Disruption and Crisis, Aspiration, and Hope: COVID-19 and Young People’s Education and Employment Pathways.

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Authors: Peter Kelly & James Goring

Only if you view your situation as critical do you recognise the need to transform it. Dissatisfaction can be a goad to reform. The sanguine, by contrast, are likely to come up with sheerly cosmetic solutions. True hope is needed most when the situation is at its starkest, a state of extremity that optimism is generally loath to acknowledge. (Terry Eagleton (2015) Hope Without Optimism p.5)

The age of COVID-19 does not represent a complete break with a pre-COVID-19 world. Indeed, in a number of posts we have pointed out that COVID-19 enters a world of profound inequalities, injustices, immiseration, violence, racisms, homo-trans-phobias. A world in crisis at the convergence of the 4th Industrial revolution and the Sixth Mass Extinction (blog entries Part I & Part II).

In this world, these worlds, much energy and resources have been expended in looking at and commenting on young people’s aspirations for their futures of education, training, work, relationships, well-being. In much of this commentary young people’s aspirations are often seen as a ‘problem’ that needs fixing. Or, more particularly, some young people from some (disadvantaged) breakdowns need some sort of ‘intervention’ in order to lift their aspirations, to aim higher.

In this sense, we can suggest that what aspiration looks like in many of these contexts, is what aspiration looks like from a ‘middle-class’ perspective’, or from a ‘white’ perspective, or from a ‘male’ perspective. Although, from the outset, we recognise the ‘crass’ nature of that generalisation. But, it is a generalisation that is designed to move away from a sense that when we talk about young people’s ‘aspiration’, then what we are talking about is, or should be, self-evident to everyone!

This post is a bit of a thought experiment which anticipates that in the near and medium futures the ‘problem’ of young people’s aspirations will be central to discussions about their well-being, their education, training and employment trajectories in what is emerging as a COVID-19 recession.

Dream Jobs? The Problem of Young People’s ‘Aspiration’

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Recent education and skills research at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has argued that young people’s ‘misaligned’ aspirations for pathways and careers of the future, are central to the problem of a ‘mismatch between what societies and economies demand and education systems supply’ (OECD 2020, p.3). The report – Dream Jobs? Teenagers Career Aspirations and the Future of Work – draws on the results of an ‘Educational Career Questionnaire’ that was completed by students from 32 countries, alongside the 2018 PISA test. Students were asked questions about ‘the occupation in which they expect to be working at the age of 30 and their plans for further education after leaving secondary schooling’. By comparing results over PISA cycles since 2000, the report traces changes in young people’s attitudes and aspirations for education and work (OECD 2020, p.6). 

The report raises questions about the sorts of jobs that ‘high-achieving’ young people from disadvantaged backgrounds aspire to – particularly when compared to young people from more privileged backgrounds who achieve at the same levels. 

OECD Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher (2020, Foreword, pp. 6-8) summarises some of the key findings:

young people struggle to develop more informed, more nuanced understandings of the labour market and how they might ultimately engage in it.

it is overwhelmingly jobs with origins in the 20th century or earlier that are most attractive to young people. In many ways, it seems that labour market signals are failing to reach young people: accessible, well-paying jobs with a future do not seem to capture the imagination of teenagers. 

Many young people, particularly boys and teenagers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, anticipate pursuing jobs that are at high risk of being automated.

Across OECD countries, approximately one in three disadvantaged teenagers who perform well on the PISA tests does not expect to pursue tertiary education or work in a profession to which university education is a common gateway. High achievers do not always aim high. This is a matter of particular concern because high-performing young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are, on average, nearly four times less likely to hold high aspirations than similarly performing peers from the most privileged social backgrounds.

Section 3 of the report, ‘Job Realism: Are today’s teenagers dreaming of jobs that will still be there in 15 years time?’ and ‘Career Potential: do teenagers’ career expectations reflect their abilities?’, shows that in Australia, ‘disadvantaged young people’ are more likely to aspire to pursue job and career choices that are of a higher risk of automation than young people of high socio-economic status (Australia is close to the OECD average overall). In Australia, around 27% of high-performing, disadvantaged students surveyed did not expect to complete tertiary education. For Schleicher (2020, p.8):

Young people’s potential to do well 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. That is to say, the level of education and qualification to which they 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.

In my (James) PhD research I am working (pre-emptively) in this space, to unsettle education policies that figure young people in terms of disadvantage through discourses of ‘aspiration’. This work seeks to map out more complex understandings of young people’s aspirations, beyond those discourses and processes that individualise blame on young people who don’t, or won’t, or can’t embody the ‘aspiration’ agenda. Rather than address social and systemic causes of disadvantage and inequality, or labour market structures themselves, (Schleicher 2020, p.8) the OECD suggests that it is young people’s ‘understandings of the labour market and how they might ultimately engage in it’ that are the problem that needs fixing. 

Another OECD report from 2019, ‘Trends Shaping the Future of Education’ draws attention to concerns about the ways that environmental crisis is shaping young people’s future orientations. The graph below shows that among PISA survey participants, only approximately 15-20% of young people believe that air pollution, clearing of forests, extinction of plants and animals, water shortages and nuclear waste will improve in the next 20 years.

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In so many respects, our present is marked by a growing awareness that our futures, young people’s futures, have already been used up, consumed, exploited. That the crises that we encounter in our presents both foreshadow more profound crises to come, and foreclose any sense that we can do anything about our probable futures.

This is surely a problem for ‘aspiration’ and ‘hope’. But it is also a problem of so much more.

Living in Limbo

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UNICEF Australia’s (2020) recent report, Living in Limbo, is one of the first instances of seeking to capture what young people are feeling and thinking and imagining – about our presents, and about their futures – as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded.

The report presents data on the ways in which young people’s aspirations, hopes, and anxieties about their personal, education, work futures have shifted/intensified in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. The report also canvasses the burdens that young people are likely to carry in the immediacy of school closures and social isolation in the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the near, medium and longer term futures likely to be characterised by economic recession. 

These range from concerns about the future of the (youth) labour market, disruptions to year 12 study, and about university opportunities.

“It’s kind of scary to think that after this there may not be job security moving forward. [I am] in Year 12 and wondering how HSC is going to pan out, and university offers are going to pan out. And then, there may not even be a workforce to join after all of this.” Female student from regional NSW

The report also highlights the ways in which young people are (little) listened to, understood, and their representation in futures making.

“I personally don’t think we have really had any kind of voice [during the pandemic]. I don’t think we have been depicted as anything. I think we have been depicted more as stats and facts… [we] don’t have any sort of representation.” Female, Perth WA.

“I think the government and everybody who’s older than us forgets that we’re the future… we’re the one who are going to make that change later on. We’re the ones who are gonna continue on this life and change it… I guess we need to have more conversations and really have our voices heard… nobody’s really listening.” Female, Sydney NSW.

For many, there is a sense of despair. 

“This limbo that we’re living in it feels like it’s going to go on for the rest of the year. And I know there were concerns about making year 12s repeat next year…I don’t think I could do it for another year. I don’t have any aspirations at the moment. I just get up and I do what’s asked of me and then email and end my day with a walk. It’s really, really disheartening at the moment. It’s a lot different to the attitude I had at the beginning of the year when we were talking about going to Hobart and doing you know law studies… We’re just missing out too much.” – Female, regional Tasmania.

The problem of young people’s aspirations and disadvantage – paused, (re)shaped, crushed, redirected in the face of COVID-19 and related crises – is possibly also a problem of young people’s despair, outrage and anxiety about the possibilities, the probabilities, the likelihoods of their precarious futures. 

Outrage and Hope in the Age of COVID-19

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In 2019 we published an edited collection titled Young People and the Politics of Outrage and Hope.

In a contribution titled: Neo-Liberal Capitalism and the War on Young People: Growing Up with the Illusion of Choice and the Ambivalence of Freedom, I (Peter) was concerned with examining the obligations that the neoliberal version of capitalism creates for young people to make choices, be resilient, be aspirational – in a world that is increasingly hostile for large numbers of young people.

Terry Eagleton’s (2015) Hope Without Optimism takes elegant aim at the shallowness and naiveté that, he suggests, characterises an optimistic disposition: a Pollyanna-erish orientation to the ambivalence and irony of the human condition that glosses the evidence of human history, as it invests heavily in the promise of human progress. 

In his opening chapter – The Banality of Optimism – a sometimes withering critique of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist provides the means for Eagleton to open up the spaces in which to make explicit distinctions between human capacities for optimism and hope. For Eagleton (2015, 24):

If the past cannot simply be deleted…it is not least because it is a vital constituent of the present. We can progress beyond it, to be sure, but only by means of the capabilities which it has bequeathed us. The habits bred by generations of supremacy and subservience, arrogance and inertia, are not to be unlearned overnight. Instead they constitute…[a] legacy of guilt and debt which contaminates the roots of human creativity, infiltrating the bones and bloodstream of contemporary history and entwining itself with our more enlightened impulses.

Some would argue that a lack of faith in a human capacity for progress, a focus on the history of human irrationality, violence, illusion and myth making, a sense that what is ‘unique about the human animal’ is our capacity to ‘grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience’ (John Gray 2014, 75), appears to leave little room for the human capacity for hope, for love, for kindness, for struggle, for ‘redemption’, for some sort of meaning to human existence, that often emerges so powerfully in the moments and spaces of most despair. But, that is, possibly, a misreading of what Gray and others should provoke us to imagine. As Eagleton (2015, 5) argues:

Only if you view your situation as critical do you recognise the need to transform it. Dissatisfaction can be a goad to reform. The sanguine, by contrast, are likely to come up with sheerly cosmetic solutions. True hope is needed most when the situation is at its starkest, a state of extremity that optimism is generally loath to acknowledge.

The challenge, in terms of young people and a politics of outrage and hope, is to imagine what such a politics would look like if we trouble and unsettle the myth of human progress, the illusion of choice, and the ambivalence of freedom.

In the end, it is this governmental obligation, this moral project of making people responsible for the choices to be made, and the consequences of choices made and not made that needs to be unsettled by claiming that neo-Liberal capitalism is ‘eating its young’, is confounding large numbers of young people as they grow up with the illusion of choice and the ambivalence of freedom.

Resilience. Aspiration. Choice. Freedom. These are key words in contemporary governmental rationalities shaping an array of programs and interventions with young people. It is how these sorts of ideas are joined up to an array of moral projects of government that needs troubling. It is the processes of meaning making, the cultural politics, that form ideas such as these into powerful contemporary myths that come to appear as self-evident common-sense that we need to unsettle.

In a COVID-19 world this politics of outrage and hope will be more important than ever.


By Peter Kelly

I am a Professor of Education at Deakin University.

2 replies on “Disruption and Crisis, Aspiration, and Hope: COVID-19 and Young People’s Education and Employment Pathways.”

[…] There is a whole set of terms that could be added to the ones mentioned here. Among them flexibility, resilience, independence, risk-taking or aspiration stand out as a set of clear subjective imperatives to perform entrepreneurially in all aspects of life (and we have referenced a number of these in earlier blogs, including: Disruption and Crisis, Aspiration, and Hope. […]


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