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The Making of Unequal Graduate Lives

What are the challenges for the current generation of graduate millennials? The role of universities and the changing nature of the graduate labour market are constantly in the news, but less is known about the experiences of those going through it.

This new book traces the transition to the graduate labour market of a cohort of middle-class and working-class young people who were tracked through seven years of their undergraduate and post-graduation lives.

Using personal stories and voices, the book provides fascinating insights into the group’s experience of graduate employment and how their life-course transitions are shaped by their social backgrounds and education. Critically evaluating current government and university policies, it shows the attitudes and values of this generation towards their hopes and aspirations on employment, political attitudes and cultural practices.

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This chapter provides an introduction to the book. It considers dominant framings of graduate ‘success’, how this is viewed and measured by multiple higher education actors, and what is missing from broader conceptualizations and measurements of graduate progression. We lay out the context within which young people progressed from university to graduate lives in the 2010s through a broad overview of graduate outcomes within the context of the higher education policy landscape in the UK. We unpack ideas around social mobility and the role of higher education in supporting government mobility goals, drawing links to graduates’ own dreams and aspirations, as well as the reality of the labour market. The chapter then gives an overview of the theoretical approach to the analysis in this book, outlining the Bourdieusian concept of social magic, Berlant’s concept of ‘cruel optimism’ and Tholen’s concept of symbolic closure, all of which are utilized and developed in the chapters that follow. The chapter ends with a summary of the chapters in the book.

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The final chapter of the book draws together the overall contribution of the research in a discussion focused on rethinking constructions of graduate success. In particular, the chapter draws out the significance of the material and the symbolic in graduate employment, and highlights the importance to graduates in our study of not only making a living, but also making a life. The chapter brings together the theoretical tools we have used to open up a conversation about re-imagining constructions of graduate success. We end with a reflection on doing longitudinal qualitative inquiry.

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This chapter takes as its focus London and its role in the reproduction of inequality through the perpetuation of discourses that problematically conflate social and geographical mobility. While London is widely recognized as a hub for elite graduate recruiters, particularly in respect to jobs in finance, law and information technology, and a place that has seen a disproportionate growth in professional and managerial positions in comparison to the rest of Great Britain, it requires the mobilization of elite forms of social, cultural and economic capital. Moreover, moving to, or living in, London is seen as an obvious next step for graduates with high aspirations, without any recognition of the privilege required to facilitate such aspirations and opportunities for mobility. This chapter explores these issues by considering how proximity and access to London itself operates as a form of capital but that this is not enough to ensure success. We highlight the importance of embodied forms of cultural capital that are recognized as cosmopolitanism and argue that through processes of social magic these bodily displays read as competence in what Cunningham and Savage have termed the ‘elite metropolitan vortex’.

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This chapter provides an overview of the project design and an explanation of the methods that were employed. It provides demographic details about the participants, including social class, university attended and gender. The chapter discusses measures of social class, the limitations of definitions of gender and the operationalization of the concepts of ‘race’ and ethnicity. This includes a discussion of whiteness and an acknowledgement of the racially skewed nature of the sample. The chapter ends with an outline of the methodological approach.

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This chapter considers the working of gender in male-dominated fields and the ways in which this plays out for men and women on the graduate labour market, focusing on the field of engineering. The chapter draws on Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence to expose embodied gendered experiences of the workplace that delegitimize women’s position and value. Contrasting narratives of two successful graduates from the University of Bristol, one male and one female, are used to show how stocks of relevant and valued capitals are not sufficient to make a career in engineering, where the working of gender means that men are able to readily fit in and progress, while women are out-of-place invaders in a male-dominated space. The chapter shows the ways in which forms of (white, middle-class, masculine) embodied cultural capital can be more readily converted in a field that has been constructed to recognize its value.

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This chapter explores the significance of ‘home’ for graduate mobility. It considers the ways in which home contributes to capacities to navigate graduate futures and explores the legitimation of certain forms of geographical navigation over others. For young people who participate in higher education in England, the dominant narrative is one of leaving behind the family home and becoming geographically mobile in terms of both the ‘student experience’ and graduate life. The chapter problematizes the way in which geographical mobility – leaving the home place – is recognized as success by exploring both the cost of mobility and the value of choosing to stay, with a focus on working-class and middle-class capitals and orientations to home. The chapter questions the legitimization of ‘being geographically mobile’ as a valued form of capital and, in doing so, shows the significance of home and locality as a potential form of valuable but misrecognized social and cultural capital for working-class graduates.

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This chapter uses the lens of ‘luck’ to consider how young adults in our study understand their opportunities, obstacles, successes and failures. We analyse perceptions of luck and bad luck as explanations for apparent non-decision making or lack of strategic planning. Each of the graduates discussed in this chapter left university without a plan for what they wanted to do in terms of a career. The chapter traces the ways in which their lives subsequently unfold and uses the notion of social magic to show how the embodied advantages of the privileged are misrecognized as competence and ‘fit’, and facilitate smoother employment transitions, even without a strategic plan.

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This chapter focuses on ‘following dreams’ and considers success in the graduate labour market from graduates’ perspectives of meaningful work. It does this through the lens of aspirations for jobs that are deemed to have a social worth and traces the classed and gendered experiences of two graduates. The chapter engages with Berlant’s notion of ‘cruel optimism’ to explore the structural conditions of possibility that shape experiences of success. It offers two narratives as examples of contrasting classed processes of struggle and ease in labour market transitions, and as a means of demonstrating the important role of capital conversion in securing a graduate life. In doing so, we show how aspiration and capital accumulation are not enough to ensure successful labour market transitions. We argue that symbolic closure can be generated through ‘cruel optimism’ when aspirations are delegitimated by ideas of valued graduate activity.

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This chapter considers the intersection of class and gender in the making of ‘top boys’, focusing on the finance sector. The chapter highlights key class-based differences in the way in which aspirations for success play out, based on the narratives of three young men from different social class locations. Comparing these narratives highlights the making of contemporary masculinities through a ‘top boys’ discourse that promotes competition, risk taking and the valorization of financial reward. The chapter highlights the ways in which forms of masculinity are promoted within the industry, as well as how the cultures and practices of a particular sector work to facilitate middle-class privilege. We make the case for ‘top boys’ as a new 21st-century form of hegemonic masculinity, where the discourse directs young men towards engaging in a symbolic struggle for masculine domination through aspiration to excel across multiple levels of success and to compete with the ‘top girls’ who have been gaining a foothold on the labour market through similar but feminized processes of ‘having it all’.

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