Aspiration is a weasel word.
When politicians seek to associate themselves with a policy objective, but without committing the resources required to achieve it, they declare their “aspiration” to do so.
Then there’s “poverty of aspiration” – a curious phrase that suggests that people are poor because they can’t even conceive of any other way of living. This is to misunderstand the situation. Being at the bottom of the heap doesn’t make you ignorant of how the rest of society lives. Nor does it make you hostile to the idea of regular, rewarding employment or stable family relationships.
Almost everyone wants these things for themselves, it’s just that some people just don’t know how to get from where they are to where they’d like to be.
In an unequal society, people start off in different positions – some of them privileged, others very much less so. But the inequality that really does the damage is the inequality of signposting: the privileged not only start off much closer to where they want to go, the path to advancement is also clearly set out before them.
Bu contrast, for those who start a long way from where they want to get to, the path is strewn with obstacles and mis-directions: a welfare system that punishes people for trying to better themselves; policing and housing policies that tolerate anti-social behaviour; a planning system that reserves beauty for wealthy neighbourhoods; educational methods that deny rigour and discipline to those who could most benefit from them; a cultural elite who usually get married themselves, but refuse to stand up for it as a social institution.
The current Government has made some effort to better light the way. But even in the area where the greatest progress has been made – schools policy – the great divide still persists. For the academically inclined, the path is clearly signposted from GCSE to A-levels to university and beyond. But can the same be said for vocational education?
The promotion of apprenticeships is to be applauded, but we aren’t anywhere near the well-defined vocational pathways that exist in countries like Germany – where highly regarded institutions guide young people from one stage to the next. It’s no wonder that the German record on youth unemployment is so much better than ours.
It’s sometimes said that the obsession with talent shows such as the X Factor is evidence of the poverty of aspiration. Instead of studying and working towards realistic goals, the young dream of fame and fortune instead, most of them with absolutely no chance of success. Yet the irony is that the key elements of the talent show format – defined stages of achievement, intensive mentoring and no-nonsense judgment – have parallels in what is missing from everyday lives of too many of our fellow Britons. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that most successful act to ever emerge from the show is called One Direction.
Of course, providing people with that degree of guidance in their lives runs counter to the liberal ethos – which is all about choice and exploration. There is, after all, a reason why the third verse of All Things Bright and Beautiful doesn’t get sung anymore:
“The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them high and lowly / And ordered their estate.”These sentiments would once have seemed wholly unremarkable, but are now utterly alien to our way of thinking.
And yet an open society in which every one is expected to choose their own place and find their own way, is one that effectively encourages its most vulnerable members to get lost. Crucially, more of us are becoming vulnerable all the time. Only yesterday, David Willetts, the Universities minister, warned middle class professionals that their jobs were increasingly under threat from computerisation.
If recent patterns continue, then economic benefits of automation are likely be concentrated among a relatively small group of winners – the so-called “cognitive elite”. The switch in Conservative rhetoric from the “Big Society” and “we’re all in it together” to the “global race” and “aspiration nation” therefore comes at an odd time. Yes, it is true that all economic growth ultimately depends on technological progress and that we must seize the opportunities, but to leave people without the institutional framework to help them adapt will have politically fatal consequences. In fact, the backlash is already underway – as the rise of UKIP demonstrates.
Some pundits argue that popular anger over immigration and the EU is voter shorthand for feelings of economic disenfranchisement. Others insist that to reduce everything to economics is a Marxist fallacy. The truth is that there is no hard and fast distinction between economic and cultural discontent. A society that lacks the institutions to guide its members into satisfying and productive work is both economically and culturally impoverished.