It’s a continuing theme in modern politics that addressing the ‘aspirational deficit’ that young people are said to possess is one way of tackling youth unemployment and could contribute toward raising the level of skills of the UK populace. The rhetoric goes that if only young people dared to dream, then this would be a crucial arm in the fight against poverty and inequality. It’s nonsense on stilts.
Instead, what appears to be the case is that rather than the aspirations of young people being the issue, it is that young people perhaps have an unrealistic idea of what awaits them in the labour market. The school-to-work transition is being delayed for all young people but the difference between rich and poor is arguably becoming more polarised: for better-off young people it’s being delayed due to attendance at college, university, travel and what-not. For young people from poorer backgrounds who aren’t achieving at school and fast-tracking into the working world what awaits them is very different from, say, what awaited their parents. What awaits them is the ‘churn’ – more of which in a moment.
Kintrea and colleagues, in a paper for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggest that aspirations have been a focus of policy relating to education, poverty and social mobility for some years, driven by two concerns: The first is the educational level and skills of the UK population. The second is social and economic inequality and social mobility. Aspiring to a high level of achievement is seen as part of the answer to individual progress and to the collective ambition for the UK to remain internationally competitive. However, there is a lack of clarity about whether aspirations are fundamentally too low, especially among people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or are in fact rather high, but cannot be realised because of the various barriers erected by inequality.
It is a glaring omission from policy and political rhetoric that for young people to obtain good jobs such jobs have to actually exist in the first place and young people have to be able to access them. But this line is (conveniently?) less than forthcoming from our politicians. Heaven forbid that we should question the structural issues which act as impediments to the progress of our young people – much easier to attack their ‘lack of aspiration’ and blame them instead. If we talk in terms of transitions what we have is an increasing polarisation between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have-nots’. As labour market experiences become more polarised, those (primarily working-class) young people who are unable to compete find themselves caught in the ‘churn’ – stuck in a cycle of short-term, zero hour, low pay ‘shit’ jobs, perhaps moving in and out of college courses and government programmes and spending prolonged periods of time unemployed. Shattering the myth of the ‘foot in the door’ research suggests young people on the margins of the labour market are in fact moving in and out of the labour market periphery. Contrast this with young people who go to university or further education for the initial period after leaving school and others who are in the fortunate position to be able to go off and travel or whatever. Not that this picture is uniform of course, but there are certainly trends which can be followed. And these experiences will be mediated by other factors such as gender, race and disability amongst others.
What makes this more pernicious is that young people from impoverished backgrounds can find that a period of unemployment upon leaving school can have a scarring effect on future employment prospects, therefore carrying their childhood disadvantage well into their adult lives. Although the current policy of post-school work programmes can be seen as a continuity of the vocationalist trend started by the Conservatives in the 1980s, what has changed is the nature of much of the training and education programs. Wyn and White argue these programs are intended to provide a fairly narrow kind of work preparation, one which emphasises the work ethic, compliant attitudes and behaviour, and constant ‘busyness’. The result is a greater polarisation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ with a substantial number of young people, primarily from poorer backgrounds falling behind those young people who go on to further and higher education.
Regarding the interplay between aspirations and outcomes we can see how being stuck in the ‘churn’ will (or could) gradually erode aspirations. Perpetual disappointment in a labour market which rejects the presence of working-class young people is said to serve as a ‘disconnecting factor’- i.e. that young people feel little stake toward a society which is hostile to their presence in the employment market. This could in turn potentially drive down aspiration – and who could blame young people for this if they are continually rejected and then blamed for their perceived ‘failure’? Kintrea and colleagues argue that the places that we studied in this research are all disadvantaged to some degree but the aspirations of young people within them are distinctive. It is not correct to characterise deprived neighbourhoods as places where aspirations are always low. Policies need to recognise that aspirations may be influenced by social class, culture and history or people’s direct experience of the place they live in. This is undoubtedly a complex issue – but what is clear from the many studies now conducted into this issue is that it is not a problem of aspiration. Rather, what is required is tackling the far more difficult issue of providing appropriate employment opportunities and ensuring young people have the necessary skills to negotiate an increasingly fragmented labour market. And this means paying attention to localised factors which can impede young people’s progression into the world of work. It is not an issue of aspiration and making this the priority is little more than a distraction from the real (structural) issue of youth unemployment.
Sinclair and colleagues found in their study on aspiration no evidence of any deficiency in terms of their motivation, aspirations nor willingness to work; there was no sign that these young people were part of a deviant ‘moral underclass’. Despite their disadvantaged circumstances, most of these young people were ambitious and had high expectations; they were neither discouraged nor cynical about the opportunity gap they faced. Of course, the cynical among us might argue that focusing on the perceived shortcomings of young people’s aspirations is part of a wider, harder-edged agenda which makes it easier to justify disqualifying young people from receiving benefits, or make social security conditional upon their participation in government approved training, education and work placements. This is, sadly, in reality, probably closer to the truth. It’s time to stop tilting at windmills and address the real issue here. Aspirations it ain’t.