Sheppey – Isle of aspiration

Photo credit: Ray Pahl courtesy Living and Working on Sheppey

The Chancellor, George Osborne, said this year’s budget would be aimed at creating an ‘aspiration nation.’ But how do young people see their futures, and what do they aspire to? A unique research project asked youngsters to write their own life stories.

Young people chart their futures on the Isle of Sheppey. Read Fran Abrams in today’s Guardian.

Back in 1978 Ray Pahl, a sociologist then based at the University of Kent, asked teachers on the Isle of  Sheppey, off the north Kent coast, to set that year’s school leavers an essay – to imagine their lives as if they were looking back on them, and to describe what had happened.

Thirty years on two more sociologists, one from Kent and one from Edinburgh, have been back to repeat the exercise with today’s teenagers. How did their sense of community fit with their aspirations? And how would they view the prospect of leaving education when their job prospects were slim?

The result is a treasure trove of the opinions, imagined experiences and the dreams of more than 250 young people about to begin their journey into the labour market: 141 from 1978 and 107 from 2010.

Almost co-incidentally, both groups were making this transition amid economic gloom. Sheppey’s naval dockyard closed in 1960 and although other industries replaced it by 1978, unemployment was, then and now, a major issue. The youngsters were clearly aware of the issue of youth unemployment and yet there was a great deal of optimism in their responses.

“Luckily, due to a lot of help from my father I became a clerical assistant in the Civil Service at Chatham dockyard,” one girl wrote.

“My fiance’s parents ran a very successful lorry business and after a short while I went to work as a secretary there,” wrote another.

The 2010 project, carried out by Dr Dawn Lyon from the University of Kent with Professor Graham Crow from the University of Edinburgh, working in collaboration with Jenny Hurkett at the Blue Town Heritage Centre on Sheppey, produced similarly optimistic results. But more of the youngsters aspired to professional jobs and to university.

“I got a job working with my granddad at his work, he was an architect, my dreams of being an architect inspired from him,” one of the boys wrote in 2010. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps to make him and my dad proud. He also inspired me to do well in school. Finally getting through college in product design …. I had all the grades I needed and knew everything I needed to know about architecture.”

The biggest change between the 1978 cohort and their 2010 successors was in the relative aspirations of boys and girls.

In 1978 just three of the 89 boys and not one of the 52 girls who took part mentioned higher education. In the modern cohort, more than a quarter of the boys and almost four out of 10 girls imagined themselves going to university.

“One of my strongest memories is the day we got our exam results. I couldn’t believe it. All A’s. …It meant I could apply to the university – I could become a vet,” one recent female essayist wrote.

Another wanted to study astronomy:

“I want to learn about stars, planets and galaxys.

Train with people with the same aspirations as me.

Feel the wonder of learning, with the realisation of how small we really are.”

A quarter of these recent school-leavers, both male and female, mentioned professional jobs, compared with just four per cent of girls and 11 per cent of boys in 1978.

Pahl reported in 1978 boys seemed to regard work as a grim fact of life – they tended to mention working in skilled trades, while girls talked about clerical or care work.

“My first job was meaningless and obscure…packing crates, that was it. Hundreds of them day after day. Straw, cups straw, saucers, and my hands wept with the sweat of my labours and the offensiveness that surrounded them,” one boy wrote.

One of the 1978 girls viewed a similarly low-skilled job with equanimity:

“I got the job of working in the local supermarket, it only paid £26 a week, but I enjoyed that I was doing, and it was better then being at school or on the dolle (sic),” she wrote.

The 2010 youngsters were much more likely to talk about well-paid, highly qualified jobs, including those that came with a celebrity lifestyle. Eleven per cent of the 2010 boys dreamed of working in sport – something no-one mentioned in 1978 – and several mentioned being in rock bands.

“The highlight of my career was taking a nearly relegated, administration bound, Gillingham up three divisions into the Premier League. This was a project that took my whole career and most of my life,” one boy wrote.

Another imagined touring the world as a pop star: “I was 20 now living the dream I had an amazing band…I had toured the world three times and sold four million records,” he wrote.

Marriage remained a key feature in the lives of most teenagers, yet fewer of the 2010 cohort mentioned it. The proportion of girls who did so fell from 96 per cent to 58 per cent, while the proportion of boys mentioning marriage dropped from 75 per cent to 55 per cent.

And many of the girls who did still mention marriage expected to work as well as bringing up children.

“I achieved my internship in Liverpool Hospital, two years until I was complete,” wrote a girl who dreamed of being a surgeon. “At 40, I was a respected doctor, specialised in paediatrician and surgery, two children and an amazing husband, my life couldn’t be better.”

In 1978, writing in New Society Magazine, Ray Pahl imagined a future which would be increasingly female:

“I think that in areas such as the one I am working in, women will play an increasingly dominant role in employment,” he wrote. “It may be that a high level of unemployment supports the emancipation of working class women and sensitises and softens working class men.”

Both sets of researchers found no shortage of ambition among their subjects. The task for politicians, Dawn Lyon and Graham Crow say, is  to put opportunities in place so that potential can be realised.

The Living and Working on Sheppey project

Ray Pahl’s material is archived at the UK Data Service at the University of Essex.

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