Aspiration – what’s that all about?

Are you suffering from aspiration fatigue? In a week when Labour leadership contenders were falling over themselves to urge the party to do more to appeal to ‘aspirational’ voters it’s not surprising we’re already tiring of it, especially when it’s described in terms of nothing more than where we shop, or want to shop.

Brian May, speaking on a BBC Question Time panel this week, gave voice to some of this irritation, and expressed concern that politicians seem to be using the term to describe people’s personal desire for more money rather than their wish to achieve great things.

In the context of Labour’s successes and failures in the general election, there’s hardly a clear correlation between aspiration and not voting Labour given that London, the epicentre of aspiration, swung towards the party and it was older voters, whose economic aspirations are more likely to be behind them, who turned away from it.

But what is aspiration and who has it?

In its narrowest sense, aspiration just means aiming high or having high hopes. This can refer to wanting a higher income or standard of living (and which of us doesn’t?) but it can also mean having high hopes of those around us, our community and wider society. A genuinely aspirational person wants everyone to aim high and achieve great things, they understand that for each of us to do well our personal ambition has to be combined with social support and solidarity. None of us will achieve our aspirations without the contribution of lots of other people and the presence of some fairly solid social structures and institutions.

So what are politicians telling us when they praise aspiration? Are they praising greed? Selfishness? Personal ambition? Are they using the term to highlight the deficiencies of the non-aspirational; the lazy feckless ‘underclass’ who make no plans and can’t be bothered to better themselves?

Singling out particular people or demographic groups as ‘aspirational’ feels wrong, and maybe even divisive. Surely, we are all aspirational, both for ourselves and for others. This may look different for different people but we all want a comfortable standard of living and personal security and we all hope for the kind of incremental improvements which will give us a better life. However, the realising of all our aspirations requires a functioning, decent and fair society.

It needs to be said that we are also all capable of being selfish and grasping under certain circumstances. But politicians shouldn’t just aim to hold a mirror up to our individual selfishness. Electing representatives is one of the ways we act together as social agents. Our politicians represent us as a collective and should be helping us to see how to promote wider social aspirations rather than encouraging us to simply look out for number one.

The great joy of working with young people in an educational setting is that our students are full of aspiration and our work is all about helping to nurture and realise those aspirations. And how wonderful that aspiration is not a commodity which needs to be rationed; one person’s high aspirations do not require anyone else’s to be lowered. In a school or college, everyone can aim high and do well.

So we may be a bit fed up with all this talk of aspiration, particularly of the narrow economic kind. But let’s not give up on the full aspirational package, including the wider social kind. It’s what keeps us all going.

See also: Is social mobility enough?

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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