Aspirations, commitments and the capability to aspire of young Europeans

Heading towards a desirable future: aspirations, commitments and the capability to aspire of young Europeans


This essay focuses on the aspirations of young people, which we take to be a critical drive to their political and social commitments. As reflected in a wealth of social scientific research on educational and occupational aspirations of young people, the formulation of a desirable future is an important step in formal education and one’s preparation to enter the labour market. Yet, aspirations also matter in other spheres of social life. For example, young people may have aspirations that relate to the consumption of goods. The prospect of having a high purchasing power happens to impact school motivation. Additionally, active political participation may reflect the aspirations of some citizens with regards to a desirable future. Nowadays, aiming at achieving happiness is largely regarded as a universal, if not a basic right, applying to anyone, regardless of culture, ethnicity, social class, gender, age or sexual preference. However, young people obviously don’t all have the same aspirations. How do aspirations arise? What do we know about what shapes the aspirations of young Europeans? What makes young people capable of aspiration/what enables the aspiration of young people?

Over the last decades, the aspirations of young people have been extensively explored and measured, especially the educational and occupational aspirations, but not much attention has been paid to the capability of individuals to aspire. Capability could be understood as a synonym of capacity as the ‘ability or power to do something’ (Oxford Dictionary) [1].. To what extent and in what ways are young people able or enabled to aspire? Knowing about individuals’ capability to aspire is critical for fully understanding how aspirations emerge and change over time, and to be able to assess whether or not aspirations can be actively influenced. In this essay, we first explain how we understand aspirations and the capacity to aspire in general. Second, we discuss the impact of circumstances on the formation of aspirations. While we acknowledge the influence of social inequality, we argue that it does not apply homogeneously. We therefore consider three ‘aspirational areas’ that are pertinent to young people: (1) education/occupation, (2) consumption and (3) citizenship/political action. Subsequently, we discuss the malleability of the aspirations of young people from the perspective of the expected move from ‘idealistic aspirations’ to ‘realistic aspirations’. We thereby discuss situations in which young people’s achievements differ from what could have been expected when accounting for their circumstances. 

Aspirations, needs and culture

Aspirations are generally understood as the action of ‘direct[ing] one’s hope or ambitions towards achieving something’ (Oxford Dictionary). Thus, aspiring involves projecting oneself into the future and doing so as an agent (a person that takes an active role or produces a specified effect), rather than as an uncommitted object. Unlike dreams, aspirations have to do with commitments; commitments in the sense of agency, choice and determination of goals.

Over the last few decades, within social sciences, aspirations have mainly triggered the attention of educational and occupational sociologists. In recent research, aspirations are commonly regarded as ‘putative shaping forces for educational, occupational and personal objectives’ (St Clair & Benjamin 2011). ‘Aspirations play an important role in influencing how young people make life choices, how they think and feel about themselves’ (Leavy & Smith 2010; referring to Schaefer & Meece: 2009). Unlike expectations, aspirations are necessarily desirable for the individuals involved. Expectations, in contrast, can be less in line with an ideal future; they tell us more about what individuals (dare to) expect from life (what they can ‘realistically’ expect from life).

Appadurai (2004) posited that aspirations draw upon both ‘needs’ and ‘culture’, the latter providing individuals with values and examples of what is deemed good and/or desirable. In theory, people would become capable of aspiring when they are aware of what is a desirable future, and they become convinced that this is achievable. Obviously, culture is hardly monolithic and presents contradictions. So, how do aspirations crystallise within individuals?

How are aspirations shaped? 

Most sociologists seem to agree that, though aspirations are experienced as personal, they are impacted by social circumstances. Both proximate and distant factors seem to play a role here. The role of certain agents is often highlighted: teachers, parents, peers, media. However, influences of agents can often be contradictory. Given these factors, what do we know about how preferences are shaped?

Drawing upon observations in India, Appadurai (2004) argues that the capacity to aspire is unevenly distributed, with ’the rich and the powerful hav[ing] a more fully developed capacity to aspire than the poor.’ Regarding youth in a European context, we propose that young people’s capacity/capability to aspire is here also heavily impacted by social inequality, and that young people are not equally stimulated to aspire. However, we would like to suggest that the three aspirational areas considered in this essay are impacted differently.

Educational/occupational aspirations: In academic research, the aspirations of young people are usually explored through surveys in which young people are asked about ‘what they want to do when they are older’ (‘one of the most common approaches to capturing aspirations’, according to St Clair and Benjamin 2011). A wealth of published research contrasts ‘idealistic aspirations’ (regardless of what young people expect regarding the future) with ‘realistic aspirations’ (considering what seems possible given circumstances), and observes a move from the former to the latter across the secondary educational careers of adolescents (notably seen in Furlong & Biggart 1999). In Europe at least, it seems that ‘idealistic aspirations’ are hardly impacted by social inequality. Strikingly, occupations such as footballer, pilot and employment in the medical and legal professions are common among the ‘idealistic’ aspirations of young people, ranking far beyond the reality of their actual social networks. Gender matters much more than social class in that respect (Furlong & Biggart 1999). In contrast, aspirations are called ‘realistic’ when the persons involved take the circumstances (read: unequal social conditions) into account. Hence, ‘realistic aspirations’ are by definition affected by social inequality: taking inequalities into account makes them ‘realistic’. St-Clair and Benjamin (2011) interestingly showed that, when asked about what they want to do when they are older, the answers provided by young interviewees rather ‘reflect the expectations and constraints inherent within their setting’ more than ‘free choice of desired outcome’.

Consumption: Social inequality appears to have a much smaller impact with regards to the consumption aspirations of young people. Over the last decades, the consumption of goods – in particular luxury goods – has become highly desirable in all social strata (Deutsch & Theodorou 2010; Freedman & Thornton 1990; Miles 2000; Muggleton 2000; Nairn, Bottomley & Ormrod 2010; Spilková & Radová 2011; Sweeting & Bhaskar 2012). To this end, corporate businesses have been largely investing in media reaching out to young people (TV, social media, and so on). Certain goals such as pecuniary success – allowing consumption – are perhaps not to be seen as universalistic, but are nonetheless uncontested in most parts of Western societies (and overtly presented as highly desirable). Hence pecuniary success is seen as a socially legitimate and respectable aspiration among many Westerners –young people included– and in line with what could be called, according to Robert K. Merton (1938), ‘culturally prescribed goals’. All in all, corporate business works towards similar aspirations of consumption across class, age and gender, and has been very successful in cultivating these aspirations.

Citizenship/political action: Young people have high aspirations regarding their purchasing power, but rather low aspirations regarding political action. Nowadays, the political commitment of young people in general is known to be low, especially among young people affected by difficult circumstances – hence reflecting low levels of positive aspirations regarding democratic life. Pedagogue Micha de Winter sees a threat to democracy in people’s disinterest as well as in frontal attacks on democratic values (2006; 2011). Concerning young people, it might be the case that political aspirations are generally low, but it is of interest to ascertain how the root of low aspirations vary between different groups. For higher educated and economically well-off young people, this might be characterised by taking democracy for granted, as something that does not need their on-going input or efforts (Groot, Goodson & Veugelers 2013). For young people in disadvantaged situations, it might be as De Winter suggests, more the case that democratic values are seen as irrelevant and even dangerous for their daily lives (2006: 19-24). On playgrounds and on street corners of troubled neighbourhoods, and even some schools (Paulle 2013), showing empathy, advancing violence-free solutions, and prioritising public interest over group-values can entail serious social, emotional and physical risks (De Jong 2007; El Hadioui 2011; Venkatesh 2008).[2] If democratic values prove to be vain or threatening, it would not be surprising that young people don’t feel the need to exert what others frame as their political duties. Similarly, it is unsurprising that democratic values don’t fuel political aspirations among young Europeans, unlike they did in the past, or the way they do elsewhere, leading to higher degrees of political participation among youth.

The three aspirational areas considered turn out to be affected by social inequality in distinct ways and to different extents. This helps with understanding why all young people may have similar aspirations, especially consumption aspirations.  In the case of ‘idealistic’ educational/occupational aspirations, social inequality is not (yet) felt too much. However, regarding ‘realistic’ aspirations –with respect to job prospects– social inequality makes a big difference. How then, we ask ourselves, do ‘idealistic’ aspirations turn into ‘realistic’ ones? How does social inequality exactly affect the capability to aspire?

A consideration of consumption aspirations led us to apprehend the active role of corporate business in influencing the aspirations of young people. What about other aspirational areas? Are (professional) adults (or peers) committed to actively influencing the aspirations of young people? What means do they have to make any lasting impact? 

The malleability of aspirations and the capability to aspire

As mentioned, a number of educational sociologists have highlighted a shift from ‘idealistic’ aspirations to somewhat more ‘realistic’ aspirations across adolescence. However, there is still a degree of mystery regarding the processes that lead aspirations to change, probably as a result of the fact that a large share of findings in aspirations research derive from correlations grounded in survey questionnaires and not from ethnographic work that may show the mechanisms of shaping and changing aspirations. Overall, it seems that it is expected that occupational aspirations will just downsize and become more ‘realistic’ over time. What about aspirations that are not genuinely educational or occupational? Do they happen to change over adolescence as well?

Do aspirations also happen to expand? In theory it should be possible, as the capability to aspire partly relies on external factors. According to Nussbaum (2000: 84), the capability to aspire is a capability that ‘develop[s] only with the support from surrounding environment, as when one learns to play with others, to love [and] to exercise political choice’. This implies a critical role for educational agencies. Hence the capability to aspire can expand when factors such as the awareness of what is possible and the conviction that this is achievable expand. In other words, what is considered to be overly ‘idealistic’ at first may become a ‘realistic’ option when opportunities expand, relativising the idea of an ‘objective’ notion of what is ‘idealistic’ or ‘realistic’. If what is ‘realistic’ depends on self-perceived ability, we want to know how those abilities can be shaped and influenced (St Clair & Benjamin 2011: 512). How does awareness of one’s (potential) ability develop? For  example, what about confidence in one’s academic ability (Furlong & Biggart 1999: 33)?

Ethnographic research on disadvantaged young people’s achievements and failures shows how their daily interactions on street corners and playgrounds produce ‘legitimacy’ for some aspirations (that then become perceived as ‘realistic’) while others become ‘impossible’ (in other words: dismissed as ‘idealistic’). The following is an illustration of some of the intricacies of aspirational development, taken from a more elaborate case study belonging to a PhD dissertation of one of the authors (Abdallah forthcoming).

Hicham[3] was a teenager of Moroccan descent who grew up in an Amsterdam neighbourhood that had a mix of some middle-class and mostly working-class residents with a noticeable proportion of poverty and hardship. The different socioeconomic groups seemed to live parallel lives with the more well-off children going to after-school clubs, whereas children from lower-income families spent their free time on the streets and in local youth centres. In some families with multiple male siblings, the older ones were involved in criminal activity, while younger ones, under fourteen, would display initial problematic symptoms such as uncontrollable behavioural and school difficulties. Hicham was the middle sibling of such a family. He was called the ‘village idiot’ (dorpsgek) because of behaviour that others deemed crazy and foolish.

Hicham was enrolled in a lower vocational school (MBO, level two). He was never able to sit still or concentrate for long, and he did not perform well in class. He had the best intentions but hardly found a meaningful connection with his school. He barely had any good examples of how he could communicate in ways that would have a positive effect within an educational institution. His teachers mainly addressed his lack of acknowledging his responsibilities and their rules.

At home, Hicham’s parents’ input was characteristic of a generally observable phenomenon of disadvantaged families. They had vague expectations of their children to “do their best” but lacked awareness or know-how of practical activities that could enable desired achievements, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

Growing up in this neighbourhood, the spectrum of (experienced) possibilities looked different from that of more affluent neighbourhoods. On the streets, one of Hicham’s main concerns – and that of many peers – was what we could call the negative aspiration of getting through the day without being tempted by criminal activity. Positive aspirations – doing things he wanted to do – were of secondary importance. Some of the local young people – especially older than sixteen, when a growing awareness of their choices set in – strategically avoided these street corners and the playground and their negative distractions. It seemed that for years such an option had not occurred to Hicham. The playground, the sports centre and the youth centre were ‘natural’ places for him to spend time. As Hicham grew older, he developed a negative opinion about crime, seeing in his brothers (and their incarceration) what he did not want for himself. Additionally, local criminals did not trust him because of his unpredictable behaviour.

As Hicham got older, he felt that time was against him. “A twenty-year-old should already have his diploma”. Confronted with schoolwork that demanded a long-term and concentrated commitment from him, he began to notice how ill-suited his surroundings were for such commitments. He was not doing well in his pre-bachelor educational track, but he wanted to eventually get a bachelor’s degree. He seemed to lack any long-term discipline, but he wanted to become a sports instructor. He began to reconsider where and how he could advance educationally.

It is difficult to ascertain how his latent and vulnerable aspirations sprouted in a general fatalistic context concerning good prospects for these street corner teens and with a lack of stimulus and encouragement for his specific capacities. In part, this must have come from seeing what some of the more successful peers were doing, the ones who usually avoided the playground. The possible causes for the development of his aspirations over time are somewhat more discernible.

He had good relationships with local youth workers and asked them detailed questions about educational and occupational possibilities and prospects. It was probably of vital importance to the further development of Hicham’s aspirations that these youth workers did not treat him as the ‘village idiot’ but seriously engaged with him and supported him in thinking about his future. They could not rely on any proof of Hicham’s displayed talents but rather encouraged his wish to engage with them and hoped for a hidden potential that would develop afterward.

As a teenager, he seemed to like his reputation for being crazy, because it attracted attention from older peers, even if some of it was negative. In his later years (18-22) he felt it worked against him and looked for ways to escape the constraints of his peers’ negative and limited expectations of him. He asked the youth workers for opportunities to do volunteer work outside his neighbourhood. He also embarked on a rigorous training program in kickboxing, body-building and jogging. He kept this regiment for several years, and his trainer became someone he admired. Over time, this new lifestyle transformed the way he looked, the way he felt and the way others perceived him. He never finished school, but he got jobs as an assistant-bouncer at dance clubs, a fitness instructor at a juvenile detention centre, and he started participating in Mixed Martial Arts contests. These are jobs and positions that Hicham and his peers regard highly because of their allure and their positions of authority. Hicham today still struggles with keeping a steady income, but his work-outs have increased physical and emotional stability and social esteem. People have come to expect more of him, and he can now more openly expect more of himself. Although his physical transformation was an exceptional development, his struggles, thoughts, feelings and (attempts at) achievements are comparable to many young people from neighbourhoods where socioeconomic disadvantages and typical interactions of defeatism prevail. Moreover, the obstacles and dilemmas that Hicham encountered in the Netherlands are comparable to those in other European countries facing increasing levels of social inequality and considerable youth unemployment.

The case of Hicham and his peers tells us a lot regarding aspirations, commitments and the capability to aspire. First of all, for young people living in disruptive environments aspirations can be of a positive or negative order (aspiring to not have to do something they don’t like to do; engaging in crime or senseless schooling/training). At times the fulfilment of negative aspirations is a matter of survival and often does not leave much space for the pursuit of positive aspirations (things they really want to do). This can impact their political attitudes and commitments, as suggested by De Winter. For Hicham, the people who heard his voice and paid attention to him, allowed him to significantly contribute in community efforts such as youth work programmes. This may have prompted the notion that his voice “mattered.”

Furthermore, various interactions at the micro level help individuals discover their aspirations and give rise to commitments that may help aspirations to be fulfilled. Individual influence – either by peers or others – is critical. Youth workers, for instance, can help identify talents and guide young people toward individuals who could eventually be identified as role models.

Even the youth workers did not foresee how Hicham would commit to his aspirations. Hicham’s circumstances and personal characteristics seemed to make meaningful commitments and hence the fulfilment of aspirations vulnerable. In his case, it was all the more critical that his aspirations did not downsize during adolescence but rather expanded. Adhering to ‘idealistic’ aspirations instead of making them ‘realistic’ has proven critical in increasing his well-being.

The impact of experiencing difficulty is worth discussing against the case of Hicham. Interestingly, Bjork & Bjork (2011) explored the role of difficulty in experiencing success and suggested that experienced difficulty could be regarded as an asset in learning situations. Gladwell (2013) has attempted to apply this idea of ‘desired difficulty’ to a wider variety of circumstances than Bjork and Bjork’s learning contexts. Hicham’s reputation of being the ‘village idiot’ could be such an instance. This reputation for years hindered his peers and even some community professionals from taking him seriously. Yet it was this same reputation that drove him to make some drastic decisions, such as leaving the neighbourhood to break free from set patterns of expectations and to try things that his peers deemed unrealistic. We could wonder whether he would have come to such decisions or applied for particular jobs if he had suffered less from his reputation. There were plenty of young people who risked less and achieved less in order to remain normal in their peers’ eyes.

Hicham’s case is also instructive regarding his commitments to his ‘idealistic’ aspirations. It was of vital importance that he was convinced he could achieve his aspirations and that they were worth struggling for.

It seems the combination of his reputation for being ‘crazy’, a healthy dose of dissatisfaction with where he was in life and the positive input of the youth workers and his trainer together helped him nurture and commit to his aspirations, which were quite ‘idealistic’ in the eyes of many of his friends, but were ‘realistic’ for Hicham himself. As said, the circumstances pertaining to Hicham are found in quite a few European cities. Likewise, we presume his attitude towards his aspirations and his capability to aspire are far from unique, but this should be confirmed by complementary empirical research.


The aspirations of young people seem to be impacted by a wide array of factors throughout adolescence that are not merely limited to personal features, place and social status, but also include interactions in which young people happen to be (or not to be) involved. Their commitments are impacted likewise. Some agencies seem to be successful in altering/influencing the aspirations of young people. For instance, teachers guide students to shift their ‘idealistic’ aspirations to ‘realistic’ aspirations so that they are more likely aligned with their educational and occupational achievements. Corporate businesses also substantially impact the consumption aspirations of citizens, including young people. Additionally, in some cases youth workers are able to impact the aspirations of young people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and prompt individuals to nourish and expand their aspirations. But, what about the political aspirations of young citizens? So far, it seems that political participation is low for some young people because democracy is desirable but taken for granted, while for others, democratic values conflict with safety in everyday life. All in all, this suggests low levels of political aspirations among European youth. Is there anybody who is seriously interested in making democratic values desirable enough to strive for? Who cares about the political aspirations of young people, and what can be done about them? Interestingly, Quintelier (2015) discusses political participation of young people and thereby the role of political socialisation agents regarding the political behaviour of young people. She focuses on five categories of agents (parents, peers, schools, voluntary associations and media). To increase our understanding of aspirational development, it would be relevant to research how these agencies are effective in influencing young people’s political aspirations. Of particular interest is if and how they address the desirability and worth of democratic values for youth.


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[1] Although we agree with this general understanding, we also intend to consider the specific meaning of capabilities as ‘opportunities that people have to live a life that they have reason to value’, which invites us to take into account the circumstances in which aspirations are shaped and (possibly) actively altered. As such, a significant part of the conceptual research reported in this article falls under the SocIEtY project (, for which funding was received from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme.

[2] In a slightly different perspective, sociologist Eric Marlière (2008) showed – drawing upon observations in France – young people’s distrust for politics when they feel the way they are poorly treated and/or stigmatised by governmental agencies does not match the proclaimed democratic values. See also Furlong & Cartmel 2007.

[3] Name has been changed.

Evelyne Baillergeau, University of Amsterdam

Jan Willem Duyvendak, University of Amsterdam

Sebastian Abdallah, University of Applied Science of Amsterdam and University of Amsterdam