Ordinary Lives: 'Typical Stories' of Girls' Transitions in the 1960s and the 1980s

by John Goodwin and Henrietta O'Connor
CLMS, University of Leicester; CLMS, University of Leicester

Sociological Research Online, 18 (1) 4

Received: 18 Jul 2012     Accepted: 5 Dec 2012    Published: 28 Feb 2013


Since 2000 we have been engaged in restudies of transitions projects from the 1960s and 1980s and we have used historic data to problematise past experiences of school to work to question assumptions around complexity and linearity. Yet, in our own analyses, we have perhaps followed too closely the dominant transition discourses, concentrating only on those young people for whom transitions were not straightforward thus privileging the non-linear and complex at the expense of those who had largely unremarkable education and early work experiences. In doing so we have missed important lessons located in the life stories of the previously 'ordinary kids' in these past studies. In this paper, we seek to build upon the work of Roberts (2011) and France (2007), by returning to our own school to work restudies with two main aims in mind. First, we consider the emergent notions of 'ordinary' and 'unspectacular' transitions in the context of past studies of youth. We reflect critically on the concept of the 'ordinary' and consider 'typicality' as an alternative. Second, we use data, in the form of eight vignettes, from Adjustment of Young Workers to Work Situations and Adult Roles (1962) and Young Adults in the Labour Market (1983), to develop our understanding of the ordinary or typical in the lived realities of the transitions of girls in one labour market (Leicester) from the 1960s and 1980s. We conclude the paper by reflecting upon what lessons can be learnt from those who made seemingly ordinary transitions during past periods of economic change and transformation.

Keywords: Ordinary Lives, Girls, School to Work, 1960s, 1980s


1.1 The sociology of youth, particularly in relation to education and school to work debates, has recently witnessed a resurgence of interest in the 'ordinary', the 'unspectacular' and the so called 'missing middle' based on the assertion that our attention as researchers has been drawn to the margins, the extreme and the unique (see, for example, France 2007; Roberts 2011 and 2012). In this paper we reconsider our own research in relation to the ordinary and, in so doing, we reflect critically upon the notions of ordinary and unspectacular school to work transitions in the context of past studies of youth before suggesting 'typicality' as a viable alternative. We also briefly consider why 'the ordinary' have become lost in sociological analyses of youth, education and work and explore typical lives in the data from some of our restudies. In doing so we contribute to this debate by answering three specific questions (i) why have the ordinary become lost?; (ii) to what extent is the notion of 'the ordinary' useful for sociological research; and finally (iii) who are the typical girls in our restudies of past school to work projects. We focus here on girls as a balance to the recent studies of 'ordinary boys' (see, for example, Roberts 2012).

Why Have the Ordinary Kids Become Lost in Sociological Research?

2.1 Sociology is 'an academic discipline charged with the objective of illuminating the substance of everyday life' (Haney 2008:1) yet, and despite this mandate, for the most part we are drawn to the unusual, the untypical and those at the margins of society. This concentration on the niche, the unique or the unusual we would suggest is for three main reasons. First, it somewhat reflects the dominant trend in sociology towards specialism and the ever decreasing location of the sociological gaze (Elias 1978). This trend towards increased specialisation, and the searching out of the novel, new, spectacular or unusual where our attention is focused on those at the margins also has a long tradition within youth studies (MacDonald et al. 2001; Roberts 2011) leading to detailed explorations of a vast array of subjects from juvenile delinquency, crime, drug taking, educational failure, long term unemployment, sexuality, teenage pregnancy, housing and homelessness, suicide (see, for example, Field 1999; Fuller 2005; Luke 2003; Gaetz and O'Grady 2002; Carpenter 2005; Furlong 2006) through to more recent trends such as internet and social media usage (see, for example Whitlock et al 2006). Though central to our understanding of the rich and multifaceted lives of young people such topics may reflect also Elias's view that 'adult investigators are apt to investigate either their own problems with regard to young people….not problems which confront, and which are experienced by the young generation itself ' (Elias 1962: 1). This narrowing of gaze towards the novel is also observable in the work of youth researchers who want to understand the transition from school to work (see, for example, Coffield et al 1986; Quicke 1993; Lee et al 2003; Liu 2008; Maguire 2010; Brinton 2011; Furlong et al 2002) focusing on the marginalised, NEETs, the dropouts or youth with very specific characteristics, and so forth. Some might argue that reasons that many youth sociologists focus on the disadvantaged and those at the margins is because, in a world of ever increasing inequality, it is they who need the most help. Yet, while we might not necessarily disagree with this view per se the concern is that often such sentiments are driven by a desire to peruse a priori views of how society should be rather than exploring how it is. Exploring how it is means that such a narrow gaze (and a gaze focusing only on the present) limits our understanding and ignores aspects of social life.

2.2 A second possible reason, as Roberts (2012) has already suggested, is that sociological analysis tends to be dominated by dualisms that focus attention to either end of debates rather than towards the ordinary youth in 'the middle'. Such a tendency can also be read in a recent set of lively debates focusing on the role and utility of the many competing theoretical paradigms and conceptual frameworks used in the sociology of youth. Variously these debates appear to coalesce generally around the relative balance and influence of structure and agency in young people's lives and, more specifically, the value of authors such as Beck or the promise of 'middle ground' theory (see Woodman 2009 and 2010 ; Roberts 2010). While we do not want to fully rehearse these debates here, such debates also, perhaps, distract us from the 'middle'. The danger with this tussle between social class and structure on the one hand and biography, choice and risk on the other is that it also simply reflects the state of social science that continues to perpetuate static dichotomies/dualisms which are blind to process. Posing the question as structure or agency only leads to a problematic question because of how the question itself is framed. What we need instead is more 'reality congruent' knowledge, where we consider 'wholes' (as opposed to parts of society). Such an approach echoes the calls of authors such as Mills (1959) and Elias (2000) who highlight the need consider the intersections of history and biography to consider how those 'wholes' have emerged and changed over time (see also Goodwin and Hughes 2011; Dunning and Hughes 2012).

2.3 A final possible reason for the tendency to analytically ignore those in the middle is the use of generation as a unit of analysis. Terms such as Generation X and Generation Y are used as a shorthand to signify the characteristics of cohorts of individuals. However, the use of the terms has a homogenising effect of analytically treating all members of those so-called 'generation' the same whilst simultaneously using the extremes of the generation in defining/labelling that generation. For example, Generation X and Generation Y have been defined, respectively, as:

Generation X is described as a cynical, materialistic generation devoid of a work ethic; a generation unwilling to "pay their dues" and unlikely to match their parent's economic success; and the generation most likely to personify the decline rather than the advance of society's greatness. (Kupperschmidt 1998: 36)
Generation Y has a strong sense of morality, tends to be patriotic, is willing to fight for freedom, is sociable, and values home and family. Generation Y tends to want an intellectual challenge, needs to succeed, strives to make a difference, and seeks employers who will further their professional development…Setting and achieving personal goals matters to Generation Y cohorts, as does performing meaningful work that has the potential to contribute to a better world. (Hurst and Good 2009: 573)

2.4 Aggregating around such broad attributed characteristics is unhelpful, if not misleading, as swathes of ordinary young people in the 1970s and 1980s or 1990s and 2000s are simply glossed over. There is no doubt that generational definitions, such as those presented above, are based on outliers and we are sure that if we turned the two definitions into a further dualism we could find examples of such young people in any epoch.

Conceptualising and Problematising The Ordinary: Is it a Useful Concept?

3.1 Given the possible reason for the ordinary being ignored, it is important to consider whether the ordinary is a useful concept. While we accept the need to refocus analyses towards this group of ordinary kids/youth (Jephcott 1948; Jenkins 1983; Brown 1987; France 2007; Roberts 2011), the missing middle (Roberts 2011, 2012), the invisible or ordinary majority (Brown 1987; Shildrick and MacDonald 2006) or even the respectable (Jenkins 1983; Wight 1993) there is little definitional agreement or consensus where the ordinary are actually to be found. For Roberts (2011:23) they are a group whose defined 'otherness' is that they are unproblematic, do not fit the usual profile of risk (NEET, unemployed, disabled, homeless or in care), or, citing Griffin (2005), are those who have achieved some educational and/or labour market success meaning they are simply ignored as their lack of novelty renders them totally uninteresting. For Brown (1987) the ordinary kids are those 'who neither left their names engraved on the school honours board, nor gouged them into the top of classroom desks (Brown 1987: 1) whereas for Jenkins (1983) ordinary kids were those whose lifestyles were neither as 'rebels' who exaggerated traditional working class masculinity nor 'citizens' who exemplified respectable working class behaviours of sobriety, independence and self advancement (Jenkins 1983: 42).

3.2 Whilst all of these studies serve as a useful lens to highlight the varying degrees of ordinariness in various contexts, and build upon a rich tradition of both youth and community studies, for us there are three main problems arising for the debate so far. First, the category of ordinary is seemingly so broad that it could be deemed to capture everyone and anyone. Second, it could well be that by any one measure the young person may well be both ordinary and problematic. It is here we can perhaps link back to some of the earliest work on the 'ordinary' and, in particular, our on-going restudies of the work of Pearl Jephcott[1]. Indeed, the theme of ordinary girls is captured fully in two of Jephcott's books – Girls Growing Up (1942) and Rising Twenty: Notes on Some Ordinary Girls (1948). In Rising Twenty Jephcott offers a very useful, if cautionary definition of the ordinary as typical, in her study of one hundred girls from three different parts of the UK:

The girls [in this study] are quite ordinary people, distinguished by no one characteristic except that in March 1945 they were well over 17 and under 21. Typical is a dangerous label; but to a casual observer these particular girls seem to bear a family likeness to their million and a half contemporaries in England and Wales, and seem more or less birds of a feather with the other girls of their immediate localities (Jephcott 1948: 19).

3.3 In some respects, and despite some obvious limitations (Griffin 1985)[2], the notion of 'typical' may well have greater analytical utility than 'ordinary' as it locates ordinariness more concretely within a context, i.e. the girls in Jephcott's study were typical of other girls at that time and shared similar characteristics - not 'delinquent' or likely to be delinquent, only thirteen of the girls were married and, of those only five were mothers, and so forth.

3.4 In our work we are very much interested in both historical continuities and changes in youth employment (see, for example Goodwin and O'Connor 2005 and 2009a)[3] and, as such, the approaches to 'ordinary' developed to date appear quite very static and contain no suggestion of change. They do not reflect upon whether this group of 'ordinary kids' of individuals can, themselves, transition in and out of 'ordinariness' nor, indeed, is there any sustained consideration of the possibility that what constitutes the 'ordinary' or the 'typical' changes over time. As Goudsblom (1977:6) suggests

Human beings are interdependent, in a variety of ways; their lives evolve in, and are significantly shaped by, the social figurations they form with each other….These figurations are continually in flux, undergoing changes of different orders – some quick and ephemeral, others slower but perhaps more lasting.

3.5 In relation to school to work transitions this means that there are changes from the past and but there are also continuities - something of a double helix of both continuity and change. Aspects of experiences of today's young people can be also seen in the experiences of previous cohorts of youth and we have been critical of those authors who focus on generation for only highlighting the differences between generational groups (Goodwin and O'Connor 2009) and the epistemological fallacy that the contemporary is somehow divorced from the historical (see also Furlong 2009 and Furlong and Cartmel 2007). However, in this continual flux there is also change and not everything remains the same. This raises the possibility that what it means to be ordinary or typical is not at all static but is a process that is in a constant state of flux and which changes over time. What it means to be ordinary or typical for one cohort of young people may well be different to what is ordinary or typical for another, earlier or later, cohort of young people4. A typical boy would leave school in the 1950s, enter an apprenticeship associated with a trade and would expect a job for life. By the 1980s the missing majority are either unemployed, have postponed their transition or are in jobs they do not want. In the case of girls' transitional experiences the transformation appears even clearer to see from the 1940s where the girls were 'alive to the fact that they would possibly be getting married within two or three years' time and be having a baby within a year or so later' (Jephcott 1948: 22). By the 2000s Francis et al (2003) suggest that girls' future aspirations have moved well beyond the traditionally gender stereotypical and that ordinary girls may not simply leave school, get married and have children shortly after but instead choose 'professional jobs, and many chose jobs traditionally performed by men' (Francis et al 2003: 438). What are typical transitions have transformed over the last fifty years.

Re-Framing/Re-Focusing our Sociological Gaze in Our Restudies

4.1 Since 2000 we have been engaged in restudies of past transitions projects from the 1960s and the 1980s including reanalyses of three historic datasets – the Adjustment of Young Workers to Work Situations and Adult Roles study (YWP), the Young Adults study (YA) and the Changing Structure of Youth Labour Markets study (CSYLM). Thorough various secondary analyses of these data historic datasets we have sought to problematize the 'school to work' experiences of previous cohorts of young people with the aim of questioning assumptions around complexity and linearity (see, for example Goodwin and O'Connor 2005). One of the main assumptions that we have sought to question is the almost hegemonic view that school to work transitions in the 1960s were uniformly 'straightforward' due to labour market buoyancy whereas for youth in the 1980s, by contrast, transitions to work were increasingly 'complex'. For example, in reflecting upon the use of metaphors as a shorthand for the transformation of the transition process, we have argued that:
…. underpinning these different metaphors is a view that the individual experience of the transition has indeed changed and that the transitional experience of contemporary young people is markedly different to the experiences of previous generations of youth. The implication is that school to work transitions have moved from being a mass, straightforward, linear and 'single step' process (albeit mediated by family background, class and gender) to a complex, fragmented and individualized process dependent on the navigational and negotiating abilities of young people (Goodwin and O'Connor 2005: 202)

4.2 In contrast to the assumed move from linearity from the 1960s to complexity of the 1980s (and beyond), we argued strongly that evidence from the 1960s points to the experiences of school to work transitions as being as complex, non-linear and fragmented for a significant group of young workers in the 1960s. Furthermore, in many important respects some of the young workers from studies in the 1960s shared similar characteristics and experiences with those in the 1980s. Yet, while we still fully support our earlier analyses, a reading of authors such as Roberts (2011, 2012) and France (2007), plus a re-reading of our own work, has prompted us to reflect upon the extent to which we have, perhaps, followed too closely the dominant transition discourses, concentrating only on those young people for whom transitions were not straightforward in the 1960s given their 'uniqueness' qua what had been written about those transitions at that time. Although it is clear that many of the young people in our 1960s data did experience complex transitions others did not. By highlighting these unusual cases, the distinct and those at the margins and by analytically privileging the non-linear and complex at the expense of those who had largely unremarkable education and early work experiences, we have highlighted previously ignored complexities whilst missing (or being 'blinkered' to (Roberts 2011)) important lessons located in the life stories of the 'ordinary kids' in these past studies.

4.3 To be begin to rectify this, and to find out who the typical are in our restudies, we have used data, in the form of eight vignettes, from Adjustment of Young Workers to Work Situations and Adult Roles (1962) and Young Adults in the Labour Market (data collected in 1983, report published 1986), to develop our understanding of the ordinary or typical in the lived realities of the transitions of girls in one labour market (Leicester) from the 1960s and 1980s. The 1960s school leavers were interviewed between 1962 and 1964, based on a sample of young people drawn from the Youth Employment Office index of school-leavers from the summer and Christmas of 1960 and 1962. From an initial sample of 1150 young workers, 882 interviews were completed of which 260 were with girls (see Goodwin and O'Connor 2005 for a fuller discussion of the data and methodology). The 1970s/80s dataset was gathered as part of a study funded by the Department of Employment in the early 1980s led by Ashton and Maguire and referred to as the Young Adults study. The study involved face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with a sample of 18-24 year-olds carried out in four contrasting labour markets in 1982/83. The four areas, Leicester, Sunderland, St. Albans and Stafford, were selected to represent a range of employment conditions and resulted in an achieved sample of 1786 young people (see Ashton et al. 1986 for a further discussion of the data and methodology).

Who Are The Ordinary Girls In Our Restudies?

Ordinary girls, never seeing further than the cold, small streets that trap them. But you were so different. You had to say no. When those empty fools tried to change you, and claim you for the lair of their ordinary world. (Morrissey and Street 1988, The Ordinary Boys)

Monica's Story

5.1 Monica left school at the age of 15 in the summer of 1960 without qualifications. At time of the interview she was aged 18 and had been working in the same company for three years having secured her job, with the help of the Youth Employment Officer, soon after leaving school. She had originally wanted to be a dressmaker but was unable to find work in this profession. Instead she had found a job as a seamstress working at an upholstery company making curtains and loose covers: 'I wanted dress making, went to YEO, they hadn't got anything in dress making whatsoever and lady offered me this job'. She had not wanted to work in an office as she thought this would be boring and repetitive so while she was not able to obtain the exact job she wanted, she did not have to settle for a job she disliked, unlike many of her contemporaries who did not want factory work but found they had little choice.

5.2 The interviewer commented that Monica 'had no regrets or illusions about doing better than she has done. There was an acceptance of not being bright and a certain gratification in doing a job which has a variety of terms in it, albeit a narrow range as respondent recognised. She appears orientated towards the present to a large extent - never having thought about the job leading to anything or even wishing for it to.

Carole's Story

5.3 Carole left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications. She secured a job as a shop assistant at Marks and Spencer with the help of the Youth Employment Officer. At the time of the interview she had worked in the same job for three years. Like the previous respondent, Carole had wanted to be a dressmaker and the interviewer commented that 'she is "wasted" as a shop-assistant - she is very refined and excellent at dressmaking. She would probably find satisfaction in this work (dress-making) which, incidentally, is what she would really like to do, but, nevertheless, she seems quite contented in her work and given the opportunity should become a supervisor with very little trouble'. Although Carole had not found work in the occupation of her choice she had also managed to avoid factory work which, like many of the other young women, she was adamant she did not want.

Susan's Story

5.4 Susan left school at the age of 15 and secured employment prior to leaving. She left school with no qualifications although described herself as having been 'top of the class'. Her first job was as a hosiery examiner in the factory where her mother worked as an overlocker. At the time of the interview she was 16 and had worked in the factory for just over one year. She was ambitious and 'hoped to become a forelady in the future'. She had originally wanted to be a nursery nurse but realised that the pay was low and that training was required and her parents had 'convinced her not'. The interviewer commented that 'she seemed to be rather dominated by her mother, who had found her her job - she liked going to work very much, but it was the people and atmosphere, not the work itself. She did however also think she could get promotion to forelady's position'.

Marilyn's Story

5.5 Marilyn was a sales assistant in the glove department of a large department store. She had left school at 15 and had found her job in advance of leaving by going 'along to the shop and asking if I could work there'. Her friend already worked at the shop and her mother was also a shop assistant elsewhere. There is some suggestion in the interview and in the notes that she wanted to be a nurse but did not have the right qualifications to do so. She 'kept stressing that she is very happy at work and has a new freedom she never had at school. She likes people and being with people. Although she likes shop work, I think she has a genuine secret wish to be a nurse'.

5.6 In the following section the paper focuses attention on female school leavers some twenty years later. This group, as highlighted earlier, were leaving full-time education in very different circumstances than the 1960s cohort. The labour market was in significant decline and, in a city such as Leicester, the collapse of the manufacturing industry had already begun to impact on employment opportunities. The experience of education was very different for the 1980s cohort too. Although the younger group also left school at the earliest opportunity, now increased to the age of 16, all left school with qualifications of some description. In addition, the choice of destination on leaving school had become more diverse and the 1980s school leavers could leave school yet remain in education more easily with places available at sixth-form colleges and FE colleges which offered more vocational education pathways (secretarial courses, knitwear design courses etc.). At the same time, unemployment seemed a more real possibility and the introduction of government training schemes would also impact on some of these school leavers (Roberts 1984).

Karen's Story

5.7 Karen was interviewed in February 1983, two years after leaving school at the minimum leaving age of 16 with eight CSE qualifications. At the time of the interview she was enrolled as an apprentice hairdresser on a three-year training programme. She had secured the job soon after leaving school by responding to an advert her sister had seen in the local job centre. She wanted to be a hairdresser because she 'likes the work and can go back to it when you've got a family' and, like the 1960s school leavers, she was emphatic about not wanting to work in a factory. She had not had any periods of unemployment but had written 'to loads and loads' of employers before accepting this job which was the first she was offered. She had envisaged that finding a job would be hard given the high levels of unemployment in her area at that time but she had not enjoyed school and had been keen to 'go to work and get some money'. As alluded to above, Karen believed hairdressing to be a good career as she foresaw this as a means of continuing to work once she had children. She indicated at the end of her interview that she intended to continue working once she was married with children.

Angela's Story

5.8 Angela was aged 18 at time of interview in Feb 1983. She had left school three years earlier, in June 1980, with 5 'O' levels and 1 CSE and had started to do her 'A' levels at a sixth form college leaving before she completed these as she was 'bored by that stage'. She explained that she 'didn't like the new school, didn't like the people, didn't have enough time for my own pursuits and truanted a lot'. She had envisaged that it would be hard to get a job due to high levels of unemployment in the area when she left school and this fear was borne out by her experience of job seeking. She applied for 30-40 jobs working in a travel agency or as a hairdresser, which were the jobs she wanted, as opposed to factory or supermarket work which she wanted to avoid, but she had yet to secure this type of employment. In the meantime she had continued working at a supermarket where she had previously held a Saturday job, for between 10-17 hours per week as a check out operator. She planned to persist in 'trying for "proper" job' and wanted to work full-time as she considered her current job 'not a real job, nothing like I want to do'. She predicted that once she had children she would continue working and hoped to be able to return to the job she held before having a family.

Lisa's Story

5.9 Lisa was 19 at the time of the interview and had left school at 16 in June 1979 with six CSEs. She was employed full-time in her first job by August. She had enjoyed school but said that she was 'no good at school', and had treated it 'as a laugh' and only realising later that it was important. However, she also explained that she decided to leave school as 'if I'd stayed on it would have been the easy way out, just because you don't want to decide what to do'. Unlike the other school leavers who were worried about the impact of high levels of unemployment on their own job prospects, she hadn't envisaged any difficulty in securing a job. She had no strong views on jobs she wanted to avoid and she applied for two jobs which she had heard about through friends. She was offered both jobs, although neither was in her preferred role as a dental receptionist. At the time of the interview, in 1983, she had been working for the same electrical components company for three and a half year. She had worked her way up from her first role as a clerk/typist to becoming a bought ledger clerk which she found to be a 'dull and not taxing' job that she neither liked nor disliked. She predicted that once she had children this would not impact on her economic activity and she would return to work after having children.

Gillian's Story

5.10 Gillian was 18 at the time of her interview. She had left school with 8 'O' levels and had taken an additional 'O' level since leaving along with an audio typist certificate. She had been keen to leave school, as she 'couldn't see the point of doing 'A' levels because I felt they didn't show anything more, 9 'O' levels showed I had brains. On leaving school at 16 she had gone on to college to do a one year secretarial course, because she 'needed some direction careers-wise' although she failed this qualification. This was followed by a period of 6 months unemployment during which time she applied unsuccessfully for twenty jobs. She then accepted a place on the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP), a government training scheme, in the hope that she would be offered a permanent job, although she commented that she didn't like the scheme as employers would 'abuse the scheme for cheap labour'. However, having completed the programme she changed her view, explaining: 'now I think it's a good idea, before I thought it was a fictitious job, contrived'. The training she received in a knitwear manufacturer was all 'on the job' and lasted for six months. At the end of the scheme she was taken on as a permanent employee and explained that 'the training was useful and they kept me on but even so it was thorough'. She was the only respondent of the four case studies who expected to stop work once she started a family.

Continuities and Change

6.1 These vignettes of 1960s and 1980s female school leavers are noteworthy in their 'ordinariness' in the context of the era in which the girls left compulsory education. None of the 1960s girls had had problematic or protracted transitions, none had difficulty in securing employment and none had (yet) experienced unemployment or redundancy. All four still lived at home with both parents and/or siblings and none were married or yet parents themselves. All four respondents had found jobs quickly and easily either before leaving school or very soon afterwards. However, they had all expressed aspirations or job ideals that none of them achieved (dressmaker, nurse and nursery nurse) in their first job. We have shown previously that the most desirable jobs for these young workers were: hairdressing, office work, working with children and nursing (O'Connor and Goodwin 2004: 106) yet few of the sample obtained employment in these occupations. The mismatch apparent between the types of employment accepted on leaving school and the jobs which the girls aspired to was a common theme for school leavers at this time (O'Connor and Goodwin 2004). What seemed to be more important than achieving what were somewhat modest career ambitions was the avoidance of undesirable careers, which were primarily jobs in factories (Griffin 1986; Sharpe 1976) ironically ultimately the first job destination for some 42% of the wider 1960s sample (O'Connor and Goodwin 2004: 106).

6.2 Three of the four expected to return to the labour market after having children, viewing employment as far more than a short-term, temporary life phase that preceded full-time domesticity. As we have argued elsewhere, amongst the larger sample there were girls with ambitious future career plans and little intention of exiting the employment market for a long period of childrearing. Others were aware that financial necessity would draw them back in to the labour market as mothers of young children and they did not expect a lifetime as a housewife. Therefore the decisions made on leaving school and the jobs accepted were likely to determine more than just a short period of economic activity between education and motherhood.

6.3 The transitions made by the 1980s cohort were remarkably similar in many ways. They left school in the 1980s and made straightforward transitions out of school, although their destinations were more varied than those of the 1960s girls as they included further education and training as well as employment. None had yet married or made the transition to motherhood and all still lived at home with both parents. Like their older counterparts, this group left school at the earliest opportunity and, although the 1980s leavers held qualifications where the 1960s leavers did not, they were competing with peers who also had qualifications therefore this did not necessarily provide them with any advantage in the labour market. Indeed, Gillian, who held the highest status and number of qualifications of the four individuals was the only one to experience a period of unemployment and to enrol on a youth training scheme, whereas Lisa, who was the least qualified, was employed in the most secure and best paid job of this group.

6.4 Their job aspirations, and the jobs they wished to avoid, were similar to the 1960s school leavers. Yet, as was the case twenty years earlier, for many the reality of the local labour market meant that shop work and office work were their likely employment destinations. However, it appears that the likelihood of this group of school leavers working in factories was lower than it had been for the older cohort, primarily because the dominance of hosiery and boot and shoe industries had already started to diminish.

6.5 As with the 1960s group, only one predicted that she would exit the labour market once she had a family of her own. This pattern was evident across the entire sample with 87% of the Leicester respondents indicating that they would like to return to work after childbearing and 80% indicating that they intended to remain economically active (Ashton and Maguire 1986: 70). These are interesting data because they suggest that future career plans were important and, like the 1960s school leavers, these women did not intend to become housewives/stay at home mothers in the future.

Table 1. Vignette Sample Profile

Table 2. Sample Age and Number of Jobs by Gender, 1960s and 1980s Leicester

6.6 Table 1 provides a more detailed overview of the sample of individuals selected for this paper. The table indicates the age of the respondent, job role, the period of time in that job, the method by which the job was secured and qualifications and educational background. A key difference between the 'ordinary' stories of the 1960s and the 1980s is illustrated very clearly in Table 1 and relates to the qualifications and educational background of the respondents. The main aspect of the ordinary girls' lives that had changed between the two periods linked to the expansion of opportunities and increase in the number of potential pathways on leaving school. The 'ordinary' or 'typical' 1960s school leavers had very limited choices. Once they reached minimum school leaving age their recognised pathway was to leave school and enter largely unskilled manual work following the footsteps of their own mothers. The 1980s cohort members were a product of a transformed education system. Most had attended comprehensive school and left school at the age of sixteen with qualifications of some description unlike the 1960s cohort who left with no qualifications and little possibility of continuing their education. Opportunities for attending sixth form colleges and colleges of further education were open to this younger group and a simple transition from school to work was no longer the only route for young people to take. The picture had become more complex and the post-school experience of these four school leavers illustrates this with three of the four girls, in common with 42% of the whole sample, having some experience of post-compulsory education.

6.7 Table 2 provides more details on the age profile and number of jobs held by all girls in the samples. The table shows that the majority of the 1960s school leavers were aged either 16 or 18 at the time of interview whereas the 1980s group tended to be slightly older. This is explained by the selection of the original samples – the 1960s girls left school at a younger age and under 18s were included in the sample. The 1980s sample included only those in the 18-24 age bracket with the largest group being those aged 18 at the time of interview. It is more striking is that the number of jobs held at the time of interview shows little difference over the time period. Where we may expect to see more movement between jobs at a time when the job market was buoyant (Ashton and Maguire, 1986) there is little difference between the cohorts. Some 46% of the 1960s group were still in their first job at the time of interview and a total of 74% were in either their first or second job, as opposed to 50% of the 1980s group being still in their first job, and a total of 75% when the first and second job are combined. The explanation for the lack of job mobility amongst both groups may well be attributable to the 'ordinariness' of the girls selected here. There are examples of individuals from the wider samples who had held numerous jobs within a year or so of leaving school and others who were unemployed (Goodwin and O'Connor 2005; Ashton and Maguire 1986). These individuals were not, however, 'ordinary' and tended to be living a life that would place them at the margins of the sample, experiencing more problematic transitions and therefore more likely, by definition, to be researched than the typical girls.

Discussion: What Can We Learn From the Vignettes?

7.1 Having presented two sets of vignettes intended to illustrate the experience of 'typical' or 'ordinary' girls leaving school approximately two decades apart, we now go on to explore in more depth the differences between the experiences of these two cohorts and we link these to current debates in youth studies. We begin by locating the cohorts historically, in order to illustrate how the prevailing economic conditions impact on the experience of transition for young people entering the labour market for the first time.

7.2 These two cohorts were both born before 1970 (1980s cohort were born between 1959-65) but after, or at the tail end of, the Second World War (1960s cohort were born between 1943-7). This gives us two distinct cohorts, born at opposite ends of the Baby Boom era if we take Wyn and Woodman's (2006) suggested time span of 1946-1965 as a definition of this period. The focus here on 1970 as a 'cut off point' between our cohorts and the following generations is important in the context of recent debates in the field of youth research. Wyn and Dwyer (1999:5), for example, argued that individuals, or generations born after 1970s differ from those born earlier as:

'the life experience and future prospects of this generation are more complex and less predictable than those of their predecessors, and that consequently the established linear models of transitions to adulthood and future careers are increasingly inappropriate for the changed economic and social conditions of the late twentieth century'.

7.3 Similarly, Wyn and Woodman (2006: 501) have gone on to suggest that 'those in the post-1970 generation represent a clean break with patterns of life established by the Baby Boomers'. We concur with this view to some extent, and have presented here evidence to illustrate that, without doubt, fundamental changes were taking place in the youth labour market between the two pre-1970s cohorts. For example, it is well recognised, and indeed demonstrated by our vignettes that aspects of transition such as extended periods of time in education, an increase in qualifications held, later age at parenthood and marriage all represent a change in experience over this period (Wyn and Woodman 2006; Roberts 2007).

7.4 However, whilst remarkable transformations have occurred for those born after 1970, compared to those born earlier, 'every single generation of young people has been different (in some ways and to some extent) from its predecessor' (Roberts 2007: 266) and to use 1970 as a defining moment in youth transitions is to introduce an artificial disconnect between contemporary youth and what has gone before.

7.5 If we accept the hypothesis of Wyn and Woodman (2006) then we would expect to find significant similarities when comparing our two groups to each other, as both were born prior to 1970 and can be considered as being part of the Baby Boom generation. We would also, if this were the case, expect to find significant differences between our two cohorts and those born after 1970. In fact what we find are both similarities and differences, substantiating the idea of youth transitions as being part of a process with, in this case, the 1980s cohort representing a 'middle ground' or a transition point between the two periods (pre and post 1970s births).

7.6 To explain this further, what we find is that the experience of the 1960s group of typical girls was certainly in keeping with the early post-war period of relative prosperity and buoyancy in the labour market. This group was representative of the 'mass' of working class girls who left school without qualifications but found work with relative ease. By contrast the 1980 group experienced somewhat 'messier' transitions, however, they were, in many ways, still rooted to the past and to their own local/familial frames of reference in relation to the local labour market. They may have been the first cohort to experience many of the profound changes in youth choices and opportunities, such as extended educational trajectories, but this was tempered by the simultaneous downturn in the economy.

7.7 The real 'turning point', to use a term taken from life course studies (Bynner 2005: 379) and apply it to a whole cohort, is, it could be argued, the radical and far-reaching impact of the 1980s recession on the youth labour market. The key difference between this 1960s and 1980s cohort is that the older group left school during a period of economic boom when 'the labour market absorbed virtually all such unqualified young people' (Bynner 2005: 377). The younger cohort, like contemporary cohorts, entered a labour market with high youth unemployment rates (19% in 1986 and 20.5% in 2010 (Duckworth and Schoon 2002: R39)). Their experience closely resembles Bynner's (2005: 377) description of the labour market in the 2000s where young people 'face the 'prospect of patchwork careers' characterized by part-time and casualised jobs interspersed with periods of unemployment' (Bynner 2005: 377). It would be hard to argue then, that the 1980s cohort had an experience that mirrored that of the older group completely, although both are part of the so-called Baby Boom generation. Indeed, the 'typical' transition of the 1980s school leaver had changed almost beyond recognition from that of the older group and had, due to the recession, already started to take on characteristics of what was to come for young people born later in the century and into the 2000s.

7.8 By revisiting data from the 1960s and 1980s and linking this with current debates and experiences of transitions we have been able to reflect on earlier transitions through a contemporary sociological lens. Our focus has been on cohorts of ordinary, typical girls who left school twenty years apart and had relatively straightforward transitions. This is not to say that others in the same cohorts had the same, ordinary experience. There were others, in both groups, who had more problematic, unusual and challenging transitions and those who had more 'successful' trajectories from school, for example, entering higher education and securing 'aspirational' employment futures. Our very deliberate emphasis here has been on documenting the typical and moving away from the tendency of youth research to prioritise those who are at the margins of the different cohorts. It is, we argue, important to move away from defining transitions either by focussing on those whose experience is out of the ordinary or according to what are often narrowly defined and artificial generational groupings (Baby Boomers, Generation X and Y and so on). Such categorisations lead us to analyse youth experience based on a perception of youth that does not account for variations within age groups and within individual experiences and encourages a focus on differences between cohorts rather than an understanding of similarities over time.

7.9 Overall, the call to return to an analysis of the ordinary or the typical is timely as it can reveal so much of interest in relation to the everyday lived realities of work and, ultimately, return us to the promise of sociology as a discipline for illuminating the substance of everyday life.


1Pearl Jephcott (1900-1980) was a significant, but now largely forgotten, social researcher active between the early 1940s and 1980. Jephcott's perhaps most influential work, Married Women Working (1962), set the context for many other gender and work studies and work-life balance research that followed from the 1960s to the 1980s. Researching everything from girls' aspirations to the lived realities of high rise flats, Jephcott was a methodological innovator and an early exponent of the use of images, letters and diaries in social research (see Goodwin and O'Connor 2012 forthcoming).

2The 'typicality' motif is explored and fully critiqued by Griffin (1985) and we share her concerns. We do not intend to advocate the use of 'typical' as a shorthand for how experiences should be, nor to underestimate young people's 'complexities or inconsistencies', but to more precisely point to the characteristics that a groups shares in a very general sense. It may well be that we also need to use 'typicalities' rather than typical.

3Although to date we have focused on the historical continuities in complexity rather than the changes to ordinariness.

4Elias famously illustrated this diachronic gestalt in The Civilising Process (2000) with reference to manners, such as how nose-blowing etiquette changed from hands, to sleeves to handkerchiefs, but this process could equally be illustrated by the changes in the typicality or the ordinariness of young people and their transitions. For example, the typicality of the transition from school to work has also changed over time:

Approximately one-third of the boys who leave school at the age of fifteen obtain apprenticeships: in 1959 32.4 per cent of the boys were classified as apprentices or learners to skilled crafts….In the same year 7.2 per cent of girls became apprentices or learners. (Carter 1962: 15).
The labour market realities of the 1980s are such that the vast majority of ordinary kids are either unemployed, not in the jobs they want, or have postponed their transition into the labour market. (Brown 1987: 130)


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