Rethinking the Youth Question with C Wright Mills

 Look,mum, it comes down to something pretty simple. If I get a job when I leave school, its gonna be part time-most probably serving some rich kid  fried chicken.I’ve started to see myself like dad. And I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing. Dad does things. When he had a job he did his job. When they took that away, he had to do something else. So he picked up a parcel of drugs and drove it to Epping. When you can’t see an answer it paralyses you. I think I’d rather be like him. FIN  in The Precariat  Chris Dunkley

 All there is with contingent labour is the fleeting present: the anxiety of the whirlpool we call now, running from place to place  Bruno Gulli Earthly Plenitudes

 The Wage don’t fit – Sleaford Mods


There is  a  long history of  representations of youth as either  a period of careering about   before the demands of a professional career and/or  bourgeois domesticity intervene  or as a form of sexual apprenticeship, mastering techniques of seduction and  the craft of courtship, if you happen to be growing up working class-and preferably male. Today neither career nor apprenticeship  provide a coherent  framing narrative of  formation and both have undergone radical transformation in a way that sends mixed and often contradictory life-historical messages. Meanwhile the codes of vocation and inheritance, once marginalised, have made a come back bid albeit in perverse forms dislocated  from their original spiritual  and material meanings.  In Chris Dunkley’s play, the central character, Fin, a budding  NEET,  decides to become a ‘chip off the old block’ and follow in his dad’s footsteps into  contingent  labour within the hidden economy, rather than be paralysed by  an aspirational discourse which has no bearing on his real circumstances and opportunities. He has apprenticed himself voluntarily to a condition of permanent precarity, and as a member of this shadow work force   he embraces his forced  servitude to the whims of the market  as a special vocation, albeit one which  will  probably be registered in the form of  a criminal career.

In this article I am going to be arguing two things: Firstly that  ‘youth’ is no longer a discrete and transient stage of life associated with certain styles of ‘storm and dress’;  it has become either a sign of chronic  precarity shared by  many age groups, or a transferable physical cum existential attribute, desired above all by pre teens who have bought their way into ‘youth culture’ at an early age and  affluent  third agers who have invented their own version of the ‘adolescent moratorium’ as a period of structured irresponsibility.

Secondly, in order to grasp what is now at stake in the youth question and how these stakes  have shifted, we have to take a leaf out of C Wright Mills’ book, and exercise our sociological imaginations.  Mills  defined the sociological imagination  as  “the capacity to shift from one perspective to another…the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two of them.” He did not think that the sociologists of his day were equipped with the suppleness of thought or subtlety of interpretation required to  develop this imaginative faculty, obsessed as they were with quantitative methodologies. And subsequent generations of social scientists, whilst they frequently refer to, and sometimes even defer to, Wright Mill’s mission statement for their discipline, have found it no easier to achieve its goals. Instead the sociological imagination has gravitated to the  visual and performance arts, to the novel and to poetry.

Yet such a  multi-standpoint epistemology,  moving in scope and scale from the abstract to the concrete and back again  is mandatory in regard to the youth question.You are not likely to understand much about what is going on in a recording studio unless your grasp of its technological affordances is as sharp as your ethno-musicology, and your locally situated knowledge of this particular band and its biographical back story is as precise as your sense of its positioning within  the  global market place.

Bruno Latour’s comprehensive critique of the sociological tool kit, with its clunky binaries (macro:micro: :structure:agency) and reified conception of social  causality as a kind of glue binding us together behind our backs, suggests one reason why it has been so difficult to practice what Mills preached. At the same time the ever widening gulf between public and private matters of concern, the collapse or hollowing out of narratives that connected collective and individual aspiration to each other through struggles of long duration, has meant that the general capacity to imagine alternative social structures has greatly diminished and  become largely  confined to utopian or dystopian  literature.

Yet clearly the youth question – the set of issues posed for and by a culture  about how it constructs ‘youth’  discoursively as a specific bio-political category and how this impacts empirically on the lives of those to whom it is applied  –  is a suitable case for the Wright Mills treatment. Here at least biography cannot be divorced from history.

Generation Rent

If the youth question has recently re- emerged as a hot topic around the notion of    ‘generation rent’, this is not just because a particular cohort of young people who had middle class  expectations of secure jobs and housing are finding themselves trapped in various kinds of precarious circumstance ; rather the contemporary youth question  dramatizes the fact that the life- historical paradigms  that hitherto connected biographical trajectories    to historically sedimented structures of family, work and community,   ain’t what they used to be; the principles of periodicity that hitherto defined and regulated  existential predicaments associated with adolescence  have become as unstable for middle class children as they have long been for their working class peers.  ‘Generation Rent’ may turn out not  to be merely an ethno-demographic construct,  a way of attributing political and/or cultural meaning to a specific population, but an element of psycho-geography, defining a certain form of   liminality in which states of transient or conjunctural precarity  associated with glamourised forms of risk taking  become chronic and take on structural and site specific connotations. Generation Rent  serves as a generic term for the denizens of urban edgelands thrown up by the impact of globalisation on local housing and labour markets making hopes of   life time dwelling and jobs for life  redundant.

So are we talking here about a new kind of ‘youth subculture’,one  which embraces NEETS and wannabe Hipsters in a common idiom linked to socially expressive but highly  individualistic  forms of ‘venture capitalism’  ?  If by ‘subculture’ is meant certain shared codes of dress, music, talk, feeling, belief and life style  which evolve in response to marginalisation, and where the dominant narratives of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity  are subverted  through a play of symbolic  substitutions to create a halo of ‘deviance’ or insubordination, then the answer is decidedly  no.  We might,for instance, talk about gay subculture, or rather subcultures, organised around certain styles of sexual preference and their various ways of queerying  the gender codes of straight (que patriarchal) society. Equally we might  hail ‘Chavs’ as the worthy successors of skinheads,(not least in their demonization) and recognise  Emo Boys as Post modern mods. The point about subcultures  as sites of self identification is that they advertise, celebrate and fetishise their difference, and indeed often pursue what Freud called  a ‘narcissism of minor difference’  while  their forms of insubordination remaining  dependant  on their  ‘parent’ cultures as their primary reference point even as they proclaim their autonomy from it. It is only when they become politicised, as happened with gay subcultures in the context of the AIDS crisis, when they leave their real or imagined stylistic ghettoes to engage with  the wider body politic, that they become fully fledged counter-cultures,  cultures which challenge the hegemony of the dominant codes – in this example of heterosexism.

‘Generation rent’ is not a counter-culture in this sense. It has a different genealogy. It began  as a rallying point in the campaign against austerity politics and quickly became a major referent in public debates around housing.  It raises issues of civic entitlement, structural inequality, contingent labour and what one generation owes to or can demand from another. But more fundamentally I think the term’s resonance  addresses  the changing status and meaning of adolescence as a distinctive mode of ontological precarity  within  a life course whose signposts have been radically altered. The fact is the maps of growing up relayed by all those institutions charged with so doing  no longer correspond  to the territories that young people actually occupy. This is not just a matter of broken or deferred transitions from family or school, to full time work and independent living, or the  changing balance of economic  power between different generations. Rather it is a question about how ‘generation’ as such, is lived as a retro-prospective  construct, as both an imagined community in the making and as an invented tradition. Or to put it another way the youth question is no longer about their  elder’s  concerns  about  what young people’s prospects and what they  get up to, but  dramatises  a  wider crisis of representation in the life course  which in different ways affects all ages across much of  the  class spectrum in the era of  late capitalist modernity.

Nothing is more symptomatic of this shift than the fate of the  ‘youth wage’. A wage form which used to apply to 14-18 year olds, trapping them in blind alley jobs, and was supposed to cover their subsistence needs on the premise that they continued to live at home and were subsidised by the family wage paid to the (male) head of household,  has lost its age specificity along with its patriarchal anchorage; today the principle  is not only applied to latter day apprentices, trainees  and interns but  is generalised to most categories of insecure, casual low paid work concentrated in the hidden, pop up and secondary economies.  While ‘youth’ remains relatively fixed as a legal category of dis/qualification, its sociological oscillation between a state of chronic precocity ( 12 year old school kids who are too sexy for their ipads)  and chronic precarity associated with the transition from voluntary  to forced  contingent labour   means that its boundaries are inherently unstable. ‘Youth’  is not so much a stage in the life cycle, as a stage upon which its crisis of representation is performed. But before we can get that shift into perspective we need to tell some of its back story.


Youth as an angel of history

It was Marx who first drew our attention to the dialectic of generations in which biography and history intersect. In the Grundrisse  he wrote  :

History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of   which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed    down to it by all the proceeding generations. And this, on the one hand,   continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances, and    on the other modifies the old circumstances with completely changed activity    (Marx, 1985).

Marx, typically, dialecticises the notions of tradition and modernity, without abandoning their anchorage in the idea that each generation possess a kind of collective biography that gives it  historical individuality.  Tradition is here regarded as a kind of inheritance or legacy  handed down  from one generation to the next but  it is also, according to Marx, an apprenticeship to the past interrupted by history itself. From this optic, a generation is a special kind of imagined community based on inventing shared traditions linked to formative experiences associated with a particular life/historical conjuncture – 1968, or 1989, for example. It is a retrospective construct even though those who identify themselves in this way may see it in entirely prospective terms.  And because each so called ‘generation’ is engaged in creating its own traditions to mark its  advent as a  historical subject, it tends to ignore or reject the invented traditions of its predecessors. There are no ‘generational cycles’ in  history. And perhaps we need to emphasise that    ‘generation’  in itself is primarily an ideological or ethno-demographic l construct which only in very special circumstances becomes  a    social or economic  force.  When people belonging to particular  age  cohorts  speak and act   as if they represent a generation for  and to itself,  this is  usually in order to create  a platform from which to mobilise  a  form  of  quasi-oedipal  politics directed  against particular power blocs, especially where these are associated with the exercise of patriarchal authority

 However this does not tell us anything about the relation between ‘youth’ and modernity as such. The discovery of adolescence as a distinctive stage of the life cycle is intimately bound up with its association with modernity and the shock of the new. The notion starts by being firmly located within the romantic movement, and its cult of  ‘sturm und drang ‘. What was so stormy about adolescence, and so stressful for the parents of adolescents, was the fact that it marked a hiatus between the position of the child considered as an object of legal, moral and pedagogic surveillance, and that of the adult, considered as a fully enfranchised citizen of the state, with all the rights and responsibilities that flowed from it. Into that gap were concentrated all those aspects of human behaviour that could neither be rationalized or sentimentalized in the then current schemas of scientific and popular  discourse – first and foremost of course, sexuality. Adolescence as a privileged  site  for the discovery and enactment of desire  was important to the Romantics in defining the essential human capacity to transcend mundane existence and experience the sublime. In the bildungsroman, from Goethe ‘s Wilhelm Meister onwards the adolescent is portrayed as having a heightened awareness of the passionate and hence tragic condition of human existence  and as embarked on an adventure in search of . The very  prototype of the existential hero.

At the same time,, adolescence was reconfigured within an enlightenment framework as being a force for progress set against the  ‘dead hand of tradition ‘. It was this association which connected youth movements to the process of  nation building, and to revolutionary movements, especially in Germany, Russia and the Balkans,movements that  sought to overthrow the ‘ancien regime’  of Feudal absolutism or foreign despotis. It was the power of young people to sublimate their passions in the pursuit of ideals of political freedom, social justice or national liberation, embodied in a democratic state, that made them seem such a powerful force for the rejuvenation of these old societies.

Adolescence was thus produced at the intersection of the romantic and rationalist projects, and fused together elements of ethnic and civic nationalism in a more or less combustible mix. Adolescence was constructed as a unique nexus of contradiction, oscillating between recapitulation and rupture, the static and the volatile,  between what was fleeting and eternal, between the alienation of the individual and the compulsive solidarities of the group. This was the problematic  which Walter Benjamin so eloquently addressed in his early writings in which he rejected the then dominant  culture of  bourgeois careerism.   He is concerned to  repudiate history- as- legacy, the notion that we are all apprenticed to an inheritance not of our own choosing, whether one associated with biological or economic  destiny.  Even in his late teens  he  is beginning to grapple with the  problematic  of modernity which  is to issue in his famous characterisation of the angel of history :

”His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Benjamin is here writing a coda to Marx’s meditation on the  fact that each new generation makes its own   history  ‘under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past and not of its own choosing’. Marx continues :

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language’’.

It was through this process of borrowing or bricolage  and through a peculiar mixture of mimesis and masquerade, that the youth cultures emerging in Britain towards the end of  the long  post war used and transformed   the idioms of the past in order to imagine a future in which there would be no war, except perhaps between the generations. It was a way of both misrecognising the fact that the war as a totalising experience marking a whole generation with its traumatic afterblows,  was finally over, and  of reconstituting out of whatever fragmentary materials lay to hand a  magical  sense of  belonging to a self invented moment of re-making-history- as-  modernity. Whether it was a marriage between the Edwardian gentleman and the spiv, or between  the boots and braces of the erstwhile proletarian and the shaven heads of concentration camp inmates,  these fragile iconographies made implicit claims on  modernity while  looking back  over their shoulder at the past.

In this context  the  Beat and Hippy  cultures of the mid to late Sixties makes for interesting reading, or rather re-reading. Were they genuine revolutionary  youth movements aiming to overthrow  capitalism and patriarchy  as some of their political protagonists procalimed ? Were they counter cultures  centred on the elaboration of alternative life styles ? Or were they subcultures  in transition  performing  the rites of graduation  from   adolescent  revolt to social rebellion with or without a cause? Or were they all three?

For the rationalists, mainly Marxists, the so called 60’s ‘youth revolution’  is a cautionary tale. It marks a historical turning point in which  the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial  working class auto-destructs,  the onward march of labour is permanently  halted well this side of the new Jerusalem  and  capitalism goes  cultural – or rather subcultural-  as well as global, and becomes hip.  The  youth revolution, creates a platform for disseminating  the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism  and makes  possessive  individualism – doing your own thing  – sexy,  addictive and above all cool.  Sex and drugs and rock n roll  may not exactly be the devils work, but they promote the  dispositions of creative self invention, underpinned by a whole  culture  of narcissism that post fordism, and the just in time production of the self requires. Playing  it cool becomes the motto  of a whole ‘post’ generation, post modernist, post Marxist,post feminist, post human.

The other, romantic,  reading, which is mainly from anarchists  and the libertarian left sees 60’s counter culture as a great disseminator of a popular  anti-authoritarian politics, a  generational  revolt  against  the patriarchal structures  of the family and the bureaucratic structures of the state,  and as such embarked on the quest for new and more direct democratic forms of self organisation. It is also about  an aesthetic revolt  against the  dead weight of  elite bourgeois  literary and artistic canons and tastes. A rejection then of   party  politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new feminism, gay liberation,  anti racism, the environmentalist movement,  community activism and do it yourself urbanism.  As such it prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti capitalist movements of more recent years.

Each reading tends to privilege some aspects over others as symptomatic.  Sometimes  opposed but complimentary interpretations are  given to the same thing. This ambivalence not only illustrates the intersection of  romantic and rationalist views of youth, but reflects the fact that capitalism’s sub/cultural turn  simultaneously undermines  and  renews  its  trajectories of growth. And it  bears on two very different versions of modernity


Why Mods have never been modern

  In  his letter from prison  to his wife dated 19 December 1929  Antonio Gramsci wrote “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusion and without  becoming disillusioned. I am a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will’. Today Gramsci’s famous formula, which was such a mantra for the New Left in the heady days of the 1960’s and 70’s ‘youth revolution’ has been reversed. The widespread disillusionment with modernity-as- historical -progress   has produced the illusion that it is possible to reinvent the sociological  imagination without it being embedded in social praxis. Optimism of the intellect  becomes institutionalised in the knowledge economy in the  form of  blue sky thinking. Capitalism  has thrown up its own cultural avant garde who push at the boundaries of the real and continually create  alternative   worlds populated by people who never grow old and whose lives are one long adventure of self invention.  The sociological Imagination has come to power under the sign of the Commodity and the Consumer fest.  At the same time pessimism of the will becomes enshrined as a precautionary principle of the risk society with its penchant  for generating worst case scenarios. Precarity becomes normative under the sign of  the Youth Spectacle.

Youth cultures have provided a major resource and reference point for this move, yielding  a florid phenomenology of neo-tribalism  that can be relentlessly tracked through social media and ‘glocal’  music scenes  like rap or hip hop, before gaining a soft landing in post coded intersections  of the  network society, not to mention the dance floor. At the same time  the youth question generates  a no less exotic   assemblage of  cautionary tales     whose categories   do not cease to multiply, providing ever more fuel for media orchestrated moral panics .

 All this has had a major impact  on our relation to modernity, or rather  two versions of it. The first might be called  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  chronotope which ultimately derives from the Enlightenment. ‘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 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 – and especially youth movements,  are seen as a progressive force, challenging the dead hand of tradition.

In  academic circles this model of modernity  is pretty much discredited although it  is very much alive in popular historiography  and autobiography where it sustains collective  aspirations and social movements of every kind. It helps builds intellectual, social and cultural capital, and anchors it in place in specific lieux de memoire, including those little archives of souvenir objects, images and texts which are  collected as building blocks of autobiographies that will never be written. Under  favourable circumstances this narrative does help build the internal resources of resilience needed to sustain struggles of long duration, where  defeats can be regarded as only temporary  setbacks, blips in the onward march to a better future.

The second model  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 unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a series of discrete,discontinuous moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, 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, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments. At one level this chrono-topography 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  embedding,  encouraging  the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, or sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture.   Retro-modernism  is the preferred paradigm of  youth subcultures.

Retro-modernists are great hoarders of objects and memories. Their do-it-yourself archives, on and off line, create  nostalgic evocations of lost  worlds of modernity that can always be recycled. In the midst of this flux of images and events,  it is no longer necessary or possible to identify progressive or reactionary forces, since everything is hybridised,  at one and the same time a creative and destructive force.  Contradiction is  sublimated in a facile pseudo-dialectics in which everything is  both itself and its opposite.  This   was precisely what  Schumpeter  regarded as a general principle of capitalism’s development. But this is no cause for celebration.  What Schumpeter did not anticipate was that this  dynamism, this apparently frictionless acceleration of productivity associated with turbo charged capitalism would engender not only  boundless enthusiasm for its boundless possibilities for transforming the world, but a pervasive sense of helplessness and therefore hopelessness amongst large sections of the population, including those who are its supposed beneficiaries[i].  The current epidemic of clinical depression is symptomatic; it affects  both the official success stories who are nightly wracked by the fear of failure, and the losers who daydream of becoming winners by hook or by crook; both  are  suckered into the same vacuous rhetoric of individual aspirationalism in which neither realistic principles of hope nor rational defences against despair are available. Now that everyone is supposed to be the author of their own lives, we  are being lured into  a cruel optimism  which fans the flames  of  promise,  especially amongst the young, only to extinguish them at the first breath of reality. This is the generalised ontological condition of the new precariat.

Walter Benjamin was the first to realise that the working class movement  necessarily has an ambivalent attitude to modernity. His  Angel of History attempts a dialectical synthesis of  proto and retro modernisms.  Modernisation of the labour process has meant deskilling, and the technological displacement of living labour by dead labour, and as such, it has been consistently opposed  by  the organised working class. Modernity here simply spells redundancy. But working class communities and their associated youth cultures  have also been enthusiastic consumers of modernity; adults  want all mod cons in their homes, even if they dislike the brutal cut- price modernism that shaped so many post war housing estates. The young people who  live on these estates want the latest smart phones so that they feel plugged in to  the ‘network society’, even if they remain socially immobilised  and rarely  leave their immediate neighbourhood.

It could be argued that popular culture  oscillates between proto and retro modernist positions. There is a pervasive nostalgia for a once-upon-a- time progressive  modernity-that-never-was. And this attitude has  especial resonance in popular music. Just listen to the Who, the Small Faces, Ray Davies and the Kinks, not to mention the Jam and the many other bands that have featured in various Mod revivals.  Even the Sleaford Mods, whose  in your face lyrics give voice to the anger of the young precariat, cannot resist evoking the Mods and Rocker riots of the 1960’s as the source of their authenticity.   The original  Mods grab at  modernity was symbolised by the way they customised their scooters, turning them from affordances of  high tech  designer chic into mobile displays of  retro-kitsch by the simple device of embellishing    them with so  many  mirrors and chrome fittings,  RAF roundels, union jacks and other heraldic  devices of a bygone age.  The Mod scooter becomes a kind of obsolescent Cadillac on two wheels, its sleek functionalist  aesthetic submerged under extravagant ornamentation. Modernism goes Baroque.


 The Youth Question Comes of Age

In  advanced  societies life stories no longer conform  to a single ‘ideal type’; they are  both more individualized, more fragmented and more internally complicated   than when their narrative paradigms were transmitted primarily by the family, and its extensions into the moral economy of  the local community in the early days of capitalism. Globalisation far from imposing some homogeneous cultural norm of identity formation  has simply amplified the relays of difference. Differences of age,gender,ethnicity and class are no longer hierarchized in stable formats of inequality, but interact within a more or less chaotic synchronicity, opening up  a space for the subcultural imagination  to weave its magical displacements.

Life-historical messages  are  nowadays  distributed  by a whole array of secular   agencies and media, not solely by  religious or moral authorities. For example the role models so vigorously promoted by  sports and youth  organizations  link  moral and physical education  to the dominant ideology of individual aspiration and competitive achievement. Meantime  the advertising and creative industries penetrate the most intimate reaches of autobiography    and ceaselessly re-invent the avatars of the ideal consumer self.  In contrast the officially  authorised narratives of the life course remain highly conservative. For example, the state not only authenticates the socially climactic moments of births marriages and deaths, it  not only throws a grid of legal markers of im/maturity over the life cycle, and polices their observance, but, far more fundamentally, it constructs for each citizen the framework of an individualised curriculum vitae. Every institution that is passed through in the course of a life, hospital, primary school, secondary school, youth centre, medical centre, employment, social security etc, records our presence, and its presence is in turn recorded in our CV. These institutions  furnish essential references, mapped out in terms of some kind of incremental life course or career  and, without them we officially cease to exist. Today patients, delinquents, the mentally ill all have pseudo careers of this kind.  The extent to which these institutional co-ordinates are internalised, and become effective self -referential  models,  may vary. But no-one should underestimate how far these statutory story lines  have come to construct  social identities, least of all for those who have passed through    prison, or  mental hospital, immigration control or children’s home.

This example indicates that not all life course paradigms  are equal. Some are  institutionalised,and dominant,while  others are marginalised or have a restricted, sometimes subcultural, affiliation. So to pose a question that C Wright Mills would undoubtedly have asked:  how can we relate the social distribution of  these narrative  frames  to the historical individualities  of life story  tellers ? Where can we look for the crucial link between the developmental ideals which furnish  normative or stereotypical versions  of the life course, including ‘youth’ and a more  hidden curriculum vitae  shaped by history’s ‘other scene’?

In my research I have identified four such connective frameworks: vocation  career, inheritance and apprenticeship. Their  origin and development can be correlated with specific historical conjunctures. For example the rise to prominence of the  ‘public man’ and the professional middle classes in  late Victorian society was linked to the establishment of ‘career’ as a dominant paradigm, while vocation was marginalized and increasingly confined to certain  feminine, intellectual or artistic pursuits. The history of these codes  is  thus bound up with concrete  social developments, but it is not reducible to them. The grammars of apprenticeship and inheritance, for example, have taken on a life of their own  quite apart from  their origins in the   indentured labour  form, or the transmission of material assets and  wealth.

The grid   of inheritance  originally evolved within a moral economy governed by patriarchal authority. The life cycle is  unfolded as a more or less congenital link between fixed origins and destinies. You can only become what you always and already are, by virtue of the special patrimony which has been entailed in your life, from the moment of conception onwards. Within this framework  every part of the child’s body or behaviour may be recognised  as the  signifier of some ancestral virtue,or vice. Baptismal naming fixes identity.  This  closed  reproduction of fixed positions may become racialised, or  alternatively  serve to shore up the boundaries of ethnic identities  under attack. But in order to accomplish this latter task the code has to be effectively transmitted to the up and coming generation. In other words it has to be articulated to particular cultural forms of apprenticeship in which life is unfolded as so many stages in the mastery of a patrimony of  skill.

Today old heads are no longer so easily placed  proverbially  on young shoulders and even young fogeys tend to deny that they are chips off the old block. Growing up working class no longer  means being apprenticed at an early age to an inheritance of  trade or domestic skill passed on from parents or elders in the workplace and community. You may be told you have your mother’s good looks or your father’s  sense of humour, your uncle’s  gift for drawing or your grandfather’s brains  but   what now counts is how  the dispositions  of  intellectual, cultural  and social capital  are entailed  in practices  of learning, both physical and mental,   mediated  through the apparatus of  extended  scholarisation. Yet as we saw in the opening quote, for those who are having to grow up working class  without work, and without a language of class to articulate their experience, the code of  inheritance  can provide a sense of life historical continuity and identity. At the same time ,on the other side of the class tracks,  its material basis in the transfer of assets  not only continues to over-determine life chances, but achieves even higher salience with the financialisation of the property market. Waiting for long living parents to die so the children can inherit their property, and hence be able to afford to buy a place of their own before they retire,  has re-animated the whole psycho-drama of dis/inheritance  which was such a staple plot ingredient for Victorian novelists in a more Patriarchal age ,  albeit   now recast in a more narcissistic  pre or post oedipal idiom associated with the rhetorics of ‘generation rent’.

Apprenticeship, although it scarcely exists in its traditional indentured form, except in a few highly specialised  crafts, has also had a vigorous afterlife. Uncoupled from inheritance, it offers a  generic model of peer to peer transmission within informal communities of practice both inside and outside the workplace.  In the contemporary  service economy  we find a whole array of coaches, trainers  and  mentors, who have mastered  not only specialised work  skills  linked to the just- in-time production of  peak performance but the values and attitudes of mind and body that go with them. The apprenticeships they offer to their various mimetic disciplines involve forms of living  labour  which have been abstracted  from  specific workplace cultures and communities and  rendered transferable,  often being formally subsumed or translated into the middle class idioms of vocation or career. You can trace this happening In the contemporary formation of young artists and athletes from working class background, not least in the aspirational  memoirs  they write about their struggles to succeed.

The codes of vocation and career have undergone a similar convoluted process of transformation. Under the imprimaturs of the  original vocation  code  the self is the bearer of a calling which may be moral, spiritual or social in type, but whose  existential imperatives direct the child to cultivate particular gifts, often of an artistic kind, and attune development to a variety of aesthetic pursuits. In this model the adolescent search for identity  becomes  paradigmatic of the whole life cycle. Not surprisingly many of the great novels of adolescence (eg Alain Fourniers Le Grand Meaulnes) are premised on this grammar  constructing  the adolescent as a hero of  romantic individualism. This model is privileged   in various humanistic  and existential psychologies and today it has been re-calibrated to  give a glamorous  halo  to the precarious conditions  of the free lancer and  portfolio worker.

In contrast the grid  of career offers a much more utilitarian, though no less individualistic reading of the life cycle. Here life is unfolded as so many steps up a ladder of progress, marked at each stage by increments of skill or status, or some other measurable index of personal achievement. The child is pitted competitively against its peers and its progress, from the first steps to the first words, and  later from the first date to the first qualifications are made the subject of more or less ruthless monitoring and evaluation. At the limit the contingencies of a life history are reduced to the predictabilities of a  business  plan, which is  made to unfold according to a rigid timetable of developmental norms:  the baby should be doing X at 6 months, feeling Y at three years, relating in this way at adolescence, and in that way at 40.Developmental psychologies have helped to make   career  the authorised version of the life course in western societies. Although a career remains the referential model to which we are all supposed to aspire,  in reality  its  performativity is confined to  the children of  a diminishing elite, often privately educated, who enter the liberal professions. Careers are not  quite what they used to be. They now subsume internships, portfolio working, and other forms of pseudo apprenticeship. The orderly incremental progression has  been replaced by intermittent and erratic forms of self promotion. Career  is once more approximating to its original sense  of ‘careering about’.

One reason why these grammars have continued to expand their remit  is that they furnish an alternative to empty homogeneous clock time, the  time of capital, with its simple opposition between free time and labour time as a way of representing concrete duration. Clock  time  may organise a lot of everyday life, but it is too impoverished to give meaning, purpose and direction to a life time. Equally the bureaucratic routines which construct our official CVs,  provide us with an abstract legal identity  from which every vestige of lived experience has been drained. Measuring out one’s life in coffee spoons, in TS Eliot’s memorable  phrase, or in the diurnal rhythms of the journey from home to work and back again, or in washing nappies, is a recipe for alienation.

The four codes make use of other kinds of time to give a sense of duration and endurance to the lives whose histories they help shape. Within the apprenticeship/inheritance frame the cyclical time of generation and the seasons can be used to rework the irreversible time of biological aging to punctuate family time into sequential phases or transitions. Within the vocation/career couplet the reversible time of biography and popular memory can be used to plunder historical events  for special leitmotifs of meaning (e.g. the shared biographies of the 60’generation).In its strongest form, each code  throws  a normative grid of periodisation and predicament over the life cycle,  mapping out key moments and rituals of transition, establishing gender specific markers of im/maturity, and   editing the syntax of experience accordingly. The grammars,  when totalized, not only define  certain developmental ideals, but the dispositions that have to be acquired to realize them. But  as their normative strength weakens so  their forms of articulation  becomes ever more variegated and difficult to decode. Retro-modernity flourishes under the sign of inheritance regained or the quest for lost vocation, while apprenticeship marries up with career  to re-invent the notion of modernity as progress.

However  there are many sources of tension between the life historical messages conveyed by these codes. The inward search of vocation  grates up against the competitive other-directed demands of career. The single minded pursuit of your Muse is not likely to land you a secure, well paid academic job. Equally  someone who is driven to climb the academic ladder because for them recognition is dependent of certain incremental norms of productivity,(publish or perish)may find they have less and less to say. The tension between the genderings of  career and inheritance may be no less intense. For example in aspirant families of my father’s generation, it was customary for one child, typically the eldest boy, to be encouraged towards an onwards and upwards  social  trajectory quite different from the fixed destiny ascribed to his sister. Equally the dynamics of apprenticeship, as long  as they remained confined with structures  of patriarchal authority routinely involved more or less ritualized forms of  quasi-oedipal  conflict between apprentices and masters centred on issues of inheritance. Within this frame, jobs and the patrimony of social capital entailed in them,  were held in trust by one generation of workers for the next. Once sons could no longer follow fathers and girls, mothers, into  the same occupational culture and community, other life journeys became imaginable.   Many of these tensions came to a head at adolescence and much of the emotional  labour  of traditional adolescence in fact consisted in learning to decode, differentiate and if possible reconcile  competing  life story lines.

Today, I have suggested, this task is no longer specific to ‘youth’ but  informs every life historical conjuncture. One of the reasons for the exponential growth  in memoir writing and reading is that people from all ’walks of life’ are seeking road maps to show them  how to  steer their way through a maze of conflicting signposts; they hope to find embedded in these retrospective narratives the prospective principles of a ‘life worth telling’.  And one reason for the current popularity of ‘triumph over adversity’ life stories is that they articulate elements from all four codes into a single aspirational mash up. Unlike the rags to riches story which simply proclaimed the victory of personal ambition ( whether coded as vocation or career) over quasi-biological destiny, contemporary  memoirs specialize in the assertion that that all forms of adversity, whether inherited or acquired, all obstacles to the achievement of a calling or set backs to a career,  whether externally imposed or self willed, are to be welcomed as spurs to the ultimate achievement  of personal success.

I have argued that the Youth Question has come of age because it is no longer a question about what a particular cohort of  young people think, feel or believe about themselves or the world in which they live. It is about  what they are made to represent by what is projected on to them by virtue of the position that ‘youth’ occupies  as a contradictory site of hyper-valorisation and disqualification  in different forms of  late capitalist modernity. As such it has become a potential space for the sociological imagination to gain some purchase, especially, but not only,  amongst ‘generation rent’; but  equally, I have insisted,  this space is continually at risk of being  foreclosed by its more or less spectacular recuperation.   Against this background we need to argue for  a new life course politics, not to return to one-size- fits- all cradle to grave welfarism, but to re-assert the value of apprenticeship and career as  biographical trajectories    embedded in   structures  of collective  aspiration open to all. But this is only half of the story. We also need   to re-align  the codes of inheritance and vocation within a moral economy that is no longer beholden to notions of race or gender, or the espousal of a superior, interiorised authenticity.

As a sign of these new times, consider the history of the 7 Up TV programme. The original series  followed the real life adventures of a cohort of children born in 1950 drawn from very different social backgrounds in Britain. Every seven years  it has provided an update of what was happening  to them and much of the popularity of the series has come from the fascination of following the existential  trajectories of such a disparate group. The  series offers a peculiar kind of generational soap opera thinly disguised as a longitudinal  study. In terms of its social analysis the framework  is premised on  methodological individualism – we are supposed to read off from the unfolding of these personal  life stories the ‘DNA’ of  the social structure and its reproduction, as just so many  ‘signs of the times’. The films imply a principle of  causality that could be termed  ‘life historicism’ – the connecting thread between these retro-prospections, issued at arbitrary seven  year intervals, is an explicit teleology; each episode is prefaced with the reiteration of the Jesuitical proverb: ‘give me a child for the first seven   years and I will give you the man’. In fact much of popular fascination with the series  comes not only from the fact that its audience grows older with the ‘cast’,  but in seeing  just how unpredictably some of these lives turn out. Clearly in some of these cases there is a hidden life script that is  subverting the official  curriculum vitae.

There is now a second series featuring children born at the millennium and what is interesting here, apart from the obvious fact that the ‘sample’  represents a very different demographic, is the relative absence of the pseudo-sociological  scaffolding that was such a marked  element in the original programmes. Most of the protagonists seem to be   assiduously pursuing more or less reflexive projects without much awareness they’re part of a bigger human endeavour. Now that the yoke of life- historicism has been lifted from their shoulders they are free to  embody the idea that they are  authors of their own lives. Yet to make the series work, in the sense of engaging its audience in an ongoing narrative  unfolding, episodically, over a long period of time, the films have to elicit from the viewer an act of sociological imagination which they refuse to provide. Wright Mills would  not have missed the opportunity to draw the conclusion that biography and history are never more entangled than when they appear to be  radically apart.



Further Reading

Readers who want to explore further some of the issues discussed in this chapter might like to consult the following references. They are listed in the  sequential order of  the argument.



C Wright Mills  The Sociological Imagination OUP 1959

John Scott and Ann Nilsen C Wright Mills and the sociological imagination:contemporary perspectives Edward Elgar 2013

Bruno Latour  Re- assembling the Social OUP 2005

Amy L Best (ed)  Representing youth :methodological issues in critical youth studies New York University Press 2007

Shane Blackman Subculture Theory  in Deviant Behaviour 35:6  2014

Dick Hebdige Hiding in the Light:on images and things Routledge 1987

Angela McRobbie  Feminism and Youth Culture Macmillan 2000

Pat Ainley and Phil Cohen ‘ In the Country of the Blind’in Journal of Youth Research 2000

Owen Jones  Chavs:the demonization of the working class  Verso 2011

Bruno Gulli  Earthly Plenitudes A study of sovereignty and labour Temple University Press 2010


 Generation Rent

Chris Dunkley  The precariat New South Books 2013 

Guy Standing The precariat : a new dangerous class Bloomsbury Academic 2014

Andy Furling ‘The making of the precariat’ in J Kelly and A Kamp Critical Youth Studies Brill 2014

Loic Wacquant  Urban outcasts :a comparative sociology of advanced marginality Polity 2008

Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang  Youth resistance research and theories of change Taylor and Francis 2014

Bruno  Gulli  Labour of Fire:the ontology of labour between economy and culture temple University Press 2015

Phil Cohen  ‘The Centre will not hold’  Soundings August 2015 

Claire Coatman et al  Regeneration Lawence and Wishart 2012


 Youth as an angel of history

Karl Marx The 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoleon 1985

Walter Benjamin Early Writings 1910-1917 Harvard University Press 2011

Michael  Mitterauer A History of Youth Blackwell 1992

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

Franco Moretti The Way of the World : the Bildungsroman in European Culture Verso 1987


Why Mods have never been Modern 

Marshall Berman  All that is solid melts into air :the experience of modernity Simon and Schuster 1982

Bruno Latour   We have never been Modern Harvester Wheatcheaf 1993

Zygmunt Bauman  Liquid Modernity Polity Press 2000

Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert Reclaim Modernity :Beyond markets and machines Compass 2015

Phil Cohen  Material Dreams :maps and territories in the un/making of modernity Palgrave Macmillan 2016 

Phil Cohen ‘ Mods and Shockers’   in Andy Bennett et al  (eds) Researching  Youth Macmillan 2003

Johann Fornas and Goran Bolin  Youth Culture in  Late Modernity Sage 1995 

Dick Pountain and David Robins Cool rules:anatomy of an attitude  Reaktion 2000

Thomas Frank The Conquest of the cool:business culture,counter culture and the rise of hip consumerism University of Chicago Press 1997

Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism Duke University Press 2011

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello  The New Spirit of Capitalism Verso 2005

Richard Sennett  The culture of the new capitalism Yale University Press 2006

Richard Weight  Mod! A very British style Bodley Head 2013


 The Youth Question Comes of Age 

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

Tamara Hareven Transitions :the family and life course in historical perspective Academic Press 1978

Phil Cohen ‘The Perversions of Inheritance’ in Cohen and Bains (eds)MultiRacist Britain Macmillan 1989

Phil Cohen ‘Against the New Vocationalism’ in  Bates et al  Schooling for the Dole  Macmillan 1987

EP Thompson ‘The grid of inheritance’  in Jack Goody(ed) The Family and inheritance  Cambridge UP 1979

Charlie Walker  From Inheritance to individuation : disembedding working class youth transitions in post Soviet Russia  Journal of Youth studies Vol 12 No 5 2009

Robert Halpern The means to grow up:reinventing apprenticeship as a developmental support in adolescence.London Routledge 2009

Pat Ainley  and Helen Rainbird :Apprenticeship: towards a new paradigm of learning Kogan Page 1999

Jean Lave Apprenticeship in critical ethnographic practice University of Chicago Press 2011

Max Weber   The Vocation lectures  Hackett Press 2004

Paul Marshall  A kind of life imposed on man : vocation and social order  University of Toronto Press 1996

William Reader Professional Men : the rise of the professional classes in 19th century England Weidenfield and Nicholson 1966



This text is to appear as a chapter in ‘Subcultural Imagination: Theory, Research and Reflexivity in Contemporary Youth Cultures’ edited by Shane Blackman and Michelle Kempson  to be published by Taylor and Francis in 2016