Neighbourhoods, opportunity structures and occupational aspirations

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Date: Aug. 1996
From: Sociology(Vol. 30, Issue 3)
Publisher: Sage Publications Ltd. (UK)
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,429 words

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Abstract In this paper we use evidence from the Scottish Young People's Surveys to explore some of the ways in which local contexts help to shape young people's subjective orientations towards the labour market. We attempt to move beyond the concept of `opportunity structures' introduced by Roberts by considering the salience of a number of possible components of these structures of opportunity. We argue that young people's occupational aspirations are shaped as part of an interplay between individual inequalities and opportunity contexts and we provide evidence to challenge earlier research which cast doubt on the importance of local contexts. Our research suggests that neighbourhoods have an important impact on male occupational aspirations but that contextual effects have a weaker effect on females.

Key words: occupational aspirations, opportunity structures, neighbourhoods, labour markets, youth transition.


Successful transitions from school to work involve a complex interplay between labour market structures and individual subjectivity. While we can use longitudinal studies of youth to `map' the correlates of successful transitions and processes of exclusion by looking at the likely outcomes of following different routes between school and work (Furlong 1992; Bynner 1991; Furlong and Raffe (1989); Roberts and Parsell 1989; Krahn and Lowe (1988), most researchers accept that subjective processes have a bearing on labour market outcomes. In America, for example, subjective processes have long assumed an important position alongside a number of structural factors in the widely tested Wisconsin model of status attainment (Sewell and Hauser (1993) In the study of youth transitions we have yet to reach this level of complexity and new theoretical advances are dependent on our ability to integrate a greater understanding of the subjective determinants of `success' with a better knowledge of the salient components of opportunity structures. An attempt is made to achieve a greater conceptual integration in this paper through studying the ways in which labour markets affect young people's occupational aspirations. In particular, we wish to highlight the ways in which subjective dimensions of social reproduction are shaped by labour market and neighbourhood contexts as well as by individual and family characteristics.

Our work draws on data from the (1989) Scottish Young People's Survey (SYPS) which is a national ten per cent sample of sixteen-year-olds. It is a well established postal survey with response rates in the region of 80 per cent (for further details see Lamb et al. (1991). By including information from the census and by using other official statistics, we are able to locate individual aspirations within the constraints of local labour markets and neighbourhoods and make an attempt to dissaggregate overlapping influences on young people.

Conceptualising Opportunity Structures

In trying to conceptualise the relationship between labour markets and aspirations, we owe much to the pioneering work of Ken Roberts who developed the idea of opportunity structures in relation to the study of young people's transitions from school to work. Roberts (1968, 1975) was critical of the emphasis placed on aspirations and argued that, because few young people enter the sorts of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A18851914