The Capacity to Aspire, and the ‘Moral’ Obligation to be Aspirational


I am not saying that the poor cannot wish, want, need, plan, or aspire. But part of poverty is a diminishing of the circumstances in which these practices occur. If the map of aspirations…is seen to consist of a dense combination of nodes and pathways, relative poverty means a smaller number of aspirational nodes and a thinner, weaker sense of the pathways from concrete wants to intermediate contexts to general norms and back again.

(Appadurai 2004, p.69)

Arjun Appadurai is a prominent Indian-American anthropologist and sociologist. One of his most influential essays is titled The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition.

In the essay Appadurai argues that in order to understand the continuation of extreme poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation, and why people who live in these conditions appear – to some commentators, politicians and communities – not to ‘aspire’ for a ‘better life’, then we need to shift focus from the individual and their ‘failings’ – and how we might ‘fix’ their ‘misaligned’ sense of the future.

In addition, we want to suggest that to be ‘aspirational’ can be understood as a ‘moral disposition’ that young people should develop to the possible relationships between their pasts, presents and futures.

In this sense, young people’s aspirations, their ability to be ‘aspirational’, is largely understood in terms of education, training and employment pathways – which are imagined as being more or less ‘linear’, and with some ‘end point’ in mind, where they have become ‘aligned’ with the ‘jobs of the future’ (OECD 2020).

Our aim in this blog is to begin to explore these ideas and how they help us think about the young people’s voices that we present in the video below.

Dream Jobs and the Future of Work?




The future of work, often characterised as being shaped by the 4th Industrial Revolution, has become much more complex and uncertain as a consequence of the pandemic.

Predicting this future of work and its impacts on young people’s education, training and employment pathways is difficult, and is something that we have commented on in a number of posts about: 21st century skills, micro-creds and creative industry pathways for young people post COVIDthe 4th industrial revolution, capitalism and the ‘skills debate’; and a series about ‘rethinking global grammars of enterprise’ as a result of the COVID crisis.

These complexities and difficulties are not new, but have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, just prior to the pandemic the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD (2020) published a report titled Dream Jobs? Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, that is based on the responses of more than 600,000 students from 32 countries, who were asked questions about ‘the occupation in which they expect to be working at the age of 30 and their plans for further education after leaving secondary schooling’. Key findings include:

  • jobs with origins in the 20th century or earlier…are most attractive to young people. It seems that labour market signals are failing to reach young people;
  • Many young people, particularly boys and teenagers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, anticipate pursuing jobs that are at high risk of being automated;
  • Approximately one in three disadvantaged teenagers who perform well on the PISA tests does not expect to pursue tertiary education or work in a profession to which university education is a common gateway. High achievers do not always aim high’.

In Australia, ‘disadvantaged’ young people are more likely to aspire to pursue job and career choices that are of a higher risk of automation than young people of high socio-economic status, and around 27% of high-performing, disadvantaged students surveyed did not expect to complete tertiary education (OECD 2020, p.32).

The OECD (2020, p.6) understands these young people as being ‘negatively misaligned. That is to say, the level of education and qualification to which they aspire is lower than that typically required of their occupational goal’.

Understanding Aspirations

There is a significant amount of research on the ways in which we can understand and explore young people’s sense of their pasts, their presents, and their futures. And the hopes, aspirations, uncertainties and anxieties that shape these understandings that young people develop, and why they develop as they do.

Much of the work that we are interested in has tended to adopt a more ‘critical’ approach to the ways in which young people’s education, training and employment pathways, their hopes and aspirations, their senses of their presents and futures, are understood by organisations such as the OECD.

For example, Garth Stahl (2016, p.663-664) analyses the impact of what he identifies as a ‘raising aspiration’ policy discourse on the identity negotiations of 23 white working class young men from South London.

Stahl argues that these young men are often identified as having low- or no- aspiration, but that a ‘loyalty to self’ and ‘a disposition toward average-ness, ordinariness’, is important for these young men. As he suggests, ‘as long as the discourse of aspiration relies on the proxies of education and occupation, these young men will be defined as having low or modest aspirations’.

In other research, Shane Duggan (2017, p.804) argues that education systems increasingly individualise ‘notions of risk and success’. In seeking to understand the ‘future orientation for young women in the senior year’ of secondary schooling, Duggan argues that we must pay close attention ‘to the stories that people tell about their present conditions’, and ‘their aspirations and hopes for the future’ – to take seriously ‘the broader conditions they face as well as their micro- effects and lived realities’.

We have tried to do this in the video interviews we have conducted with young people in Geelong.

Young People’s Voices

The Capacity to Aspire and the Moral Obligation for Young People to be Aspirational

To be ‘aspirational’ can be understood as a ‘moral disposition’ that young people should develop to relationships between their pasts, presents and futures.

A moral disposition that is accompanied by an obligation to imagine these futures in large part through the framework and ideas of significant ‘others’ – families, adults, teachers, schools, governments, businesses, communities. This is how the OECD concept of being ‘misaligned’ makes sense.

In this sense, young people’s aspirations, their ability to be ‘aspirational’, is largely understood in terms of narrow education, training and employment pathways – which are imagined as being ‘linear’, and with some ‘end point’ in mind, where they have ‘figured it’ out (whatever ‘it’ is!).

In The Capacity to Aspire Appadurai argues that in order to understand the continuation of poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation, we need to shift focus from the individual and their ‘failings’, and to think about the ways in which a person or community’s social, cultural and economic circumstances can produce particular ‘orientations to the future’.

But here is the twist with the capacity to aspire. It is not evenly distributed in any society. It is a sort of meta capacity, and the relatively rich and powerful invariably have a more fully developed capacity to aspire. What does this mean? It means that the better off you are (in terms of power, dignity, and material resources), the more likely you are to be conscious of the links between the more and less immediate objects of aspiration. (Appadurai 2004, pp.68-69)

Drawing on Appadurai’s ideas about the capacity to aspire, and listening to the voices of young people, encourages us to shift our focus from the ‘aspirations’ of individual young people who might be marginalised, disengaged, or from an area of historical disadvantage – and how we might ‘fix’ their misaligned sense of the ‘future of work’.

And to think, instead, about the different resources (economic, social and cultural capital), family contexts and relations, ideas, role models, peers and peer networks, opportunities, intelligences and abilities, bodily abilities and disabilities, and histories that might be at play in shaping the complex and uncertain relationships and contexts in which young people live, imagine who they are, and what they might be and become.

And, as we suggest in the other two blogs in this series, to explore innovative and disruptive ways to to engage young people in the co-design of their own futures.



Appadurai, A., 2004, ‘The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition’, in Rao, V. and Walton, M., (eds.) Culture and Public Action, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, California, pp 59-84.

Stahl, G., 2016, “White working-class male narratives of “loyalty to self’ in discourses of aspiration”. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37 (5), pp 663-683.

Duggan, S., 2017, “Understanding Temporality and Future Orientation for Young Women in the Senior Year.” Discourse, Abingdon, England, 38 (6), pp 795–806.

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