During the course of the last decade successive governments in the UK have placed young people’s aspirations at the core of their attempts to address poor outcomes within the education system and the labour market. An area-based approach to policy has come to the fore which links ‘low aspirations’ with particular community- and neighbourhood-level factors, in particular area-level deprivation. This area-based focus on the determinants of aspirations has faced intensifying critique from the academic research base. Responding to this policy and research debate, my PhD thesis examines whether, and how, young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in.
The thesis is based on a mixed methods research design and has two sections: an extensive phase and an intensive phase. The extensive phase of the research consists of logistic regression analysis of data from the Understanding Society Youth Questionnaire, and considers whether the types of occupations young people aspire to vary between different types of area. The intensive phase of the research consists of phenomenographic analysis of semi-structured interviews conducted with young people in a deprived, outer-urban neighbourhood in Manchester, and considers how young people’s subjective orientations towards the area they live in produce different forms of aspiration.
My thesis finds compelling evidence that young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, but does not corroborate the claim at the core of current government policy, that aspirations are lower in more deprived areas. The extensive phase of the research instead identifies area type, rather than deprivation, as the primary area-level factor shaping young people’s aspirations, with young people from particular inner city area types almost five times as likely as their peers from deprived outer-urban areas to aspire to ‘higher’ professional, managerial and technical occupations. Meanwhile, the intensive phase of the research finds evidence that experiences of neighbourhood and family life in an area of concentrated deprivation can lead young people to adopt particular forms of aspiration that require lower levels of skill and further training, but on closer examination of the motivations for these forms of aspiration, finds little evidence that these aspirations are straightforwardly ‘low’.
Above all, the research demonstrates that young people produce multiple different senses of place, and myriad forms of aspiration, from within the same deprived spatial context: they do not simply reproduce what they see around them when imagining their futures. While there is compelling evidence that young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in, these area effects demand more nuanced research alongside policy approaches that are more receptive to young people’s constructions of place.
My thesis is available for open-access download here.
While I was writing my PhD I kept a research blog, which charted my progress, presented preliminary findings, and laid out the problems I was grappling with at each stage of the process.