My PhD

Place, space and imagined futures: how young people’s occupational aspirations are shaped by the areas they live in

Since the mid-2000s, the Labour and Coalition governments in the UK have placed young people’s aspirations at the core of their attempts to explain poor outcomes within the education system and the labour market. Policymakers have become increasingly concerned that young people suffer from ‘low aspirations’, and that these are implicated in producing low attainment at school and poor transitions into the world of work. The focus on aspirations as a determinant of important outcomes for young people, and the concern that many young people’s aspirations are presently too low, has led to the formulation of policies designed to ‘raise aspirations’ and, subsequently, to a renewed research focus on their determinants. An area-based approach has come to the fore, linking ‘low aspirations’ with community- and neighbourhood-level factors, culminating in 2009 in the Inspiring Communities programme. The analysis underpinning this policy programme draws two specific conclusions about the relationship between aspirations and area: aspirations are lower in deprived areas, and they are particularly low in particular types of deprived area – namely large, isolated areas of social housing on the outskirts of provincial cities. This research sets out to examine the validity of these two claims, as part of a broader exploration of the relationship between young people’s occupational aspirations and the areas they live in.

Firstly, the research examines whether young people’s occupational aspirations are lower in deprived areas, and whether they are particularly low in isolated, peripheral areas of social housing on the outskirts of provincial cities. This phase of the research considers the role of area as ‘space’ – the objectively defined characteristics of areas such as their Index of Multiple Deprivation score and their Output Area Classification grouping. The empirical work for this first phase of the research is extensive in nature and consists of secondary analysis of geocoded data from the Youth Questionnaire of the British Household Panel Survey. The aim of this first phase of the research  is to examine the spatial distribution of aspirations in the UK, alongside  analysis of whether, and how, aspirations are affected by deprivation and area type.

Secondly, the research examines the mechanisms through which areas shape young people’s occupational aspirations. This phase of the research considers the role of area as ‘place’ – the way in which young people themselves interpret and define the areas they live in. The empirical work for this second phase of the research is intensive in nature, based on a phenomenographic analysis of filmed interviews with young people in a deprived, isolated area of social housing on the periphery of Manchester. The aim of this second phase of the research is to explore in detail how area shapes young people’s aspirations in precisely the type of deprived area where, according to existing analysis, we would expect aspirations to be lowest.

As well as producing findings on the relationship between aspirations and area that directly address the validity of current government policy, the research endeavours to make three original contributions to knowledge. Firstly, the research argues that young people’s occupational aspirations are an important object of study, but that their value should not be derived exclusively from their capacity to indicate future trajectories, as is presently the norm. Secondly, the research constructs a new framework of the relationship between aspirations and expectations which respects the fundamental distinction between beliefs and desires and delivers a range of explanatory benefits over existing models. Finally, the research demonstrates the value of young people’s understandings of the areas they live in, and makes the case for an extension of the current scope of area-based studies of aspirations to consider the role of ‘place’ as well as ‘space’.

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