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Whatever happened to aspiration? It’s a good question to ask during the season for leaders’ visions and ‘narratives’. We are hearing a lot about tough fiscal choices, ‘responsible capitalism’ and now ‘one-nation Labour’ but that one-time Holy Grail of politicians to become the very embodiment of a better material life for all seems to have disappeared. 

 This is an odd situation. While the politicians may be focused on today’s grim reality or high-minded moral crusades, a new generation is starting to shape the world around their own hopes in a far more optimistic and practical fashion. A number of studies have discovered that today’s twenty-somethings are displaying a uniquely voracious appetite to take control of a destiny most commentators tell us is hopeless and establish their own ventures and enterprises. 

 Most recently, a study by the RSA and the National Centre for Social Research found that around a third of today’s under-thirties hope to set up their own business.  That compares to just a sixth a decade ago.

It is not difficult to identify the inspiration for this ‘Generation Enterprise’.  The age group is directly and constantly engaged with the internet and its possibilities.  They know, far more than any other cohort, that it is now easier, cheaper and less risky to set up a business than was the case a generation ago. 

Marketing can be done through the skillful use of online networks. If you are selling intellectual content then its distribution is now immediate and cheap. If you are selling a real product then a firm like Amazon or Ebay will facilitate distribution. If you have a great idea for a product or a service but do not have the capital to develop it fully there is a growing world of free advice and crowd-funding out there.

The writer William Deresiewicz caught the new mood well:

“Today’s ideal form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business.  Every artistic or moral aspiration – music, food, good works, what have you – is expressed in those terms.”

No politician has yet tried to place the Generation Enterprise ethos at the heart of their message.  The Coalition has nodded in its direction with the launch of Start-upBritainand grants for young entrepreneurs.  Labour does not seem to have said anything about them.

No doubt, to talk aspiration in the middle of a recession is a risky move.  But political leaders who move quickly to fashion a message and policies that speak to a new era of hope can prosper especially if the opposition resists the call.  Harold MacMillan left Labour floundering in the 1950s by embracing the aspirations of millions to own their own newly built home stuffed with newly available convenience goods and cars.  Labour didn’t even accept higher living standards as a policy goal until 1959.

Mrs. Thatcher pulled an almost identical trick when she tapped into the 1980s ethos of conspicuous consumption and rising house prices.  The left may have won laughs with their attacks on a ‘loadsamoney’ culture but they didn’t win votes. 

Labour ultimately had to surrender in both the 1960s and 1990s and accept that to be a party of government also meant being an unashamed party of capitalist aspiration.

Timing and tone may be all given the pressed circumstances within which we live but the opportunity is now there for one or other party leader to start speaking and shaping the spirit of a new age.  That spirit, as ever, will still be about the basic aspirations of our capitalist economy – nice house, enjoyable work, decent salary, secure family, sunny holidays – but the routes to it will be different to the past.  Under MacMillan it was about new publicly-built homes and guaranteeing secure, well-paid work in a growing corporation. Thatcher caught the spirit by selling shares in nationalised industries and giving council tenants the right to buy their home.

Today’s leader will need to talk about freeing up the small, fleet of foot firm to challenge big business, unleashing a massive push on digital infrastructure and letting entrepreneurialism flourish in a public sector too often stuck in its hierarchical ways. 

Ugly word but maybe what we are talking about is the ‘entrepreneurialisation’ of our economy, culture and society.  It is happening already led by the young. The first politician to be its champion could steal a march on their rivals.


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