Mr Cameron, do you really know what young people aspire to?
While on a recent trip to Liberia, David Cameron told young people there that “If you ask children in the UK, all they want to be is pop stars and footballers”. This recent quip by the Prime Minister reveals a dismissive attitude towards young people and a narrow vision of their aspirations. It seems that in Cameron’s view, there are only certain kinds of aspirations that really count. Starting a business, buying a house and professional careers in medicine and law, get full marks from Cameron, while dreams of success in music or sport cause concern. This all feels somewhat ironic given the summer of 2012 was all about celebrating the UK’s sporting (and musical) talent. Cameron’s comments are exactly what we’re trying to challenge in our research with young people in the UK, as part of an ESRC-funded project about celebrity culture and aspirations.
As educational researchers, we have got used to hearing throwaway comments like these about children and young people. They seem to be conjured up from nowhere, based on anecdote and anxiety, and are repeated so often that they take on the illusion of reality. Talking to almost 150 young people in secondary schools across England, we have heard a huge range of views about fame and celebrity culture. It may come as a surprise to Cameron, but our participants, aged 15-18, do not all want to become celebrities and many are dismissive of fame as a reward in and of itself. This echoes research carried out by one of us (Heather) last year in which young people listed a huge range of jobs they would like to do, including teacher, game designer, paediatrician, social worker, astrophysicist, engineer and air hostess. For these young people, becoming famous and doing something easy were the least popular reasons for wanting to pursue their chosen career (given by only 11% each) in comparison with interest and enjoyment in their job (given by 85% and 80%).
Cameron’s comments are not only based on dangerous fictions, they also strike us as immensely dismissive of the role of fantasy in daily life. Dreams about the future can play an important role in how young people imagine who they might become – As Observer columnist Barbara Ellen pointed out at the weekend, this is particularly so in the current social context of increasing inequality and barriers to education. If careers in pop music or professional sport can offer a potential route to financial security or social status, why deride such dreams? As we’ve argued elsewhere, aspiration for celebrity can be understood as a product of young people’s alienation from education and a labour market which offers them few opportunities. Indeed, as this government are increasing the costs of higher education, removing the Education Maintenance Allowance, and narrowing the curriculum, for some young people there might be nothing left to do but dream?
Finally, far from being uncritical consumers of the media, our participants often take a critical view of people in the public eye and have clear ideas about what they want from their ‘celebrity role models’ – weighing up their behaviours and merits, including how they’ve earned their celebrity status and what they do with it in a society that is increasingly unequal. Indeed, one young person in our study commented on political celebrities, including none other than Mr Cameron:
“I don’t like David Cameron. He’s ruined like everything. Like it was easier to get jobs back in the day. My parents both don’t have a job, It is like hard for them to find a job nowadays. He mostly cares about the high people, he couldn’t care less about low class people so. I am a low class person, so you know. He doesn’t appreciate us as much”.
Whether we like it or not, celebrity is now part of our language, it offers a way to articulate who we are, our beliefs, and what we aspire to become. This is what David Cameron is doing when he dismisses young people’s desires for fame. We need to find a way to listen to all the things that young people’s are saying when they talk about celebrity.
Kim Allen, Mancheter Metropolitan University; Laura Harvey, Brunel University; Heather Mendick, Brunel University
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