Introduction: Dream Jobs? Young People’s Aspirations and Global Grammars of Enterprise

We (James Goring, Peter Kelly, Diego Carbajo and Seth Brown) have just published a new paper in the highly ranked, international journal Futures

The article is titled Young People’s Presents and Futures, and the Moral Obligation to be Enterprising and Aspirational in Times of Crisis

In Dream Jobs? Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2020) presents the findings from a survey of over half a million 15-year olds in 79 countries that was conducted alongside the assessment of young people’s ‘reading skills for a digital world’. 

In this survey young people were asked ‘the occupation in which they expect to be working at the age of 30 and their plans for further education after leaving secondary schooling’. In an Introduction to the report, Andreas Schleicher (2020, p.8), the OECD Director for Education and Skills, suggests that young people’s ‘potential to do well’ in an increasingly uncertain, digital future of work, ‘may be compromised by confusion about how education and qualifications are related to jobs and careers. Across OECD countries, one young person in five is negatively misaligned’. This negative misalignment is an indicator that ‘the level of education and qualification’ to which young people aspire: 

is lower than that typically required of their occupational goal. Misaligned youth can expect bumpier transitions into the working world. Again, PISA 2018 shows that it is young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely to show signs of such confusion. (OECD, 2020, p.8)

In the paper we situate an analysis of this report in the development of our concept of global grammars of enterprise (GGE) to analyse the vocabularies and norms that structure contemporary obligations for young people to be ‘enterprising’ and ‘aspirational’ in the context of multiple crises. We (Peter and Diego) have published about this concept previously in the Spanish journal Recerca, and the Sociological Review.

In developing this critical sociological analysis we tell the stories of three young people – Chey Min, Rohan and Marco – from the COVID-19 Recovery Scenarios for Young People in Melbourne’s Inner North project that reveal the complexity of young people’s presents, and the relationships of these presents to young people’s aspirations. 

In telling and analysing these stories, and reproducing Marco’s below, we draw on Arjun Appadurai’s (2004) concept of the capacity to aspire, and Foucault’s (1984) work on the care of the self, to argue that in neoliberal global grammars of enterprise the vocabulary of aspiration can be understood as a means by which young people are encouraged to do particular work on themselves (see here for an earlier blog about these ideas).

In this way, ‘aspiration’ can be understood as a ‘moral disposition’ that young people should develop to the uncertain relationships between presents and futures. Drawing on recent work exploring the relationships between education, aspiration and young people’s affective responses in and to complex neoliberal socio-ecologies, we suggest that in times of multiple crises, young people’s aspirations should be reimagined as a complex and ambivalent mélangé of hopes, despair, anger, optimism, pessimism, wants, and desires that are only partly concerned with their education, training and employment pathways.

Marco’s Story 

Marco, who lived in the Darebin LGA, was 18 years old, and was eager to talk about his interests and hobbies, including volunteering with environmental and social organisations. He graduated from secondary school in 2019, and had, at the start of the pandemic, deferred a university course in Environment and Society. 

It would be appropriate to describe Marco as an activist for a variety of social issues. At that time, Marco was working as a climate campaigner, and was a member of Darebin Council’s Young Citizen’s Jury supporting young people in the LGA. The lockdown changed Marco’s work dramatically as he struggled with moving from face-to-face interactions to working online:

For example, all physical meetings and brainstorming sessions have been replaced by online meetings which has significantly reduced productivity. 

Many projects that I was working on had to be scrapped and completely changed to address new priorities. 

Campaigning online has been particularly difficult.

In ways that reflect more global, pandemic related changes in youth activism, particularly for the climate crisis activism of the Fridays for Future movement, the pandemic and its disruptions had forced Marco to reconsider a number of his priorities, and his aspirations in relation to changing and emerging senses of the future, and the ways that he could do the things that were important to him: 

One of the largest challenges has been changing the way I do everything and to maintain energy and optimism for myself and others in the teams I work and organise with. 

I have learnt from COVID that when society understands the need to rapidly change everything for the better of others we can do what’s needed even if it was once deemed impossible. 

Times like these redefine what is possible.

Marco’s activism also produced a number of frustrations with the inequalities and disadvantage that COVID had amplified, and the ways in which these forms of disadvantage should be, but were not likely to be, central to any road map for what the future held post-COVID:

What would make it easier would be if there was a comprehensive roadmap for how we could come out of COVID. 

To help people it is important that support packages and services are extended and that the financial situations of people are prioritised over the interests of big business.

Am I confident?

One of the key issues that I think businesses and governments and communities need to resolve and address is the disaster of capitalism which we’ve seen in this crisis.

Marco hopes for forms of systemic change that can enable him to do what he really wants to do in the future: 

What I’d like to be doing in 5 years time, would be, working alongside First Nations groups in land restoration and as a social worker. 

However, that would be if there were appropriate climate action taken. Because otherwise I’d see myself as a campaigner and advocate, kind of continuing the work I do at the moment.

Marco views his current involvement in his local youth council as important to setting himself on this trajectory and to develop the skills he thinks he needs. For Marco, these ‘skills’ are different to those identified in dominant educational discourses about enterprise and 21st century skills, and developing these does not necessarily lessen the ambivalence he feels about the uncertain futures he imagines:

The skills and experiences I think I’d need, would be kind of the ones I am already developing through my work in council, with campaigns, with activism – is where I’m going to be getting those skills. 

University might help. A little bit. But not as much as what I am doing at the moment I think. 

I am not very confident about doing those things, or knowing what I am going to be doing in 5 years time, given how rapidly changing everything is

I really just want to be doing what I think I can do best to help others, help the situation, enact change.