listening to the academics even if they talk about evidence based policy making. But a part of blame is on the academics who always say things in very complex terms because the issues that they are dealing with are very complex but of course policy makers are politicians, who have to say things in simple terms. And so there is an inherent tension between the academy and policy makers, and questions about the extent to which the academicians want to play a part, should play a part in policy making, and the extent to which the policy makers should listen to academics as opposed to listening to the political pressures and other sources of pressure.

The involvement of young people in decision making is quite a different issue. It’s about youth participation which is a much used word, but it is really difficult to know how to put it into practice, and get them involved into those processes. So I do a lecture called ‘I’m fed up with youth participation’ because I think we fail to get the questions that we really need to ask. Why do we want young people involved, where do want them to be involved, how do we do it, when do we do it, and so forth.  I’m not really fed up with youth participation, and I do think that young people must be part of any decision making process that affects their lives. And academic research tends to come to the fact that we get better policy if we listen to young people and their subjective perspectives on those policy ideas.

Many jurists have opined, that jurisprudence, ‘the wisdom of law’, so to say, is the most important social science among all others. What is in your opinion, the role of law, lawyers and specifically law students in solving youth problems?

Well, I’m speaking to beautiful dynamic young lawyers. I’m not a lawyer, I’m a sociologist, so I think both have their part to play, I think the law, particularly human rights is a very critical aspect in putting parameters, putting frameworks, regulations and expectations around social life. But we know very well that you can make as many laws as you like but culture and human relationships and social contexts are also very important. But I think in some basis, your article in the current edition in the Libertatem about honor killing is a classic example. You can have as many laws as you like, from proscribing some behaviour and describing it to be unacceptable but when it comes to culture and tradition around a kind of moral obligation to behave in that role in certain parts of the society, and the law doesn’t necessarily stop these things from happening. So we have to understand the nuances of the human conditions and human behavior which actually the law, is not very good at doing because the law rests on a much more technical framework. So my easy answer to the question to keep myself popular with you is to say that they are both important.

Sir, you have had a tremendous interaction with the field of youth policy and social sciences, our viewers would like to know as to how has this field evolved over the span of time and how has this genre of sciences contributed to your personal life, having seen it from all three lenses of the childhood, being a youth yourself and crossing that phase to reach a stature, where you are today?

Well, the 1st question is with respect to the career path and I’ve never had a career path since there never was one. So what I have done is mostly incremental and quite by chance in some respect.

I’ve built a kind of profile, as I said, not only around that triangle of research, policy and practice, but alsoacross a whole range of youth policy issues: formal education, youth work in non-formal education, crime, health and housing and more and I’ve also done that on different levels, the Welsh Government,  the UK. Govt, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. And I have been lucky to have been connected to all of that kind of mosaic of youth policy evolution. 20 years ago very few people were using this expression, ‘youth policy’.  Young people made transitions to adulthood in a relatively anticipated way, sometimes it was a good transition, sometimes it was not a good transition but it was a transition. Youth policy has emerged as those transitions have broken down whether in post-communist societies, western societies, your own society, a rapidly modernizing society and many other parts of the world, and that is when youth policy becomes important because we have to think about how long we need to extend opportunities and experiences to young people to give them the best chance at making good transitions and so that’s my current definition of youth policy and since mid-1990s, I guess for about 20 years., more and more people have started to use this concept of youth policy as an umbrella for all those kinds of issues that affect young people’s lives. I said many years ago, in the 1980s in fact, that all countries had a youth policy, byintent, default or neglect. This probably sounds like a lawyer to you but the point is that  a country that does nothing for its young people is still doing youth policy, but it’s an unhealthy youth policy and I favour a purposeful, coherent and integrated policy for young people that could be considered to be an opportunity focused youth policy.

You brought up the topic of young offenders. Recently, the Indian Parliament reduced the age of juvenile offenders to 16 in cases of heinous crimes such as rapes etc. What is your take on it or how do you predict the consequences of the same?

Well, laws can be quite constructive as well as destructive. If I had all the power and I were to design a criminal justice system in a society, I would have the cut off age at 18 in order comply with the UN convention on the rights of the child, which all countries in the world except Somalia and the U.S. have signed. And to say many people under the age of 18, in the world, should be classified as a child. Even those who break the law should be subjected to welfare interventions and not criminal justice interventions. I live in a country where the age of criminal responsibility is 10. I sat on the Youth Justice Board for 8 years in England and Wales. I was the chair of the youth crime prevention committee for England and Wales and I used to be terribly embarrassed about the UK having the lowest age for criminal responsibility, the highest rate of imprisonment of young people, except for Turkey, in Europe. However, there is an argument for lowering the age of criminal responsibility: it does give you the opportunity, through legal measures to intervene in young people’s lives, earlier, and so paradoxically, we were able to use the legal framework of a low age of criminal responsibility to strengthen welfare interventions in children’s lives and to contribute to the reduction of their reoffending. So while in a situation where you’ve lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years for heinous crimes, it suggests to me that the object of the lowering of the age of responsibility is punishment, and I’m not in the favour of punishing children. George Bernard Shaw once famously said that if you are to reform a man, you must help him and if you are to punish a man, you must injure him, and people are not helped by injuries. So I think if we believe in rehabilitation, if we believe in reform, then we have to think very hard about investing our resources at an earlier age in children’s lives and not waiting for heinous crimes to appear and then to punish them.

Over the time, you must have been exposed to a plethora of intricacies involving the youth outside of the European continent, speaking of the Indian scenario, what do you think the Indians should learn from the west in their treatment of young people?

Well that is a horrible question. Because I don’t believe that the western European context can ever transfer very easily to a country as complicated and huge in many ways so different as yours. But of course there are parallels as well. The British legacy remains with you to some extent. And let me ask you and your team at the Libertatem to look at yourselves and prepare a list of ten things that have happened to you in your life that has turned you into lawyers with all the enterprise and the dynamic character that you have and then consider how many young people in India have had the ten same things and I think that many young people in India have had, if they are lucky, only one or two of them. A good education, family support, technological education and understanding, away from home experiences, exchanges, school, music, culture and if I was designing a youth policy for India, and of course, resources come in the question, I would say how can we give more young people in India all of those 10 things. So I would frame it around an opportunity focused youth policy which is about experience and opportunity to enable young people to make positive steps forward in their lives.

Your advice/message to the youth of the world, to the youth in India and to all our fraternity who are a part of this initiative?

Well I think if you dissected young people into two particular groups, the more included and privileged and the less included and the less privileged, one of the sadnesses for me is that the former become almost obsessed with mapping their career plan and if anything comes their way, which is not a part of their plan, they don’t do it, and then the less privileged and less included tend to be quite scared about taking opportunities that are beyond their immediate and local experience. So, my friends, one piece of advice to young people is that whenever you get an opportunity in your life, take it! You may never have to do it again, but if you never do it you may never get to know what it may have given you. So seize opportunities. The second thing is be active, if you love sport, love music or technology, or want to run a magazine like you’re doing, but stay active don’t just sit around and let time pass by.

The 3rd thing I’d say is to believe in yourself. There are a lot of young people who feel that they have to wait for somebody to tell them what the next step is. Believe in yourself, believe in your ideas, but also don’t think that can do it all on your own. I’ve got a contribution to make to your lives as well and that there should be a partnership in terms of planning. Young people should not get their own way all the time. But I also have an obligation as to what they want to do and how they want to do it and then perhaps I could give them a little bit of advice about how they might achieve that in the best way and hope that they will listen. And the problems in the modern world, particularly with new technologies, is that, there is a huge fracture between the young and the older generation, and we need to find mechanisms where we bring those generations closer again and learn from each other.

To find out more about Dr. Williamson, click here

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