The end of aspiration

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A commentator on this blog has criticised me for suggesting that aspiration cannot change outcomes in society. He says, in response to my blog on education, here:

For example, you say “Aspiration cannot be dealt with when there is nothing to aspire to unless you are in the top 10% (or less)”.

If this statement is true then I am puzzled as to how the Labour and Co-op movements etc developed and using a more recent example, how Nelson Mandela came to lead an African country.

First, let me dismiss all argument based on comparison with Nelson Mandela. The man is an exception to all rules.

And let’s also not confuse the current environment with that which existed a century and more ago: things have changed a lot. Which is my point: things have changed so much that for most there is nothing to aspire to in our society: intuitively some young people are not aspiring in the way the education system (and the neo-liberal market infrastructure) assumes desirable for two reasons.

First of all an increasing number question the relevance of aspiration when all it seems to entail is excess consumption that is destroying the environment paid for with a burden of debt that will last until retirement, and beyond. Quite reasonably they ask if that consumption is the real meaning of being and whether that debt is a burden worth enduring to suffer that lack of meaning. Some, and it is an increasing number, are clearly deciding to opt out of that system. They are quite rationally not aspirational in the way the market system demands they be.

Second, intuitively many people know that there is no point in being aspirational when the prospect of success is very, very low indeed. Real wages for most people in the UK have hardly advanced in decades. Nor has real wealth – unless you are in the top 10% of income earners – and even then most of the advantage goes to the top 1%. The gap between the richest and poorest is widening. The chances of breaking out of your social situation and advancing up the materially measured social hierarchy – which is presumably what aspiration means in this context – is reducing rapidly as social mobility declines in the UK.

Of course people don’t measure this sort of thing – but all around them they see and hear the evidence that this is true – that you are, in the vast majority of cases, stuck where you are. Even things that used to appear normal – such as buying your own home – are now beyond the means of a significant part of the population. They will never be able to own the one thing most people have always aspired to because the price is way beyond the means of people on above average, let alone average, incomes in the UK.

And if you can’t aspire to this rather basic standard of security – which the rented sector cannot emulate in its current form – you are forced to adopt a very different view of what life is going to be about.

Comparing to the early 20th century and late 19th century is in that circumstance little short of absurd. It was then vey obvious that aspiration would bring reward. But now you can seek to secure a sensible and useful job, have a partner, and find yourselves under a mountain of debt with young children in a home too mean to allow you to live well (which is the standard offering now put up by market driven builders) and face a life of misery as a result. So why bother?

This is the problem for the next decade. If we cannot solve this and give people reason to hope again we’re in very deep trouble.

There is no chance whatsoever that the market will do that.

It’s the market, after all, that has killed aspiration by denying its rewards to most people.

And the result is not just a loss of aspiration, but a world of insecurity and fear. Fear on the part of those denied hope as to what might happen to them and fear by the minority that have command of resources about how they can hold on to what they have – and maintain the difference between them an the rest of society (which is, for example, what the whole private school market is really all about).

This is the challenge social democrats have to rise to and resolve. I doubt if anyone else can or will.