A 2013 report by British research company Britain Thinks showed young people in Britain caught up in a web of systemic inequality backed by an ideology of self-reliance obscuring the systemic nature of inequality.
In other words: Young adults in Britain think that hard work will result in success, even when inequality is actually present.
Generation with High Aspirations
In the summer of 2013, Britain Thinks and Research Bods carried out a series of research activities with young people; including nine focus groups in London, Coventry and Leeds.
These groups included young people aged 14-18 and their parents, as well as an online poll of 679 young people aged 14-16 and 527 parents of teenagers of the same age.
Here is what they found:
70% of young respondents stated that having a job they love is highly important for them.
78% would still work if they could afford not to, and 65% would prefer working to receiving benefits even if it paid less.
67% see setbacks as a chance to prove themselves/work harder.
Valuing work in itself, reluctance to accept handouts and belief that setbacks should be overcome individually, through effort, rather than challenged collectively/politically show young Britons are heavily invested in the concept of the self-made man.
Young respondents have high aspirations- their average expected salary in 10 years (£35,350 p.a) is more than the current median full-time worker income (£21,424); 60% expect to own a home before 35; and all expect to not be unemployed.
Apart from dismantling the myth of a ‘work-shy’ class of people expecting handouts, data may suggest young people are seeing poverty/unemployment as things that happen to others.
Structural Challenges, Individualistic Coping Strategies
The respondents identify structural barriers to achievement (competition, loss of job due to the economy, lack of money, debt) as more likely and harder to overcome than behavioural issues (bad grades, lack of effort, distraction). Nonetheless, 67% of young survey respondents see setbacks as a chance to work harder.
Coping strategies are individualistic/capital-based, rather than solidarity-based: While 48% expect parents to help pay for a first home deposit and only 28% think of being debt-free as a particularly high achievement, 65% would prefer working to benefits even if it paid less.
If young Britons wish to overcome setbacks, it is not by collective action, but rather using both effort and economic/social/cultural capital to advance on an individual level. Young people’s choice of role models reflects this as well: The most admired are primarily successful figures (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, David Beckham for boys, Beyonce, Jessie J, Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato for girls, Alan Sugar for both genders), rather than political (Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi) religious (Jesus, Muhammad) or intellectual role models such as Marie Curie or Albert Einstein.
Gender, Class and Generation: Divides and Similarities
The 22% most optimistic respondents, who mentioned the least setbacks, do not differ in gender, location and ethnicity from the 25% most pessimistic; they are only slightly more likely to be middle class. The two groups value work equally and the self-made man myth influences both: 88% of optimists but also 64% of pessimists state that “I will be able to cope with any barriers.”
Divides are more subtle- the optimists are more likely to be privately educated than the pessimists (15% vs. 4%), while pessimists are likely to not know anyone in their preferred job (59% vs. 33%), to not be able to afford higher education (55% vs. 20%), to expect they would rely on benefits (37% vs. 5%) and to expect that they will experience mental health issues (64% vs. 2%).
In this sense, pessimists appear to be acutely aware of differences in capital and the way they translate into setbacks; but still conceptualise them on a primarily individual level, with a certain degree of self-blame: 74% of pessimists believe their own lack of effort is a setback and 61% say they did not realise the impact their subject choices at age 14 had on their career path.
Life’s Not Fair, But It’s Still Up To You
There could be a relation between young Britons’ expectations and their approach to setbacks: If they see poverty/unemployment as things that could not happen to them, they are unlikely to identify with social justice struggles.
Young people -and the public in general- may or may not feel compassion towards the poor and unemployed, but as far as their expectations remain high and their strategies individualistic, it is much harder for them to feel solidarity.
This could point at across-the-board changes in attitudes, as shown by the 2012 British Social Attitudes report. Compared to the 90’s, Britons nowadays are more likely to believe benefits are too high and that less welfare would teach people to stand on their own two feet. In this light, we can see both high-aspiring teens and their more sceptical parents operating on the assumption that while society isn’t necessarily fair, people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
In this respect, the report data concurs interestingly with research published by TUC in May 2014, based on 2009-2014 data. This research finds that 82% of Britons agree that ‘Children from better off families have many more opportunities‘ or ‘many people are disadvantaged because of their background‘ – yet they see hard work and ambition as more important factors for ‘getting ahead in life‘ than non-meritocratic factors.
While social mobility has failed to increase in the recent decades, a Sutton Trust 2009 poll finds 34% of respondents thinking that social mobility opportunities are greater now than in the past; with YouGov poll in the same year showing that 69% of respondents believed that while opportunities are not equal, “there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to.”
Anyone Can Win – But Not Everyone
In a competition-based social model, theoretically at least, anyone can win – but not everyone. This underlies the overall cultural pervasiveness of the self-made man myth in the British society, which we could sum up as: “structural inequalities need to be overcome by individual, self-bettering means.”
In a model based on outranking your peers rather than changing the game, there will be unavoidable losers. With leading employers receiving 85 applications per job, young people in Britain seem to believe anyone can make it; the neoliberal ideology of self-reliance has no better answer for 84 candidates than “they didn’t really want to” or “they were not good enough.”
In this way, the dominant cultural model of the self-made man within an individualistic self-help culture explains not only young people’s aspirations and attitudes towards work, but also the media stereotype of the “lazy, work-shy millennial” which contradicts the actual data.