I just stumbled across this sketchy first draft of my PhD project written over 12 years ago:
I want to explore the moral experience of young people under late modern consumer capitalism. I’m interested in the way that the changes you discuss in your later work lead to a collapse in the horizon of possible narrative for young people. Given the prevalence of enabling liberal educational culture, the question “what do you want to do when you grow up?” has more currency than ever while the general capacity to enact a career as a unified narrative trajectory is being systematically deconstructed. Institutional changes in the structures of labour markets and corporations are converging with cultural changes (diminishing influence of tradition, the growing centrality of consumer sovereignty, a tacit relativism within liberal political culture) to massively open the range of choices available to us while undermining the significance our choices hold for us.
I want to argue that with a multiplication of choice has come an evisceration of purpose: we have more choices than ever before but we have to work ever harder to make those choices meaningful. The qualitative distinctions we draw between our ends are what ensure the coherency of self-narrative: we’re able to interpret the disparate events of our lives as part of a movement towards over-arching goals. Yet with the death of the “job for life” the coherency of the self-narrative will tend to fail as working life becomes a staccato move through a variety of contexts. The fact the “flexibility” required to do this successfully is highly valued sits in conflict with our need to maintain a coherent self-narrative. Meanwhile our very capacity to make qualitative distinctions between our ends is being eroded by an utilitarian intellectual heritage which only recognises quantitative distinctions, a powerful ethos of consumer sovereignty which only recognises the category of consumption preferences and a tacit relativism which reduces the significance of the most deeply-held ends to that of personal opinion.
Whereas the growth of the self as a narrative project was the result of felt psychological need, it’s given rise to a cultural edifice that sustains an ‘ethics of authenticity’. We’re compelled as a matter of ethical imperative to “find ourselves” (i.e. to actively engage in the self as a narrative project) at the same time as the institutional structures we might use to orientate ourselves are radically changing and the cultural resources we might draw on are radically diminishing.