The Great Aspiration Myth.

Last year, my then seven year old son came home from school looking like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I asked him what the matter was.

“I’m worried I won’t be successful.”

I did that mother thing – frowning with concern while stifling laughter.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m worried that when I grow up, I won’t get a good job and won’t be able to support a family.”

To be fair, he is a bit of a worry bean. But his concerns are echoed by children all over the country. Often, they start with innocuous comments from parents and teachers along the lines of

“If you don’t work hard at school, you won’t get a good job when you’re older.”

It sounds harmless enough, but add that to the bombardment of advertising showing children that being able to buy stuff brings love and happiness and you have a recipe for disaster. And the worst thing of all is he’s probably right.

We tell our children that education = success. We don’t tell them that in order to be able to afford what the government terms an “affordable home”, they’ll need to be earning almost six times the national average wage outside of London and a staggering 15 times more in London itself. We don’t tell them that 50% of graduates leave university burdened with debt to find themselves in jobs that didn’t require a degree in the first place. We don’t tell them that the University course most likely to secure employment after Medicine, is actually Media Studies.

They hear a great deal about facilitating subjects. About the importance of academic success. About the prestige of Russell Group Universities. But what happens when they get there? At the other end of my family’s age spectrum is a 23 year old. He went to a state school, a state sixth form college and on to Oxford. Hurrah! A success. But when he left it took him a year to find work. And when he did, the job came through a friend of his Uncle. Offered two weeks’ work experience as a favour, he managed to secure a job. Contacts counted for way more than qualification. In fact, although he loved his time at Oxford, he started to feel that the fact he’d been there was a hindrance. Some potential employers told him – off the record – that they worried that employing Oxbridge graduates would lead to accusations of elitism. It is a great injustice for a state educated child to beats the odds and get into Oxbridge, only to meet inverted snobbery at the end of it. Still, happy ending….sort of.

His lovely, articulate and clever girlfriend, with a science degree, also from Oxford, is still unemployed. She has taken on voluntary project after voluntary project – clearing brambles in parks, taking on ecological and environmental work for nothing in the hope that something will lead to paid work. The reality of austerity, however, is that these kinds of services are now done by volunteers and charities. There is no public funding and so the jobs associated with conservation are gone. It seems ironic, given Nicky Morgan’s insistence that the Arts lead nowhere, that in this partnership, it is the Scientist struggling for work. Where she applies for work in the area she is most interested in, she is told she is overqualified. When she applies for graduate positions, she is told she is under experienced. It is a frustrating and depressing position to be in as a young adult who was told, like so many others, that her string of Grade As would lead to work. She will find work, I know. And she’ll look back and all this will be a blip. But what then?

He is on a decent starting salary for a graduate – almost at national average. Yet they have no money. They pay £1000 per month to live in London. This buys them a studio flat so small that the sofa sits beneath a bunk bed. They have to share a bathroom with other flats. After rent, travel to work, bills and student loans are paid, there is nothing left for him. Should they even want to start a family, it’s hard to know what they’ll do. Staying in London will clearly be impossible. But this is where his work is.

All of this is personal and anecdotal, but their experience is mirrored all over the country. Adults returning to live at home with parents, or living in rented accommodation barely fit for habitation. These are the successes. The ones who worked hard and did well. What of the others? There can be no future for this generation of young people that consists of the things we once considered basics – a decent home with outdoor space in which one could raise a family – as long as house prices remain at their current level. We have reached a point where one generation is dependent on the death of another in order to have any hope of that goal. How awful.

I look at my little one and tell him that of course he’ll be successful. Of course, things will turn out well. And then I open the TES and look at jobs in international schools. Because I fear that for him, that future might not be possible in the UK.

2 thoughts on “The Great Aspiration Myth.

  1. This is the premise of The Global Auction – our kids our told they must aspire and achieve but when they do they find themselves struggling to find a job. They’re also up against equally-qualified workers from countries where labour is cheaper. Many jobs, even professional ones, can be outsourced to these countries. Technology, also, means that many jobs which required high-level skills can be done digitally.

    At the same time, adults are told they must work longer. This doesn’t free up jobs for younger workers. We’re told the country can’t afford to keep pensioners, but what would be better for society: paying pensions to people who’ve already raised their families, bought their homes etc or having millions of young people out-of-work and with no hope of ever having the things which previous generations of adults had: a home and family.

    The authors argue the number of under graduates entering uni should be reduced to avoid a race to the bottom. However, young people, uni graduates or not, need employment. The authors make the case for policies which encourage employers to provide work which need graduates.
    I would extend this to having policies which encourage us to train sufficient doctors, nurses, plumbers, teachers, care home workers etc without having to import them from abroad. At the same time workers should expect a fair wage for their work sufficient for them to rent or even buy a home. Gov’t policy re housebuilding, for example, is geared towards houses which are ‘affordable’ to purchasers. But affordable means 80% of the market value in an area – this puts such homes out of the reach of most people in areas of London.

    The government’s answer, however, is to push the myth that if kids work hard they will achieve and get a ‘good’ job. But they won’t necessarily if social policies aren’t aligned with educational ones.

  2. My daughter is currently studying Humanities at a Russell Group university and I worry about the difficulties graduates face in finding employment that pays a decent wage. Multinational corporations outsource as many business functions abroad as possible. Combined with automation there is little left for young people to do.

    Multinational corporates buy land and then sit on it rather than build homes to keep the prices high. The economy is regionally dependent on London and the South East which forces excessive demand for housing in this area pushing prices even higher.

    We need change to avoid a bleak future.

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