What can Etonian Cameron learn from young people about social mobility?

Written by Laura (Researcher). Posted in News

The last week has seen first John Major and now David Cameron lamenting the lack of social mobility within UK society. Both have argued that what is needed to promote social mobility is for young people to work harder and have higher aspirations. As with so much government rhetoric, they paint a picture of UK youth simply not aiming high enough. Young people’s voices, as ever, have been missing from these recent pronouncements. In this post Laura argues that if Cameron spent more time listening to young people, he would discover that it is not their aspirations which are at fault. 

Major’s comments about the dominance of the wealthy in government have been treated as a criticism of government policy and the Etonian-heavy cabinet. But Cameron and Major are essentially saying the same thing – that graft and determination can address social inequality. Major wants young people to ‘fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can take them’. While Cameron believes that what is lacking in young people’s lives are the ‘right’ thoughts, pointing in the ‘right’ direction. A mere change of mindset, to ‘get them to raise aspirations and get them to think that they can get all the way to the top’.

Our research with 150 young people challenges Cameron and Major’s ideas about how inequality and ‘social mobility’ can be addressed. Our interviews with young people aged 14-17 show the varied and hopeful nature of their dreams for the future.  All of the young people we interviewed were studying at state schools across England. Contrary to popular and policy discourse, many of the young people from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds who took part in our research were heavily invested in notions of hard work and meritocracy. For example, Anonymous (a pseudonym he chose), a working class British Algerian young man in year 12 (16-17), told us:

 “I think in life it doesn’t matter how clever you are, it’s just if you have the determination to work then you’ll get far.”

 Similarly, Mat (also a pseudonym), a white lower-middle-class young man in year 10 (14-15) explained:

 “I want to move out, get on, get on with my life really.  Make a good start of it from the beginning… it makes things a lot easier if you start off- if you put the hard work in at the beginning, than having to do it gradually through life”

Such comments were common in our interviews, echoing both policy rhetoric and language from popular culture. Our data challenge comments from politicians like Cameron and Major that young people have ‘low aspirations’, or as Boris Johnson put it, ‘an excessive sense of entitlement’.

However, our research also shows the consequences of the message from these politicians that UK society is a meritocracy in which hard work pays – where sheer ‘graft’ is all that is needed to ‘get on’ and ‘move up’. In a climate of economic austerity when there are not enough jobs to go around, talk of hard work and high aspirations places a huge burden on individuals and families to overcome these problems. The story of a meritocratic society encourages young people to blame themselves when they face obstacles to achieving their dreams.

All this talk of getting ‘all the way to the top’ also presents particular kinds of aspirations as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’. Thus in this narrow version of the world, ‘hardworking people’ are those who meet the demands of capitalism – whether this be through ‘buccaneering’ in business or working for wages that put them below the poverty line.

All of the young people we spoke with had dreams for the future. Some of them felt these were in reach, while others added to these more ‘realistic’ hopes. However young people face huge obstacles as a result of this government’s policies, including proposals to cuts to benefits for under-25s, university fees of up to £27,000 and unemployment at 21% for people aged 16-24. We would argue that this talk of low aspirations directs attention from the real barriers that face young people as they move into adulthood.

These latest comments from Cameron provide a further example of the government’s failure to turn the spotlight on the institutional barriers and power relations that make certain careers, universities and pathways out of reach or deeply hostile spaces for many young people. Working class young people growing up in the UK are confronted with discrimination not only in terms of unequal access to financial resources, but also in facing discriminatory institutional cultures which operate as forms of social closure within education and employment. By pointing to ‘low aspirations’ as a cause of inequality, the government is able to direct blame squarely at the individual, thus obscuring the systemic nature of these social hierarchies.

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Comments (1)

  • Sylvie Allendyke


    Brilliantly to the point Laura.


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