Jul 5, 2018

The perils of ‘aspiration’, Australia’s new favourite buzzword

It's in the government's interest to push the narrative of an "aspirational class", but this wildly obscures what's really going on.

Benjamin Clark — Freelance writer

Benjamin Clark

Freelance writer

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.

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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.


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31 thoughts on “The perils of ‘aspiration’, Australia’s new favourite buzzword

  1. Marcus Hicks

    Aspiration…..this is just a pathetic rehash of the ludicrous “Howard’s Battlers” line. The line that got the turkeys voting for Christmas every 3 years or so.

  2. bjb

    When talking of the “aspiration” that L/NP types espouse, it’s worth remembering what the late Kerry Packer said of Malcolm (paraphrased): “Never get between Malcolm Turnbull and a bag of money”.
    Is your aspiration to be a better teacher, nurse, child care worker, council worker, tradie etc… if so, to the L/NP, you’re a loser. You need to follow Joe Hockey’s advice, and “get a better job”, which presumably means a lawyer or investment banker (Malcolm, tick in both cases).
    As Michelle Rowland said on an ABC interview a week or so ago – the L/NP know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
    I know who the losers are.

  3. zut alors

    ‘solidarity’ !!

    Has the writer heard of an MP called Tony Abbott?

  4. Bill Hilliger

    Meanwhile, Malfeasance Turnbull and Scoundrel Morrison aspire to a modicum of honesty and integrity in their dealing with hard working Australians; unkind people are opine that will never ever be achieved.

  5. DF

    Turnbull defines aspiration entirely in monetary terms. Otherwise he would aspire to be a better PM, and actually reflect, by his actions, all the fine words he espoused before he did the deal with Joyce to roll Abbott,

  6. CML

    Onya! Mark Butler…so happy to hear you saw the light and joined a better party!
    Obviously no ‘rusted-on’ for you!!

  7. covenanter

    Yes, the Baby Boomer bashing might seem quite justified, except that because they are all old now, and many have already left the planet, it is just a bit unseemly.
    Yes, they should have jacked up when the only way for their children to affordto actually buy a home for the the Baby Boomer parents to take out another mortgage on that once modest family home.
    Their middle class aspiration to become “wealthy”, in numbers at least, came at the cost of keeping homes at the modest prices they experienced when they were young.
    But, when homes in the seventies and onwards were doubling in the value that banks were willing to lend money on every four years, not many asked “where’s all this money coming from?”.
    But were these people responsible for the banking strategy which through their lending policies guaranteed capital gains to match the five times the original list price paid on a mortgage over twenty five years?
    Mainly these Baby Boomers were aspiring not to be caught in the dead money rent trap that succeeding generations are now caught in, and now robbing them of their enthusiasm, as the author of the article asserts.
    The reality is that no-one can get what the Baby Boomers got, no matter how much they aspire, they will have to find some other ways to acquire the security of home-ownership.
    Now can those deflated clever people out there work out what that might entail, strength in numbers, a little bit of co-operation, the abandonment of usury, a firm and sober assessment of the housing/banking/government price setting cartel which has deflated their aspirations?
    Perhaps those Boomers aren’t totally to blame after all.

    1. Marcus Hicks

      In fairness, median house prices were in lockstep with median income right up until the end of the 1990’s. Then a certain Prime Minister (who was also fond of the term “aspiration”) decided to provide a 50% Capital Gains Tax exemption on house sales which, coupled with negative gearing, saw median house price sky-rocket & a significant drop in the total percentage of owner-occupiers in the housing market.

      1. covenanter

        Yes, Marcus, that nasty, little example of the species of middle-class Australian snob, certainly knew his mark when touting his fake wealth to the aspirationals, not one of whom ever seemed to wonder just where the succeeding generations were going to acquire the means of home- ownership.
        And that “Boy from Bankstown”, then a housing commission suburb, fits the same bill; just another aspirational Sydney snob, for all his rhetoric about workers and their lunches in brown paper bags; another idiot who didn’t know the connection between affordable worker’s housing and sustainable workers’ wages.
        NSW Premier, at the time, Neville Wran, and his Planning Minister Paul Landa, got it right when the NSW Department Of Lands actually built vast subdivisions to provide, in the main, affordable housing for government employees.
        The systematic sabotage of the Commonwealth State Housing Agreements, rolled over, every seven years, (in more ways than one) since 1983, means that no real government “interference” in the Housing/Banking/local government price setting cartel , (misnamed as a free-market) has been “permitted”.
        The dis-efranchised younger generations could aspire to learn something about past wisdom on the subject, before that knowledge dies out with the Baby Boomers?

  8. Vasco

    Nicely put Benjamin. Autoimmune disease buggered me up in my middle age until I realised what aspiring to be successful instead of seeking other ways of being was doing to me. Your respectful request to the PM and all who sail on him is to a massive collection of tin ears but there’s no harm in having a go. Take care of yourself.

  9. wombat88

    The coalition appeal is to the aspirations of the rich. Aspiration is also defined as ‘the process of drawing breath’. It could be argued that the rich are already fully ‘aspirated’. The L/NP offers little for those struggling to ‘draw breath’, or is that the limit imposed on their aspiration?

  10. Judy Hardy-Holden

    I think that aged care worker in Burnie should embrace her aspiration to be the CEO of an Aged Care Facility and live luxuriously on the work of others. I too have aspirations. As a dewy 78 year old, I have aspirations to be a Miss World winner for Australia. How glamorous would that be? Entirely attainable too.

    1. Richard Barratt


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