Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

The aspiration debate: why inequality matters too

by Chris on 30th May 2015

Aspiration debate

Aspiration is back at the top of the left’s political agenda. Apparently Labour lost because people have it in spades and the party didn’t reach out to them. And yet not so long ago it was poverty of aspiration that was all the talk.

Onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that people should make their minds up. The reality of course is that both arguments have their merits.

But two things frustrate me with much of the current discussion. First it feels very limited, focused largely on individual aspiration and even on people from a particular cross section of society. It may be that in order to win back votes this is a necessary focus for Labour. But is it really helpful to conceive of aspiration in such narrow terms? Second there’s an implicit assumption that Labour focused too much on inequality and not enough on aspiration. Don’t they both need to be part of a social justice narrative?

These questions takes me back to 2006 when I had the privilege to work on a research programme funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to explore contemporary perspectives on social evils, 100 years after Rowntree himself had identified the social evils of his time. The particular focus of the team I led at NatCen Social Research was to elicit voices which would otherwise be unheard in the research.

We spoke to a very diverse range of people including people with learning disabilities, ex-offenders, carers, unemployed people, vulnerable young people, care leavers and people with experience of homelessness. One of my lasting recollections of the project was that there was often no shortage of aspiration. There was however a lot of inequality and a considerable shortage of opportunity.

We coined the term ‘truncated opportunity’ to describe what we found. The term was not an abstract one. It was something which captured a recurrent idea that surfaced amongst those we spoke to. This was that over the course of life opportunities could be lost, limited or wasted through circumstances and events that we have varying degrees of control over.

It was all too clear from those we spoke to that, whether loss of opportunity is caused by societal factors or individual choices, if you are disadvantaged through poverty and inequality the limitations imposed are greater and the escape routes fewer. This is particularly the case if the disadvantage is chronic and multiple.

Reflecting on the idea after the project I argued that in order to address the inequalities created and exacerbated by truncation of opportunity, we needed to reframe the relationship between opportunity and aspiration. And in doing so, we needed not only to think about the opportunities (good chances or prospects) and aspirations (strong desires or ambitions) of individual citizens, but of society as a whole.

I acknowledged that poverty of aspiration undeniably existed and helped to perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequality; but on the other hand that aspiration could also fuel excessive individualism. I was concerned that we had somehow lulled ourselves into a place whereby those who ‘have’ could have more and more, and where aspiration had no limits because its realisation had no impact beyond our own lives (remember intense relaxation with the filthy rich).

I suggested that perhaps the most potent symbol of this at the time was the burgeoning housing crisis in the UK. Just a year later the housing market crashed like a deck of cards. The reasons for this were complex, but aspiration had played its part. We had over borrowed. And worse, not content with becoming a nation of home owners, we had set our sights on becoming a nation of landlords. This was not poverty of aspiration but something rather different. It was impoverished aspiration. Aspiration which didn’t care. Of course prices in many parts of the country recovered (and in London spiralled again). And housing remains in crisis and the people who are suffering most are those who can least afford it.

My concern then was twofold. First, there was increasingly a mismatch between our individual aspirations and the opportunities that can realistically be afforded to us if we genuinely aspire to a more equal society. Second, we appeared unwilling as a society (and unable through our political system) to really confront the relationship between inequality, aspiration and opportunity. And so philanthropic efforts continued well-intentioned and sometimes very well resourced. But there was an implicit acceptance that loss of opportunity was inevitable and that a degree of inequality was quite simply okay.

Now as then I think that if we’re going to talk about aspiration, we need to think not merely about enriching the aspirations of individuals, but also our collective aspirations as a society. This is a challenge referred to by Matthew Taylor of the RSA as closing the ‘social aspiration gap’. I’m re-running an argument I’ve aired before and it’s not rocket science. But it feels just as relevant (if not more so) as it did nearly ten years ago. Individual aspirations for a better life and shared aspirations for equality should not be mutually exclusive. They should be two sides of the same coin.

So by all means let’s recognise and nurture individual aspiration. But let’s also not lose sight of inequality. And as Martyn Evans, of the Carnegie Trust argued in a timely post this week, of the need for a shared narrative around the common good.

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