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

A blog post by Kim Allen

Kim Allen

Kim was an invited speaker at the ‘Education, Youth Poverty and Social Class’ event at Kingston University, 22 November 2013

Kim Allen is a Research Fellow at ESRI, Manchester Metropolitan University and part of the research team on the ESRC funded research project, ‘Celebrity Culture and Young People’s Classed and Gendered Aspirations’ (@CelebYouth) with Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey.

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)?


  • Ahmed, S., (2010), The Promise of Happiness, London: Duke University Press.
  • Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel Optimism New York and Durham: Duke University Press
  • Freire, P. (1970b). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
  • Levitas, R. (2012). The Just’s Umbrella: Austerity and the Big Society in Coalition policy and beyond’. Critical Social Policy 32: 320-343.
  • Shildrick, T. and MacDonald, R., (2013), ‘Poverty talk: how people experiencing poverty deny their poverty and why they blame “the poor” ’, The Sociological Review, 61: 285–303.
  • Skeggs, B. and Loveday, V., (2012), ‘Struggles for value: value practices, injustice, judgment, affect and the idea of class’, British Journal of Sociology, 63 (3): 472–490.
  • Tyler, I., (2013), Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, London: Zed.
  1. Liz Morrish said:

    Fascinating project. I wonder if you have seen this paper:
    G O’Flynn & E. Bendix-Petersen (2007) The ‘good life’ and the ‘rich portfolio’: young women, schooling and neoliberal subjectification. Brit. J. Sociology of Education.28/4. 459-472
    Really powerful evidence of the power of discourse to prevent underprivileged girls from seeing themselves as competent and experienced.

    • Kim Allen said:

      Hi Liz. Thanks for this. This is a great article which I’ve used in other work previously around neoliberal selves in education. Worth going back to!

  2. Tristram Hooley said:

    I think that one of the challenges is how to encourage people to think about how to frame their aspirations and careers using collective strategies as well as individual strategies. It is all very well to help people to understand the structural constraints on their individual aspirations, but at its worse this can be disempowering (there is no point in aspiring when you live at the bottom of the capitalist heap). Individual aspirations offer people some hope and also some strategies that can be successful. At the moment education and career guidance tend to rule out collective and community strategies whereby aspirations can be achieved. At its worst this is about asset stripping communities. I think that there is a tradition of radical education that helps people to see how their own aims can be served through collective strategies like workplace or community organising. We need to somehow bring this kind of discussion back into the educational picture.

    I’m having a similar discussion on my blog at

  3. Kim Allen said:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response Tristram. I really support what you are saying here about reframing aspirations from a very individualised notion to something that is more collective (or endorsing and facilitating both); and equally about how disempowering it can be for young people when these structural constraints are revealed. On the latter, one of the things that I am struggling with, and hope to call attention to on the 22nd, is that these critical frameworks can be injurious for young people, rather than necessarily liberating. For example, by revealing the workings of privilege and reproduction of advantage by the elite in why gets the top jobs – via informal recruitment / nepotism or discrimination – what does this leave young people with other than a sense of hopelessness? On collective and community strategies for the realisation of aspiration and what ‘aspirations’ could be (currently defined in very narrow terms of an individual’s success in the labour market or, in Cameron’s words, buying your own car) – I’ve just now read Ruth Levitas’ brilliant piece in Critical Social Policy ( as recommended by Stephen Crossley (@akindoftrouble). Ruth provides a dazzling critique of the Coalition’s ‘Big Society’ agenda as a neoliberal ‘shock doctrine’ which justifies the government’s assault on welfare in the interests of capital and the wealthiest. She then talks about how we might reimagine the ‘Big Society’ differently – as a collective, collaborative and socially sustaining project which might move us towards a more equitable future. She advocates ‘utopian action’ to do this and I’m now thinking about how this can be applied to a remaining of the ‘aspiration project’ so as to bring young people and other actors in a process of thinking collectively about an alternative future that permits more liveable lives for all….hmmm, lots to think about!

  4. Sam Prodonovich said:

    Hi Kim – interesting reading and important work. I’m looking forward to reading the Levitas article. In terms of aspirations as a collective, cultural capacity, Appadurai’s 2004 article (The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition) provides a conceptual framework that sees low aspirations as a result of diminished circumstances, rather than individual deficiencies. If you haven’t read this, I would highly recommend it. This helps to steer us away from a lack of aspirations as “the new deficit for marginalised groups” ” (Gale , 2012, p.3) and the individulism Jones and Vagel (2013, p.131) describe as “a full court press of neoliberalism on the American Public”.
    I am currently drafting a framework on aspirations as a cultural capacity – looking at influencers, resources and the role of what are alternatively called ‘archives of experience”, “intergenrational codes” and “inheritance scipts”. Happy to share as it comes along and to learn more from the work you are doing.

  5. Really glad I found this discussion. In my mind it’s a core contention at the heart of all youth research exploring the structural influences on aspirations. My PhD is exploring how young people’s aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, through secondary analysis of national survey data (to see whether young people have different types of aspirations in different types of areas) and through fieldwork (to see whether young people in a deprived area feel any sense of the area they live in having shaped their aspirations). As I’ve progressed with the research, I’ve become more and more aware of what Furlong and Cartmel (1997) call the ‘epistemological fallacy’ and what Wyn and White (2000) call ‘the paradox of youth’ – the tendency for young people to take an individualistic perspective about aspects of their life circumstances that are better explained in terms of the structural conditions of late capitalism (Wyn and White 2000: 165). From a researcher’s point of view it’s a fascinating, if very sobering, reminder of how individualistic discourses can be both 1) a crucial way in which young people have ownership over their identities and imagined futures, but also 2) a way in which those in power can shift the blame for poor outcomes from structures to the individuals they constrain. Reading the latest post on Tristram’s blog (glad I found this, too!) brings home what a fraught business careers guidance must be. Do you achieve meritocracy in labour market outcomes by ‘raising’ the aspirations of those with low aspirations (individualising the problem), or by radically reforming the structures (and discourses) that surround young people, even if these means encouraging them to see their agency as bounded? Sometimes I’m glad to be a researcher not a practitioner…

    Thanks again – my thinking has really benefited from reading this.

  6. Hello, just to echo other people’s comments – a really fascinating and useful discussion. ‘Aspirations’ is one of my least favourite words and I think there is a good argument for looking for alternatives to it, and not just to how it is used. The word ‘aspirations’ is, as other commenters have noted, tied up with individualist ideas and lack ‘collectivity’. The idea of some kind of ‘aspiration continuum’ (from low to high) is also quite problematic I think – see Irwin and Elley here – – for a good article which shows that aspirations amongst different people are, well, just different and you know, complex. My aspiration for my kids is that school doesn’t f**k them up and that they are safe, happy and make some kind of positive (or at least not negative) contribution to the world. So, I have low aspirations. Aspirations is also almost exclusively framed by policy as being about higher education. I saw a tweet the other day bemoaning the talent ‘wasted’ by more high-attaining disadvantaged people not going to university – as though Higher Education is the ‘only’ way to fulfil potential. Pfffft

    OK, enough negative stuff. What about ‘hopes’ as an alternative? This also allows us to talk about ‘fears’ as well and should provide a more rounded collective, less educational, indivualist, greedy capitalist discussion about what young people want for – and from – their future.

    One final thought, Macdonald and Shildrick have used a term a couple of times recently – I think it was Shildrick who came up with it – which I think might be very useful. It was the ‘structure of opportunities’ and talking about ‘opportunities’ allows for a more external facing discussion of the structures which help to shape young people’s aspirations. Aspirations seems very ‘internal, with the external portrayed as largely benign and talk of opportunities is a good counter to this.

    Finally, it would be interesting to understand if young people attending Eton and Harrow and other similar schools have ‘aspirations’.A colleague of mine suggests that they – and their parents – have ‘expectations’ about the kind of careers and opportunities they will enjoy and encounter, which is interesting as well.

    Hope this contributes to the discussion…..

    Finally, I cannot recommedn Ruth Levitas’ other work on utopian thinking highly enough. A quick google search of her and the title ‘the imaginary reconstitution of society’ should bring up both her recent book and her inaugural lecture from a few years back – both well worth reading…


    • Robert MacDonald said:

      ‘Low aspirations’? Don’t get me started.
      (Incidentally, Steve, was in a meeting of Teesside employers, local authorities, MP etc this morning – to campaign for a Living Wage – and was chuffed to hear more than one dismiss the ‘low aspirations’ doxa, on the basis of myth-busting research from NE. Nice one).
      ‘Structure of opportunities/ opportunity structures’ of course has a long heritage. One of the ways it was applied was to a theory of ‘career choice’ for young people, by Ken Roberts in, I think, 1969. Can that be right? In 2009 he reassessed theory to see whether it still explained things in ‘post-modern times’. (See link). He concludes it did. A quote I use heavily from it is how young people in the UK have an *excess* of ambition/aspiration, running far ahead of the ability of the economy to match these with decent jobs.


  7. Josie V said:

    Fascinating discussion that made me ponder on my use of inspiration rather aspiration when talking to young people. Not something I’ve done consciously but perhaps quite telling…
    Inspiration v aspiration = active v passive?
    Inspiration v aspiration = present v future?
    Inspiration v aspiration = collective v individual?
    Inspiration v aspiration = emotive v analytical?
    Inspiration v aspiration = instinctive v learned?
    Is there a difference? Do young people see one? If so is it a useful/empowering one? Discuss.
    And I look forward to doing so further on Friday…

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