Passionate Mobile Citizens or Precarious Migrant Workers? Young EU Migrants, Neoliberal Governance and Inequality within the Free Movement Regime

Tutkimustuotos: OpinnäyteVäitöskirjaArtikkelikokoelma


This dissertation is an investigation of young European Union (EU) citizens’ experiences of free mobility in precarious labour conditions. It seeks to understand situations in which young, university-educated Europeans move in search of work opportunities that would allow them to exploit their education, their skills and their passions, but who end up experiencing precarity. The research is located in a context in which young, educated workers across Europe face persistent difficulties in the labour markets and are disproportionately exposed to unemployment and precarious types of work. Meanwhile, various EU Member States have adopted policies that render EU migrants’ access to rights associated with EU citizenship increasingly conditional on their ability to demonstrate employment, self- sufficiency or ‘genuine’ employability. These policies resonate with workfarist welfare policies that stress the responsibility of individuals in managing the social and economic risks they confront in the labour market. However, they are in sharp conflict with the EU’s official discourse and policies, which seek to encourage mobility among young people by depicting it as a means to enhance their ‘employability’, while primarily focusing on unpaid labour options, such as internships and volunteering.

The three articles that form the empirical foundation of the dissertation build on data obtained through narrative interviews in 2014-2015. Additionally, one of the articles also draws on a complimentary dataset based on answers to written questions the same participants were asked to respond to in 2018. The study is qualitatively comparative in a multi-contextual setting that includes one country of destination (Belgium) and four countries of origin, in which the institutional and economic conditions vary significantly. The empirical sample consists of 27 university-educated young adults originating from Italy (10), Spain (eight), Finland (seven) and Denmark (two). In order to maximise the study’s capacity to capture the effects of labour market precarity on mobility, the study focuses on the experiences of persons who had moved to Brussels to work but had subsequently experienced unemployment and worked under precarious arrangements.

In the study, I adopt a cross-disciplinary approach in order to capture different dimensions of precarity in this specific context. The study combines theoretical insights from the fields of sociology of work, critical migration research, comparative welfare state research and governmentality studies, while also contributing to these fields of research. Whilst the articles draw on different theoretical discussions, they are interconnected, and all address the influence of neoliberal governance on precarity as experienced by young EU migrants. All three articles aim, from their distinct perspectives, to understand:

(1) The reasons for which highly educated young EU migrants accept their precarious working and living conditions, and the implications of this acceptance.

(2) The role of institutions in conditioning young EU migrants’ autonomy, independence and room for manoeuvre in precarious labour market conditions, and the possible inequalities emerging in this respect.

A thorough contextualisation (i.e. a parallel reading of the legal and policy documents and the existing research addressing the legal-institutional environment etc.) formed an integral part of the analysis of the participants’ personal narratives. In Article I, I analyse the interplay of precarious employment, social and legal norms regulating EU citizens’ free movement, and the local bureaucratic implementation of these norms. The results point to a consequential role for administrations in producing precarious citizenship status for EU migrants in precarious work arrangements. Furthermore, in Article II, written jointly with Sirpa Wrede, we show how migration puts young EU citizens under the influence of several welfare models at the same time, making their access to social entitlements contingent not only on the conditionality of welfare and residence rights in their destination country, but also on the policies in their country of origin. Together, Articles I and II demonstrate how institutionally enforced barriers to rights and the uncertainty and temporariness of status often negatively impacted the participants’ room for manoeuvre in the labour market, thus further exposing them to precarious work. Finally, in Article III, I analyse the participants’ migration as an expression of self-developing, self- entrepreneurial subjectivity, showing how this neoliberal mode is encouraged by EU mobility policies. In this context, the article demonstrates that, while young migrants very often perceived their migration as a means to, or even as the prerequisite for, finding work corresponding to their passion, they could be compelled to tolerate highly precarious and even injurious working and living conditions.

All in all, the dissertation is an illustration of the ambivalence of autonomy and compulsion in the context of presumably ‘free’ mobility. It shows how the participants’ room for making choices regarding mobility and for acting upon their precarious conditions is bound to hegemonic discourses and policies informed by neoliberalism. The study also identifies institutional drivers of inequality emerging between young EU migrants from different national and social origins, affecting their financial security and access to independence, their exposure to precarity, and their ability to use mobility to pursue their passion. By acknowledging the implications of precarity in this context, the study advances new conceptual tools and approaches for future critical research on EU migration.
Myöntävä instituutio
  • Helsingin yliopisto
  • Wrede, Sirpa , Valvoja
Myöntöpäivämäärä7 syysk. 2021
Painoksen ISBN978-951-51-7322-5
Sähköinen ISBN978-951-51-7323-2
TilaJulkaistu - 23 kesäk. 2021
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG5 Tohtorinväitöskirja (artikkeli)


  • 5141 Sosiologia

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