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Blame It On the Aspiration Gap: Creating a Youth Underclass

The Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom released new unemployment figures last week, showing that approximately one million, or one in five, young people are unemployed. This is not a problem restricted to the United Kingdom; it’s a global issue, as evidenced by rising unrest in Spain, Greece, and other regions. Unemployment rates for youth are skyrocketing, even in nations where the overall unemployment rate is staying relatively low. In the UK, where protests against budget cuts in service areas like education and disability have been ongoing for months, these statistics illustrate another phenomenon. It is not just that youth don’t have jobs, it’s that they are beginning to think they won’t ever get jobs.

The Prince’s Trust reports that many of the poorest Britons feel they have no future.

The Princes Trust/RBS Report found that one in four of those from deprived homes (26 per cent) believe that “few” or “none” of their career goals are achievable, because “people like them don’t succeed in life” – compared to just seven per cent of those from affluent families. The research also shows how one in ten young people from the poorest families did not have their own bed when they were growing up. More than a quarter (29 per cent) had few or no books in their home, while one in three were “rarely” or “never” read to by their parents. More than a third (36 per cent) did not have anywhere quiet at home to do their schoolwork, two-fifths did not have a desk and more than a quarter had no access to a computer.

David Cameron blames the situation on ‘opportunity problems,’ arguing that students are leaving school without adequate qualifications, while Martina Milburn, chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, suggests that:

The aspiration gap between the UK’s richest and poorest young people is creating a ‘youth underclass’, who tragically feel they have no future.

This is an interesting framing, and it’s important to examine it because this is included in the official conclusions of the report. Note that Milburn says youth feel they have no future, as though if those silly youth just woke up and smelled the coffee, they’d see how wrong they are. Discussing ways to address rising inequality and poverty among youth, the trust says there’s an ‘aspiration gap.’ This is not the first time the aspiration gap has been blamed for social inequality in the United Kingdom; examining social mobility in 2008, this issue was fingered as the culprit behind the failure to succeed for many youth. Officials suggest interventions like community education and outreach to make youth aware of their opportunities and promote equality.

These suggestions are being made in the face of gross inequality; going to a workshop about how to get to university when you don’t even have a bed, let alone books, has a note of the bizarre, to say the least. And even as officials argue that many youth feel trapped in hopeless situations, government statisticians point out that one effect of continually depressed economic circumstances is the tendency to believe that your situation is hopeless:

Persistently high unemployment “could eventually result in discouragement and permanent withdrawal from the labour force”, especially among younger and less skilled workers. The stark warnings about a permanently higher level of unemployment comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the “club” comprising all the world’s developing economies, including the UK.

Britain is one of a number of countries identified as being at particular risk of seeing the present high levels of youth unemployment – standing at almost 1 million 16 to 24-year-olds – turning permanent. The reason, the OECD said, is that alienation of the workforce and a failure to acquire and keep skills through up-to-date on-the-job training, will mean some people in effect leaving the labour force. (source)

‘Don’t feel hopeless, kids, you have opportunities!’ There is a certain element of bootstrapping here in the suggestions that youth are to blame for feeling hopeless in the current economic climate. They just need to have a more upbeat attitude, you know!

Numerous studies on youth growing up during recessions and economic depressions indicate that a phenomenon known as economic scarring occurs. Put in simple terms, when unemployment is high, fewer opportunities are available, fewer youth attend college, fewer youth attain high level jobs. This has a lifetime impact; people are not joking when they say that current economic conditions could create a new lost generation. Economic impacts are multigenerational. It is very easy to slip into poverty, and much, much harder to claw your way out of it. As more members of the middle classes join the lower classes, opportunities shrink for youth, and they in turn will pass those diminished opportunities down to their own children. Minorities in particular are hard hit by the economy, but even if you focus on conditions for white male college graduates, the long term labour outlook is grim.

This is not about feeling hopeless. This is about a cascading set of social structures that forces you into untenable living circumstances and has a permanent impact not just on your life, but on the lives of your descendants. Simply bucking up and getting more cheerful about the situation is really not going to resolve the problem. Living through a depression or recession as a youth will change the rest of your life. Period. No matter how chipper you are about the jobs outlook, your chance of going to college, your opportunities in terms of eventually attaining a high-paying job in a profession you love.

Sue Dunn discusses the Prince’s Trust report, and what it means for some of the poorest regions of England:

“But we do face a challenge due to the Government’s scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance (EMA).

“We’re worried that pre-16s won’t now be able to access their personal choices because of financial barriers, so that is something we will have to address.”

There are not enough workshops in the world to address this problem. Even as community organisations attempt to intervene with training, workshops, and other tools to close the ‘aspiration gap,’ the government busily hacks and slashes at funding to deny more opportunities to youth. At the same time, the UK is struggling with youth crime and sinks significant resources into crime and punishment. Desperate youth without opportunities and no support network can be forced into criminal activity, and when they do time and leave prison with no support, recidivism rates tend to be high.

This is a deep social problem that cannot easily be resolved. One thing is for certain; putting the blame for the youth underclass on youth themselves is the wrong way to go about it. Young people are not responsible for feeling hopeless in a grim economy that provides few opportunities for them. They are certainly not responsible for feeling worthless in a society that’s constantly cutting the services they need to underscore how little they seem to matter to those in power. Members of the lower classes are not responsible for being trapped in the lower classes. That would be the fault of members of the upper classes who actively work to keep them trapped there.


  1. Thank you for saying this. I’m tired of watching people who don’t understand their own advantages telling those in desperate circumstances that they just have to want it enough and they can achieve their dreams – i.e. that it’s their fault if they’re struggling. I remember seeing a single mother who longed to start her own business but had no childcare options told by a regeneration worker, supposed to be helping her, that if she only believed in herself she would find a way. This kind of magical thinking helps nobody.

    What I have seen help are projects like the excellent Pilton Video, which is based on one of Edinburgh’s poorest estates and enables people there to learn new skills, express themselves, and start seeing themselves in a positive light. Projects developed from the ground level up, giving those who know what it’s like to be poor the opportunity to state what they need and to empower themselves, are what wider society urgently needs to support if we are ever to attain a fairer country.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  2. L wrote:

    Persistently high unemployment “could eventually result in discouragement and permanent withdrawal from the labour force”

    If by “eventually” you mean “within a month of leaving college.”

    I came close to having a full nervous breakdown within a month after I left college and couldn’t get a job. It’s now nine months later and I still can’t get one, I can’t claim jobseeker’s allowance because their requirements and the way they treated me made me very ill (I suffer from anxiety), I have to support my disabled mother, I feel utterly trapped and hopeless and like I’m not being allowed to live.

    I can’t cope with being trapped in this rubbish flat and having no independence and I’ve no hope of it ever changing. I think about how my best option realistically is to kill myself, but after having tried to kill myself once several years ago I don’t think I could ever muster up the courage again. And I know I don’t really want to die – I want to live! But the world won’t let me.

    Will my life ever begin?

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  3. Caitiecat wrote:

    Excellent post – it’s good to see people writing about class issues, as is not uncommon here at TBD. I was very lucky: in 1976, my very poor family left the UK to come to Canada, and though we joined the working class here, the social and financial mobility was much higher then. Before I left high school, we lived in a nice house in the suburbs, I went to a brand-new school, had the support of a gifted education programme, and all kinds of other opportunities which I’d never have accessed, had we stayed. And my kids would have had less yet.

    Now, Canada’s just elected another neoliberal (Harper), with a majority, and we’ll have to face the same “make the rich richer, and cut services only needed by the greedy lazy poor” programme which has so crushed the economies of nation after nation.

    It’s an evil time to be alive, in some ways.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  4. goldengirl wrote:

    Another problem I’ve run into is that in certain fields, and even in generic office work, employers expect you to have done internships during school. Internships that are usually unpaid. If you’re already struggling, you obviously can’t afford to work for free, and then your resume doesn’t look as good as the next person’s, and so on and so on. Unpaid internships are pretty much the worst.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  5. Scarlett wrote:

    L – I know the feeling that you’re feeling (I’m way underemployed and supporting a disabled mother, and because I’m American and our system sucks, NEITHER of us gets any support), but please, please, please do not kill yourself.

    On another note, I honestly believe that the reason that we, the young, are so unemployable is because retirement is no longer a possibility for our parents (and in some cases, grandparents). I mean…I have a degree from an Ivy League college. I am qualified to do any number of things. But can I find a job? No. No, I can’t, because there just AREN’T ANY. Because the ones that exist are all filled by people in their thirties to sixties. My sister works with a lady who’s EIGHTY NINE. And I don’t begrudge her the job, per se, but…twenty years ago, she would have been retired. (I am kind of surprised that she didn’t retire twenty years ago, actually, when she was ALSO old enough to be on Social Security.)

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  6. s.e. smith wrote:

    Scarlett, I’d advise some caution in blaming older members of the workforce for the employment crunch. Yes, older folks are working longer than in the past, but this is often not by choice. My father, for example, qualifies for retirement but cannot actually live on it, so needs to continue to work to support himself because benefits don’t pace cost of living. There’s also been a lot of agitation from the right to raise the retirement age to address the pensions crisis. Poverty among older adults is skyrocketing right now and it’s only getting worse; many of them, too, are on the job market seeking work and can’t get jobs because of ageism and employment discrimination. We’re all in this together.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  7. Scarlett wrote:

    Oh, no, I know! I don’t begrudge the older members of the workforce for still being there – I know perfectly well that it’s not by choice, and that it’s because of pensions being crap now. It wasn’t meant as a criticism for people who are working, just an observation that in previous generations, there were more openings available for the very young, because there was a retirement system in place that was more likely to actually support retirement. I totally understand why most people of so-called retirement age can’t retire.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  8. zar wrote:

    I’m in about the same boat as Scarlett, I think. Ivy league degree (a Master’s!), underemployed for years, part time/temporary work doing data entry, bartending, and other dead-end jobs. I get very, very frustrated with the older generations who always assure me, “Keep trying! It’ll get better.” Like I’m not trying enough or something. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to—I work hard, I got a great degree, I say the right things at job interviews, I put the right things in my cover letter and resume. None of that matters when there just aren’t enough decent jobs to be found.

    It’s especially brutal in academia. Full-time positions are being eliminated and replaced with horrendous, low-paying, part-time adjunct positions. Academia is supposedly a haven of Marxism and leftism, but in my experience it’s just as exploitative as any other industry. It’s getting more and more like a private business. It doesn’t seem like the full-timers (mostly white baby-boomers) care, either. There’s a huge underclass in academia of young, desperate adjuncts with no benefits and no chance at advancement.

    I’m from a privileged background, and I’ve been struggling horribly as it is. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for someone without my advantages.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Lindsay wrote:

    Yup, and that’s why I’m teaching English abroad. I could only find work in retail part-time in the states. For now, it’s enough to live and pay student loans.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  10. Julia wrote:

    The thing that kills me is that this isn’t a new or novel problem, and yet governments insist on continuing shortsighted cuts to education and jobs programs. Even Mark Twain knew it:

    “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog. ~Mark Twain”

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  11. Tawny wrote:

    I really appreciate this post. As a member of our brand new lost generation, I can say that it IS definitely super demoralizing to try to exist these days.

    I was unemployed/underemployed for a year before my friend transitioned to a new job and set me up to replace her. Without her, I would likely still be unemployed. And, even with a BA, I am working for $14/hr.

    We were totally sold out by the upper class and the culture wars, USA-wise. I can only assume it’s similar around the globe based on this and everything else I’ve been hearing from Japan, Spain, and elseplace.

    Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  12. Cat wrote:

    I work at a citizens advice bureux and the number of young people who are get ‘sanctioned’ (when they take your benefits away if you do something wrong) is massive. And they get sanctioned for ridiculous things. Like they give dyslexics written forms to fill in or sanction them for applying to the wrong jobs. Aparently it’s to do with young unemployement targets. I swear our government won’t be happy unless we’re feudal again.

    Since all the levels of benefit are sooo low these people are completely broke until it comes back. Such an unfair system particulary for those under 25 (or 35 now I suppose).

    Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink
  13. Melissa wrote:

    Spending my teen years in crushing poverty, with no health care, has left me with something very like PTSD. The smallest thing can trigger paralyzing panic attacks. If my boss looks at me crooked, my brain shuts down because I’m certain that tomorrow I’ll be homeless again. I break down in tears every time I get sick, because I know in my heart of hearts it will lead to losing my job and my health insurance, and taking me back to where I started. I automatically expect the worst in every situation, because growing up I had no reason to expect anything BUT the worst.I will never be successful, because my brain just doesn’t know how to work that way.

    Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink