George Osborne might have coined the catchphrase ‘aspiration nation’ in a budget speech earlier this year, but the question of young people’s ‘aspirations’, or more broadly, their hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions and expectations for the future have long been at the centre of social science research projects in the field of youth studies in particular.

At the forthcoming British Educational Research Association conference, 3-5 September 2013, there will be a symposium devoted to just this theme. The session includes presentations from three research projects which offer different perspectives and findings about how young people are navigating the constraints and opportunites they face.

The CelebYouth project focuses – as the name suggests – on the role of celebrity in young people’s aspirations recognizing how these are shaped by both class and gender, and by a context of political discourses and public concerns about the negative impact of celebrity on your people’s aspirations, i.e. that young people just want fame rather than achievement based on hard work and skill. Unsurprising the picture is more complex than that…! This project is led by Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey at Brunel University and Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The ASPIRES project, led by Louise Archer at Kings College London, is specifically about science aspiration and how young people between the ages of 10 and 14 are making educational choices with implications for later career options. The project seeks to understand what factors influence young people’s choices, including peers, parents and schools, and it explores the role gender, class and ethnicity play in shaping these choices.

The Living and Working on Sheppey project, which was recently the focus of a feature article in The Guardian and was discussed on Society Central, explored quite literally the ways in which young people about to leave school imagine their futures, by getting them to write ‘autobiographies’ as if they were towards the end of their lives looking back. This produced fascinating accounts which the project leads – myself and Graham Crow, University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the Blue Town Heritage Centre on the Isle of Sheppey – contrasted with similar material collected by Ray Pahl in 1978. Key findings include a strong shift in gendered expectations including more girls envisaging further and higher education leading to a profession, and a greater convergence between boys’ and girls’ imagined family lives.

See the project websites – links embedded above – for more details!