What To Do? Twentysomethings' Negotiation of Unmapped Futures, Work and Anxiety in Post-traditional Britain

Sanders, Ben. 2010. What To Do? Twentysomethings' Negotiation of Unmapped Futures, Work and Anxiety in Post-traditional Britain. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Starting with recent social theory accounts of individualisation, detraditionalisation and how governmentality discourses around enterprise and personal responsibility have shaped young people’s lives, the research examines the experiential nature of contemporary identity and ‘unmapped’ transitions to adulthood. Using in-depth interviews with 20 ‘twentysomethings’ graduates from southeast England it traces negotiations of leaving fulltime education and entering a labour market buoyed by pre-economic crisis optimism whereby they feel overwhelmed with opportunities, choice and uncertainty. Through narrative analysis the thesis charts the struggles and anxieties generated by the ambiguous structural position capitalism casts them into but which ‘demands’ enterprise and adaptability. Their circumstances, however, deny certainty or secure paths forward and generate existential trouble and, for some, mental pathologies as insecurity and self-doubt prevail.

The thesis explores how after university individual expectations met indecision and uncertainty. Resulting anxiety was offset through ‘falling’ into jobs, ‘drifting’ and avoiding getting ‘stuck’ in ‘dangerous places’. Twentysomethings, without a secure profession or sense of security, developed new work values: either seeing it as a site of potential to realize themselves or rejecting it; preferring autonomy and authenticity outside of that domain. Identifying ‘critical moments’ in narratives showed how these could liberate desire but also subsume individual subjectivity to new forms of capitalist regulation. Lastly, it explores how ‘strategies’ of thinking uncertainty can stifle individual agency and ‘thinking too much’ generates emotional ambiguities, impeding decision-making compared to those that viewed uncertainty as a positive opportunity. These negotiations testify to the intensification of subjective difficulties in late capitalism and compromise a future-oriented, meaningful self that can adequately withstand them. Presumptions of cognitive responses to uncertainty are misplaced as ‘internal ambiguities’ arising from the weight of responsibility individuals now have for being themselves demonstrate the need to think and understand the contemporary self beyond the rigidity of (economic) rationalism.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)


young people, reflexivity, risk, individualisation, uncertain transitions, capitalism, work, mental health, narrative analysis

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



21 October 2010

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Feb 2012 15:42

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 08:22



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