Uncertain futures : young women in transition to adulthood in a post-industrial British city

Orrnert, Anna Maria (2016) Uncertain futures : young women in transition to adulthood in a post-industrial British city. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This study examines the transitions to adulthood of a group of 19 young women of mixed age, social class and ethnic backgrounds, from two adjacent ‘outer-urban’ neighbourhoods in the post-industrial city of Birmingham, UK. It focuses on three distinct, and inter-related, spheres of transition: education and training, employment and independent household formation, including family of origin, housing, couple relationships, marriage and motherhood.

Using the concepts of reflexivity, the appearance of choice and intersectionality, the study aims to shed light on the role of individual agency and structural inequalities in shaping the research participants’ (RPs’) life chances. It examines how RPs interpreted their available 'choices', the structural constraints - related to gender, social class and ethnicity - they encountered, and the strategies they employed during their transitions. An intersectional approach illuminates the multiple, co-constituted, ways in which gender, social class and ethnicity operated in RPs’ lives.

Using a critical ethnographic research methodology, data was gathered through participation observation at a local youth centre and repeated semi-structured interviews with RPs, over a 20-month period. Additionally, several one-off interviews were conducted with practitioners to build a picture of the context in which RPs lived their lives.

The findings indicate that while RPs frequently articulated notions of choice, their actual options were often heavily bounded. Structural constraints related to gender, social class and ethnicity shaped many aspects of their experiences of compulsory and post-compulsory education, the labour market, and transitions from familial dependence to independent households. Despite this, RPs consistently strove to make the ‘right’ choices to achieve positive life outcomes. Although this included remaining flexible in the face of uncertain futures, diverse opportunities, constraints and subsequent strategies were observed along social class and ethnic lines.

This study is relevant to sociologists, journalists, policy makers and others interested in the experiences of young women growing up in materially disadvantaged areas, in the context of widening inequality. The findings illustrate that an intersectional approach enables a more nuanced understanding of young women’s transitions to adulthood in the post-industrial city. This makes a compelling case to incorporate intersectional approaches into the study of youth transitions more widely.

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