Young people’s aspirations: the power of stories

Written by Heather. Posted in News

Although we completed the data collection for CelebYouth nearly two years ago, we are still working on the analysis. In particular, we are getting to grips with the rich and fascinating data from the 51 individual interviews we carried out with young people aged 14 to 17 across England. There are so many myths about young people’s aspirations – from the idea that these are low to the idea that they reflect an obsession with becoming famous. Although policymakers seem to want statistics, we believe that it is through stories of young people like those with whom we spoke that we can disrupt these ideas and show them to be the myths that they are. In this post Heather tells Homer’s story – one of just a few young people we met who aspired solely to traditionally working-class occupations. While this might mean that he figures in statistics as having ‘low aspirations’, his interview shows the importance of taking young people and their choices seriously rather than reducing them to clichés.

You can find six other stories from our data on our mythbusting website.

Adults and kids

Homer lives in London, attends a comprehensive secondary school, is White British and aged 15 (or was at the time of the interview). Home and family are very important to him and his parents’ recent separation came up early in my interview with him:

I think my mum said it was one year ago, two days ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. … I was at my nan’s and my mum like just came knocking on my nan’s door and like said mum and dad had had an argument and then I said ‘Oh why! I leave you two kids alone for two minutes and you squabble’. And then yeah- It was mainly because I left them for a day to sleep around my nan’s because I hadn’t seen her for a long time, and then she just tells me.

He takes on an adult role in this as he positions his parents as ‘two kids’ who can’t be trusted without him around.

The adult sense of responsibility he carries is also clear when he explains: ‘I feel like the man in the house now. … Sometimes [being the man] involves getting money, like I have to work with my dad, to get some money. Sometimes it involves like just mowing the grass, or like tidying up sometimes, looking after my little brothers, helping them do things’. The things he identifies here are attached to the adult male role in the family and earning money through his father’s working-class occupation is part of this.

However, he also speaks of enjoying childish pranks, for example, putting flour inside his mum’s hair-dryer and then blaming the ensuing mess, successfully, on his younger sister. This suggests an ambivalence around growing up that is reflected in his aspirations for the future. Even thinking about the future ‘makes me think how old I am, even though I don’t really feel it. I still feel like I’m like ten’.

Homer’s career aspirations

Homer has a clear commitment to following vocational not academic routes though both his granddad and his aunt are trying to persuade him to go to university:

I want to like work straight away … I think … experience is better than knowledge, because if you’ve experienced it you’ll remember it more than just learning about it in school. And yeah, if I get experience at a young age then I might have potential to be good at that, sort of thing … My auntie, she tries to convince me to go to university and college as well. … She gets, you know the brochure things for colleges, she gets me them, and then she asks me if I like any of them. I normally just tell her I don’t want to stay in school.

He aspires to a range of traditionally working-class occupations:

I don’t know whether to be a plasterer, a plumber, a electrician or a welder. My granddad is a- My dad’s a plasterer. My granddad’s a welder. But a electrician and plumber I don’t anybody who does it, apart from my dad does. Electricity’s always interested me because it’s like dangerous.

When I ask Homer for his earliest memory of being interested in becoming an electrician, he recalls:

When I was at work with my dad I touched a plug and I got an electric shock. I stood there like just shaking for like two seconds, it was weird. … It was good though. I felt all right with it. It doesn’t like hurt, it just makes you like shake and you can’t control your body for it only lasts for like two seconds – and then you just go ‘Oh that’s a weird feeling’. … It weren’t even that long ago, I don’t think. It’s like the other month.

When I read this I am reminded of the working-class lads in Paul Willis’ classic study Learning to Labour. Like Homer, ‘having a laff’ and friendship were very important to the lads. But it is in their attraction to fighting that the similarities are strongest. Paul Willis describes how fighting provides a source of excitement, a means of escape from the everyday world, through which ‘the dialectic of time is broken’ (p.34). Homer seems to find this not through inflicting violence but through engaging with the risks of electricity.

Homer’s ‘role models’

Homer’s attraction to a career in welding is due to the influence of his granddad:

My granddad does [welding] and he’s quite a successful man. Erm, wife, three kids, grandkids, and he’s still alive at the age of 70 and he smokes. … He’s got quite a lot of money, he’s got a nice house, car, van, and he’s like kind and stuff so. … He’s always been a role model. … And it seems quite fun. You get to play with fire.

Danger features here as it does for electricity, but having his granddad as a ‘role model’ seems more significant. Yet, the aspects of his granddad’s life that inspire him – his working-class job for life, material possessions, family and ability to defy the risks of smoking – are not ones normally approved of in policy. Relatedly, when asked to select any celebrity with whom he would have liked to go to school, Homer picks musician Kurt Cobain, as ‘I reckon he would’ve been on drugs and everything already, but I reckon he would’ve been a laugh’.

Money, money, money

Homer’s strong orientation to money comes through in his talk about his granddad and also in his saying of singer Justin Bieber: ‘I would love to be him, but no, I just don’t like him really’.

The usual approach to money among the young participants in our research was to want enough to get by but not too much. Homer was one of very few who unashamedly declared a desire for huge wealth:

Like if I got rich, I wouldn’t bother spending the money on me, I would bothered about my family and putting it in a safe place. And then I would probably move my entire family, if I was that rich, and then we got, live in a nice estate, properly nice. … like in central London, busy and stuff. But like not on a highway, so that we can go to like shopping centres a lot. … I’d probably buy them everything they wanted, because I’d have that much money I suppose. But that won’t happen.

When I asked him why ‘that won’t happen’ he explains that it’s ‘because I’m not really clever … Because I’ve not got an A in one subject yet. … I count clever as things as like, things that you learn in school … Like physics, that’s hard, so people that do that are clever’.

This shows clearly how Homer feels positioned as a failure in relation to the system of value that operates within schooling. In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that he wants to pursue ‘non-academic’ pathways.

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