Everywhere I have ever looked, and where you have ever looked, we have been bombarded with images that link excess with success – and even more images that show that only the failures in life have got no material possessions of value. You don’t have the latest things? Well aren’t you useless. Not dressed in the finest clothes? Then get away from me peasant, it’s clear to see you aren’t worth my time. But how, or why, has this occurred, and why the hell am I feeling it so much now?
There was a time when everyone was happy with their lot and were told to live within their means. The poor lived in tiny hovels, 12 to a room with the whole family, trying to Four Yorkshireman themselves into even more poverty to experience the pride of humility. The middle classes lived in the suburbs with houses you could actually stand up in, occasionally sending a child to private school, then university, all while working as a middle manager in a faceless company and retiring to the golf course. And finally, the landed gentry lived-in vast houses behind very high walls so no one could see how wealthy they really were, or how they were using the servants as furniture and family members as condoms.
This system was by no means fabulous, but no one really minded because everyone was happy, or at least everyone important was, and no-one else really mattered. People just bumbled along, content in the knowledge that they were already in their allotted place in life.
Then along came aspiration, and it was fabulous. Social mobility has never been something that Britain excelled at, but with a few social revolutions, one industrial revolution, and some rather impressive modernisation, we got to a place in the middle or the 20th century where you could try to better yourself. Couldn’t afford your own house? That’s fine, we’ll build vast swathes of council houses for you. Want more money? That’s fine, here’s a free education for you to the age of 21 and a degree for your troubles. No work? It’s fine, you’ve still got that degree, right? Brilliant, here’s a job and £12,000 extra per year for life.
People moved from all over the country, the world even, to get the best they could from life. They moved for work, for love, for fun, and every time they did people would desperately improve their lot, and rightly so.
Then along came Aspiration 2.0™, this time sponsored by television and exploitative wankers.
Aspiration 2.0™ was a shift away from the classic Aspiration that your mum used to have when she was young. This was no longer about letting you improve, but rather pressuring you into thinking you were improving, when in reality you were simply stuck in your rut, drowning in social pressures, aggressive marketing, and debt. So much debt – but that’s fine, because credit bubbles never bust.
Television was first. It was so innocuously sat in the corner, gaining our trust over decades, and then it turned into a bigger royal Bastard than Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury combined, but with more staying power and a shinier facade.
Shows like ‘Dallas’ were the front runner, showing the masses into how the other half lived. Well, less a full 50%, more how the very top echelon of society lived, only with large swathes being dreams, and slightly less murder. It accentuated the truth, made caricatures of the real people, and was larger than life in almost every regard, but the world ate it up. And suddenly, people wanted to be like them.
Not totally, obviously, that would be utterly bizarre. But the glitz, the glamour, all looked so brilliant, so clean, that it was desirable. People were fascinated by the lives of those at the top, and television realised it could be a very easy window into their lives. Shows like ‘Through the Keyhole’ pushed it forward a tad, a free and brief glimpse into a room of a celebrity, and then the concept was pushed wide open by MTV’s Cribs, where the “famous” and wealthy would show off their houses, full of all the shiny things they’d been able to buy with their huge wealth, all while talking about how much they deserved it because of that thing they were good at or could do.
And if that was it, it would be fine. People who were talented, musicians, actors, politicians, lawyers, could afford the finer things for their services were in demand and they are good at what they did. And the rest of us, well we can aspire to be them.
But that’s not what happened – things slipped down the line. M&S started making their adverts sound like they were not just selling you a processed meal, it was a luxury that you didn’t deserve but ooh go on since you asked so nicely give me a tenner and I let you have it. It was no longer good enough to just use bog standard toilet paper, this stuff is like velvet wrapped about a rare puppy, and your fabric conditioner is now scented like diamonds – which is odd because I’ve never noticed them to be that whiffy. And we became obsessed with anyone with wealth, whether they got there through talent or luck, or by being a ditsy racist idiot on a TV show. People became famous for being on television rather than the other way around, and made careers by just being that person from the third season of that show I can’t remember the name of. The louder and more brass they were the more of a character they appeared and the more they were on screen to show off their gains. The Kardashians take a beating for this, and to a degree it’s justified, but they are not the cause, or the worst. They are geniuses at what they do and the careers they’ve built, but by letting the cameras in deeper and deeper and flashing their seemingly endless and easily obtainable wealth, we all lust for what they’ve got, more and more.
And what if you can’t obtain these items or achieve these goals? Well you’re not a member of the elite. Go get more credit cards and pay for the items you desperately want but don’t need but that we’re going to pressure you into thinking that you need.
This still would be relatively okay if the goalposts stayed the same – but that wouldn’t be fun. Still want that degree? Sure, but enjoy your £40,000 of debt. Would you like a house? Good luck with that, you need a deposit worth more than your legs. And a job too? Still got that degree? Cool, it’s useless now. Put on this apron and work until you die.
And then you finally get your own place. Your house doesn’t have a conservatory? Then get off my property and don’t come back until you’ve bolted a white plastic greenhouse to your dining room in a vain attempt to add some value to your house. The house you keep being told is just rocketing up in value, making even owning a house something that only the elites can be seen to be doing, so you throw yourself into hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt in order to get it – but it’s okay because the price is only going up and there’s in no way that’ll ever reverse.
Then the credit bubble popped.
But that’s okay, you can sell your house, and move into the conservatory full-time as a one bed, studio flat. Don’t cry though, you can always buy a fancy mattress cover to hide the tear stains and repurpose some old newspapers to keep yourself warm in the winter, but do try to make sure it’s The Guardian and not some poor rag like The Daily Express, because remember, above all, You’re Worth It.