Aspiration and Success

by Martin Butler

Liz Truss, the recently appointed UK PM, has said: “My mission is to make our country an aspiration nation, where every child, every person has the best opportunity to succeed.”

At first glance who could argue with this?  However when Truss speaks of success it’s reasonable to assume that she isn’t talking about eudemonia or being the best person you can be; she means something like having a successful career, getting a good job or doing well financially in some other way. And if we accept this interpretation, there is a problem with Truss’s mission that she, and others with similar views, never seem to confront.

Let’s imagine that Liz Truss achieves a society “where every child, every person has the best opportunity to succeed”. Let’s then also imagine that everyone takes the opportunities given to them, for if her statement is to mean anything at all this must surely be at least a theoretical possibility. Now let’s remind ourselves of the obvious point that societies that have ‘good jobs’ such as solicitors, doctors, accountants, successful entrepreneurs and so on can only operate if there are also refuse collectors, care assistants, road sweepers and the like, and that the latter need to considerably outnumber the former.  Societies requiring the high-powered also require far more of the unsung. Perhaps in future when technology has reached a more advanced stage the structure of the workforce might radically alter. Despite all the prophecies on this front, however, we are not there yet by a long way. This creates a problem, since success for everyone at the same time, in the sense of having an esteemed career, cannot even be a theoretical possibility.

What is insidious about this is that if everyone really has the best opportunity for success, we can explain why someone doesn’t succeed by saying that they didn’t take the opportunity offered to them, that they lacked ‘aspiration’ – thus turning lack of achievement into a personal failing and adding a sense of shame to those who are already struggling.

We forget that it is impossible for everyone to be a success (in the sense described) not because some fail to take the opportunities on offer, but because the structure of society’s workforce simply doesn’t allow for it. It’s a bit like saying to everyone in a race who didn’t win: you all had the opportunity to win but you didn’t take it so you only have yourself to blame.  This is the competitive notion of success, the myth behind the equal opportunities society that few seem to acknowledge.

The opportunities argument is clever because the kind of point I have made is often taken as somehow an argument against aspiration. But no one wants to deny that aspiration and hard work are excellent values, and nothing I have said counts against trying to do your best and taking responsibility for your own actions. I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with competition in itself. I do think however that we need to be honest about the implications of this so-called aspiration society, and that we need to rethink what all this aspiration is aiming towards. We need a notion of living a successful life to which all can aspire, but more importantly still, we need a notion of success which means that it is at least theoretically possible for everyone to achieve it – at the same time. Rather than the analogy of a race where there can only ever be one winner, we need a notion of success which is more like the success a team or family can achieve. The success of a team and the success of the individual team members go hand in hand, and we can aspire to achieve success in this sense as much as we can in the more individualistic sense. Teams can work to achieve a particular goal, an expedition to climb a mountain for example. If the team is successful, everyone within the team is successful. This is the collaborative notion of success. The team as a whole might compete with other teams although this isn’t necessarily the case.

Ironically, in the more hierarchical societies of the past, where there was no expectation that those lower down the social ladder could perform the roles reserved for those at the top, it was theoretically possible for everyone to achieve success. Success meant achieving excellence with regards to the particular role in society, at whatever level, to which you were allotted. Psychologically the lowly peasant had no conception of having failed if he or she did not rise up the ranks. I am not for a minute suggesting we return to a rigid hierarchical society. Such societies were usually based on prejudice and a completely false picture of some people being born innately ‘better’ than others. However, the rampantly individualistic model of society we seem to hold as an ideal today is both psychologically harmful and unsustainable for other reasons.

So what alternative am I suggesting?

I think we need to decouple success from the particular job we happen to do, and also from economic success more generally. The distribution of various types of employment in society is determined to a large extent by economic factors beyond our immediate control, and economic demands do not necessarily mesh with personal success. The mounting environmental crisis should reinforce the demands to reset our idea of success, but unfortunately the obsession with economic success is becoming more acute. Even in my lifetime the glorification of material acquisition has increased steadily, so that for many today the summon bonum is a new kitchen, even when the old one is perfectly fine  – something which would have seemed faintly absurd not so long ago. It’s also become commonplace to believe that the only conceivable reason why education is important is to get a better job, and this was certainly was not always the case. Rishi Sunak, the other contender for leader of the Conservative party, wanted to eliminate any University degree that didn’t result in ‘increased earning power’. There is something desperately nihilistic about this move towards defining people as economic units. (Even on its own terms it is misguided, just as explicitly setting out to achieve happiness is not necessarily the best way to actually attain it). It might be argued of course that a life without financial security can mean a soul-sapping fight to attain the basics, and that aiming at increased earning power is just being realistic.  Surely though we need to acknowledge a distinction between overcoming poverty (or attaining the basics) and the relentless push towards endless acquisition. Poverty is oppressive. So is the neurosis of continuous consumption and acquisition, and it’s myopic to regard overcoming poverty as simply the first step towards acquiring further riches. This embodies a deeply impoverished view of what success can be. There’s a psychological dimension to this. Sunak emphasises how his parents struggled financially to send him to a ‘good school’. It’s not clear how seriously we should take this, but certainly a background where there is financial struggle might well produce a state in which anything which doesn’t increase wealth is dismissed, even when financial security is attained. If this mental state is seen as pathological it might well evoke sympathy, but if normalised it is appalling. If we can ensure the basics for everyone then that gives us space to rethink and widen our idea of what success might be.  There are overwhelming reasons for such a rethink, both in terms of mental health and the environmental crisis we face. The neurosis of endless economic growth needs to be exorcized both from our image of individual aspiration and success, and more generally from our image of a successful society.

A society that ensures the basics for its population is the best hope we have for breaking out of this mindset. Of course, as sociologists will tell us, the most useful concept of poverty is that which is understood as relative. Poverty is only really meaningful in relation to a particular society. Not being in poverty simply means having the wherewithal to be able to participate in a given society, and this changes with culture and technology. Not having internet access didn’t used to mean being in poverty but it certainly does now – this does not of course mean you have to have internet access. But if it is true that we have a culture of acquisition and consumption then surely full participation in the society can only mean being part of this culture. Refusing to conform to this means to some extent standing apart from what is normal. This is certainly possible, although because the economics of capitalism are predicated on continual consumption, we are bound to be swimming against the tide to a large extent.  We need to tease out an idea of material conditions that constitute a basic level of existence, a level which is ‘good enough’ to live a life within the society which allows for the possibility of fulfilment and success but which does not simply rely on material consumption. Only then will success be at least possible for everyone. Ideas of the minimum wage or living wage are to some extent supposed to do this, but in our society ‘minimum wage’ is almost the definition of ‘not successful’. The counter to this would be the argument that we live in a free society and can all therefore choose the kind of lifestyle we want; if someone wants a minimum wage lifestyle, that’s fine, but we shouldn’t curb the aspirations of those that want financial success. Surely though, this takes us back to the argument we started with. Remember, we are trying to envisage a society where success is at least a real possibility for everyone, at the same time. There is a cultural dimension to this, as I have noted, and we do perhaps need to change the culture. A culture where driving around in a tanklike SUV is regarded as a mark of success could change to a culture where such environmentally destructive possessions are regarded with embarrassment, and certainly not as objects of aspiration. (This is to some extent starting to happen.) Free choice does not operate in a cultural vacuum. Social pressure is often more effective than legal restriction, although with regards to the environment at least, the latter will have a crucial role to play.

We need a model of success which is more about well-being than economic development, whether individual or societal. An important issue that needs to be confronted with our non-financial idea of success is that there is all the difference in the world between a society with a modest minimum wage allowing its citizens ready access to facilities which make a successful life much more likely (housing, healthcare, childcare, education, recreational and cultural activities and so on) and a society with a similar minimum wage in which these same facilities are expensive and difficult to access. In the latter kind of society a minimum wage ends up being not good enough and so we are back to the soul sapping fight to attain the basics.

Particularly now with the environmental issues we face, we should at the very least be trying to move towards a society which does not glorify pointless consumption and endless economic growth; one that nevertheless provides the conditions where raising and feeding a family, maintaining a roof over one’s head, developing personal interests, participating in sporting and cultural activities and so on, is at least possible for everyone, whatever job they might have. This would indeed be a country “where every child, every person has the best opportunity to succeed”. And perhaps we should add “together”.