Aspiration as a cruel attachment? Young people’s futures and vocabularies of inequality in an age of austerity

ESRI’s Kim Allen has been invited to give a keynote at the  initial meeting of the BERA Education, Youth Poverty and Social Class SIG on 22nd November at Goldsmith’s University.  For more information or to book a place, please follow this link.  The post below was written as part of this event:

The mission for this government is to build an aspiration nation. . . . It’s what’s always made our hearts beat faster – aspiration; people rising from the bottom to the top . . . Line one, rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going. . . . We just get behind people who want to get on in life. The doers. The risk takers…. We are the party of the want to be better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families

(David Cameron, 2012)

Despite rising levels of poverty and inequality, where rising university fees, record levels of youth unemployment and a scaling back of the welfare state are already having deleterious effects on the life chances and wellbeing of young people, a powerful rhetoric of aspiration continues to abound: calls to ‘become someone’ and to ‘go somewhere’ saturate the current socio-political register.

Yet these incitements to ‘be aspirational’ are narrowly defined and individualizing, negating the broader inequalities which characterise the contemporary climate and powerfully shape who goes where in education and the labour market.  Under neoliberalism, poverty and other social-structural dimensions of class inequality are increasingly understood through the lens of individual pathologies and deficits (laziness, lack of motivation, poor choices, bad parenting) rather than the result of structural changes effected by neoliberalism (Tyler, 2013).  Indeed, as we see from David Cameron’s speech above, ‘success’ (or the lack of) has come to be become understood through notions of self-responsibility, self-management, enterprise, risk-taking and ‘hard work’.

As Stuart Hall and colleagues argue (2013), such discourses of self-sufficiency and individual enterprise do not only emerge from the mouths of our politicians but circulate across popular culture. As I have been closely analyzing over the last year as part of an ESRC funded project on celebrity culture and young people’s aspirations (with Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey), celebrity and popular culture is awash with incitements to ‘aspire’ and pursue our dreams – regardless of the barriers and challenges which may confront us.  From the emotional accounts of X-Factor contestants to the Royal wedding of an ‘ordinary commoner’, and celebrity backstories of ‘success against the odds’, we are bombarded with tales of the power of the individual to achieve their dreams – all through sheer determination, motivation and a ‘sickening work ethic’. These cultural texts operate as soft forms of power, working in chorus with political rhetoric to reproduce the neoliberal project and its ideal subject.

In an age of growing inequality, incitements to aspiration might represent what Lauren Berlant (2011) calls a relation of ‘cruel optimism’ that characterizes the social-democratic promise of post-war western Europe and the Unites States. She describes this as a prevailing orientation and attachment to the fantasy of the ‘good life’ (including the promise of upward mobility and economic security), despite living in conditions which thwart and undermine its realization.

The individualising rhetoric of aspiration that defines the contemporary has replaced or at least stifled alternative vocabularies of inequality, injustice and exploitation. As I have found in my research with young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this has deeply damaging consequences for those who experience class and other forms of inequality. As I argue elsewhere:

‘With only individualized explanations to hand, class inequality produces ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai in Skeggs and Loveday, 2012) that can’t be attached to the right object – ‘to the injustices that produced the affect’ (2012: 487). Rather, without a conceptual frame of class, these experiences of exclusion and discrimination may be internalized and experienced as shame, self-doubt and lack. Or they may be projected onto phantom others (‘the ‘undeserving poor’, ‘the tasteless’) (Shildrick and MacDonald, 2013).’

(Allen, 2013)

In my keynote paper at the forthcoming BERA event on education, youth poverty and social class, I will attempt to engage with these ideas. Drawing on my experiences of conducting research with young people about their imagined futures and understandings of class, gender and racial inequality, I will interrogate how young people perceive their future and their capacity to shape it.  In considering how contemporary discourses of aspiration are lived, felt and negotiated by young people ‘making futures’ under conditions of austerity, I want to raise (rather than answer!) three questions:

Firstly, what are the consequences for young people if they can only understand and articulate their experiences, opportunities and outcomes in education and work through recourse to individualising explanations and conceptual frameworks? How might young people’s frustrations and anxieties with the toxic conditions of the present get articulated in ways other than self-blame or the ritual humiliation of ‘lesser’ others?

Secondly, as researchers and practitioners committed to social justice and equality, what dilemmas and challenges do we face when engaging young people in critical conversations about their futures? What is our responsibility to enable them to access an alternative perceptual framework for understanding their ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in education and work? In opening up a discussion about the presence and significance of class and other inequalities in shaping their opportunities, are we playing the role of critical pedagogues (Freire, 1970), providing tools that allow them to think differently and challenge the forces of oppression? Or are we ‘affect aliens’ (Ahmed, 2010), killing the joy and any optimism they may have about their future in ways that stifle rather than liberate?

Finally, if ‘aspiration’, as it is currently figured, pathologises, individualises and sustains cruel attachments to exhausting and toxic promises that can’t be fulfilled, is there a case for a politics that is ‘against aspiration’?  If so, what might an alternative political project look like which makes young lives more livable, and opens up the possibility of an alternative, more equitable and sustainable future (Levitas, 2012)?

Kim Allen 


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