Between Background and Belonging: How Space Shapes Identities after Schooling


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).

manc lounge
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.

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