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Brunel research challenges political preconceptions of young people's aspirations


Current and former Prime Ministers’ comments fail to recognise youth commitment and dedication, according to a recent research report entitled ‘The Role of Celebrity in Young People’s Aspirations’.

148 young people took part in the project, a collaboration between Dr Heather Mendick and Dr Laura Harvey at Brunel University, London, and Dr Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University. It examined the attitudes of young people to celebrity, looking particularly at whether or not success, for celebrities and others, had been earned through hard work.

This question was at the centre of the recent media debate on young people’s aspirations, sparked by comments from Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister John Major on ‘the lack of social mobility within UK society’.  

In a blog post this week, Brunel’s Laura Harvey showed that the research project’s findings challenge the assumptions made by both politicians. She writes: “Both have argued that what is needed to promote social mobility is for young people to work harder and have higher aspirations. As with so much government rhetoric, they paint a picture of UK youth simply not aiming high enough. Young people’s voices, as ever, have been missing from these recent pronouncements.”

She continues; “Our interviews with young people aged 14-17 show the varied and hopeful nature of their dreams for the future.  All of the young people we interviewed were studying at state schools across England. Contrary to popular and policy discourse, many of the young people from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds who took part in our research were heavily invested in notions of hard work and meritocracy.”

However, Harvey emphasises that the research also points to key messages underlying the debate: “Our research also shows the consequences of the message from these politicians that UK society is a meritocracy in which hard work pays – where sheer ‘graft’ is all that is needed to ‘get on’ and ‘move up’. In a climate of economic austerity when there are not enough jobs to go around, talk of hard work and high aspirations places a huge burden on individuals and families to overcome these problems. The story of a meritocratic society encourages young people to blame themselves when they face obstacles to achieving their dreams.”

Read the full blog post online

The Role of Celebrity in Young People’s Classed and Gendered Aspirations Research project (CelebYouth)  is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council between September 2012 and April 2014. You can follow the project @CelebYouthUK on Twitter and CelebYouthUK on Facebook.