Facing Individualism: The First Post-Transitional Generation of Bulgarian Youth

Коментар на Борис Попиванов за книгата на проф. Петър-Емил Митев и Сийка Ковачева „Младите хора в Европейска България“, публикуван в словашкото списание Slovak Journal of Political Sciences, 15(1), 2015, 82-85

This book has two most visible advantages. First of all, one should emphasize the remarkably short production cycle. The national representative study of Bulgarian young people aged 14-27 was conducted in the second half of June 2014. Qualitative methods for elucidating the picture were applied in July-August. The analytical work took place in September and October. In November, the book was produced in two editions, in Bulgarian and English. Such information, as all of the readers know, is extremely useful because of its freshness. Here the merit goes to Friedrich Ebert Stiftung which did its best to organize, finance and present a highly professional product on the issue of youth studies in different Central and East European countries, simultaneously. “Young People in European Bulgaria” is just one of the volumes.

Secondly, the book has a huge comparative potential in both space and time. As I said, surveys of similar methodology were done in other countries. There was a common model designed by the renowned German academic Klaus Hurrelmann. In Bulgarian conditions, collected data are comparable to those of previous youth studies in the recent 35 (!) years which enable a really large contextualization in quite diverse historical processes and situations. This is due to the efforts of the book authors, Petar-Emil Mitev and Siyka Kovacheva, themselves prominent figures in the history of Bulgarian Youth studies. Their participation linked the contemporary European framework to the Bulgarian tradition which used to be one of the most important and innovative ones in the former socialist Eastern bloc, and then has managed to proceed and develop in a series of national and cross-national studies since the end of State Socialism.

“Young People in European Bulgaria” is an ambitious attempt to create a multi-faceted sociological portrait of the Bulgarian youth in multiple dimensions: leisure time and lifestyles, values and beliefs, family transitions, problems of education, employment issues, political attitudes, European integration consequences, migration intentions, optimism and fears, not to mention just the “big” topics, although “smaller” ones, find place and elaboration inside. I am not going to retell the contents of the book. I shall briefly sketch just several of the observations which made strong impression to me, both as figures and interpretation.

In terms of:

Listening to music. Respondents defined themselves as people who like different styles (“a little bit of everything”) and not as fans of a particular musical style. Cultural consumption is characterized by extreme variety and individualization (p.22).

Lifestyles. The differences in Bulgarian youth’s material conditions and social status influence some of their choices. Social groups are gradually emerging on this basis. A greater activity and a healthier lifestyle usually mark one of them, while strongly limited, and above all, confined to family and neighborhood, consumption features others (p.49).

Values. Self-affirmation firmly stands as a leading direction in life. Personal dignity and social prestige are among the most often indicated values by Bulgarian young people and generally supersede material wealth. It seems that “being” has a priority over “having” in their consciousness. Self-expression values such as intelligence, ambitiousness and pro-activeness become of greater and greater importance for young people than survival values such as modesty and selflessness (pp.52,59).

Religiousness. A nine times difference is observed between shares of young people claiming to be religious, and those regularly performing most common religious practices. Faith leads a generally separate existence than its institutional bearers (p.70).

Family life. As in the past, Bulgarian young people are living most often together with their parents, in their parental flats and houses. What is striking that they continue to do this after making their own families. But at the same time family conflicts and disagreements are not as common as one could expect. Opinions about family relations are almost equally divided between “total harmony” and “harmony, with some differences in opinion”. Intergenerational continuity appears to be stronger than in the early years of democracy (pp. 82-83).

Educational practices and perspectives. In the beginning of transition, impoverishment limited the role of personal abilities and efforts for obtaining desired education and increased that of the resources of one’s parental family. Now personal abilities and efforts are clearly ranked first, in a reversed proportion compared to the situation 12 years ago. It speaks about growing accessibility of education. The educational system seems to produce fewer inequalities than before (p.107).

Career development. In the last 20 years business aspirations of Bulgarian young people have gradually declined. A survey conducted in 1995 showed that positive answers to the question “Do you have any plans to start your own business?” prevailed over negative ones in both age groups 15-18 and 19-25. Now the trend is reversed, the negative answers are distinctly leading in both groups. Simultaneously, there is a lighter albeit visible growth of preferences for employment in the public sector rather than in the private one. Of course, the second one is prevailing but without reproducing same shares as those of these sectors in the national economy (pp. 122-123).

Electoral participation. It is no secret that young people are not among the most enthusiastic voters. Correspondingly, survey’s data from Bulgaria reveal a really low level of political competence, knowledge and awareness, all of them going together with low interest in civic actions and public campaigns. Politics does not exert either attractiveness or substantial influence over young people’s life choices and attitudes (pp. 137-140).

European and global perspectives. A change of attitudes is here observed as well. On the seventh year of Bulgaria’s European Union (EU) accession, picture is modified and perceptions are instilled with a bigger personal experience. For young people in the country, the EU used to be a foremost synonym of “progress” in 1997 and “employment” in 2002. Now it is associated by them with “travel” on the first place (p.167). When speaking about the importance of European values for young people, the current study is the first one in the series of several ones since 1997, which does not rank “market economy” on the first place. “Market economy” is on the third one superseded by “freedom” and “democracy” (p.160). And
there is another curious thing. The EU may mean travel options for young Bulgarians but this does not necessary imply emigration intentions. The data differences are remarkable. In 1997, 1999 and 2002 surveys, an equal share of 14% declared to firmly rejected emigration. In 2014 figures are multiplied by more than 3, and we have the resolute “No” answer in 47% of the cases! Obviously the young people are looking for solutions to impoverishment and low living standards in many more directions than they used to do in the 1990s (p.168).

I can easily proceed with examples. However, this “patchwork” hopefully gives sufficient ideas of both complexity and heuristics of the book. Several cautious conclusions can be made regarding the current condition of the Bulgarian youth.

We observe a gradual weakening of paternalistic stereotypes and attitudes everywhere, on every topic, in every situation, in every group. Naturally, it is not a new phenomenon. Bulgarian youth researchers registered it long before 1989, in the framework of modernization and urbanization trends of State Socialism. Now we can see further developing process, in a context which soon could be labeled “post-paternalistic”. This process runs with different speed and on different scale. For example, paternalism is much stronger among Bulgarian Roma and partly Bulgarian Turks, among peasant youth and poorer strata, than among welleducated inhabitants of big cities. Nevertheless, the data undoubtedly justify Mitev and Kovacheva’s thesis that they actually examine the first post-transitional generation.

We observe the end of transition illusions. Figures do not give much chance to any market euphoria. On the contrary, market in the eyes of young Bulgarians is a reality composed of some chances and many risks which make them careful. There is no abstract glorification of democracy. Democracy is perceived as a starting point of freedom rather than as the end of the story. There is no dream-like reception of the EU. The Union stands as a concrete reality which can be institutionally boring but practically favourable.

We observe a deepening distrust of Bulgarian institutions and political organizations, including the so called civil sector. It brings about a low mobilizing potential and instability of young people’s public campaigns and initiatives (themselves few in number). And it presumes a lack of “grand causes” and metanarratives for the youth. Individualization touches not only lifestyles but social consciousness as well. Institutions are not cherished but a moderate and pragmatic perception of those existing, especially family, can be seen. Family is a conservative structure, but since it reduces uncertainties, it is to be accepted as a personal choice – as young people speculate.

We observe symptoms of possible re-classation of the Bulgarian youth after years of post-socialist de-classation. It is too early to say it, and too pretentious to recapitulate but the data allude at further differentiation of social groups with their specific attitudes, values, opportunities and horizons. Applying a Kantian vocabulary, these are groups-in-themselves rather than groups-for-themselves. The insufficiency of their social capital, the vulnerability of social bonds and the misinterpreted fruits of individualization prevent them from developing common goals and interests. The social and economic conditions, on the other hand, determine much more of their status and behaviour than it used to be the case a decade ago.

The European integration of the Bulgarian youth has led to a certain degree of homogenization of living spaces – in the whole spectrum of communications, lifestyles, hesitations (and fears) and planning (and hopes). It has happened at the expense of mutually constructed public spheres. Bulgarian young people are often close to each other in vision and behaviour regardless the wealth and even ethnicity. But in the shadow of distrust, all of their freedom could someday turn into an illusion.

“The state should do its job in the sphere of youth policy”. It is a warning and wish so repeatedly voiced by Bulgarian youth researchers for the whole democratic period that it has assumed a commonplace status. Nevertheless, it really matters for Bulgaria, a country that has had problems with coordination of youth legislation and formation of youth councils for years.

“Young people in European Bulgaria” presents a new phase of the exit from paternalism and the entrance into individualism. The road to collective civic consciousness lies ahead of us.

Boris Popivanov