As Julia, a 28-year-old college graduate in Madrid, Spain, described she and her friends’ persistent experiences with unemployment and precarious, low-paying employment, she burst into tears:
“We’re doing badly in absolutely everything…It’s a limbo, what I call the professional limbo, in which the logical progression, which is you study, you go to high school, college, you have a job, has changed completely.”
Nonetheless, when Julia imagined her life in five years, she described herself in a stable professional trajectory—in a job she disliked as a private school teacher, but one she would be in permanently:
“I see myself locked up in a school for life, but oh well, I think it will be what makes me happy… In a school teaching, which is what I’m preparing for now…for the rest of my life.”
Over and over, the young Spanish college graduates I interviewed both denounced the trajectory that Julia referred to as the “logical progression”—high school, college, and stable employment—as no longer true, and nevertheless imagined their future professional lives as following a certain path to stable employment. What could explain these seemingly contradictory responses?
Setting the Stage
In a recent study in Work & Occupations, I sought to understand how people imagined their futures in uncertain contexts where their previously expected trajectories were no longer as feasible.
Social scientists have termed the mismatch between people’s beliefs based on the past and the conditions in the present “hysteresis.” But, I asked: does hysteresis manifest in projections toward the future? If so, how? Since imagined futures are a critical component of how people make sense of and make decisions about their lives, hysteresis in imagined futures could have consequences for mental health, decision-making, and outcomes.
To answer these questions, I focused on young Spanish college graduates (aged 25-35). A period of relative prosperity in Spain ended abruptly with the 2008 economic crisis. The crisis had an extraordinarily negative impact on Spanish employment opportunities: even today, unemployment rates remain much higher than they were before the crisis, particularly for young people.
Therefore, by 2018, when I conducted 75 interviews in Madrid, the young graduates I spoke to had largely been raised in a prosperous time but graduated into the labor market during a period of maximum scarcity and uncertainty.
I developed a two-part argument. First, I argued that imagined futures in such contexts could be guided by beliefs based on past conditions more than by lived experiences in the present—an extension of “hysteresis.” Second, I showed that the “logical progression” Julia and many other respondents described is a shared narrative and argued that this narrative reinforced respondents’ past-based imagined futures.
Past, Present, Future?
Like Julia, many respondents held a disconnect between their present experiences and their imagined futures. Carmen, unemployed, confidently described her professional future in “something more stable, in a more stable company, where I will finish my working life.” Rubén, also unemployed, contrastingly described his present difficulties seeking employment: “[Employers] say ‘I’ll call you,’ but they don’t call you…I have two masters, a bachelors, four languages. In any other country…they’d be fighting over [me].”
Some respondents signaled the temporal dimension of their future expectations, highlighting their basis in the past and how conditions had changed in the present. Lucía focused on the shift in the supply of potential workers: “Before there were far fewer people who studied college degree, which meant 100% of the people who graduated found a job…now everyone studies. It seems like an obligation.” Meanwhile, Raúl described how “everything has changed on us,” comparing the “optimistic message” he heard growing up that “everyone would get more or less what they wanted” with what he would say under current circumstances: “now I wouldn’t give that advice.”
Respondents’ imagined futures were thus guided by beliefs based on past conditions more than by current lived experiences, even though respondents were aware of the mismatch between past and present.
Lara was particularly conscious of this inconsistency: “It was ‘study, go to college, because that way you’ll have better jobs, a better future’…And that has become a dramatic lie…And now we suffer, because although we know that it is a lie, we’re not capable of getting out of it, because in the end we keep looking for—it’s that constant schizophrenia, right? To know that it’s all collapsing, but we need to do it anyway.”
The Power of Story-Telling
I also showed how a narrative bolstered this particular past-based way of imagining the future. The young Spaniards I interviewed overwhelmingly shared the same narrative: a meritocratic story that working hard and being qualified would lead to the accomplishment of college graduation, which would naturally result in good, stable employment.
This narrative was prominent as respondents described their own expectations. Sergio described how “when you complete a degree, you [visualize] yourself in a stable job.” Fran referred to his “preparation” (a word used to describe education and training) to explain his stably employed imagined future: “Since I think that, within my possibilities, I prepare myself as well as possible…I trust that I’ll have found a job that allows me to live well.”
Two characteristics of the narrative enabled it to bolster future expectations.
First, respondents were drawn to the “best available” narrative to imagine their futures, and there weren’t many options to choose from. Although a minority of respondents drew on other narratives, these tended to embrace uncertainty and flexibility. But most respondents roundly rejected such narratives, like Paula, who criticized “that neoliberal bullshit that it’s cool to be precarious.” By contrast, the meritocratic narrative was in line with respondents’ focus on stability.
Second, the narrative was institutionally supported by the funcionariado, or civil service corps. These jobs, considered the most desirable, are accessed through grueling exams and are highly competitive; if successful, applicants are guaranteed jobs for life. Many respondents transposed the meritocratic narrative to the funcionario exam system, like Sebastián: “I don’t think it’ll be hard for me…I trust that I’m prepared and qualified and it’s not going to be a problem.” This transposition of the narrative from college graduation to public exams allowed respondents to avoid confronting its potential failure.
Why does this particular way of imagining the future matter?
Social scientists have shown that future expectations can shape people’s short-term decision-making and long-term outcomes. For example, this way of projecting stable professional futures despite the precarity evident in the present seems to help respondents remain optimistic, but research suggests that not reaching one’s expectations can have a negative impact on mental health. Further research is necessary to understand the consequences of people imagining their future by drawing on a shared narrative based on past conditions that they simultaneously denounce based on present ones—an extension of “hysteresis” into imagined futures.
However, two things are already clear. First, future expectations can be more influenced by the past than they may seem. And second, stories are extraordinarily powerful.
Elena Ayala-Hurtado. “Narrative Continuity/Rupture: Projected Professional Futures amid Pervasive Employment Precarity” in Work & Occupations 2021.
Image: Jechstra via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)