Reviews 2018

Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity

Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity. Heather Mendick, Kim Allen, Laura Harvey, and Aisha Ahma. Bloomsbury 2018. £17.99 (paperback).

The concept of a generation gap is not new as historically the youngest generations have had to face criticism and scrutiny of their elders. In the last few years, the object of such examination has been my generation, the so-called millennials (a term coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe) or Generation Y, people born in the early/mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Despite the obvious geographical and social differences, the hurtful and bigoted image of young adults as entitled and lazy can be found in mass media and academia in places as different as the US, the UK, and Poland. Jean M. Twenge in Generation Me (2006) depicts American millennials as tolerant and confident, yet selfish and narcissistic. In 2016 Paul Taylor and Pew Research Center published a report according to which representatives of Generation Y are confident and individualistic but infantile and gullible. Kathleen Shaputis in The Crowded Nest Syndrome (2004) uses the term "Peter-Pan generation" and talks about millennials as people incapable of growing up, while Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (2008) calls them a stupid generation that cannot have fun because they are only focused on the rat race and education, yet technology makes them intellectually limited. Ben Shapiro goes even further and in Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism is Corrupting Our Future (2005) refers to millennials as a lost generation corrupted by pornography and popular culture. Tim Elmore in Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future (2010) uses the term "iY generation" and describes the youngest millennials as selfish and obsessed with the Internet and gadgets produced by Apple, such as iPad and iPhone. Millennials have also been blamed for the re-emergence of nationalism and accused of the lack of political agency caused by their obsession with consumerism, as recently diagnosed by Polish journalist Dorota Wellman.

Post-millennials (Generation Z), people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s who have used the Internet since a very young age and do not know the world without social media, are already teenagers and young adults. Consequently, just like millennials they have to deal with the scrutiny and often biased criticism of the older generations. Now this is especially problematic as aspirations are not enough to succeed and the world is undergoing social and political changes. Moreover, the uncertainty caused by financial crises, terrorism, the rise of nationalism, and the refugee crisis can be overwhelming.

Authors of Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity demonstrate that an alternative approach to understanding the youngest generation is possible. Their book is an exceptional interdisciplinary study and a must-read for teachers, parents, and scholars specialising in education, celebrity studies, fan studies, sociology, and other fields. Instead of criticising teenagers and their obsession with celebrities and social media, the authors try to understand young people, their aspirations and problems, a task that can be challenging but rewarding.

By using the lens of celebrity culture, often dismissed in academia, and relying on unique data (gathered by interviewing a diverse group of 148 people aged 14-18 in rural South West England, London, and Manchester), the authors of Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity manage to study young people’s aspirations under "austerity" (a programme implemented in the United Kingdom after the financial crash of 2008) and the numerous disparities they have to face because "government policy constructs some aspirations as desirable, and others as valueless, establishing dominant notions of 'success' and 'happiness' that police your people’s aspirations" (4). The study is grounded in two premises: "to understand the social function of celebrity it is essential to examine texts alongside their consumption" and "research on young people should be 'youth centred,' seeing them as active meaning-makers and social agents" (14). The book consists of a theoretical introduction where the authors present the concept of "austere meritocracy" and aspiration, seven chapters, conclusions, bibliography, and index.

Each of the key chapters is named after a central concept the authors talk about with the interviewees in context of celebrities and their own lives (youth, work, authenticity, success, happiness, money, fame) and include a case study devoted to a single superstar most important for the examined group (Justin Bieber, Will Smith, Kim Kardashian, Tom Daley, Beyoncé, Kate Middleton, Emma Watson). By addressing three questions: "1. What kinds of futures do young people desire and imagine for themselves? 2. What is required of young people in the process of achieving these futures? 3. How are inequalities embedded and reproduced within these?" (11), the authors manage to show that young people are often critical of celebrities and challenge the stereotypical depiction of post-millennials as a lazy generation obsessed with fame and quick money. Remarkably, they demonstrate that the second question is especially provoking because "attachments to the cluster of promises represented by happiness and success are cruelly optimistic in the sense that young people [...] are continually drawn back towards them even though these attachments are toxic" (162-3).

The results of the study show that young people are "society’s dreamers, they personify the cruel attachments that hold austerity’s contradictions in place" (162). They discriminate against celebrities – some are "deserving" while others "undeserving" (49). Interestingly, these distinctions are directly linked to gender, ethnicity, and class background of the celebrities. For young people celebrities like Bill Gates (business magnate - white, male, heterosexual, middle-class background), Kate Middleton (Duchess of Cambridge, white, female, heterosexual, middle-class background), Emma Watson (actress, white, female, heterosexual, middle-class background), Will Smith (actor, "non-threatening" black male (71), heterosexual, middle-class background), are viewed as deserving of wealth, while others, like Katie Price (model with a sexualised image, white, female, heterosexual, working-class background), Nicki Minaj (rapper/singer with a sexualised image, black, female, heterosexual, working-class background) or Kim Kardashian (reality-tv star with a sexualised image, white, female, heterosexual, middle-class background), are not. Moreover, this demonstrates that teenagers see austere meritocracy as a system based on inequality.

Instead of criticising teenagers and young adults and focusing on their fascination with social media and technology, it is worth engaging in a thoughtful discussion in order to understand the mutual needs and expectations of all generations, crucial in a world of vagueness symbolised by Brexit, Trump, and the global re-emergence of nationalism. The authors of Celebrity, Aspiration and Contemporary Youth: Education and Inequality in an Era of Austerity demonstrate that using popular culture can be a good and productive way to talk about young people’s future goals and present difficulties.

Mateusz Świetlicki
University of Wrocław, Poland

Works Cited

Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). New York: TarcherPerigee, 2008.

Elmore, Tim. Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. Atlanta: Poet Gardener, 2010.

Shapiro, Ben. Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future. Washington D.C.: Regnery, 2005.

Shaputis, Kathleen. The Crowded Nest Syndrome: Surviving the Return of Adult Children. Olympia: Clutter Fairy, 2004.

Taylor, Paul. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. New York: PublicAffairs 2016.

Twenge, Jean M. Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press, 2006.