Malcolm Turnbull

The government has a new favourite buzzword: aspiration. Coalition MPs have been dropping it 20 times a day. Meanwhile, conservative media mourn the supposed death of aspiration in the Australian Labor Party, killed by Shorten’s failure to back tax cuts to businesses and the rich.

While this is narrowly conceived, I would not mourn its passing; aspiration is a poor virtue to guide public policy. I’m intimately familiar with the pitfalls of an aspirational life, and cannot recommend it to my fellow Australians.

Aspirations vs pipe dreams

I was once what Malcolm Turnbull might call aspirational. My high school’s motto was “strive for the highest”. I graduated as dux of multiple subjects, and achieved the kind of ATAR score that elicits both tall-poppy-syndrome chagrin, and congratulatory Facebook comments from distant aunts. The first in my family to attend university, I graduated with high distinction.

Then I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Suddenly, the energy which sustained my striving deserted me. It took all I could muster to simply stay afloat; ascendency was no longer an option. My symptoms have eased and should fade completely, but I am still hesitant to strive in that same way, as my future physical capacity remains unreliable.

Aspiration is a privilege. Aspirations are only distinguished from pipe dreams because one possesses realistic means to achieve them; principally wealth, opportunity and physical stamina. As I learned the hard way, with a poor stroke of luck, any or all of these can suddenly evaporate.

Those experiencing disadvantage do not lack imagination. They simply lack the present means to convert dreams into reality, and temper their expectations accordingly. Instead of scolding them to dream bigger and work harder, politicians should instead facilitate their modest aspirations through the systemic alleviation of rocks on their path.

Delusions of meritocracy

Even for those capable of meeting society’s increasingly unrealistic educational and workplace expectations, the rewards are increasingly paltry. It has become more difficult for my generation to achieve widely-held aspirations, such as owning a home or securing stable employment, largely due to governments deliberately stacking the deck in favour of asset-rich Baby Boomers.

It is no coincidence that the prevalence of the aspiration narrative has coincided with government suppression of socioeconomic mobility. Conservatives obscure their active entrenchment of inequality by pretending that rich boomers simply earned their wealth by working hard. John Howard perfected the self-aggrandisement of the “aspirational class”, depicting a mythical cohort of “social climbers” marked by their unique commitment to dream big and achieve bigger.

He could not concede that this cohort were among the luckiest generations in human history. Their thrift and ambition met historically unprecedented traction. Their feet ran faster due to favourable terrain. Not to mention the fact that Peter Costello showered them with expensive taxpayer-funded gifts. The “aspirational class” narrative was necessary to naturalise their power, to ignore the political construction of their success, and to avoid feelings of obligation to future generations.

As Gen Y enters the workforce and housing market, it takes us far longer to achieve even modest goals, even as we work harder than previous generations. The structural impediments to individual striving are increasingly exposed, and delusions of meritocracy are thankfully eroding. Thus, the odious appeals to simply dream big and work hard are finally falling flat.

Aspiring to unhappiness

My generation were inculcated with the neoliberal imperative for individual striving in youth, to the extent that we sometimes blame ourselves for economic short-fallings. We were weaned on a cultural diet of “you can achieve anything you set your mind to” platitudes. We were not raised as structuralists; in fact, we have confronted the persistence of structural barriers too late.

Not only was the aspiration narrative unrealistic, it also damaged our wellbeing. The link between individual striving, competition and unhappiness is increasingly recognised. In my case, the ladder-climbing impulse butted distressingly against my physical incapacity. My wherewithal stripped, I was forced to find meaning in stillness, a challenging yet rewarding journey enabled by relative financial comfort.

I respectfully ask the Prime Minister to drop the aspiration narrative, out of respect to those who are unable to realistically aim high, due to either bad luck or successive conservative governments stripping their means to propel themselves. In its place, he could bravely revive an unfashionable term anathema to his side of politics: solidarity.