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How 'ambition' became a dirty word.

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Do you remember Cait Reilly? She was the graduate who brought a legal case against the government after she was forced to abandon her voluntary work with a museum, and replace it with unpaid 'work experience' at Poundland. Both situations allowed her to receive benefits, however the former was contributing to her ambition to become a professional curator and the latter ensured Poundland's shelves were filled a little quicker. Cait's complaint wasn't that she should be expected to do something useful while claiming welfare, but that the activity should increase her prospects. Poundland were supposed to be 'training' her, Cait insisted they weren't.

The post-war, baby-boomer generations never faced this difficulty. Society had arranged itself in such a way that an individual's educational achievements largely matched their employment opportunities. Some would train and excel in manual jobs. Those fortunate enough to attend university would go into the professions - teaching, law, medicine and so on. Opt for the Civil Service and you were literally handed a 'job for life'. I'm generalising somewhat, but on the whole people were able to influence their futures through education or apprenticeships. There was a reasonably clear route to follow. It was also expected that subsequent generations would enjoy a better standard of living than their parents.

It wasn't a perfect world. Women still struggled to achieve equality in the workplace and one's class also had a great influence over one's career. Nevertheless there was a tacit contract whereby qualifications allowed access to a certain status and income. This has vanished. Although we constantly hear politicians and commentators positing the idea that 'hard work' will always bring reward, it is manifestly untrue. In fact, it would be more accurate to say there is little anyone can do to realise an ambition with even a sliver of certainty.

Recently I encountered the phrase 'job snob'. This refers to a person who feels specific occupations are 'beneath' them - that they deserve better. Well, that's only valid if we assume that qualifications, application and effort are entirely dispensable. Spent four years supporting yourself through college? Well, don't get any fancy ideas - those call centres won't run themselves. You thought all that knowledge and insight would be valued and appreciated? Get over yourself, kid.

These opinions frequently pour from the mouths of those who have already achieved a comfortable career  - and whose education was supported with grants). What they're actually saying, is that 'ambition' is a dirty word and 'aspiration' should be crushed lest it give rise to a sense of entitlement. In the case of Cait Reilly, it was suggested she should work for Poundland for free, until she could land a full-time role in the museum sector. That sounds reasonable until you actually try it. The process of applying to those employers would actually be hampered when it was seen she had spent a year in low-market retail. She ran the risk of losing sight of her ambition as she worked, for no wages, in a shop.

I am not arguing that everyone should automatically be handed the job of their dreams simply because they fancy it.  What I am suggesting is that we should help young adults to achieve worthwhile careers, in which they are motivated, interested and committed. Whether that is in retail, museums, health, hospitality or advertising. Because telling them hard work is all that is required, then dismissing their graft and enthusiasm at the crucial point, is unfair and harmful to the economy.

To succeed as a nation, we need ambitious people, prepared to learn and train to achieve extraordinary things. When we allow them to clear all the hurdles before presenting them with disappointment and discouragement, we break the education/employment contract. And that's bad for everyone.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant

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