Sociological reflections on ‘doing’ aspiration within the psychic landscape of class

What is it like to live in an ‘aspirational’ way? In this paper for The Sociological Review Kim Allen, Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, explored the social and psychic costs that accompany this classed process. This blog post explains the context of this paper, as well as the broader research trajectory of which it is part. ‘Aspiration’ has become a dominant feature of political discourse and survived the transition from a Labour to a Coalition government. However important questions need to be asked about how ‘aspiration’ is classed and gendered, as well as the implicit invocation to ‘escape’ and the burdens associated with this. 

Aspiration has been an enduring feature of the political rhetoric of successive UK governments. While ‘Education, Education, Education’ may be the most well-known catchphrase associated with New Labour, aspiration no doubt follows closely behind. Throughout their period in government, aspiration featured as a core part of New Labour’s commitment to increasing social mobility and building a fair and meritocratic Britain. New Labour stressed the importance of addressing a ‘poverty of aspiration’, particularly within education as a series of policy initiatives focused on ‘raising’ people’s aspirations for higher education and professional careers. 

Under the Conservative-led Coalition government, incitements to ‘aspire’ and be ‘aspirational’ abound, not just within their policy agendas for education and employment, but also across welfare. Despite greater inequality and rising numbers living in poverty, Prime Minister David Cameron has repeatedly addressed Britain as an ‘Aspiration Nation’:

“Aspiration is the engine of progress….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. The young people who dream of their first pay-cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things… We are the party of the want to be better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families – and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so.” 

As a number of sociologists have vividly demonstrated – such as Bev Skeggs, Steph Lawler, Imogen Tyler, Diane Reay and Val Gillies – the rhetoric of aspiration that has long saturated the socio-political register is, at its heart, a class project. As Cameron’s words above attest, aspiration is defined as climbing up the social ladder and becoming middle class. This view of aspiration is premised on the notion that being working class is something from which individuals must escape.  

Incitements to aspiration and the implications of these are also gendered. As Angela McRobbie wrote of the changing configurations of young womanhood from the end of the 20th century, ‘young women . . . replaced youth as a metaphor for social change ….recognised as one of the stakes upon which the future depends’. This political rhetoric of female individualization and agentic womanhood was deeply entangled with a post-feminist sensibility of ‘girl-power’ permeating popular culture. As a first-generation university student, and daughter of working class parents who invested in powerful incitements to ‘move up’ the social ladder under Margaret Thatcher (and later under Tony Blair), my biography was characterised by calls to ‘fulfill my potential’; to grasp the opportunities not available to my parents’ generation. Consequently, my ‘sociological imagination’ has long been rooted in a desire to trouble celebratory and simplistic notions of aspiration, meritocracy and social mobility, locating these within broader social processes and relations of power.

This curiosity led me to focus my doctoral research on the positioning of young women within contemporary British society. More precisely, my thesis attended to the lived experiences and aspirations of young women studying and contemplating their futures under New Labour (who we may call ‘Blair’s children’). Located in state-funded education and training for the creative industries these young women were oriented to future careers within the creative industries. At the time of my research, the creative industries were subject to much investment by the New Labour government and its attempts to rebrand the nation as ‘Cool Britannia’. This policy agenda was in many ways emblematic of New Labour’s Third Way ideology. Widening access to these sectors was seen as essential for both the nation’s social wellbeing and ability to compete within a global knowledge economy. As such, the institutions my participants were located in – and the policy agenda informing these – provided a useful empirical setting for sociological engagements with the institutionalisation and lived experience of ‘aspiration’ among young women under New Labour. 

In my recent article in The Sociological Review, I draw on this research to attend to the subjective experience of ‘doing’ aspiration and ‘being’ aspirational as a site of class struggle. Using a feminist Bourdieurian theoretical framework attuned to the emotional landscape of class, I explore how young women’s aspirations are shaped by a tangled web of institutional, affective and intergenerational practices. For example, I document how the institutional practices of the school worked on pupils’ habitus through evaluating and modifying their tastes and dispositions. For the young women in my research, being recognized as aspiring in the ‘right way’ involved learning to switch one’s affections to middle-class cultural practices and knowledge and transcending working-class signifiers.  

I also attend to the intergenerational practices that shape young women’s aspirations and the tensions accompanying these. Here parental (and more precisely maternal) desires for ‘success’ were lived by the young women in my study as heavy burdens. This anxiety about realising their aspirations was entangled with an awareness of the nature of the industry they sought to enter. Despite its image as being open, egalitarian and inclusive, the creative industries are rife with inequality and suffer chronic lack of diversity. As I illustrate in my other work, as a sector characterised by precarious working conditions, and a preponderance of unpaid work and informal recruitment mechanisms, opportunities for ‘making it’ in the creative industries are particularly constrained for some social groups. In my article, I draw on my participants’ accounts to demonstrate the importance of economic, social and cultural capital in shaping the possibilities for both imagining and materialising particular futures within the creative sector.

The political rhetoric of aspiration remains troubling for many reasons, not least because it forms part of a broader set of practices which devalue the working class as something that one must ‘leave behind’. As my paper demonstrates, when aspiration is defined in increasingly narrow and normative ways, the project of aspiration is accompanied by deep ontological conflicts for children of the working class. Attending to how these incitements to ‘become someone’ were felt and managed by young women in different class positions and with different class histories, my research reveals the often painful, ambivalent and uneasy feelings – of shame, lack and anxiety – that accompany the aspiration project.  

I want to end this blog by moving away from my participants to think about the wider consequences of soci0-political discourses of aspiration on young people today. As Sam Friedman argues, when presented as an unequivocal ‘good’, policy rhetoric of aspiration, meritocracy and social mobility obscure the broader inequalities that affect young people’s capacity to realise their aspirations. Indeed, since I completed this research the conditions in which young people find themselves have shifted. My participants were contemplating their futures just before the global economic crisis hit. Today, more young adults in the UK are in poverty than in pre-recession times and many young people are trapped in insecure and low paid work including zero hour contracts. And as Rob MacDonald warns, while a university degree has long been seen as a key factor in enabling ‘social mobility’, the labour market is now characterised by high levels of graduate un/der-employment, leaving many young people experiencing grindingly slow and frustrated transitions. In such austere and dismal conditions, Cameron’s ‘Aspiration Nation’ arguably incites what Lauren Berlant calls a ‘cruel optimism’: an attachment to a future that is ever-less achievable for more and more young people.  

Through the powerful moral register of aspiration (and hard work) that defines the Coalition’s political discourse, the causes of poverty and inequality are located in individuals’ behaviour and conduct rather than the structural changes effected by neoliberalism and global capitalism. As the government’s changes to welfare show, individuals are increasingly judged and punished – both materially and symbolically – for their capacity and willingness to be ‘aspirational’, ‘hard working’ and ‘self-responsible’. Government ministers have rationalised the pursuit of benefits sanctions and workfare schemes as necessary mechanisms to ‘boost aspiration’, tackle ‘worklessness’ and ensure that ‘aspiration does not become the preserve of the wealthy’. Within a climate in which the possibilities of finding good or indeed any work are dwindling, the focus on individuals’ aspirational assets and moral conduct must be understood as what Stuart Hall and colleagues call a form of ‘ideological displacement’ that obfuscates the social, economic and political structures that create contemporary problems. 

As Jo Littler has recently argued, aspiration has become a moral virtue and task of good citizenship under the Coalition. To not produce oneself as aspirational, to not ’believe in yourself’, or be unwilling to compete is to be found wanting. It is to condemn yourself to the ‘social scrapheap’. Now more than ever, we need to keep troubling ‘aspiration’ and expose the ‘hidden injuries of class’ that it unleashes. This is a key task for sociologists of youth and education.

Kim Allen is a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University. An interdisciplinary feminist researcher her work focuses broadly on inequalities of social class and gender and young people’s aspirations and transitions; youth cultural practices; and representations of class and gender in popular culture. She has explored issues of youth and aspiration with colleagues Heather Mendick, Laura Harvey and Aisha Ahmad on the ESRC-funded project ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’ (CelebYouth). 

Originally posted 19th January 2015.

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