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This paper draws on the concept of ideological dilemmas in order to explore how a sample of young people constructed potentially contrary themes of liberal citizenship in discussions of un/employment. The study took place in the context of recent policy developments in the UK which have sought to place a renewed emphasis upon notions of responsible citizenship in relation to both welfare and education policy. A total of 58 participants were interviewed in 24 semi-structured group interviews. In response to direct questions on un/employment, participants could resolve dilemmas concerning welfare rights and the responsibility to contribute to society by emphasizing a criterion of effortfulness, thereby adopting a primarily individualistic explanation of unemployment. In other contexts however, this could be replaced by an emphasis on social explanations of unemployment. In particular, participants could treat immigration as a cause of unemployment. These findings are interpreted in terms of people's capacity to construct rhetorical strategies based upon different ideological themes in particular contexts. They are discussed in relation to previous research on social policy discourse and recent debates regarding the appropriateness of seeking to identify ideological themes in discourse.