The economic crisis and future imaginaries: How the economic crisis has affected people’s future imaginaries

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by  Helen Schönborn

The paper “The economic crisis and future imaginaries: How the economic crisis has affected people’s future imaginaries” explores if and how the economic crisis has affected people’s understanding of their future selves and their imagination of the future of society in Germany (Cologne) and Spain (Barcelona). As the economic crisis, which affected all European countries, has been portrayed as a far-reaching societal event, it might have influenced people’s future imaginaries. We conducted life-story interviews in Germany and Spain because their economies experienced the crisis very differently. In addition to their life story, we asked participants about their personal outlook for the future, the impact of the economic crisis on their future imaginaries and how they imagine the future of society. Because the future perspective has grown to be a crucial element of people’s self-understanding (Rosenthal, 1993) and the integrity of society depends in part on the possibility to imagine a common future (Bauböck, 2017), the analysis of future imaginaries is a compelling tool for the investigation of societal questions. The idea is that individual future imaginaries can give important insight into societal dynamics and change, from the perspective of its members.

For our analysis future imaginaries were conceived as a realm of plans and wishes for the future, which depend on a person’s personal life history, but also on the given social-historical context (Cantó-Milà and Seebach, 2015). Future imaginaries are made up of images of the future, which define what a person is imagining, and figures, which capture how a person imagines that an image comes about. In addition, we applied Simmel’s (1992) concept of a “special place”. According to Simmel (1992), one of the preconditions for an integrated society is that the society gives every member the possibility to imagine that they have a “special place” within it. That “special place” can be, for example, a chosen profession, or parenthood. The possibility to imagine a “special place” gives people a sense of belonging and, thus, engages them with society. For the continuance of social integration, it is crucial that people can imagine their “special place” not only in the present but also in the future. Thus, the future perspective is a fundamental component of societal integration and its maintenance.

Our analysis has shown that the influence of the economic crisis on participants’ future imaginaries differed between Spain and Germany. While German participants‘ outlook on the future was not influenced by the crisis, the accounts of Spanish interviewees pointed to three mentality changes: The labor market is perceived as less stable than before, young people have to be better prepared – meaning they need higher qualifications – and younger Spanish participants seek opportunities to live and work in foreign countries. In terms of “special place” imagination, it is interesting that these mentality changes do not concern the concrete imagination of a “special place”, but only the realm of “special places”. Most participants saw their “special place” as being fulfilled in their profession, which makes the labor market, as a realm of “special places”, crucial for societal integration. We had speculated that people might adapt their “special place” imagination to the economic situation. However, this speculation was not confirmed, as Spanish participants did not state that they had changed their career plans due to the crisis, but said that they need to be better prepared for the job market and might even have to leave their country to try to find employment in a different country. This idea of leaving Spain to look for work abroad is not restricted to the sample in this study, but is a general trend. Since 2008 1.5 percent (700,000) of the Spanish population, mainly young adults, have left their country to work abroad (Nelson, 2017). It is remarkable that participants did not apparently change their self-image and the expectations they have for themselves, but rather that the strategy for how they fulfill these expectations was adapted to the economic situation. This confirms that participants’ future perspective and expectations regarding the self are fairly stable, or at least resistant to the economic situation of their country.

Furthermore, the mentioned mentality changes – a less stable labor market, younger people need higher qualifications, and younger Spanish interviewees seek opportunities to live and work abroad – point to a neo-liberalization of the Spanish interviewees’ understanding of their labor market. This is in line with Atkinson’s qualitative study about the perception of the crisis among UK citizens. He concludes that the economic crisis enhanced the flexibilization of labor (easy hiring and dismissing) and reduced public services, which makes for a more uncertain personal future. Thus, it seems that with the crisis neoliberal practices have been further implemented not only in the UK but also in Spain since they guided Spanish participants’ future imaginaries.

In sum, German interviewees saw their lives and future perspective affected little or not at all by the economic crisis, while the Spanish participants seemed to have developed a more neoliberalist understanding of their labor market due to the crisis. With this, their expectations and ideas about their future selves outwore the economic crisis, as it was their understanding of how to reach their future “special place” and not the imagination of the “special place” itself that changed.

Full paper:

Schönborn, H.S. & Doosje, B., (2018). The economic crisis and future imaginaries: How the economic crisis has affected people’s future imaginaries. Digithum. (21), pp.21–32. DOI:

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