Is it our young people or our politicians that suffer from lack of aspiration?

Dr Lisa Whittaker

Dr Lisa Whittaker

Dr Lisa Whittaker, Community Engagement Manager, Columba 1400

YouthLink Scotland will shortly launch the National Youth Work Strategy (2014-2019). One ambition of the strategy is making Scotland the best place for young people to grow up. In the draft strategy this is described as working collaboratively to inspire young people and to ensure that Scotland continues to be at the forefront globally of innovative work with young people. The outcomes focus on listening to young people, respecting and valuing them and encouraging them to make positive choices. However, this does not seem to account for socio-economic factors which impact on young people’s lives.

Choices require opportunities. We currently have record levels of graduate unemployment and underemployment i.e. people working in jobs for which they are substantially overqualified. This shows that simply encouraging young people to make positive choices rather misses the point in the current economic context. I wonder how youth workers can best support young people to deal with the precarious labour market and other challenges while, often, also experiencing similar situations themselves.

Some young people are often criticised for having no or low aspirations. In 2013 David Cameron was reported to have said “young people from working class families do not get ahead in life partly because they have low aspirations” (Telegraph, 13 Nov 2013). However, research has found the opposite to be true, aspirations are high and are no different than in previous generations. I am part of a team working on the (Re)Imagining Youth project (A comparative study of youth leisure in Scotland & Hong Kong). Building on landmark sociological research from the 1960s (Jephcott 1967), the study will analyse youth leisure in Scotland and Hong Kong. In the 1960s Jephcott found that young people’s aspirations did not differ much from those of their parents “they spoke in terms of marriage, a set number of children, a nice home and a secure job”. During my PhD research (exploring young people’s identities and experiences of unemployment) I asked a group of young, working-class, Scottish women aged 16-18 where they would like to be in 5 years’ time. Jenni replied that she would like to be “pregnant, with a good job and maybe putting a mortgage on a house”. Jenni’s reply was typical of many of the young people I spoke to, who all described aspirations of work, family and stability (see also for many more examples).

The issue is whether or not young people like Jenni have the opportunities to realise their aspirations. It is often easier to blame individuals for low aspirations than address the structural problems of inequality, poverty and a lack of jobs.

In my previous role at The Prince’s Trust I met young people who were interested in starting their own business. However, instead of having a burning desire to be their own boss, the reality for many of these young people was that self-employment was a last resort in their long struggle to find a job. Many of the young people I met talked about the need to create their own jobs and wanted to give jobs to other young people once their own business was established. It seems there has been a recent revival of the idea that young people need to do it for themselves and self-employment is the solution to youth unemployment. This is not a new ‘solution’ in a recent blog Prof. MacDonald reflects on research he conducted in the 1980s – with young people urged to ‘raise their aspirations’, take ‘responsibility’ and grasp the challenge of ‘enterprise’; all in a political context of high youth unemployment and drastic ‘reforms’ to welfare entitlements.

Young people are being hammered by austerity in Britain. Today, 18.6% of the 18-24 cohort are now unemployed, rising to 35.5% among 16- to 17-year-olds, but we also have many more not counted in these figures who are underemployed. We have seen a sharp rise in zero-hour contracts. For many young people having a job does not mean stability, security and a regular ‘living-wage’ in fact, quite the opposite. However being ‘in work’ is still the favoured position and it is expected that youth workers will support young people to find and sustain employment. However, this doesn’t just apply to young people, youth workers often face the same situation, with cuts to funding and sessional, short-term contracts. It was reported last year that survival of the youth work sector “has meant cutting jobs, reducing opening hours, charging fees, not buying new equipment, fewer trips or merging with other organisations” (The Guardian, 30 April 2013). Perhaps one of the aspirations for NYWS should be for the youth work sector to rediscover its campaigning zeal and, work with young people, to campaign for ‘positive opportunities’ not just choices?

Dr Lisa Whittaker



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