9th Conference European Sociological Association

RS13 Re-Assessing Class in Contemporary Sociology

2009-09-03 15:30:00 2009-09-03 17:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 15:30 - 17:00 Class After Communism: Inequalities and Lifestyles in East European Societies Building I, 1E11

Re-inventing yourself: New patterns of working-class youth transition in post-socialist St. Petersburg

This paper explores the changing nature of working class youth transitions to adulthood in post-Soviet Russia, drawing upon ethnographic research amongst vocational school students and graduates in St Petersburg in 2007. As in the majority of Western countries, processes of deindustrialisation in Eastern Europe have transformed the prospects of young people leaving school with few academic qualifications as old pathways into factory-based employment have become increasingly untenable. Alongside this structural shift, Russia is also experiencing a cultural shift towards the widespread denigration of working class cultures and forms of employment; yesterday's "worker-hero" is commonly reduced to a grotesque caricature in the post-Soviet youth media. In this context, although traditional forms of factory-based manual labour continued to be available to the young people participating in the research, the majority were looking to emergent forms of service sector employment and the expanding higher education system for opportunities to advance themselves. The paper uses a gendered perspective to examine the changing experience of "class" amongst the respondents, focusing on the ways in which new opportunities in education and work acted as a site for "self re-invention" through the construction of new forms of working class masculinity and femininity. While the young women in the research were uniformly attracted to "interactive service work" such as tourism - which possessed social and aesthetic dimensions absent from traditional forms of female labour - the young men were looking to higher education as a way to construct "hegemonic" rather than "subordinate" forms of masculinity by upgrading from machine worker to engineer. These imagined transitions, and the individualised narratives of self-reinvention which accompanied them, pointed to the disembedding of class as a social identity amongst the respondents. At the same time, however, the barriers they faced in realising new directions in education and work indicated the continuing salience of class as a social division. Moreover, a sense of responsibility for "wrong choices", particularly amongst male respondents, provides support for the argument that the increasingly meritocratic environment in which young people make transitions to adulthood has transformed aspects of class-based inequality into matters of individual failing.