Once in a lifetime?

Whether or not you need or want to win (see recent post) there’s still the question: what game do you want to play?  (What pond would you like to be in?) Doctor? Footballer? Call centre operative?

It’s a tricky one.  You may have dreamt of being a footballer, but you just couldn’t kick the ball; you may have wanted to be a doctor, but your school was ill-equipped to teach at the A* standard such a life path these days requires; you may have considered being a call centre operative – but (if you’re over 35) such jobs didn’t even exist.

(When I was 14 I hadn’t heard of ‘economics’, so it would have been strange for me to say I wanted to study the subject at university; and I was in my mid-20s when I first heard about ‘sustainability’, so the notion of setting up a research business in the subject would have been a challenge.)

There seem to be (at least) four variables in play:

  • your innate capabilities
  • the environment in which you find yourself, and the extent to which it can enhance or restrict the expression of those capabilities as you develop
  • the range of possibilities in the world around you, and how that changes over time
  • your knowledge of those possibilities, and ditto

In respect of the first two of these, we’re in the domain of Amartya Sen’s ‘capabilities approach: a fair and just world is one in which everyone finds themselves growing up surrounded by the familial and educational and financial resources to enable them to develop so as to fulfil their potential.  We need merely to look (for example) at the concentration of the privately educated in Britain’s professional elites to know how far away we are from such a world.

And considering the third factor, we are accustomed to truisms about the speed of the modern world, but few have pointed out as clearly as Sir Ken Robinson that this means we have little or no idea about what jobs will exist in the future, yet we continue to endure an educational system geared towards the production of university professors, the aforementioned elite, and a drone army of reserve labour kept pacified by a modern version of bread and circuses in the form of ready meals and celebrity culture.

So I want to talk, briefly and instead, about the fourth item.

Where and when and how did you first consider the possibility of ‘Doctor’?  Was mummy a doctor?  Did you fall in love with someone wearing a white coat in a television drama that caught your youthful attention?  A kindly teacher suggested it?  You grew up in a prosperous village in Buckinghamshire populated entirely by doctors and lawyers?  Your parents expected it of you?  You had never thought about being a doctor, it just happened?

Compare with:

  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of working in the warehouse in the out-of-town food superstore?
  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of being a middle-tier administrator for a local council?
  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of being a tobogganist?
  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of being a coke dealer?

It helps, I think, to find a common starting point; and I think it’s when we were about seven or eight years old.  It’s possible, I suppose, that some seven or eight year olds might, in response the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” answer “A middle tier administrator for a local council” or “The kingpin drug dealer for my estate”, but I’m willing to lay quite a lot of money on the proposition that such answers would be a vanishingly small proportion of the total.

Many, however, might answer “Doctor”.  Or “astronaut” or “ballerina” or “footballer” or “soldier”.  (Can you remember what you wanted to be? I wanted to be Dr Doolittle.) What is it about these roles – these ponds – that made them appealing to the bright-eyed child-mind?  And what is it that happens to transform the near-ubiquitous spark of excited human potential into the morass of dull and surly indifference required for a life of ready-meals-and-celebrity?

(My most interesting attempt to answer this, to date, came in the form of a weird weekend with Lego in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of NESTA's FutureFest last year - which you can read about and see some lovely photos - like this one - 

in a short series of blogs on the Brook Lyndhurst site here, here, here and here.)

Somewhere along the line, one child began to realise that ‘doctor’ and ‘lawyer’ and ‘painter’ and ‘poet’ were simply ridiculous: life paths so distant from feasible that they made no sense.  Looking around, and persuaded by the ceaseless entreaties of capitalism (delivered with endless creativity via the current dominant communications technology) that only a life that can be measured in units of ‘new’, ‘shiny’ and ‘expensive’ is of any real value, is it any surprise that ‘coke dealer’ [“Have you seen Dean’s new beamer?”] is so appealing?

The same child, only different, learns that great auntie Agatha has another painting in the summer exhibition, and daddy’s friend Simon has just sold his bio-tech start up for a squillion dollars, and mummy’s friend Stephanie has just come back from helping some beautiful poor children in Mozambique, and of course it can start to make sense that it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to spend your life on a toboggan.

And that is the nature of modern privilege: it is the privilege that provides genuine choice – control over your life, over which game you play – not the false choice of this brand versus that brand, over which ready meal you eat tonight, over which celebrity you like the most.


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