Coming of age stories : now and then

Text of a talk given to Birkbeck College Department of Literature June 2016

Introduction: the youth question then and now

In this talk I am going to be taking a line of thought for a walk in two directions at once. I will stepping back from the present, to   retrace an argument  about the youth question which I first articulated in the late 1960’s and 70’s  at a time when Mods,Rockers  and Skinheads, Beats and Hippies were highly visible signs  of a deeper  shift in the tectonic plates of the British class  system. The emergence of these youth cultures also signaled the fact that  the  fixed positions of gender and  generation which had hitherto signposted the key stages of growing up as a boy or a girl, were becoming much more fluid and negotiable, though  with a very  different impact  on each side of the class tracks. New codes of masculinity and femininity were becoming  available to middle class adolescents en route to university, whilst  their working class peers in transit from school to work found that  patriarchal values were  becoming  increasingly dysfunctional as the masculinist culture of manual labourism  went into decline and  feminized forms of  service economy took its place.
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I want to go back to that conjuncture, not in order to debunk or deconstruct yet again the mythology of a sixties youth revolution ( let along burden you with my own memories of it), but to consider in what way that moment, and its spectacular forms of dis-orientation comes back to haunt  us  now when the boom years have imploded , and the expectation that the economy will continue to grow year on year, and that life for each generation , whatever the class background, would go on getting better  than its predecessor ,  when that principle of hope was suddenly evaporated for everyone except the super rich and those who had a fast track into the professional salariat. Of course the abrupt  transition from  New Labour and carnival capitalism to austerity politics took place in very different circumstances from the 1960’s when the long post war and its austerity regime collapsed before the onslaught of hip consumer capitalism, but in both conjunctures  the life- historical narratives  that hitherto connected biographical trajectories  to sedimented structures of family, work and community life became de-stabilised.

Just to remind ourselbves , briefly,In the 1960’s and 70’s Britain  was  experiencing the first major wave of de-industrialisation , driven first by Wilson’s white hot technological revolution  and then by Thatcher’s deregulation of the labour and housing markets; it was the beginning of the end for smokestack industries, and also for  life time jobs and  social housing; inevitably this destabilized the  customary  transitions  to adulthood  for those boys and girls who were continuing to grow up working class. Youth training schemes were hastily created to replace the old apprenticeship system although no amount of social and life skills dented structural youth unemployment in the old industrial areas. Sociologists began to talk about frozen, broken, deferred or extended youth transitions. There was also much excited talk of ‘ ‘embourgeoisement’,  of a new generation of working class youth abandoning collective aspirations embedded in strong community and family ties, in favour of more individualistic  pleasures and pursuits,  especially the instant gratifications  offered by commercialized youth culture. The rituals of  courtship played out in the dance hall  and cinema were supposedly being swept aside by the frenzied promiscuities of the coffee bar and disco where going steady meant dating the same person two weeks running . Meanwhile on other side of the tracks the growth of the global knowledge economy and the  expansion of higher education meant that studenthood was becoming stabilized as an extended adolescent moratorium and a  platform of middle class aspiration for many more young people. For the fortunate few who passed their 11 plus, social mobility, the transition from a working class to a middle class life course became a central part of their coming of age story.

From the 1960’s onwards  then the cultural and institutional  links  which connected  growing  up, working and class into something like a coherent and normative narrative were becoming more complicated, more subject to challenge and revision . And  moving forward from the past to the present, ,something very similar is happening today, to what has become known as ‘generation X (of Generation Rent)’, the cohort of young people for whom  the customary markers of maturity – a secure job, a steady relationship, an affordable  place to live have become chimera. Some may look enviously over their shoulders at  what they imagine to be the more stable and accessible opportunity structures enjoyed by their parents, the post war baby boomers, some of whom may indeed have got themselves well paid jobs and pensions in economic sectors still protected by unionization,  or got their feet on  the property  ladder through the sale of their council homes , or benefitted from generous student grants, and moved up a rung or two in the social ladder.  But for Generation Rent, the pathways to these once promised lands are no longer so apparent, the waypoints are no longer stable  co-cordinates of some normative process of development . Once again sociologists are talking about fractured or frozen transitions, of a generation coming up well short of its own expectations, of young people  feeling trapped in the foreclosures of an aspirational discourse which is a  hollow mockery of  the ideals of equal opportunity and social justice that their parents and grandparents  grew up with and took for granted.

So if  I am going back  to the past it is only to be able  the better to  go forward to  examine the present and its bearing on the  future; of course, this shuttling back and forth is what we all do as we continually revise and re-edit our life stories as they unfold in time and place. Unless we really get stuck in a rut, we mostly live our lives forward, though we  tell them in retrospect.  But what happens when  the  future prospect  becomes fraught with uncertainty , when lives begin to  make more hopeful sense as back projections , as attempts to reclaim the way things were once upon a time, when the past seems more full of promise than the future . We are used to thinking of that peculiar reversal as a concomitant of the cultural conservatism of old age, when there is so little to look forward to and a more limited capacity to take on change,  but we do not normally associate it with youth, not even when we imaginatively put old heads on young shoulders.

It is no coincidence that the youth question is posed most acutely in situations where an ancien regime is in its death throes, but a new order has yet to emerge, and it is here that the bildungsroman, the novel of emergence as it has been called,  comes into its own  in depicting that transitional crisis in generational terms, as, for example  in Dostoevski’s The Adolescent, whose young hero comes of  age amidst an acute conflict between the values of old Russia embodied in the Orthodox Church and a modernising Russia open to western influence and ideas.      Today we find ourselves  once more in  what Gramsci called an ‘organic crisis’  , as we find ourselves trapped between a neo-liberal order which is imploding and a neo-conservative agenda which rejects globalizations but  offers no alternative to its many discontents.

The Cultures of Modernity

The main idea I want to explore in this lecture is that when youth is no longer experienced or represented as a normative and unproblematic  transition, then its very transience, in  its adolescent intensity, become congealed , objectified, and not only as a gendered commodity, something you can buy into if you have the right clothes,or listen to the right music,  but as a generic condition of ontological precarity that dramatizes a wider set of public anxieties about the direction of society . My second thesis is that  this anxiety focuses around the issue of modernity and its effects.
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In particular I want to argue that the youth question is posed in the dialectic  between two very different cultures of modernity . In what I call   proto-modernism the past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs  destinies and the unfolding of lives in  historical time.   The capacity to identify and distinguish between progressive and reactionary historical  forces   relies on this  model. ‘Reactionary’ is whatever wishes to restore the status quo ante  associated with an  ancien regime of  privileged entitlement; ‘Progressive’ is whatever wishes to advance towards a more just, enlightened and democratic future. This can yield a Whig interpretation of life history which  optimistically  views  the future as an improvement  on the present  which is itself an improvement on the past. Within this narrative frame youth is always  seen as a progressive force, a  principle of hope which also sustains inter-generational solidarities in struggles of long duration.

The second culture might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved  but as something that has never quite happened, is basically elusive and transient, a moment , not a process , and one that can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit.  Within this chrono-topographic frame  the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments,  split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled,  and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as  catastrophe.   History is de-composed into a series of   fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage. At one level this model  involves a profound  de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it  amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which  decreases in  value over time, and  hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the sociological   imagination, as principles of hope float  free from any real  social  embedding,  encouraging  the projection of, usually dystopian, futures,  and sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture.

Within the culture of retro-modernism   Youth comes to figure as  a site of chaotic synchronicity characterized by an  effervescent churn of stylistic codes, in language, dress, comportment  and musical fashion; at the same time youth is also  eternalized as a site of  profound stasis, a principle of compulsive repetition  of patterns of in/subordination  vis a vis  dominant ideologies of formation relayed  by the educational system, the law and the corporate media. In my view this oscillation between  poles of  chronic  instability  and fixity   increasingly subsumes the more familiar tension between  autonomy and dependence which you find as a characteristic of youth within the framework of proto-modernity.

I am interested in how these two sides of the youth question,  youth  represented as a dynamic and disruptive  force for progress, and as a   principle of effervescent  stasis, struggling to hold on to its frozen  assets, how  that dialectical opposition  is worked through  the coming of age story  as it  in  evolves in the 1960 and 70’s,  at the turn of the century  and today [i].

Even and especially in  the age of social media, with its whirling memes and evanescent identifications, we all need to find little life rafts  to which to attach a sense of direction, the sense of a life unfolding consequentially in place and time, and where, if needs be, we can swim against the tide of history , no longer drowning but waving.  The emergent field of ethno-biography,  the comparative study of different cultures of life story telling has as one its main tasks the discovery , or recovery  these safe anchorages of meaning. I will be concentrating on four key ethno-biographical codes which have this role: apprenticeship, inheritance, vocation and career. Each code throws a symbolic grid of periodisation and predicament over the life cycle, constituting a kind of hidden curriculum   vitae and providing an elementary plot structure for how coming of age stories are constructed and told. In what follows I shall briefly outline the distinctive features of these   codes and then give some examples of how  they  interact  and  are transformed.

From Bildungsroman to  the Modernist Fairy Tale

To give  a sense of the range of stories  we are dealing  I want to start by  considering  two passages from famous  literary coming of age stories, each of them presenting in its own idiom  a defining statement about the nature of the journey it takes us on:

The first quote is from Goethe’s  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship- which is usually regarded as the first or paradigmatic bildungsroman or novel of formation and characterizes its main protagonist in the following terms:

A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils, is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.” ― Johann Wolfgang von GoetheWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  1786
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The story ,which has as many  twists and turns as a soap opera, unfolds   as a succession of vignettes about the predicament of a young man  who is supposed to enter his father’s business   but is in love with an actress and  with the stage.  After being jilted Wilhelm  accepts his father’s suggestion to travel about collecting business debts, and sets out on his adventures , joining a  troupe of travelling actors and acrobats, where he meets Mignon, whom  Victorian commentators used to describe somewhat coyly as a ‘tomboy’  and  whom he takes under his wing. His father dies and Wilhelm inherits enough property to support himself and embark on a theatrical career . He joins a secret society of intellectuals ( the Society of the Tower who are dedicated to the pursuit of Enlightenment)  but Mignon falls ill and eventually dies. Wilhelm meets and marries Natalia,   and with marriage his so called apprenticeship and the story ends.

From the outset of its publication the novel was  interpreted as exploring  the conflict between the ideal of self determination and the imperious demands of society, the sudden rise of great expectations and lost  illusions that the bourgeois world learns to read and to accept as if it were a novel, as Franco Moretti put it in his study of the genre ( ‘Ways of the world’) .  Wilhelm’s strivings  for autonomy, his desire to pursue an artistic  calling  and adopt a bohemian life style  come up against his dependence  on the family business, and he is only able to eventually  pursue a theatrical career because he has come into his inheritance. His apprenticeship  is completed when he embraces both bourgeois morality  (marriage ) and the power of reason. It is by learning to control  his own unruly passions , through a process of what would later be called sublimation, that Wilhelm Meister becomes master of his own destiny; yet his transition from an  adolescent phase of  ‘careering about’ to a professional career,  (i.e.  a step by step progress up a ladder of incremental accreditation  and  status achieved in competition with peers) , that formation  is here subsumed  under the very different developmental logic of vocation, in which  an existential quest for an authentic mode of being in the world is driven by a purely inner directed and more self possessed  form of individualism.

But this is not the only twist to the tale. The transition  to ‘maturity’ is still made conditional on  acceptance of a patrimonial legacy  and hence falls back on the paradigm of   inheritance in which life is unfolded as  a teleology of fixed origins and destiny,  children are treated as so many chips off the old block, and adventures  are conducted by ready made heroes who may change the world, but are never themselves changed in the process.  In this  way  the  classical bildungsroman  contains and magically resolves the tensions between  different ethno-biographic codes which otherwise pull the life and the story in conflicting  directions. In the case of Wilhelm Meister this synthesis  is conducted  under the  rubric of apprenticeship , which is here more metaphor than  model of  actual development; it  has nothing to do with being indentured for seven years  to a master craftsman in loco parentis  to learn a trade  while living under his roof; here  according to the all too predictably oedipal scenario popularized in many a folk tale the young lad will revenge himself on his  oppressive old mentor by  seducing his wife  or daughter. Instead Goethe’s coming of age story produces  the adolescent as a new literary trope within the frame of proto-modernity;  the promise of boundless human progress, ambition  and productivity  represented by Wilhelm  is re-inscribed and contained within the fixed compass of a normative  life cycle  to provide a fragile anchorage of meaning  amidst the sturm und drang of  modernity. The adolescent project is thus framed within a strictly Hegelian dialectic- it is realized only in and through its suppression with the onset of marriage and maturity.

My second example is from one of the great modernist novels of adolescence, Alain Fournier’s ‘The Lost E state’ .The novel  shows what happens to the narrative when the classical bildungsroman can no longer contain the contradictions which brought it into being, when the diachronic orders of  apprenticeship or career can no long mediate between the congenital  fixities of patriarchal inheritance and the elastic  pull of inner callings or drives which lead  the young hero to abandon  any claims to a place in society in favour  of  belonging to an  imagined  community of peers. Instead of depicting coming of age as a developmental process, the modernist narrative pivots around a series of  epiphanies –  discrete and intense  moments of discovery,  of sexuality , loss of innocence , disenchantment with the adult world,  and above all emergent self- invention.

Fournier’s novel  was published in 1913, the year before he died in the trenches of the Western Front. Undoubtedly his premature death has helped to give the book its posthumous reputation; but in any case  its charms are  continually being rediscovered by successive generations of readers who are beguiled by its magical realism, its lyrical evocations of  the  French countryside, its oscillation  between the logic of fairy tale and  boys own adventure story ( Fournier was influenced as much by treasure island and kim as by the French symbolists). This extract gives a flavour of his style:

For the first time, I too am on the road to adventure, . I am looking for something still more mysterious. I’m looking for the passage that they write about in books, the one with the entrance that the prince, weary with travelling, cannot find. This is the one you find at the remotest hour of morning, long after you have forgotten that eleven o’clock is coming, or midday. And suddenly, as you part the branches in the dense undergrowth…you see something like a long, dark avenue leading to a tiny circle of light…But while I am intoxicating myself with these hopes and ideas, I suddenly come out into a clearing which turns out to be nothing more than a field’.

There is not much of a plot. It is the story of a boy finding a mysteriously beautiful house then losing it, and finding a mysteriously beautiful girl and  then losing her.the story is told  by the  15 year old son of the village teacher,  who hero worships   17  YO  ‘Grand meaulnes’  for his superior savoir faire and  this an unrequited love that dare not speak its name  gives . The title refers  both to the house that cannpt be found on any map,  and to  “estate” in the sense of a “passage of life”, which is also evanescent. Like W.H. Hudson, Fournier was haunted by the fear of boyhood coming to an end, and the singular fact is that  with the notable exception of the narrator,  all  of the  main characters, and especially Meaulnes,   refuse to grow up, they live in a dreamland, in which they can enjoy adult pleasures without assuming g adult responsibilities; they play   the great game of seduction, there are two love triangles,  but conclude, when challenged  ‘ we are just children’ .   Meaulnes is re-united with his long lost love, Yvonne, at the end of the book, only to disappear on his wedding night.  Marriage is not closure in this coming of age story but an unconsummated  desire which forecloses any resolution or happy ending.

The theme of arrested development , of youth untethered from the telos of maturity , is an important thematic in the   colonial bildingsroman, as young upper class  Englishmen are sent overseas  to  sow their wild oats amongst the natives  while   young women, carefully chaperoned  search for a suitable husband amongst the imperial batchelor class .  Hannah Arendt had a caustically precise view of  what was entailed:

‘For those who had never been able to outgrow their boyhood ideals , the colonial service was an opportunity to escape a society in which a man had to forget his youth ( and its indiscretions) if he wanted to grow up.A certain petrification of boyhood noblesse  preserved and infantilised western moral standards’  ( quoted in Jed Esty’s  ‘Unseasonable Youth’)

The modernist  novel’s  mis- en -scene of formation as  moment rather than process dramatises  the image of adolescence as  moratorium, as   a theatre for the enactment   of structural irresponsibility. But what happens when  that moratorium is subject to space time compression, when   it shrinks to vanishing point , or rather the nano second it takes to send a selfie around the world , while the affordances of ‘youth culture ’  are stretched   to reach out to both  six and sixty year olds and we are  told that we are all authors of our own lives. Under these conditions how is it possible  to keep little life rafts of meaning afloat which are built by adults but which  young people actually see some point of climbing aboard ? Welcome to the world of Young Adult Fiction.

Young Adult Fiction

Young Adult Fiction was born in  the late  1960’s, grew up  through  the 1980’ and 90’s  and has reached literary maturity    in the last decade. That at least is its own official  coming of age story . It is a case study in the creation of a genre, or perhaps rather the production and marketing of a new brand.The initiative came from publishers who became aware of a burgeoning   teen  consumer culture , teen music, teen movies , teen magazines etc  but no teen fiction as such , bridging the gap between children’s stories and adult literature. The enterprise  was also cheered on by English teachers, who were inspired by a lofty Leavisite mission to impart what David   Holbrook memorably called  in  his book ‘English for maturity’  ‘ the disciplines of the imagination’ ,  to a generation whose staple cultural diet was Marvel Comix, Jackie  and  the Sun newspaper. These teachers were looking for novels that addressed teen issues, were written in teenspeak,  and /or from a teen perspective but were nevertheless imbued with high literary values and could serve as pedagogical  bridge to the appreciation of   more serious  fare – Dostoevski’s The Adolescent , Musil’s Young Torless, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Joyce’s The Portrait of the  artist as a Young Man, Virginia Woolfs  Voyage Out, Dodie Smith’s  ‘I capture the castle’ and Rumer Godden’s  The Greengage Summer,to name only a few.
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The interpretive community that has gathered around Young Adult Fiction has been primarily concerned to create a canon –  not an easy task in a genre whose commercial viability depends on  tapping in to ephemeral youth fashions. But already  a considerable number of instant classics have emerged:      S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Paul Zindel’s the Pigman,  Joyce Carol Oates  Big mouth Ugly girl, Laurie Halse Anderson’s  Speak , Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower  Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War,  Judy Blume’s Forever .

These books address  contemporary social  issues such as cyber bullying , homophobia, date rape, racial prejudice,  family break up, juvenile crime, gangs and street violence, poverty and social exclusions, disability ,anorexia sex abuse, drug abuse . You name a youth problem and there are several YAF novels about it.  Plots  are usually centred around an adolescent  protagonist/narrator who is directly affected by these issues and who deals with them with resilience and  resolution,  refuses to be treated as  a passive victim  and stands up for their rights often against adult authority figures. Many of these coming of age stories echo the triumph over adversity theme  so popular in  contemporary autobiographical novels and memoirs  and their immersive  quality makes it difficult for the reader to get much critical  distance  from the ideological message or ‘line’ being relayed .The reader is expected to identify  with the narrator and regard his or her as a role model.

Young Adult fiction is overwhelmingly written from a progressive, feminist and anti-racist standpoint and is a major disseminator of these values to young people. Minority ethnic, immigrant  and working class young people feature prominently and are invariably portrayed in a positive light . As part of this the explicit exploration of sexuality is not confined to  graphic  descriptions of  its mechanics but  are carefully embedded in   identity politics. The more ‘serious’ writers in this genre complicate  the politically correct coming of age story line with devices imported  from  the literary novel- polyphony, double voice, the unreliable narrator, inter-textuality, meta-fiction , in order to explore issues of ambivalence, multiple selves, intra psychic conflict  and generally move beyond the manichaen universe  of goodies and baddies . Essentially they are attempting to re-invent the bildungsroman in  a post modern idiom.

However it is important to note what is missing from these story lines. Marriage and Profession are not on the  horizon of possibilities. There is a lot of careering about, but career is not a realistic opportunity structure with which the protagonists are dramatically engaged. There is a lot about dating rituals and peer pressure, but courtship ( or even going steady) as a form of sexual apprenticeship is conspicuous   by its absence. Inheritance in its widest sense as a transmission of social, cultural and intellectual capital between the generations,  only appears under a negative sign – through symbolic acts of disinheritance either  by parents or  children, while the notion that biology is destiny ,or blood will out, such a important theme in the Victorian bildungsroman , especially those stories which deal with issues of adoption, illegitimacy and the family romance, is just not in the YAF script. Vocation in contrast is a  very  strong narrative thread, in the form of quests for authenticity and identity ; however the interiority being explored here is structured around largely narcissistic concerns- the creation of an ideal self, rather than the pursuit of an ego ideal , which in the classical novel of formation  usually involves some kind of  heroic  self- sacrifice in the pursuit of some Great Cause.

One of the most interesting YAF novels I have come across is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010) who are both seasoned contributors to  the genre. This coming of age story takes the form of  a dialogue between a gay teenager and his straight alter ego  (also called Will Grayson)  conducted largely  in texting  speak. It deals with the perils and pleasure of  on-line friendships, cyber bullying and sexual identification. At one point  in the dialogue,  the figure of Schrödinger’s cat is introduced  in a discussion about whether it is possible hypothetically to be  both alive and dead at the same time.  The two Will Graysons conclude that all the things we keep hidden in sealed boxes are both alive and dead until we open them  and that it is important to  take risks – if you don’t open the box you will never find out what’s in it. Thats the moral of this particular story.

However the Pandora’s box of  adolescent identity politics may not reveal its secrets  quite so easily because there remains a radical disjuncture between the official maps of growing up and the actually territories of experience which constitute young people’s horizons of possibility. Explore that gap is perhaps  the main raison’d’etre of YAF. One of the characters   tiny, who  is both very large and very gay, and  befriends  both Will Grayson’s  puts it like this ( Gay Will responds):

tiny : there is this word someone once taught me : weltschmerz.its the depression you feel when the world as it is does not line up with the world you think it should be . I live in a  big goddamned weltschmerz ocean, you know? and so do you and so does everyone else. Because everyone thinks it should be possible just to keep falling  and falling forever, to feel the rush of air on your face, as you fall, that air pulling your face into a brilliant goddamned smile.

And i think :no.

Because i have spent my life falling, not the kind tiny’s talking about.he is  talking about love. i’m talking about my kind of falling ,there’s no landing, there’s only hitting the ground. Hard. dead, or wanting to be dead, so the whole time you’re falling it’s the worst feeling in the world because you feel you have no control over it , because you know how it ends.

I’don’t want to fall .all i want to do is stand on solid ground

The trope of falling is undoubtedly  derived from the myth of Icarus,  that cautionary tale about adolescent hubris , in  which youthful   ambition  takes flight and in its extasis  does not heed the father’s interdict , so Icarus    flies too near the sun , the wax on his wings melts and  he plunges to  his death in the indifferent ocean below. How then are we to read Will Grayson’s desire to stand on terra firma, when the world is changing under his feet and everything that was solid is melting into air,  as  Marx  famously described the condition of capitalist modernity. In my view  what we have here  is not just an echo of the familiar  injunction  to ‘stand on your own two feet’  which has become the mantra of  neo-liberal individualism, it is not about the desire for mastery over self and/or others, in order to find ones place in society  which lies at the heart of the classical bildungsroman , nor to cling on to what  you  already have  , in the fragile estate of an adolescent dreamworld;  rather it stands for  an ambition  to discover a sound footing  on which to formulate realistic principle of hope for the future at a time when daring to hope for a better world , a decent place to live ,a secure and satisfying job, and social acceptance   is an increasingly  risky business for many young people ,while for those who do not make it there are no soft landings .As for weltschmerz,, world weariness is usually reserved for those who have been around a long time, and are  sickened by public hypocrisy  ; it  is staple of romantic literature from Jean Paul, who first coined the term,  to Herman Hesse  but here it is updated and given a fresh edge in describing  adolescent disenchantment with  an adult world which has failed to deliver on its promises.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is , of course, a kind of coming out story, and lets remember that the coming out story is   a key instance of the contemporary coming of age story. The disclosure and affirmation of adolescent  gay identity , whether to parents, or friends , has consolidated into a distinctive narrative form , a sub-genre , with its own  special protocols: the emergence from a state of alienation and darkness ( in the closet) to a . , and  is widely broadcast on You Tube and other social media. As such it offers  a rite of passage into the gay community and a supportive platform for the elaboration of a peer to peer pedagogy, a shared way of learning about gay culture. Contrast this with the competitive peer dating cultures of straight teenagers who only have  the school prom  as  major   rite of passage now that so many other milestones have become problematic .

This brings me to the final part of my talk, to look at what is happening to coming of age stories which are  being enacted and told  outside the literary text, in the cultures and everyday lives of working class teenagers who probably do not read Young Adult Fiction , but may draw on  the more condensed and fragmentary versions of the bildungroman to be found in films, pop songs , TV soaps,  autobiographical videos and peer group gossip circulating via social media. Given the coming of age story constitutes a distinctive literary genre, with its own history, its own set of narrative conventions about how to portray adolescence in terms of sexual awakening, relations with parents and peers,  the striving to grasp and/or  challenge  ones place in the world, how, if at all does that self conscious literary project relate to thesee fragmentary, unwritten autobiographical novels and memoirs which we all carry around in our heads and which we may or may not tell as short stories, jokes, or throwaway comments  to our children and  our friends?[ii]

Apprenticeships and Inheritances : the changing terms of growing up working class

In order to properly address this question  we need to take one step back , to put  current  changes in historical  context ;  we have to look at what has been happening to ethno-biographical codes in the long  and uneven transition from industrial fordism to post industrial  capitalism . And I want to focus in particular on the history of apprenticeship in this transition, its uncoupling from the life historical grid of inheritance and its changing relation to the codes of vocation and career since .

Until the advent of  the age of machinofacture  the vast majority of people in western societies learnt to labour through mimetic forms of apprenticeship. In the phase of small workshop production, the implements of labour were often thought of as a kind of prosthetic extension of bodily skill, moulded by the customary usages of handicraft . Co-ordinated actions of hand, ear, and eye were initially privileged over other parts or techniques of the body as the medium of apprenticeship; for the early labour aristocracy skill was a function of this specialised dexterity, embodied in a  patrimony of skill that was in your blood and bones and transmitted mimetically from generation to generation.  Growing up to be skilled always entailed an apprenticeship to this kind of inheritance  which also conveyed a privileged social position as the backbone of the nation.
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Those who laboured primarily with their shoulders, backs, thighs genitals or feet were, in contrast, treated as an inferior, ‘species specific’ type of unskilled worker, almost a ‘race apart’. This distinction, which took on moral as well as economic overtones in the Victorian period was found in many trades and industries. There is the contrast between stevedores and dockers, actresses and prostitutes, the hewers and lumpers of coal. Within the ‘race apart’, the musculatures of labour were transvalued through their masculinisation; only as a vehicle for the assertion of virile forms of strength and endurance, (or ‘hardness’) could these otherwise abject forms of labour be invested with a sense of pride in physical prowess .

In both skilled and unskilled forms, learning to labour thus involved apprenticeship to an inheritance governed by strictly patriarchal rules. The apprenticeships that existed within women’s trades tended to be attenuated versions of the masculine forms. As for the ‘domestic’ apprenticeships served by budding housewives and mothers, here the sexual division of labour assumed its most ‘naturalised’ and emotionally-loaded form .

With the advent of industrialised  production , learning to labour continued to be an apprenticeship to an inheritance. But the terms and functions of that articulation changed. At first the new technologies of mass production were regarded as simply bigger and better hand tools. Mechanised functions were ‘naturalised’ and compared to those of the body especially in its sexual or reproductive capacities.

It is no coincidence that factory workers were called ‘hands’, but already here the relation is less one of ‘natural symbolism ‘ than a calculated metonymy, which will quickly enough become transformed into metaphor.

With the advent of fully fledged Fordism, and the accelerated trade cycle, the customary rhythms of employment in the manual trades became increasingly at odds with the tempo of mass production. Handicraft processes were marginalised and increasingly replaced by semi-skilled repetition work. As this occurred, artisanal techniques become increasingly aestheticised and/or feminised, and given a new lease of life under the sign of vocation. Morris, Ruskin and the arts and crafts movement attempted to create a vision of socialism around a return to this idealised pre-industrial body of manual labour, now reconfigured as a mimetic medium of creative self expression .

Meanwhile in the real world of mass production and consumption, the structures of imitation/emulation which governed the apprenticeships of the ‘old’ labouring body  ossified. and closed around  a culture of resistance to dilution and deskilling.

It is no coincidence that boy labour was concentrated not in manufacturing but in the distribution and servicing trades where it was confined to the lowest paid, least skilled positions. This has less to do with any real qualities or lack of them which young workers may possess, more  to do with customary practice in confining lads to the fetching and carrying of goods, the servicing of clients or customers, or lending a helping hand to the adult worker. Sometimes all three menial tasks were combined in the same job, sometimes there was a progression from one to the other, but the essential point is that boy labour was proto-domestic labour: it was modelled on women’s work in the home. This was underscored by the social relations of the workplace. The new lad was expected to make the tea, run errands, sweep up and generally serve as a skivvy to the older men, whether he was officially ‘mated’ to them or not. He was also subjected to a good deal of teasing, often of a sexual kind, designed to show him up as soft or incompetent in various ways. All this was part of the initiation of the ‘virgin’ worker, something that had to be endured in order to eventually make the grade as a fully fledged ‘workmate’. Normally this would involve the apprentice demonstrating that he was just as ‘hard’ as the older men, and, by extension, emulating their supposed sexual prowess with women.

Sexual apprenticeships in fact complemented the occupational form. In some trades the sexual initiation of the young worker was undertaken by an older woman at work, egged on by her workmates. Usually the women chosen for this task were unmarried and regarded as especially unattractive; certainly many of the initiation rites contained a definite sadistic element. In the second stage however the sexual apprentice gets his own back in exercising his new found mastery of technique over younger, preferably virgin girls (and/or through rituals that feminise younger weaker boys). Finally the sexual improver finds a steady and graduates to the phase of courtship, essentially a form of apprenticeship to marriage and the role of the family wage earner. This tripartite system is summarised in figure 1 below:

Gender Identity Narrative Occupational Identity Narrative
Initiation of virgin
boy by older woman
‘Feminisation’ of virgin worker
‘mated’ to older man
Practice of sexual mastery
over younger girls
Counter display of masculine
‘hardness’ vis-à-vis younger lads
Going steady-courtship
as apprenticeship to marriage
Making the grade as a workmate
amongst the men

Figure One: Traditional Masculine Code Of Apprenticeship: From The Youth Wage To The Family Wage

The linkage between techniques of masculinity and manual labour was thus forged through a radical disavowal of the despised quasi-feminine status assigned to male youth by the generational division of labour and its  homo-social forms. The mimetic forms of apprenticeship are split; one way they point to an imposed and ‘regressive’ identification with women’s work (and the world of childhood) and by the other route, they constitute a no less imposed but ‘progressive’ identification with men’s work (and the world of adulthood) entered through an active repudiation of everything associated with the ‘proto-domestic’. The  split is resolved through a process of more or less ritualised masquerade in which the boy is mated to : an imaginary sexual division is constructed in order to maintain a real generational one, while displacing the terms of an otherwise all too ‘Oedipal’ confrontation between the ‘old hands ‘and the noviciates whom they are training to one day replace them. It is through this mediation ( and its all too concrete practices of humiliation)  that the apprentices’ position of peripheral participation is legitimated within the real community of  homo-social practice in the workplace.
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My argument is that this tension between the codes of apprenticeship and inheritance provides a a narrative template  for a  proletarian version of the classical bildungsroman. In the oral testimonies of young workers and also in some of their written memoirs we can trace the characteristic elements : the struggle for girls to escape the matrilocal  pull of domestic apprenticeships and the great indoors, and create their own public space and time of relative feminine autonomy ; the struggle of boys against an oppressive patrimony of skill  and the counter assertion of  forms of territoriality in which masculine prides of place can be  tested and contested outside the ken and control of elders.

I have already suggested that the process of de-industrialisation  permanently destabilised this culture with very different consequences for boys and girls. The collapse of customary transition routes from school to work meant that   networks  of apprenticeship and inheritance increasingly pulled apart, and became enclosed in their own frames  of self reference. For an emergent precariat ,the links between growing up, working and class not only weakened, they were stretched  between two equally impossible poles of identification: an apprenticeship without  closure, an endless deferral of mastery, cut off from any viable inheritance; Or ,on the other side of the coming of age story,  an inheritance  uncoupled from  apprenticeship hollowed out of any substantive content, and reduced to a bio-politics of  self-referentiality and the narcissism of minor difference.

The mimetic apprenticeships of manual labour did not however entirely wither away. Some elements were subsumed in the form of shadowing, or mentoring, under the new training regimes. At the same time the  material symbols of apprenticeship/inheritance  took on a new lease of life, outside production as a source of vicarious  identification with techniques of mastery over  nature, and the labour process, over self and others,  in a kind of defiant masquerade which camouflaged real absences, losses and lacks ( for example of the father as locus of  really useful knowledge). In this way, some of the more hidden injuries  inflicted by the deskilling/reschooling of labour were neutralised, either by parodying their effect on others, or by projecting an immaculate body image ‘hardened’ by the rigours of manual labour as a new   ego and peer group ideal  entirely disconnected from the back breaking drudgery of  the actual work process.

Through this process of re-embodiment, the productive capacities of disciplined labour are symbolically reclaimed, albeit in a displaced form . In dance, in sport and especially in the more physically punishing kinds of athleticism, the element of degradation in manual labour is transformed into a principle of self gratification. Or to put it another way submission to physical self discipline becomes the  body’s own labour of love.

Especially amongst those who could not gain entry to the new post Fordist work  regimes , certain types of traditional manual work took on a hyper-inflationary value, not so much because of skill or wage level, but because they required or permitted the public display of masculinities which had otherwise become redundant. Certain types – the building worker, the trucker, the rigger, the cowboy, the steel erector, the miner – are repackaged for homeboy consumption. In Country and Western music, in buddy movies, in soft porn magazines and comics, in corporate advertising, in TV serials, their praises are sung, often with strongly homoerotic overtones. A new kind of bildungsroman is condensed in portrayals of these figures, centred on an ever more macho,phallocentric drama of  self-discovery ; they are celebrated for being ruggedly individualistic, and for restoring a  collective sense of  male fraternity and pride, not as a race part, but as the backbone of a nation that fears it has gone soft.

But what about all those working class  boys who reject these ‘ideal types’ of manual labour as sites of masculine identification because they no longer correspond to anyone they could actually become? When apprenticeship is only to and from itself youth ceases to be merely a staging post to  adulthood , and becomes instead  an allegory of arrested development . In this vacuum performative psycho-dramas around the mastery of   quasi ‘feminine’ techniques of impression management and masquerade (and their masculinist disavowal)  take centre stage and provide a narrative template for a  retro-modernist version of the coming of age story   centred on the just- in- time production of the self and the negotiation of peer identities around issues of recognition and respect.

So  how does this shift actually work its way through individual  adolescents coming of age stories?

In the final section I will draw on some of my work with young people growing up in East London , firstly in the 1980’s  in a  project called ‘Leaver’s Believers’  which explored transitions from  school  with a group of early leavers (16 year olds), and secondly from a project fifteen years later with a similar age group on the Isle of Dogs. Both projects used photography, video walk about, art work ,  guided phantasy story making and life journey mapping as a means of exploring coming of age issues.


Conclusion :     

The  life world Generation X Y Z are having to learn  to  find their way about  is one in which there are no fixed or  easily  mappable  co-ordinates , few  readily accessible waypoints, and no internal sat nav to guide them to whatever destination is indicated by their personal dispositions. For many young people the familiar transitions, from school to work, from working class to middle class, from  childhood to adulthood , or from youth to age seem  no longer so attainable  or in some cases even desireable as  they were for their parents and grandparents; in particular the long forced march from the polymorphous perversity of infantile sexuality , through oral, anal and genital erogeny to the promised land of heterosexual coupledom , a trajectory Freud associated with the civilising process and its discontents  seems today more like an ancient folk tale   than a realistic description of any viable process of contemporary formation  . In any case the diachronic orders of apprenticeship and career no longer supply  milestones  or markers of maturity, associated with increments  of skill or status; equally,neither vocation nor inheritance  can provide a viable road map to coming of age .The endless quest for an ideal self  offers no more hope of this than the arrested development entailed in simply following in your parent’s footsteps and assuming their  symbolic legacy.  Meanwhile the quantified self, measuring out  life in coffee spoons, or the number of likes  or followers accumulated on social media is too impoverished to give meaning and direction to a life time. The peculiar burden of representation which youth has to bear today, is to signify  with peculiar intensity a general crisis  experienced  across the  generations. This crisis  turns on the radical disconnect between the institutional scaffolding of  political, economic and cultural life which is in a  state of permanent transformation an flux, and the chronic insecurities  of everyday life which extend from childhood to old age , and trap people in a permanent hiatus between a better past to  which  there is no return and a worse future from which they anyway excluded.

Perhaps it is because so many of the old transitions are in abeyance for so many people  that perhaps  most difficult  transition of all ,  from  a  male to female body, or vice versa has become  so significant, and  created a platform for so much public debate  about the moral anatomy of our society . This is not just about  a new post modern sense of  fluid identity ,  which rejects fixity and  binarisms of every kind ( whether of class, age, ethnicity or  sex); transitioning  has become a quasi- natural symbol for the mismatch so many people feel between  inherited  identities that are ascribed or imposed and  the call of  who and what we feel we really want to become. Transitioning is a transgressive model  of all the transitions we would like but are  unable to make.  If the youth question is an allegory of a split modernity, then ‘trans’ is an allegory of its Other Scene – the other class, other race, other generation, other sex within the self –  whose disavowal makes us strangers to ourselves, and creates  the Great Fear of The Other whose consequences for the body politic we have just seen in the referendum debate.  The only hopeful sign in the otherwise disastrous outcome is that young people  overwhelmingly rejected the various ‘project fears’ on offer, on both sides of the debate  and instead voted for a principle of hope . Perhaps here is a possible  script for a coming of age story in which  exploration of the Unknown once more becomes  central  to the plot .



Classical and Modernist Bildungsroman

Van Goethe Wilhelm Meister : an apprenticeship

Charles Dickens   Great Expectations

Charlotte Bronte  Jane Eyre

Dostoevski  The Adolescent

Rudyard Kipling   Kim

Robert Musil   Young Torless

Franz Wedekind  Spring Awakening

James Joyce  the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Virginia Woolf The Voyage Out

Dodie Smith  I Capture the Castle

Rumer Godden  The Greengage Summer

Alain Fournier  The Lost Estate

J.D.Salinger  Catcher in the Rye

Alberto Moravia  Two Adolescents


Young Adult Fiction

Robert Cormier  The Chocolate War (1985)

Paul Zindel The Pigman and me (1991)

Stephen Chbosky The Perks of being a Wallflower  (1999)

Laurie Halse Anderson  Speak (2001)

S.E. Hinton  The Outsiders (2002)

Joyce Carol Oates  Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (2002)

Judy Blume Forever (2005)

Jonathon Green and David Levithan  Will Grayson,Will Grayson (2010)


Literary  Commentaries

Marthe Roberts  The Origins of the Novel  (1964)

Elizabeth Abel et al ( eds) The Voyage In: fictions of female development (1983)

Mikhail Bakhtin  Speech genres and other late essays (1986)

Franco Moretti  The  Way of the world: the bildungsroman in European Culture  (1987)

Tzvetan Todorov    Genres in discourse (1990)

Roberta Trites  Disturbing the Universe: power and repression in adolescent literature  (2000)

Jed Esty  Unseasonable Youth :modernism, colonialism and the fiction of development (2012)


Youth history, sociology and cultural studies

David Robins and Phil Cohen  Knuckle sandwich: growing up in the working class city (1978)

Paul Willis  Learning to Labour: how working class boys get working class jobs  (1978)

Angie McRobbie and Mica Nava (eds)  Gender and Generation (1982)

Robert Hollands  The LongTransition: class, culture and youth training (1990)

Angie McRobbie   Feminism and Youth Culture:from Jackie to Just Seventeen (1991)

Patrick Ainley   and Helen Rainbird (eds)  Apprenticeship : towards a new paradigm of learning (1992)

August Mitterauer A History of Youth (1994)

Les Back New Ethnicities and   Racisms in Young Lives  (1996)

Phil Cohen Rethinking the Youth Question: education, labour and cultural studies  (1998)

Linda Mac Dowell Redundant Masculinities: employment change and white working class youth (2003)

Gillian Evans  Educational  failure and white working class children in Britain (2006)

Jennifer Silva   Coming Up Short  :working class adulthood in an age of uncertainty (2013)



[i] In puzzling such  conundra I have found the late work of Mikhail Bakhtin and his disciple  Tzvetan Todorov to be most illuminating;  Bakhtin for his concept of chronotope, the tropes of time and place which organize the armature of the narrative , a concept which he used to great effect in developing a historical typology of the novel in his essay on the Bildungsroman;   Todorov for his re-embedding  of discoursive genres not only  in the social and economic relations of their production but in his focus on the existential  structures which they offer to particular speech communities to articulate where they imagine they are coming from and going to.

[ii] This is the starting point for a piece of research I am hoping to carry out and which is both a new departure for me in that it is combining ethnography with methods of literary and narrative analysis,  as well as revisiting old ground in terms of youth culture .  The study I am proposing will  consider, compare and contrast  the coming of age stories of three generations , firstly those of my age , whose formative experiences were in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, secondly  those whose teenage years  spanned the transition from Thatcherism to New Labour, and finally those whose adolescence coincided with the  recession and its aftermath . The people whose stories  I plan to record, will be drawn from families in the East End of London and from an ex-industrial area of Newcastle-on Tyne; their life stories will  thus encompass a rich  variety of experience , of social and geographical mobility , or immobility, of  many ups and downs  or relative stability, of strong bonds of kinship, and friendship, or  social isolation, of active community engagement or withdrawal into private areas  of  fulfillment. Of course  I am interested in how these different patterns of experience relate  to issues of race and class, gender and generation, but this will not be  a sociological study . I am more concerned to create a cartography of  different idioms or genres of life story telling, and more specifically coming of age stories, focusing on their narrative forms or generative grammars , rather than simply doing a thematic or content analysis.