Saturday, 10 July 2010

Ambition and boys - Is there a problem?

In a fascinating and rather worrying article in last Sunday's Observer newspaper, Will Hutton discusses the 'problem' of boys - especially teenagers and young adults - in modern Britain. He notes, for instance 'a growing army of underperforming, unnecessarily idle and too often unemployed young men.' For a mix of reasons, not all well understood, many young men seem to lack ambition and motivation, and at the same time lack any fear of the consequences of doing nothing. They are quite ready to rely either on family support or on social security benefits to at least provide them with an acceptable living standard (albeit a fairly low one).

At the upper levels of the education system, these attitudes are reflected in graduate unemployment rates, with male rates rising faster than women's and now around 50% higher (17.2% as against 11.2% for women). And employers report that on average women graduates make better employees. They work harder both as students and when in a job, they try harder to find jobs, and they tend to hold onto jobs once they have found one. Young men seem more inclined to drift and move around rather aimlessly, often lacking the focus and discipline needed to do well in the work environment.

So what is going on here, and how concerned should we be? Will Hutton points out quite rightly that merely offering more 'opportunities' to young people will not make much difference, unless we can understand and address the underlying issue of individual motivation. Are boys really more afraid to fail, and therefore they choose not to pursue risky or demanding activities, whereas girls respond by working harder and end up doing better? And are boys really more bamboozled by the celebrity culture than girls, seeing the high earnings of sports stars and media celebrities and thinking to themselves that a normal life of working hard for modest rewards is just not worthwhile? I'm not sure about these explanations, personally, and suspect that a lot more is going on here that we don't yet understand too well.

In the university context, which is the setting I know best, it's actually quite hard to generalise in the way the above observations would suggest. Having been mentor and/or teacher to a wide range of male and female students over the years, it's difficult to pick out any useful generalisations at all. Both male and female students sometimes lack motivation, for instance, and in a very small number of cases I have even advised students to leave the university and get a job - sometimes, such advice has been taken and the students concerned have gone on to do well after finally discovering what they really want to do.

Some students - of both sexes - have big difficulties adapting to the fact the university is not just a more advanced sort of school, and that to succeed at university requires a good deal of self discipline and inner motivation. We don't spoon-feed our students, and nor should we, though increasingly students (and occasionally their parents) expect us to do so, in the sense that they expect the university to provide a lot more support and guidance than we used to do. Mostly, this doesn't seem to me a very healthy trend - but more on this theme in a later posting.

When it comes to finding jobs, or planning further study, my experience in recent years is that female students have been enormously more energetic and diligent in pursuing these options then most of the male students I have known - this is reflected in the number of references I am asked to write for male and female students. Eventually, virtually everyone who completes their course and graduates does find a job or embarks on further study, so in the end male-female differences are less marked in terms of outcomes than one might have expected from the relative efforts they put into the job-seeking process.

But why are there any male-female differences at all nowadays? After all, everyone supposedly has the same opportunities, the same chances to develop, progress, and succeed. Intellectually, there's nothing much to choose between male and female students, with a fairly wide range of abilities to be found in both sexes. There is a more noticeable difference, however, in terms of the social skills possessed by each sex, and this is most marked in students from the UK, especially from Scotland. Specifically - and I know it's dangerous to generalise - it often seems to be the case that Scottish female students are more self confident, more outgoing, more articulate, than many of their male counterparts. They are also often better motivated to work hard at university.

On the other hand, such differences are far less noticeable amongst our overseas students. Here, though, one has to be careful, as our typical overseas student is probably brighter, more outgoing, more confident than the average student from his or her home country; they need to be, simply to have the nerve and the motivation to study abroad.

So for some of the male (and far fewer of the female) Scottish students, we are left with a puzzle. What happens before they come to university - either in their schooling, or in their family lives - to undermine their confidence, to make them inarticulate and shy, to an extent that they struggle and under-perform at university?

One possibility is simply that society's expectations of men have changed so much in the past generation. It used to be the norm for the 'man' in a family to be the chief earner, with women either not working at all outside the home, or only part-time and with earnings that were usually at most a small share of family income. This gave men a highly responsible position and status in society, and must have helped to motivate them to gain qualifications, to work hard, to advance themselves, etc. Social change, notably massive - and long overdue - improvements in the position of women in the labour force, has left men without such a clear, distinctive role in society. Interestingly, many women still see themselves as striving to overcome the last remnants of former barriers to their progress, and hence they work hard and are frequently very ambitious. But what does society expect of men nowadays? It seems not very much, or certainly nothing that offers much responsibility or status. Can this be part of the explanation for men under-performing and lacking ambition? And if so, what can we do about it? Here I cannot wave a magic wand and offer a great new solution, but it does seem that there are some important issues here that need more research. For a new generation of under-performing, unemployed and idle (young) men is not an appealing prospect!

1 comment:

  1. The lack of motivation could arise from several factors. The boys at a young age are probably not encouraged as much as the girls. The boys are taught to be tough and not shed tears. They wanted to be independent and make a stand of their own. It could be caused by making bad choices in life or by lack of good teachers to guide them.

    I just came searching on google about 'lack of ambition' and this is where I ended up. Thanks for the info as I realise that I am not alone.