Here is what Natalie Clarke got up to this summer in Albania
This summer, I undertook a two-week voluntary placement teaching English in Albania with Tamam, a charity run by local youths aiming to the involvement of marginalised youth in rural communities. I spent much time talking to the Albanian volunteers; about their hopes, their aspirations and their struggles as I gained an insight into the challenges faced by young people in a post-Communist economy. Still in a state of transition from totalitarian dictatorship to liberal democracy, Albania continues to bear the legacy of the Communist regime: the collapse of the regime saw years of economic chaos, and the growth of its economy remains stunted, with little expansion in the labour market. The transition to a market economy has seen high levels of unemployment, especially among young people (King et al. 2012). Drawing on my observations and conversations with the young Albanian people I worked with this summer, I hope to provide an insight young people’s perspectives of the future and the challenges shaping young lives in the context of a post-Communist economy and a still relatively traditional society, focusing specifically on the themes of employment and migration and how this relates to young people’s sense of identity. I aim to explore these dimensions from an ethnographic perspective, discussing some of the broader patterns witnessed in post-Communist Albania and relating these to the experiences of the young people I talked to.
Walking back from our classes one day, I was thinking back that morning’s topic, ‘When I Grow Up’, and recalled the children’s answers- “muesues” (teacher); “balerinë” (ballerina); or “futbollist” (footballer). Reflecting on this, I asked Dori, the Albanian volunteer who I taught English with, ‘The children who we taught this morning, what will they be when they grow up?’ His brow furrowed, and he answered, ‘I don’t know. Waiters, barbers, work in a shop maybe, I’m not sure…” before sighing, “there is nothing for young people in Albania’. He went on to express his frustration at the lack of prospects for young people in his country, in a stagnated economy with few opportunities to achieve social mobility and convert academic credentials into secure employment. I met many people like Dori, young, bright people who were smart and hardworking, knew several languages and some who had Bachelor’s degrees, yet who remained unable to find employment to match their credentials and left many of them fearing that, in the short term at least, they would have to settle for low-status jobs such as bar work to secure some kind of income. His words carried a sense of frustration of helplessness. When discussing economic prospects for young people in Albania, and he often described the sense of feeling ‘trapped’: in Albania, in a state of unemployment, and, in another sense, trapped as he remains unable to progress to adulthood as he remains dependent on his family’s income.
The new labour market is experiencing stagnation as public sector employment declined massively during the transition period and private sector growth has been too slow to compensate (Vullnetari et al. 2011). A stagnant labour market in the new capitalist economy offers young people few opportunities to secure professional employment and thus achieve social mobility, a bleak reality many young Albanians have realised and which informs their decisions to migrate in the search of work elsewhere in Europe. Agriculture, and now increasingly tourism, remain two of the country’s main industries, neither of which, it seemed, really appealed to the young people I spoke to. Agriculture was often associated with an isolated existence in rural mountainous communities, which have experienced depopulation in post-Communist years (Mendola et al. 2016) due to increased levels of out-migration to urban areas such as Tirana as young people search for a “proper job”. The tourist industry offers only unsecure employment in the form of seasonal and part-time contracts, and thus offers little in the way of job security and prospects for career progression.
The unemployment suffered by many young people in Albania carries social consequences: unable to achieve the self-sufficiency and independency attained through employment, many I spoke to were left feeling unable to progress to adulthood in a sense, as they remained financially dependent on parents’ income (Orgocka et al. 2006). This carries implications for young people’ self-esteem and sense of identity: my friend expressed his frustration at having to ‘ask family to support for everything’, leaving him feeling ‘like a child’. This sentiment was shared by many of the young Albanians, who often felt frustrated yet helpless in their state of unemployment. This carries serious socioeconomic implications for young people and has ‘posed a threat to youths’ transition to adult life’, undermining their chances of social and political integration (Orgocka et al. 2006). This is in part why initiatives such as Tamam are so important, particularly in rural communities, where they serve an important role not only in providing English tuition and summer activities for the rural children, but also for the volunteers, for whom the project encourages integration and involvement in the development of the community and the opportunity to mix with volunteers from England, Spain and Switzerland.
The lack of prospects in Albania inform many young people’s decision to emigrate. The collapse of the Communist regime, during which emigration from Albania was impossible, has seen migration occur on a massive scale. There have been phenomenal increases in cross-border travel for work: as of 2010, half of the resident population was living abroad, with remittances from labour migrants keeping the economy afloat (King et al. 2012). This migration has been a largely male-dominated phenomenon, with young people migrating to the neighbouring countries of Greece and Italy, due to their geographical proximity, as a strategy for acquiring short-term financial capital (Michail et al. 2016). Some of the Albanians I spoke had themselves, or had family, who had worked in Greece, performing often semi-skilled labour in the agricultural industry, picking and packing produce. Despite the highly educated level of many of the young Albanians, many had to settle for working long hours in low-status, unattractive manual positions in host countries (Hatziprokopiou, 2010). My friend told me that the work was often hard and entailed long unsociable hours, and he often associated the work with homesickness and feeling isolated, a sense compounded by the fact that he understood little Greek and so struggled both in the workplace and socially when there.
Another theme I encountered in relation to young people’s prospects was patriarchy, and how societal expectations, particularly in older generations in rural communities, continue to shape, even curb, young people’s agency and trajectories. I had noticed that the mothers of the children we taught we very young, no older than early twenties, and how some of the young girls in our classes already appeared to fulfil quite a maternal role, flip-flopping into class with a younger sibling balanced on their hip. Reflecting on this, I asked two of the male volunteers, ‘What about prospects for girls, do their families want them to work too?’ I was told that, while ‘traditional’ patriarchy in Albania has undergone significant change (Mendola et al. 2016), Albania is still a very patriarchal society, and women continue to be “oppressed”. For some, the gendered regime of patriarchy continues to curb women’s independent mobility and life trajectories- it was not even considered acceptable for a young woman to wonder the streets on her own, particularly in some of the more rural areas, accounting for some of the odd looks I and the other female volunteer got when walking to the local supermarket (King et al. 2012). Families still held very traditional expectations about women’s trajectories and women, particularly in mountainous rural communities, were often married young, with marriage perceived as the only way to secure a good future. I had asked, ‘What do girls do for a job?’ To which I got the reply, ‘You’re a pretty girl, you marry a rich man’. My friend went on to tell me, ‘I know girls who are your age, and they are married and have two children now’. He explained how women were often married young, often pressured by their families, barely out of school. While some young women I spoke took advantage of the expansion of education in Albania as a means to secure their own futures and achieve independence, a lack of employment opportunities continues to prevent them from fully achieving this by converting academic qualifications into secure employment, leaving marriage, again, as one of the few options. With patriarchy regimes of power still prevalent, I questioned how effective our classes were- the children we taught were bright and inquisitive, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder if traditional expectations and poor labour prospects would funnel them into the same path of young marriage as their mothers. While I was able to witness some of the positive impacts of the charity’s work, particularly through the opportunities it provided for local unemployed youth to become more involved in community development, I felt that, for our students to truly benefit from the opportunity of an education, fundamental changes in the underlying socio-economic conditions needed to take place.
Albania still bears the legacy of Communist rule in a stunted economy and a stagnated labour market, conditions which present significant challenges for young people’s prospects in terms of securing employment, achieving social mobility and, in many ways, progressing to adulthood. Efforts of young people to convert academic credentials into secure employment remain hindered by differential trajectories of men and women in what remains, in many ways, a traditional and patriarchal society. From my interactions with my Albanian friends, I feel that, in order for youth initiatives such as Tamam to be more effective, fundamental attitudes towards women’s roles need to be addressed as well and significant economic changes. For now, the future for young people in Albania remains bleak, and for many their only hope lies in securing work abroad.
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