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. mary wood

    A thought-provoking article. The continual harping about aspiration by our parliamentary representatives exposes their shallowness. Why should the aged-care worker, child-care worker, mechanic, shop-fitter, etc. be made to feel worthless especially if they enjoy their work, do it well, and get satisfaction of a job well done. Which opens the question of how various workers are paid – should merchant bankers, financial traders, and the many others who receive the most remuneration be paid as much as they do. What exactly do they contribute to the well-being of society? Perhaps pay scales should be adjusted so those who now occupy the best rewarded jobs should be paid the least, and those presently receiving the least should get the most. And don’t even start me on the fortunes paid to elite athletes – just why are they worth so much? Should we not aspire to be decent people and to enjoy making a contribution to general well-being to the best of our abilities.

    1. mongoose

      It would be a good thing for everybody to get paid the same no matter what the job, cleaner or brain surgeon. People would then work at what they enjoy and have an interest in, or simply want to get done so they can play. Housing and other needs would be priced in line with that income. Health and education would be ‘free’ as these essentials are a right and not a privilege. Nobody left hungry or homeless, or left out. Profits made can be spread across the board in terms of infrastructure, facilities etc. We all know that none of us is in realty any better or worse than anyone else and, with a level playing field, we can all relax and
      enjoy our lives without fear or favor.

      1. AR

        Fascinatingly new & novel innovative idea – you could make it into a slogan, something along the lines of, I dunno, maybe “from each according to their aspirations, to each according to their desires“?
        Nothing Tragick about the Commons.

  2. jimpintin

    Why is there never any mention of gen x, only always gen y and boomers. Isn’t gen x now running the country?

    1. Richard Barratt

      I’m Gen-X, in the tech field, and being in charge seems to have skipped a generation, at least in my field.

      I do, however, notice, that the creative arts in the MSM are pandering to us.

      1. Lee

        Yes they are not exactly handing over in many fields. Still wielding their population bulge. Ignoring Gen X is nothing new btw.

    2. Andrea

      Malcolm Turnbull is a baby boomer, also Julie Bishop. Apparently ScoMo, that homeland guy and power-shoulders Cash are my generation, gen-x, say it isn’t so!

  3. AR

    How does it differ from the torys’ white picket fence Incentivation?
    Back in the Dark Past, when sufficient functional literacy still existed that the new, innovatived word alone was enough to have the phantasy laughed off the corflute.
    Was it only 30yrs ago?
    One way to spot ‘fake fakts’ is that they are rarely written in correct English.

  4. Rosemary Jacob

    Once upon a time, any USA citizen could aspire to be POTUS. Nowadays, any billionaire can set his sights on the top job. Rising inequality is building impassable barriers which doom aspiration for many.

    1. klewso

      Surely Trump proves the adage that “Anyone can be President” – all you need is enough money and a country that’s so lost hope that enough are ready to cling to any “cling-on”?

      Poor Lincoln? “You can fool some of the people all of the time. You can fool all of the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”?
      One out of three is a fail?

  5. klewso

    If only we could all aspire to be born to the right circumstances, to have the right connections to be able to screw the competition, to be able to grind the less privileged, to make our fortunes from the work and savings of the less fortunate?
    We could get a job with a bank, AMP, a “lender of your choice”, “insurance”, big business, mining.
    Maybe even secure a career in politics with the Limited News Party, to protect those careers?
    Or both?
    Like Bobby’s girl, ‘Oh what a grateful thankful land we’d be’?

  6. Richard Barratt

    The conceit of aspirations being attainable by supporting policies that make them unattainable is as old as capitalism’s hijacking of democracy (old).
    And yet, despite aspirations being ever more unattainable, the conceit still works.

    As others have pointed out, the use of the term aspirational is well worn by the Howard government. The Turnbull government is turning to the tried and true smokescreen, in the face of electoral dismissal of its policies.

  7. klewso

    It takes a special kind of person to poke a snake for asp ire?

  8. Itsarort

    93% of all money is “old” money.

  9. TheRabidHamster

    Keep voting Liberal and aspiration is all your children will have.

  10. Ng GJB

    I believe the Australian public has ”aspirated” more than enough political bullshit.
    Our entire respiratory system is failing…. choking on the excrement of an entitled class of political creatures who have no actual experience of working hard and still barely scraping by.

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