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.

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