Imagining the Future on A-Level Results Day

Results

In the moment when current school-leavers open their A-Level results letters today, new imagined futures will be conjured into existence, illuminating in new and sometimes unexpected ways the path that leads beyond the present. In this moment, young people may confirm imaginings of the future already well-forged through years of careful preparation for trajectories through university and beyond into careers. Others may experience the jarring uncertainty of plans unmade and undone, if their results do not offer safe passage into the future that they had anticipated inhabiting in September. For many, the new regime of so-called ‘linear A-Levels’, with their ‘harder’ content and traditional format, offer yet further uncertainty because on one hand they may generate lower levels of attainment while also pushing universities to be more flexible in their negotiation of conditional offers for places.  Data out today suggests that male students have out-performed female students for the highest grades  – another shift and change that will, in some cases, have led to new reckonings of what the future may hold for young men and women.

All of this change is exacerbated by the brave new world of Clearing for universities, where evermore immediate imaginings of the future can be forged in the space of a single phone call to a university administrator. While in the past clearing was about jostling to find a place at university if your results weren’t quite what you were hoping for, removing the limit on student recruitment numbers for UK universities means that that clearing now represents an opportunity for students to make a deal that will work for them. Universities are chasing student numbers and fees, and in their role as potential future customers for Higher Education, students are flexing financial as well as academic muscle to cast for brighter university futures than they might have previously imagined.

This takes us back to our ethnographic fieldwork on A-Level results Day a year ago, when we observed the reactions, decisions, and occasional desperation of a results day at a local Oxfordshire school. On that day, imagined futures were changed literally minute to minute, as students called through to prospective universities and secured verbal agreements about changing a course or gaining a place. In these moments, futures are profoundly altered, and individuals must navigate the difficult process of re-orienting themselves to new visions of what their lives will be like post-school.

These issues speak to the broader themes that have emerged in this research project, notable among which is the increasingly rapacious uncertainty that characterises imagined futures of school-leavers, both in urban and rural settings across the UK. Whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between, the results delivered to hopeful young people today will be even less certain in their meaning and implications than was the case in previous years. The future-orientation of everyday life at school and the promise of certain rational-choice outcomes from employment and Higher Education suggest a range of futures that are relatively easy to anticipate (in the latter, the clue is in the term ‘prospectus’). In the present, however, the future is irregular. The freshest crop of A-level holders will today need to find productive ways to reckon with this irregularity as they make their way towards the heat-haze horizon of a future as yet unset.

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Mortality, Hedonism, and Lots in Between: Youth Experiences of Summer

umbrellas bath

This blog post (number 17) marks the end of data collection in the urban-rural youth transitions project. Over the past year and a half, we have followed the diverse trajectories of school leavers across three cohorts (from three London schools; from a school in rural Oxfordshire; and from various backgrounds starting university in London). The blog has been a space to relate emergent data to current affairs. From the Euros to Brexit, A-Level Results to Freshers week, terror attacks to Trump’s inauguration, or New Years Resolutions to the Easter Break, monthly blog posts have drawn correlations between the vicissitudes of young people’s lives and the shifting discourses they must negotiate. The volatility of 2016 and 2017, coupled with participants’ dynamic reactions, reveal a key finding about the momentary, contingent nature of how futures are felt, experienced, and articulated.

This post ponders the mixed emotions of the summer period at the end of the project. While young people commonly celebrate their sunny break from education, this year the mood in Britain has been tarnished by violent atrocities and by the politics of division and inequality. We first address how the unpleasant theme of death (premature, sudden, eventual, lingering) and its representation in the memento mori of the daily news might feed back into young people’s valuations of time and the life course. We then question, as elsewhere in the project, the extent to which youth dwell on or disregard such threats and perils. A more lighthearted attitude emerges as the research concludes amidst the back-to-summer imagery of festivals, travel, and carefree fun. We finish with a thought about complicating categories, exploring the meshing of death and hedonism, urban and rural, as well as the mundane and less extreme, to focus on the subtle, complex and often composite experiences of young people making their way in an uncertain world after schooling.

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Brexit, Terror, Inequality: An Uncertain Urban Future

Adding to the political gloom surrounding Brexit, the summer has been tainted in a very sinister way by a series of catastrophes, from the terror attacks in London and Manchester to the Grenfell Tower fire to the dramatic surge in acid attacks (see also here). In cities in particular, sudden attack has become a plausible aspect of everyday times and places. Death, it seems, can come at any moment, and as Baudrillard might suggest, this is the true spirit of terrorism. School trips to London have been cancelled; air travel has been postponed; and there has been record security at EidGlastonbury, and Wimbledon. Event-goers and city-dwellers, as well as their families, are forced to speculate the unthinkable with an assured sense of uncertainty.

On the one hand, death is a pervasive aspect of daily life, from the changing seasons, to news of accidents, murder, and war or the continued passing of celebrities. Yet dying as a social and bodily process is also culturally abstracted (e.g. through language or conceptions of afterlife) and spatially hidden (e.g. nursing homes, hospitals, cemeteries) (Mead, 1928; Graeber, 2012). This taboo is not shared the world over (e.g. see Bhutan). Death’s deliberate distancing, coupled with assumptions about life in the future, can therefore be disrupted by such threats of violence, as also discussed in December. One rural school leaver, introduced in October, reflected: ‘I could like die next week, and I would have spent my whole life in education, my whole life doing something I hate.’ Skeptical about the ideology of delayed gratification promoted in education (see our previous discussion), she shared the story of a friend who had not enjoyed school and had in fact died on the day of an exam. ‘That’s why short-term decision-making is quite important for me’, she explained discussing her choice to not apply for university.

These comments cut to some of our biggest, ongoing deliberations as humans about what to focus our time, energy, or money on and how to balance the present with the future. Questions of inter-temporal choice or personal time zone often take on a moral tone of what is the right thing to do in order to achieve a meaningful or successful life. Different temporal attitudes to the likes of investment, temptation, and reward vary across religion (Weber, 1905), geography (Levine, 1997), family and social class (Ehrenreich, 1989; Lareau, 2011Currid-Halkett, 2017). Temporal perspective is also contingent upon age. The acronym ‘YOLO’ (you only live once) insinuates a feedback loop whereby death is acknowledged as final and this is reflected back into present choices and behaviour. The term YOLO is now fairly passé, no longer so visible on social media, in conversations, or on clothing or tattoos (after it’s peak in 2012); yet equivalent sentiments are often central to youth culture, or else mid-life crises or retirement plans. When the limits of one’s time are recognized, time increases (like a commodity) in value, which may in turn help to structure priorities.

Crowd_at_Dance_Arena,_Exit_2013
Creative Commons copyright

The theme of death can therefore bring us back to its alleged opposite in the heights of life, often expressed in youth culture through the lens of presentist hedonism. Through longer holidays and more frenetic social lives, in our data nineteen year-olds’ attitudes to the summer tend to be more relaxed, euphoric, and varied than those of working adults. However, this approach to the future is not necessarily a result or reaction to the morbid uncertainty of terror or poverty. A key theme emerging in the research has been the nonchalance exuded by young people, whether it be towards politics, terror, or their own career. Importantly, this is not an unthinking indifference but rather an accutely self-aware form of reflexivity about disenchanting oneself from the future in its manifold positive and negative potentialities. One participant, for example, described a numbness towards his student debt as ‘like an ideology of not thinking’.

Such insulation from thinking (ironic, perhaps, at university) may coincide with the dominance of binge-drinking and general frivolity in British youth culture (see our discussion of the meanings of student behaviour). International students commonly express shock at the extent of inebriation and anti-intellectualism evident across the student body. A Norwegian student’s article speaks of a ‘lack of ever being able to stop drinking’, echoed in the comments below, such as: ‘I’m Canadian and having a good night out is a once-in-awhile, celebratory kind of thing, whereas the English seem to default to it’. In this regard, youthful summers for many are largely a cult of “fun” – or at least a well-cultivated discourse of “fun”. Music festivals and overseas travel (from ‘lads holidays’ to solo backpacking) are ubiquitous markers of youth culture at the end of schooling. This is distinct, for example, from youth culture at the same juncture in the US – where both drinking and travel emerge in quite different ways as markers of youth transition. Documentation of ‘boozed up Brits abroad’ is above all (whether tragic or hilarious) extremely familiar. This “default” to discourses of hedonism is important to acknowledge from a cultural perspective, even when many of us in youth studies underplay the topic to engage more sympathetically with the challenges youth face.

Of course, death and hedonism exist as extreme poles of experience on an otherwise much more mundane spectrum of what youth transitions are really like for young people moving into the summer months. Young people’s time is largely spent in between: from (generally low-paid or unpaid) work (if they can find it), to casual meet ups, video games, studying, or spending time with family. A number of school leavers expressed how much they seek ‘comfort’ when leaving school, often articulated in the common image of ‘Saturday night round the Telly (with family)’. More subtle, less extreme versions of life fail to gain as much representation (see September blog for media portrayals of Freshers week).

This is not to say that the subtle and predictable shifts of summer are not jarring for some young people. While on the one hand summer emerges as ‘endless time’ to be filled with leisure, it can also represent a time of changing social worlds, new economic obligations, and geographic shifts. On “the Student Room” online forum, one university student, home after his first year, spoke of loneliness and depression with little to do in his small hometown, and the painful reminder of his lack of friends from school. In such a way, varieties of experience across the summer will be largely shaped by relationships with parents, peers from school, geographical settings, and in response to (and perhaps with growing awareness of one’s) economic, social, and cultural capital.

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In between rural and urban: the bus to Oxford

Summer can also be a time to recognise, or reconcile, the uncertainty that comes with shaping new notions of social identity in the transition to early adulthood. In important ways, this reckoning of self is geographically located, but not always in a straightforward sense. Some of the seemingly more basic elements of our interviews – such as asking where people are from – have revealed feelings of awkwardness and ambiguity. The urban-rural comparison in the research design was shown to be overly simplistic and full of contradictions: people in rural areas often identified with their nearest urban marker; the rural student most eager for the city moved to the leafy suburb of Richmond; many ‘Londoners’ had never considered the whole city, beyond their borough, as part of their identity; meanwhile, most Freshers recruited in London were from a series of smaller regional towns.  Much like mortality and hedonism as partially indicative of this summer, the extremes of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ imaginings of the future must be understood among a variety of complexities in between.

Geography and Epistemology in the Production of Aspirations

london bus

This research has asked young people coming out of school in different geographical settings what they want to do with their lives. Ironically, this broad and potentially empowering question is often experienced as a burden that must prematurely negotiated. “Having to decide what you’re going to do for 60 years when you’re 15 is just insane”, remarked one participant. As discussed by Irving (2017: 25) elsewhere, small decisions in the present can have ‘radical consequences for a person’s future life’ and this is very much the case in the British education system. Young people must choose their GCSEs by 14, A-Levels by 16, and a degree, with implied vocations and justified price-tag, by 17 or 18. Each stage of specialisation reduces alternative possibilities with lasting, often lifelong, consequences.

In response to such pressures, school leavers often present narratives of serious, ‘responsible’ futures, such as chosen career or current plan. These are particular versions of  ‘aspiration’ that are tailored and performed (cf. Nichols and Stahl, 2017; Goffman, 1956), reducing the messiness of the future into sound-bytes that are often singular, simplified, exaggerated, or contrived. Such narratives of a ‘known future’ can serve both to appease enquiring adults and/or provide insulation from personal uncertainty. While often said with integrity, a more complex terrain of hopes and anxieties usually exists alongside. Concerns about ‘personal relationships, wellbeing, lifestyle and leisure’ that are central to young people’s lives (Stokes and Wyn, 2007: 501) have been shown to play an equally active role in their orientations towards the future. In this penultimate blog post of the project, we emphasise the significance of space – both known, virtual, and imagined – in producing and forming the focus of youth ‘aspirations’, more broadly defined. Through examples of: a rural school leaver eager to get away, media forms permeating youth fantasies, and the mutability of perceptions over time, we argue for a deeper appreciation of the epistemic, situational, and contingent foundations on which all aspirations are based.

freshers special

While some school leavers feared the distance and unfamilarity of leaving home, none were so keen to ‘escape’ their surroundings as ‘Sarah’ from rural Oxfordshire. During our interviews in May, August, and September 2016, Sarah was resolute in condemning the lack of vitality in her local area: “it’s very boring and just quiet. I just really don’t like it”. Her main aspiration was therefore to move away, at first to university in London and then permanently to America. The slow-paced lifestyle she was exposed to presented one particular version of the world – which she rejected. By giving her an idea of what she does not want in life, the geography played a distinctive role in shaping her inclinations and trajectory. Sarah was also critical about the monotony and routine she perceived at home: “every other day it will be the same meal, and next week, this day, will be the same meal, and it’s just so boring, and like you watch the same thing, at the same time…”. Through trips into Oxford and London as a teenager and through movies (where she has learned about America, having never been), Sarah juxtaposed these surroundings with an idealised, alternative future that she aspired to.

We suggest exploring the relationship between context (e.g. rurality, home life, the city), stimulation (e.g. comfort, rejection, excitement), and aspiration (e.g. to stay, leave, or change) through the lens of epistemology. School and family have a powerful grip on the kinds of knowledge and beliefs that young people are exposed to (cf. Foucault on power-knowledge); negotiating out of these institutions is therefore a process of unlearning, “sensitisation”, and re-socialisation. Nichols and Stahl (2017: 166) present the ‘post-school year as a space in which different aspirations become possible’ through the disentanglement of the self from school and its associated identities. We elaborate on this argument by pointing to the epistemic and situated nature of all relations and environments. Particular places (such as of work, rest, or leisure) and moments in time (whether chronological like age or cyclical like the weekend) can have their own distinct epistemological status. Changes after schooling, in and of themselves, are therefore likely to disrupt former habits (and limits) of thinking, providing a fertile space for new ideas. Alterations in bedroom, location, peer group, or routine – commonly experienced in synchronisation in the move to university – can amalgamate through a ‘compressed’ temporal experience of multiple futures at once. Previous blog posts have reported on the spatial facilitation of these transformative processes and the sense of novelty and agency induced by living independent from parents. The extent of radical change reported by school leavers (see December blog post) might even be described as a ‘paradigm shift’ in epistemology – akin to Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) notion that entails an episodic (not incremental) ‘revolution’ in the kinds of possibilities that are conceivable (though to be taken loosely and metaphorically).

How then, as social scientists, can we draw correlations between young people’s changing spatial/epistemic contexts, on the one hand, and their often-ambiguous aspirations, on the other? This project has sought to compare how urban and rural settings, as well as imaginaries, push and pull young people towards different objectives. In doing so, we have found that not only are the notions “urban” and “rural” awkward in definition and often false as a dichotomy, but the geographies affecting people’s lives are more multiple and complex than the location in which they dwell. Due to the time-space compression of globalisation, people are influenced by geographies well beyond their physical settings, imprinting a wide range of dispositions. See for example the poster, below, adapted from John Berger’s award-winning Ways of Seeing.

berger take 2

Berger refers to the endless advertising and media that permeate our lives, instilling an appetite for ‘fabulous rewards and objects and people’. The text evokes an imagery of searching near and far, ‘here? there?’ – though allowing for simulation, ‘nowhere?’. Media consumption provides fascinating examples of how young people grow to ‘know’ of possibility. Urban, mobile, and affluent livelihoods are usually exalted and normalised, to the extent that fictional portrayals of social life become markers of normality. In a bizarre cultural dynamic, audiences accept and often wish for lifestyles that they have never seen with their own eyes – and which may well not exist (see Rao, 2007 for non-elites watching Bollywood in India). The following extract from two school students in London demonstrates how such media can affect youth fantasies:

A: “When I was younger, I thought school in America looks so good – like, they get the school bus and… it’s like a childhood paradise the way they portray it”

B: “I kind of want to go to LA and Las Vegas. […] New York as well, yeah, and see like the set of Gossip Girl.”

Both students are aware of the media construction involved, referring to ‘the way they portray it’ and ‘the set’ – if anything, this is part of the appeal. As with Sarah, who wants to spend the rest of her life in America having only seen it on the screen, we see that even distant and (semi-)fictional geographies channelled through virtual spaces can have a very real impact on young people’s imaginations. Another rural school leaver commented that “society tells us what to do”, elaborating: “it’s how the media represents people and teenagers especially. In films they’re always going off travelling and it’s sort of there all the time.”

The totalising imagery evoked from being “there all the time” is pertinent. A similar degree of pervasiveness and “inescapability” can be said of the media that young people create and share among themselves. The digital contexts of Facebook, Instagram, and the like must be factored in as part of the persistent yet ever-changing environments that stimulate youth perspectives on the future. Participants described pressures to digitally convey ‘successful’ and ‘enjoyable’ experiences at the start of university for the accreditation of their physically distant friends from school. This evoked frequent themes of comparison, envy, and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) whereby particular constructions of university life and the social futures this might entail made others reflect, often in emotive ways, about their own circumstances. Those that went straight into work from school described how online portrayals of university life forced them to ponder the ‘counter-factual‘ – the “what if” possibilities – had they taken a different route (see blog post).

fomograndma

This relates to a final point, on the contingency of aspirations. Human lives are hinged upon contexts and foundations that change over time, both through “natural” social processes, particular phases, and unexpected events. The versions of the future we tell ourselves and tell others – such as the “adult sounding” (cf. Moffatt, 1988: xv) narratives referred to at the beginning – are frequently subject to reflexivity, scrutiny, and doubt. For example, two Freshers have independently reflected on waking up alone in their university bedroom, thinking: “what am I doing here? I want to go home”. Kirsty Finn’s (2015) work emphasises the importance of a longitudinal approach to appreciate the changing and reflective nature of people’s lives and a similar methodology has been illuminating in this urban-rural study. Take for example Sarah’s email from last week (June 2017):

“Strangely, I feel like [where I’m from] is more like home than I did before I started university. Although I love London, I haven’t made too many friends at uni, not like the ones I have here so I wouldn’t say it feels like home.”

Two main points are emergent from her change in tone and attitude. Firstly we see how the comparative value of her ‘home friends’ was only made knowable through rupture and comparison; the familiarity and apparent ‘neutrality’ of her former situation prevented her from seeing this. Secondly, we see how difficult futures are to imagine, regardless of how committed our aspirations may be. Both points are ultimately epistemological: 1) we often do not know our positions or situations until they change (a.k.a. ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve lost it’, often applicable to health and personal relationships); 2) how can we know a possible eventuality from a far-removed environment and without prior experience. This second point relates back to the introductory remarks on framing futures through the narrow prism of school subjects, HE, and work. Our research has found that work and even university futures are difficult to imagine a priori from the culturally dissonant contexts of schooling, home, and adolescence. This distance is something that can be addressed in policy. Further to simply an increase in work experience and university open days, we can think more about how the social structuring of such experiences (e.g. visiting in school groups versus alone) affects young people’s epistemic understandings of themselves in that plausible scenario.

To summarise this penultimate blog post: emerging findings suggest that aspirations, broadly conceived, are manifest through multiple intersecting spaces, relations, and schedules – both physical and digital. However, these configurations are also shown to  be contingent, never static, and never ‘neutral’. There is therefore a paradox in that geography and temporality are shown to be central foundations upon which aspirations are hinged; yet simultaneously, these ‘foundations’ are unstable and often ephemeral. In response to this “situatedness” and contingency, we therefore (speculatively) suggest that aspirations and futures should be explored not only through ontological questions of ‘being’ or ‘becoming’, but also through the social contexts of perception and epistemology.

Conquering Novelty: Negotiating Agency in New Times and Places

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Transitioning away from the school, family, and friendships of one’s youth into new conditions at university exposes young people to novel possibilities. Through emerging findings from our research, we have noted how transformative the transition out of school has been and highlighted the amount of learning that transition involves, through adaptations and realisations. Last month, as throughout the project, we discussed the significance of place in shaping young people’s changing identities. We here develop the analysis, drawing upon ethnographic insights from a group of first-year university students in London. A combination of social and symbolic attributes in their new urban space have encouraged a creative appropriation of mundane phenomena and an inversion of previous rules and temporalities. It appears that the disrupted foundations of schooling and distance from family, alongside the novelty of a new social environment, have led to an increased sense of agency. We do, however, conclude with some caveats and counter-arguments.

The group of London students collectively come from Reading, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Dover, Maidstone, Leicester, and rural Norway. They are all males and were recruited whilst playing football during Fresher’s week. The group have often expressed their excitements at quickly becoming “like family” with a group of previous strangers. One of the ways in which they have transcended this paradox from “stranger” to “like family” has been through the symbolic construction of group identity. For example, since September they have kept a Christmas tree, found on a drunken night out and duly appropriated as a mascot. The tree has it’s own name and Instagram account and the group find great amusement photographing themselves with it while drunk in iconic London destinations. Part of the tangible yet unspoken novelty of the tree is how far they have strayed from traditional conventions: the fact that it is named, celebrated, and given an online profile; the fact that it is being used outside of the Christmas period and not in a family or domestic context; and the fact that something so odd as a tree is kept in one of their bedrooms and taken around the city on public transport.

An obvious factor enabling this increased freedom has been the lack of parental supervision. One Fresher in Manchester even said, “at uni you can basically do whatever you like”. Yet the dynamics at play are more complex than simply the absence of parents. Leaving school and shifting location have also opened a space to test and challenge previous rules and inhibitions. For example during a focus group in the London students’ kitchen, one participant left after 35 minutes, only to return inside a shopping trolley, from which he participated in the rest of the interview. This is another instance of “differential uptake” and the subversion of norms: he is sitting in the trolley rather than pushing it; he is partaking in an interview from a supermarket appliance rather than a chair; and he is inhabiting an adult space – a kitchen – with an incongruous object that has been displaced from elsewhere. The laughing group clearly enjoyed their newfound power of being able to distort the common codes of conduct in a kitchen (and even an interview). Similar modifications of mundane spaces, such as the decoration of doors and walls, is a common cross-cultural aspect of student culture (Nathan, 2005); such practices are popular in portraying youth identity and demonstrating a sense of ownership and control over objects and spaces that can be called one’s own.

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Newfound legal entitlements – exciting for some?

Such testing of boundaries and expansions of behaviour warrant reflection on the rules, routines, and restrictions that young people have to undergo throughout their “training” in the home and in school. On this point, Durkheim (1895: 5) remarks how habits are systematically policed: ‘from the very first hours of his life, we compel him to eat, drink, and sleep at regular hours; we constrain him to cleanliness, calmness, and obedience’. Here, the students are exposing their former socialisation and the conventions of society by “breaking the rules”. This increased sense of power and capacity to reject normalcy can be seen explicitly in students’ commandment of time. Throughout childhood and adolescence, time is moralised and controlled: one must be at school each day by a certain time, and then punctual to each class, before returning home and often being in bed before particular deadlines. One mustn’t “waste time” such as on video games and must organise evenings and weekends around all-important homework.

By contrast, and likely in reaction, many student schedules are more nocturnal and hedonistic, as well as less efficient. One Thursday in the pub a Fresher from the London group explained, “all I got done today was speak to TFL [Transport for London] and order a new Oyster Card. I was going to do something else but then [X] asked if I wanted to go to Tesco’s and then we started drinking.” Smiling, sat next to him in the smoking area, one friend proudly remarked, “that’s student life mate”. While such a stereotype does not represent the entire student body, such a malleable and nonchalant commandment of time is not uncommon among students. That evening the group explained that they were staying up that night in order to buy Stone Roses tickets that went on sale at 7 a.m. on Friday morning. Again, while unspoken, excitement could be felt in the novelty and absurdity of conducting an ordinary activity (purchasing tickets) in an unconventional way (staying up all night). The act of casually conquering the night – a previously regulated and forbidden terrain – insinuates newfound agency being explored and exercised, via their new independent space.

It is worth reflecting also on the irony of student experiences being marked on the one hand by the freedom to reject or ‘waste’ capitalist constructions of time (see Pels, 2015; Thompson, 1967) while simultaneously being defined by the looming and interwoven pressures of academic performance, mounting debts, and the encroaching need to translate university activities (whatever these may be) onto future employability.

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A flyer for a student night in Manchester. The notion of ‘orderly conduct’, familiar from schooling, is mocked by encouraging behaviour that is anything but. Hyper-sexualized images advertising women’s bodies promote the dynamic of reacting against convention (orderly conduct) to unlock formerly forbidden possibilities (naked bodies and sex) – albeit in a more vulgar and sexist way.

In conjunction with this argument, there are, however, various ways in which school leavers’ agency is curtailed. When headed into the city one evening with the students in London, one didn’t have enough money on his Oyster Card and so went home, prompting (loud) discussion on the train about how transport use and trips to the city had to be carefully rationed. Such regulation is contrary to the “unrestrained” attitude that “going out” often gives off. Indeed, it is important to remember that many of those that did not apply to university did so predominantly because of the financial deterrent. As we have demonstrated, post-school experiences can be radically different – and less ‘agentive’ – for those young people not in higher education (and similar may be said for those at university, though still living at home). Elsewhere, nearly all BME school students in London smiled and shook their head when asked if they had considered universities “up North” or in Scotland. Unlike for many of their white counterparts, distance from familiarity didn’t present itself with such exciting or plausible connotations.

Implicit boundaries and hesitations can also be seen among the group of Fresher’s in London. One candidly reflected on the downsides of leaving home: “to be fair, you do miss it [home], lots of people have been getting homesick. I mean my mum used to do everything for me, like make my food and wash my clothes, now all of a sudden I’ve got to work it out for myself”. Such reflections tell a less boundless story, indicating a more gradated move towards “independence”. This was exemplified during our first encounter, playing football in Fresher’s week, when one participant got a nosebleed – not his first of that week. He explained how his mum was getting upset as she thought his nosebleeds were because he had been smoking. When asked why he didn’t just not tell his mum, he looked confused, as the option had never occurred to him. Of course you tell you’re mum that you’ve got a nosebleed! This raises important questions about when and how parents cease to be the governors and guardians of their children’s bodies. It seems that while new spaces, slackened rules, and altered company have enhanced certain understandings and articulations of possibility, the re-negotiation of roles and relationships is ongoing – such as continues throughout life (Giddens, 1991).

Between Background and Belonging: How Space Shapes Identities after Schooling

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The Easter break brings university students back to their parental homes and hometowns, while the period may be less mobile or transformative for those who have never left. On the one hand, shifting perceptions of places, pasts, possibilities, and belonging will be exacerbated and exchanged over this social period. Yet equally, the familiarity of gatherings may disguise some of the dramatic alterations that are underway. On this point, Kevin Birth (2012: 72) discusses how regular cycles, such as the Gregorian or religious calendars, depict an ‘empty’ (Anderson, 2006 [1983]) temporal uniformity when there are in fact more complex, interacting temporalities at play. We here extrapolate on this argument through emerging findings from our urban-rural youth transitions project. Emphasizing the intersectionality of the temporal and the spatial, we discuss how past, new, and anticipated spaces have symbolically shaped school leavers’ identities and shifting perceptions of age.

Many of the rural participants in our study depicted their slow-paced environment with apathy and cynicism. One remarked: ‘the most exciting thing about [here] is the size of the Tesco’s’. Another evaluated that ‘it’s pretty, but I don’t like the people’. For many, the lack of entertainment or employment opportunities and the lack of anonymity in the rural setting were rationale to get away. None were so keen to leave as ‘Sarah’ who we have caught up with five times over the past year. Sarah has now moved to university in London, as a geographical and cultural stepping stone towards her ultimate dream, of a one-way emigration to America. When asked why she is so opposed to a rural lifestyle, she explained, ‘because I’m not like eight anymore’. Interestingly, this frames rurality as infantilizing. This might be for practical reasons, such as relying on parents for lifts and spaces to hang out, as well as emblematic, by failing to represent traditional markers of youth culture.

According to Sarah’s attitude, as well as evidence from the rest of the study, cities are symbolic playgrounds for young adult activity and identity construction. Considering also the urban clustering of jobs, this would explain why university graduates flock to cities in such large numbers – a ‘brain drain’ that is greater in the U.K. than the U.S., Germany, and Australia (Swinney and Williams, 2016). Similar spatial constructions of age-based lifestyles can be seen across the life course. Young families often seek suburbia to safely raise and educate young children, while elderly adults are often delegated to ‘elderly’ environments such as nursing homes, even when many ‘feel’ much younger and would rather more stimulation elsewhere (Kleinspehn-Ammerlahn et al, 2008).

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Taken at a halls of residence in Manchester. Is childhood media consumption (Fresh Prince of Bell Air; Home Alone) being re-appropriated to forge a shared sense of upbringing in a new ‘adult’ space?

Experiences of age can therefore be contextualized, shaped, and elaborated through continuous, or changing, spaces. In our study, the most obvious instances of place symbolically punctuating young people’s transitions have been Results Day (and the last time at school), leaving the family home – or equally, remaining. Yet just like the same chronological ‘age’ can be re-articulated by new spaces, so too can the “same old” places be re-interpreted at different ages and stages of life. One first-year university student from Reading reflected: ‘in primary school people used to think London was the scariest place on earth’. Now aged nineteen, he is delighted to be living there, among a new group of tightly-knit friends. Members of the group have expressed on repeated occasions how significant, and exciting, it has been to now be living in London. One reflected that his previous affection for his hometown of Doncaster has now diluted in comparison. He has also accepted the distancing that his new friends and location have forged from his peers from school, now mainly working in factories. This dynamic taps into integral questions about the role of university in shaping social and geographical mobility, while also raising universal questions of where we fit in, and where to call home.

Encapsulating these ideas is the recent film, Queen of Katwe, set in a township in Uganda, in which an inspiring coach tells 14-year old chess prodigy, Phiona, “sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong”. Equivalent tensions between background and belonging, set within economic, regional, and family contexts, may be deliberated by people of all ages, the world over. In this project, we have asked how young people’s aspirations differ dependent on the geographical setting in which they grew up. Concomitantly, the research has demonstrated how spaces, both familiar, new, and imagined, symbolically frame the transition out of school. Ultimately, we have tried to explore the fundamental question of where, when, and with whom “home” was, is, or could be. This is a plural question with numerous facets beyond generalized metaphors of ‘journey’ and ‘destination’. As in Birth’s (2012) argument, there are multiple temporalities at play in people’s particularized yet shared lives, and these are more complex than homogeneous rhythms such as Christmas, New Year, or the Easter break. The notion of quantum personhood (Alexander, 2017) attempts to articulate some of these multiple, at times contradictory, geometries connecting the various dimensions of people’s pasts, presents, and plausible futures. In this project and in future blog posts, we ask how such temporalities – such as experiences of age and imaginations of adult identity – are mapped out in known, changing, and potential spaces.

University as Both Vehicle to, and Shelter from, the Future

ed-future-dreamDiscourses of education are often centred around notions of investment and the future. Young people are encouraged, as well as threatened, to go further and further into their studies through an ideology of delayed gratification. By “sacrificing” the present and committing time, effort, and in the case of HE, a great deal of borrowed money then you’re in with a chance of great things. Whilst a lottery, the future is kept alive through the promise of possibility. Failure to strive within this forward momentum is depicted throughout schooling as dangerous, degenerative, and against one’s own future interests. Yet even then, education is framed across the life course as salvational and solutional. Adults without a degree may “redeem” themselves later in life; much like aspirational immigrants who “use” education to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”; meanwhile, those already with a degree increasingly consider further, and yet further qualifications, trying to escape a dull or competitive present in the hope of something better.

For the school leavers we have been researching since March 2016 from urban, rural, and regional parts of the UK, the same can be said for those who chose not to go to university. Nearly all those that did not apply framed this as a decision being made “for now” – not ruling it out as an option altogether. This hesitation infers a very conscious awareness of the risks and uncertainties involved in pursuing a future without a degree. Adult success, for these participants, is understood as far from guaranteed. As though life were a game of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?‘, these young people are framing university as a “life line” – if in need. This echoes another analogy of higher education already alluded to, of it being “salvational” and almost religious in character. In this regard, Arum and Roksa’s (2014) study in the U.S. describes a ‘faith’ that is entrusted ‘in education in general, and in a college degree in particular’ (p. 107). Similar ‘beliefs’ in the connection between university and future success have emerged throughout our research; however, such outlooks on the future have been multi-layered and often contradictory.

That is to say, while studying for a degree may sound aspirational and symbolise investment in the future, paradoxically, much of the everyday student culture we have identified could not be more irreverent, spontaneous, and “in the moment”. In universities, we methodologically identified futures being perpetually constructed (see here and here), yet rhetorically, futures were far less discussed than during our research in schools or with those in work. As ethnographically identified as well as self-reported, serious discussion of either personal aspirations or of politics was heavily stigmatised when in group settings (less so individually). Ironically, it often seemed as though avoiding talk, or even thought, about adult responsibility was precisely the privilege that students were paying for. One rural school leaver who went straight into work articulated this point “from the outside”. To her, students are given three to four years of insulation from various uncertainties and daunting decisions – a protection and distancing that she envies.

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“When I grow up I want [blank]” – Perhaps the thinking ends there?
This idea of university as a shelter from uncertainty was epitomised by a twenty-four year old Fresher at a university in London. Having completed a two-year apprenticeship, then four-year degree in Engineering, he could see the future going one of two ways: “accepting” a competitive career-track that he had no desire for, or a continued journey of youth culture and personal development through another bachelor’s degree, this time in Music. Theoretically, the extended present and buffer from the future that he has created for himself became clear one Tuesday evening as he nonchalantly gulped beer after beer. Facilitated by the time and space of university, his future horizons for the next three years – including what he does, or doesn’t, have to do on a Tuesday night and Wednesday morning – will no doubt be starkly different (and perhaps more enjoyable) than the professional identity and competitive career that he chose not to pursue.

Going to university in the name of one’s future is therefore a different, though often concurrent, story to going to university to avoid the future. As we develop our arguments for the first article to come out of this urban-rural project – on the theme of uncertainty – the role of institutions in shaping affective experiences of the future, such as exposure or protection, is significant. A previous blog post on school leavers going straight into work touched on how vulnerable they felt in response to the uncertainties of Brexit. Interestingly, and likely not by coincidence, many of those going into higher education were somewhat more ambivalent, with Brexit’s economic implications framed as hypothetical and distant. When studying for a degree, “the future” really can take on an elusive, imaginary sense of “one day, when it happens”; ironically, those not at university, who chose the “non-future” path, appear to be more explicitly involved in the future already.

Anxiety and Ambivalence Towards Multiple Uncertainties after Schooling

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The world’s political situation is clearly in flux. While our attention in Britain is disproportionately weighted towards ourselves and America, and while crises and inequalities are far more complex than whichever figurehead is in power (Taussig, 2017), the risks and implications (social, economic, and otherwise) of both Brexit and Trump are such that Ed Miliband can be justified in saying that these are ‘not normal times’. A more drastic way of putting it that addresses some of our broader global challenges is the military term borrowed by Keri Facer, that times are ‘vulnerable, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous’ (VUCA). In this post we develop an argument that Patrick and Graham have recently presented at the University of East London and the University of Oxford on how young people in contemporary Britain are coping with such discourses of uncertainty, in tandem with their own transitions out of school. A previous blog post touched on participants’ range of attitudes towards politics in 2016, and another post addressed the concept of ‘change’ from a multi-scalar perspective, at the level of both mainstream culture and individual personalities. Fresh data from the past few months allows us to elaborate on these ideas through a new central theme, of ‘uncertainty’, that has emerged through the process of the research.

There is a sad, coincidental timing to this post, as two scholars who have recently passed away, Zygmunt Bauman and Andy Furlong, have been leaders in the conceptualization of uncertainty. Each helped to articulate wide-scale changes in global society and to draw out their ramifications for individual experience and the structuring of the life course. Talking, for example, of ‘the precariat’ – defined by Guy Standing (2014) as the growing class of people in unstable, transient work that gives little meaning to their lives – Bauman describes the genealogy of the term, from the French précarité, as loosely meaning ‘walking on moving sands’. This image of fluidity, instability, and associated vulnerability is at the heart of much of Bauman’s work (e.g. 2000; 2007). Meanwhile, Andy Furlong, who founded the Journal of Youth Studies, was a pioneer in the critical analysis of education to work transitions (e.g. 1992; 1997; 2016; 2017) and the field of youth studies itself (2009; 2012). Both scholars would undoubtedly agree on the heightened uncertainty caused by today’s political events. However, on the ground, how have young people coming out of schooling been making sense of the future for themselves?

For some, such as “Stewart”, from a rural market town in Oxfordshire, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was a ‘an absolute disaster’ that has directly affected his hopes to go into science research: ‘It’s really worrying, I’m just starting a degree in Biology. If they started [Brexit] in 2017, it would come into place by the time I graduate. It makes the future a lot more uncertain and hard to predict.’ For Stewart, the particular futures of Brexit and his possible career are interpreted intersectionally, with the political climate placing previous plans under threat. A similar story emerged from a Sixth Former in London hoping to study Medicine. He recounted: ‘I think a lot of the politics this year affect me, everyone really. Junior doctor’s contracts, quality of training…’ In both cases, newfound uncertainties and their resultant anxieties have developed in reaction to specific governmental actions.

However, an interesting finding has been the number of young people that have reported a taboo about discussing either politics or their aspirations among their friends. In this sense, we might interpret a cultural context, whether of youth culture or perhaps British culture (cf. Kate Fox, 2014 – ‘the importance of not being earnest’) in which both sources of uncertainty in the examples above (politics and profession) are inhibited from being expressed. Such uncertainties might therefore be lived and imagined by young people in relative isolation, if not repressed altogether. One participant, still at school in London, explained:

‘Well I can talk about [politics], but with my friends I’m more relaxed, trying to just relax, cos everything’s so stressful around you, you just try to have a bit of fun and laughter… I think [Trump] still affects people but now we’re more focused on other things, like we’ve got exams when we come back after the holidays, so we’re focusing more on that now.’

This comment is interesting in showing how different social contexts can provide exposure or protection from various futures, in doing so, invoking shifting emotions (e.g. from fear about Trump, to laughter with friends, to a more personal concern – about exams). The comment also reiterates three key findings from the project: 1) there are multiple, ever-emergent futures which young people are simultaneously navigating, on various scales; 2) these futures may assemble, splinter, enlarge, recede, clarify, complicate, disappear, or re-emerge; 3) the ways in which these multiple futures are negotiated are themselves diverse. It is this third point, on the various sentiments and coping strategies towards uncertainties – such as anxiety or ambivalence – that this post attempts to underline.

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These findings may be explored through the above poster, photographed in December outside a night club in Manchester, whilst conducting participant observation with first year university students. The seemingly trivial possibilities inside the club (“euphoria and debauchery; dancing and drinking…”) are advertised in relation to the dominant cultural narrative (even in Manchester; cf. Soldatic and Johnson, 2016) of the U.S. election. Whilst recognising young people as politically aware, to some degree, the actual symbolism of the image and text over Trump’s mouth are somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the font could be sellotape, “shutting him up” to a student body exhausted by his rhetoric, in need of respite through a weekday “binge”. Alternatively, the text could be a bravado command coming out of his mouth, as though “respecting” Thursdays and their etiquette of sobriety were being cursed by the man himself. Ultimately, the poster invites students to live in the present (not even waiting for the weekend for their indulgences) in the context of an omnipresent political discourse which, really, is only engaged in a thin and ambiguous way. This kind of pseudo-engagement and ambivalence – towards Brexit, Trump, student loans, the economy, and general discourses of uncertainty – has recurred throughout the research, perhaps even more than sentiments of anxiety. It seems that the long-term and severe (such as debt, health, housing, careers, the environment, war, and possible Armageddon) exist in conjunction, in tension, and often in the periphery to the immediate and seemingly banal (such as “99p entry” and “£1 drinks”).

These emerging findings prompt us to explore the confluence of the profound and the trivial in how young people conjure the future in the present moment of increasing and rapacious uncertainty. From existential political crises, to the implications of exam results, to not missing out on a big Thursday night next week, multiple, multi-scalar futures simultaneously linger, jolt and morph into the fabric of young people’s lives. A future blog post will explore the role of social institutions (school, university, work, family, relationships) – or the lack or precarity of them – in shaping the range of emotional responses to uncertainty (e.g. confidence, dread, ambivalence) such as have been touched upon here.

New Year’s Resolutions: Constructing ‘Values’ amid Uncertainty… But is the Future that Controllable?

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After the typically reflective time of year that accompanies the Christmas period and the strange liminal phase between Christmas and the 31st, the new year seems to put “the future” back in the frame of people’s conceptual horizons. The notion of ‘New Year’s resolutions’ is therefore an interesting one with regards to our future-oriented research. In last month’s post we considered the perpetual nature of ‘transition’, both among our school leaving participants and in the broader culture of political uncertainty (Brexit, Trump, terrorism etc.). The case put forward in the blog suggested that constant change, from the menial (such as shifts in mood) to the drastic (such as our ultimate deaths) is fuelled by the alterity – or ‘Otherness’ – of an unrelenting future. This incessant force of alteration and ‘unknown’ can be quite daunting, as can the passing of time (e.g. “has it really been 10 years!”). Whether through biology ageing our bodies, governments making decisions on our behalf, or threats to jobs through a squeezed economy and rapid rise of technology, it can feel as though much of the future and indeed our lives is beyond our control. Perhaps New Year’s resolutions are therefore a means of re-establishing some degree of ownership and agency over the future.

The most common New Year’s resolutions include ‘increasing’ or ‘decreasing’ the amount of something in one’s life, if not doing away with it altogether. For example: more exercise, organisation, travel, time with family; less alcohol or procrastination; or else quitting smoking or changing job. With the new calendar year framed as a clean slate, abstract values allegedly forgotten in the chaos of everyday life are (re-)inscribed into people’s behaviours-to-be. These evaluations often succumb to a moral hierarchy of some things being “good” (such as time with family), others “bad” (such as spending money in certain ways). Life’s activities become re-inscribed with judgements of “value” or “waste”, with resolutions as a framing device for the ‘better’ selves we wish to shape in the future. This may refer to specific activities, or else amalgamate into vague life philosophies such as: “live life to the fullest”; “be true to yourself”; “life is too short to worry about that”.

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At one level, such declarations may seem glib and generic, attracting cynicism – some of it rather amusing. Yet abstract values about the life course and moral judgements about what to prioritise – now and in the future – have been a constant theme in this project, as well as in Patrick’s and my own independent research. The notion of values is an interesting one, for it seems both extremely important as well as incredibly vague. Valuing something can simply mean being attracted towards it. This is surely different from the more sincere notion of ethical or moral values, which raises the debate of what values, if any, are intrinsic – and allegedly pre-social – and what are extrinsic and subject to culture, bias and possible choice. Alternatively, value can be an economic term – à la ‘surplus value’ and ‘exchange value’ in Marx’s critique of the functioning of capitalism. With these multiple meanings, the British government have strangely framed our uncertain, changing future in terms of “British values” – whatever they are.

Picking up on this ambiguity, the call for members of public office to swear an Oath to ‘British Values’ was mockingly hijacked with a Twitter hashtag of the same name. Denialism over a colonial past? Inequality, privatisation and the rise of the Right? To ‘which’ ‘British’ ‘values’ must we loyally commit our futures? Whilst echoing the divisions that have characterised the past year, this example also highlights that what we are striving for – individually or collectively – is often not even clear to ourselves. Perhaps New Year’s resolutions, the Queens Christmas Speech, and the Prime Minister’s ‘2017 call for unity‘ are largely futile attempts at commanding an uncertain, largely uncontrollable future. Yougov polling suggests that only 30% of Brits actually make resolutions at this time of year; and for those that do, the stereotype goes that they are usually not met. What we might therefore infer from people’s scattered attempts at strategizing the future at this time of year is a disjointed search for ‘values’ and ‘agency’ in a changing world (in which ‘values’ may be as banal as ‘being healthy’ and ‘agency’ could be as modest as ‘getting fit’). The psychological reason most resolutions fail might, in this sense, have something to do with their inorganic, de-contextualized imposition.

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Taken at the Philadelphia Association of Psychotherapy, Philosophy, and Community. London, UK.

Meanwhile, for our participants, the past year of transitions out of school have been all about the creation of the future, whether through the modification of identity, the re-construction of relationships, the pioneering of possibility or the negotiation of independence. However, unlike New Year’s resolutions, these have been incessant and usually implicit. Young people are always in the process of figuring and reconfiguring this resolve to shape and reshape their future selves. In this sense, resolutions are a modus vivendi, not just a fad at the Christmas period. That is to say, whilst our participants’ social, institutional and geographical situations have altered tremendously, their values and aspirations cannot be reduced to one-line mottos at the start of the year. More generally, whilst schedules and strategies may well seduce us into illusions of order and rational choice; who we are, where we are going, and what we are “looking for” are often unclear and indescribable (Moore, 2011). In this vein, post-structuralists insist that we must de-centre the human, framing ourselves as subject to, not the subject. Meanwhile, for psychoanalysts such as Freud (above), our ‘conscious’ motivations are only the tip of the iceberg, amidst an emotional world we can never fully know or control. Considering the political and economic turbulence that compounds this nebulous human condition, perhaps uncertainty is all that we can truly be assured of – in spite of whatever forecasts or resolutions.

Culture and Personality in Flux: An End of Year Reflection on an Unrelenting Future

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As explored in last month’s post, our research has framed this year’s ongoing narratives – from Brexit to the death of pop icons – as part of the cultural context in which young people are transitioning out of school. Trying to put some of this ‘culture’ into words, as I write, a brief video that I did not request seeps through my screen documenting the murder of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey (WWI – Franz Ferdinand, anyone?). The day’s violence gets worse as a man opens fire at a mosque in Zurich and a truck is driven at speed into a Christmas market in Berlin. The latter is reminiscent of July’s Bastille Day attack in Nice, which had blended in amidst the year’s many massacres. These abnormal stories are regular in their frequency and depict lives coming to a cruel, accelerated end. Whilst we commonly empathise and apply or deny blame, reactions also involve egocentric and ‘abject‘ (Kristeva, 1984) reminders of our own fragility and ultimate death. Scrolling down, news reveals that Britain has been selling cluster bombs in Yemen’s ongoing, unreported war. However, having only just grasped the Syrian ‘storyline’, we seem too saturated with ‘sub-plots’ to learn of yet another ‘drama’, as though they were soaps. With daily tragedy and terrible possibility, the world may be framed as a scary, changing and unpredictable place. A point well made by Frymer, Carlin and Broughton (2011: 5) is that the continuous ideas, conflicts, and events that permeate our lives – such as the stories and discourses of 2016 – form a fundamental part of our ongoing ‘education’, and significantly constitute our everyday ‘culture’.

Culture, in this view, is dynamic and determined by a changing future and ‘forward gear’ as much as any traditions of the past (Moore, 2011: 1). Hence, ‘change’ can be conceptualised as a central feature of the passing of time, whether it be in cyclical alterations (e.g. winter; Christmas; a general election), linear chronologies (e.g. the Paris attacks; 2016; article 50) or phenomenological experiences (e.g. learning of or discussing any of the above). In this regard, Appadurai (2013) calls for anthropological terms such as culture, structure, meaning and diversity to re-orient away from their normalizing focus upon stability, fixity and the reproduction of the past. He argues that really, social life is governed by the multiple uncertainties and unrelenting futures which we forecast, construct and contest. Culture is therefore in flux and produced by ‘aspiration, anticipation, [and] imagination’ (p. 286) perhaps even more than by heritage, custom and habit.

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If the above examples from the news depict one form of our variable collective ‘culture’, the past nine months of our research have echoed similar themes at the level of individual personalities (also explored in a previous post). These longitudinal insights among school leavers across the UK speak of immense alteration in their symbolic senses of self. Catching up last week with two rural participants who chose not to go to university, one remarked, “I think it’s weird how differently I see myself after being pretty much a child at the beginning of the year to now like, driving myself to work, getting my keys in the morning, getting myself up, putting myself to bed.” The other echoed this increased sense of agency and a re-location of attention from her parents to her boyfriend: “Now I’m away from my parents at the weekend I’ve kind of like, lost that reliance on them […] I think I’ve changed so much over 2016, like if I look back I was a completely different person, so many situations have changed.”

Similarly, field visits at universities have demonstrated a continual sense of reconfiguration. One participant, who has thoroughly enjoyed his move to London, reflected on a mid-term visit back to Doncaster and how differently, and less positively, he now perceives it in comparison. This would suggest that changes are not only felt in their immediacy, but often slowly and relationally over time. At the micro level, shifting allegiances and perceptions of ‘home’ will likely undulate over the winter break; changes of mood may accompany different situations and times of day. For example, one participant at Manchester Met reflected on waking up alone in his dark university bedroom, thinking “what am I doing here? I want to go home” – before having a shower and later feeling “great again”. These fluctuations and subtle transitions must be taken seriously, at a multi-scalar level, for they occur not just across the day or year, or at this particular age. As Giddens (1991) and Bauman (2007) argue, there is no such thing as a stable, adult identity. Rather, our social statuses, relations and positions are forever in transition, under constant formation and negotiation.

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Mead and Benedict

What we therefore see is versions of both ‘culture’ and ‘personality’ exposed to the alterity of the future, in some kind of perpetual flux. The culture and personality school, pioneered by Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, focused on the relationship between these two terms. In this vein, both applied Boas’ theory of cultural relativism to the structure and experience of the life course. The most famous example of this was Mead’s depiction of an emotionally untroubled adolescence in Samoa and her subsequent critique of the culturally constructed stress of this period in the United States. As both anthropologists theorized, different cultural ‘patterns’ ritually and symbolically punctuate life cycles with arbitrary customs and laws. Yet it was also acknowledged that these normalizing structures exist in tension with life’s unrelenting vicissitudes. In the context of our participants and their experience of the Christmas period, whilst rituals and gatherings (formal, informal, secular, religious) may create a temporary sense of order and familiarity, their lives are still in transition and their futures in motion. Relationships change; dreams modify; possibilities come and go. In personal lives, as in the news, there are illnesses, recoveries, promotions, redundancies, births, and deaths. Crucially, these eventualities don’t directly affect us all the time, but as perpetual and often inevitable possibilities, they loom as a cultural horizon.

Politics, Passions, Apathies and Ambiguities: Youth Transitions at the Edge of History

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In light of recent events, one might turn to Tony Giddens’ argument that we are currently living “off the edge of history”. At one level, the statement seems both obvious and sensationalist. Haven’t we always? Every day – since forever – has been historically unprecedented, and perhaps it is not the “chaos” around the world that is new, but the technologized means in which we simultaneously learn of it. However, according to Giddens’ anthropocenic warning of potential “Armageddon”, the extent of risk involved in our current condition really is different. Following the election of Donald Trump, geopolitical imaginations have certainly taken a spin. For some, Stephen Hawking’s terrifying prediction that we have about a thousand years until extinction might even seem optimistic and a long way off. To gauge how this atmosphere of pessimism and uncertainty may shape the cultural context in which young people are making transitions, our research has incorporated this year’s political events and associated discourses into its conceptual arsenal. More generally over the past months (see here and here), and specifically over the past few weeks, we have asked school leavers how they reconcile their personal transitions and aspirations for the future with the turbulence depicted in the mainstream media. Brexit, and now Trump, have been the most obvious themes, yet they have provoked a surprising range of emotional responses.

The most anticipated of these had been “passions”, such as fury, disdain and fear – evident in the street protests across Britain and America that followed the unexpected results. Not always in the most intense of tones, but a number of participants have echoed such sentiments: “the way he’s gonna’ ‘make America great again’ is by taking away what does make America great, which is multiculturalism. That’s literally what the country’s built on”, remarked one participant. Another said that he “only got into politics since coming to uni”, reflecting on the range of hopes and fears that inspired him to join the Labour party. Another has moved to London as a stepping stone between her “boring” rural upbringing and her ultimate dream – of moving to California. Striving for a cosmopolitan form of community, disagreements with her parents about Donald Trump had in fact spurned her eagerness to get away. Hence, when catching up last week, she admitted that her plans have been called into question, acknowledging the irony that her imagined sanctuary is now symbolized by the opposite of what she seeks.

Aspects of this year’s political situation have therefore affected the transitions of our participants in a number of ways. However, we have also noted how many reactions have been characterised by negativity, apathy and confusion. Contrary to the general narrative of youth, several participants did vote for Brexit. A lively group conversation last week resulted in tensions and disagreements, involving accusations of ignorance and some leaving the room in exhaustion. To my surprise, they wanted to get “off of” or “away from” politics as a conversation. It seemed that as a group of tightly-knit newly formed friends, it was exposing divisions which were otherwise papered over. This reaction also helped to render visible some of my own ethnocentric biases as an interviewer – just because I have been permeated by “the news” and taken by Giddens’ argument, it would be inappropriate to translate this assumption onto a template for others.

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Interestingly, one participant framed his position in terms of the passing of  Motorhead’s Lemmy (above) – another of this year’s events, albeit a less reported one. Known for his indulgent lifestyle (such as drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels a day), and his slogan “Live Fast, Die Old”, which did indeed take him to 70, Lemmy insisted that Rock n’ Roll is anathema to politics and not the place for it. Adopting the same philosophy, the participant explained, “that’s why Lemmy is my hero and why I have an Ace of Spades tattoo”. He went on: “I can see why people go on about [politics] all the time, but at the end of the day I don’t see the difference between there being a Labour government and a Conservative government. Day to day living I don’t see it as affecting that much”. In a similar vein, this video explains some of the apathy towards Hilary Clinton, and politics in general, in the build up to the US election. And in a year of US-UK sociological parallels, it is important to note that the optimism and enthusiasm behind the Jeremy Corbyn-inspired ‘Momentum’ and Bernie Sanders’ mantra “A Future to Believe in” are not shared by all, or even a majority. It is our task, in the analysis and write up of this research, to portray this subtle range of contrasts and ambiguities.