Welcome to the aspiration nation: please lower your expectations
The Government is using marketing techniques to recast jobs as luxuries
Government spin on employment is increasingly modelled on the same psychological tactics as consumer marketing where people are told it is possible that one day they might cross over into the select, “elite” consumer group and be the ones zooming round those twisty cliffside Italian roads in their Aston Martin, the wind in their hair
Joan Burton, the Labour Minister for Social Protection, has aspirations, and one of them is for Irish people to be more aspirational. “I want to see Ireland being an aspirational, ambitious society,” she said, where “everyone participates, everyone contributes”.
There are “actually a lot of job vacancies” in Ireland, she insisted on TV3’s breakfast show Ireland AM, though in any case more young people “want” to freelance these days, which is certainly a positive way of reframing Ireland’s underemployment problem.
“I have to say Minister, you do paint a very utopian picture of an Ireland that I don’t feel our viewers recognise,” responded presenter Sinéad Desmond, as politely as she could manage on the cornflake-spitting morning after the Budget before.
“Aspiration nation” is a buzz-phrase of the British Conservative party and a feature of its recent budget statements. This week’s Fine Gael-Labour budget didn’t deliver quite so obnoxious a wording, but aspiration, or rather a perceived lack of it, was nevertheless a theme. In his speech, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan lamented that “the aspiration to set up a new business” was lower than the European Union average. “Too many people in Ireland see themselves as employees for life.”
In the ascendant western economies of the 20th century, “aspiration” involved people who indeed had jobs-for-life aspiring to get better jobs and a better lifestyle. They could reasonably expect that if they did everything “right”, they would be promoted and could then, like dutiful citizens of the consumer goods society, invest the proceeds back into the artefacts of upward social mobility. They worked to live.
Advertisers knew how to play with this. Those selling luxury brands honed aspirational marketing techniques that exploited both consumer envy and the unpleasant human instinct to desire the envy of others.
In order to sell at a nicely obscene premium to a small, wealthy cohort, an aspirational brand must also make another, larger group covet the product. Crucially, this larger group must believe that, if the stars align, it is possible that they might one day cross over into the select, “elite” consumer group and be the ones zooming round those twisty cliffside Italian roads in their Aston Martin, the wind in their hair.
In capitalist countries, government spin on employment is increasingly modelled on the same psychological tactics as those found in consumer marketing. Meritocracies, the old-fashioned word for “aspiration nations”, were sold to voters on the basis that the deserving would eventually see their status rise.
Their supporters negated the existence of the structural inequalities that lock certain groups, if not the majority of people, out of the open-top spoils.
It goes like this: No matter how hard government policies kick you in the shin, you should be strong enough to dust yourself off and pick yourself up again, because actually, you must have fallen of your own accord. And in any case, we’re not going to lend you a hand, because that would simply encourage a “long-term dependency culture”.
So never mind the rumours of a broken economy: Tuesday’s budget, in which the Government decided to cut welfare payments to people under 26 (22-24-year-olds will now receive just €100 a week), brought us more of the same recasting of unemployment and underemployment as a personal failing.
Each time the story is retold in an unequal, malfunctioning economy, the expectations of the aspirational audience must be further reduced. Now, rather than aspire to the rewards that an income can bring, the citizens of the JobBridge generation are being asked to consider employment itself as the luxury to be attained. They must live to work.
While older generations could aspire to bonuses and even pensions on top of their salaries – and in many cases still can – for the younger demographic, a salary of any kind is a bonus. Ireland’s youth have no right to either a job or much of a safety-net payment. If they complain, well, they must be lacking in the requisite entrepreneurial spirit and/or willingness to work for next-to-nothing.
Desmond put it to Burton that the Government was punishing young people for being out of work. This, of course, she denied.
But by treating the under-26s as a sub-group, by weakening their agency as adults, and by tying them into the socio-economic status of their parents, the Government is killing, rather than encouraging, the aspirations of youth. Marketers will have their work cut out.