Aspirations or a ‘Mirage’: A Sociological Perspective
How many times have we been nagged by relatives about what we intend to do? The question of ‘what next’ constantly looms in our mental sphere. The more we plan to streamline our actions towards it, we fail and the trail of anxiety and fear follows.
Aspirations - this ghost from the future feeding on our present - constantly grips us over these three to four years, wherein we are expected/aspire to draft a sketch of the forthcoming years. A majority of youth today are haunted by this ghost which brings with it hopes, aspirations, fear, anxiety or a complete sense of ignorance. Thus, at one end of the spectrum, people are persistently working to embellish the piece of document that determines what we are capable of, and at the other, some have turned ignorant to these expectations, leaving the vast majority in a state of confusion, and fear. Considering the transitory nature of prevailing trends in the job market and demands, they tie themselves to new aspirations every day.
In pre-modern times, individual pathways through life were relatively predictable. (Giddens, 1991) Occupations were mostly ancestral, and there wasn’t any need to envision and look for different pathways; rather it was expected for the ‘son’ of the family to carry forward the family business. However, it is with the growth of capitalism, division of labour, and specialisation of roles that we now seek individuality and have the freedom to follow our paths, though within the precincts of socially accepted and respected roles. Thus, we live in a world where we are taught to follow our dreams, but art or sports are not seen as viable careers.
Besides, framing and planning the future is usually a feature of the middle or upper classes, who have the means or know-how for its execution. This distance between where you are and where you want to go is measured as the “aspiration gap.” The greater the aspiration gap, the less likely it is to be a true motivator of change. Moreover, setting unrealistic aspirations might decrease the motivation to see them fulfilled. The aspiration of an international degree for a young student today is often a shot in the dark. However, Dalton, Ghosal and Mani (2016) in their study explained aspirations failure as a “behavioural bias,” cognitive errors or emotional biases towards certain kinds of work. This happens as people occasionally fail to understand the dynamic mechanism at work between effort and aspirations and fail to make rational decisions. Everyone, regardless of background, can be susceptible to failure due to behavioural biases that might discourage them. But at the same time, aspirations also have the potential to spur effort and motivate action.
Our wishes too are a combination of a shared cohort of aspirations, framed as a result of lived experiences, social context as well as individual desires. This shows how the ability to navigate social life and align wants, preferences and choices is also contingent on where one lies in the social spectrum. This also undermines the policy attempts to promote social mobility. For instance, government-run programmes to promote entrepreneurship and vocational skills further exacerbate the concerns about the future by establishing an educational model that is geared toward success in a society with few employment opportunities. Moreover, entrepreneurship is taught in abstract ways, as neither the educational institutions nor the job markets are prepared for this transition. These children grow up to confront conditions very different from those they are socialised for. Such initiatives shift the burden of the country's future from the state to the youth, widening the gap between aspiration and opportunity.
According to a study by the Hindustan Times, the career aspirations of Indians are already running ahead of the skills that the country needs to transition to an economy that can support that many jobs in traditional white-collar sectors. India, one of the youngest countries with a high demographic dividend, intensifies the situation even further by creating a workforce competing for limited seats in educational institutions and the labour market. With increasing competition at every stage of life, the aspiration for a stable and secure future is a mirage in a desert.
However, policies can play an instrumental role in reducing this aspirational gap. The success of policy efforts can be partially secured by engaging the people whom they directly affect. For instance, Beaman et al. (2012) conducted a social experiment under which, some towns in West Bengal were asked to set aside at least one seat for women candidates in village councils, some were asked to set aside at least two, while others were asked to make no reservations at all. This strategy allowed Beaman et al. to compare the outcomes of cohorts of girls who were exposed to council women in their villages to those who were not. They discovered that exposure to female role models increased adolescent girls and their parents' occupational aspirations, with fewer parents wanting their daughters to be housewives and improved educational outcomes from the time of implementation in 1998 to the first round of data collection in 2007. These local women themselves became role models, and this increased the aspirations of the young girls in the village as those of their parents, who encouraged them to take up jobs and also helped in gender empowerment.
Despite various measures taken by the government to reduce the aspiration gap, they will remain inadequate until efforts are made to expand educational infrastructure and the supply of formal sector jobs to accommodate the large demographic dividend, lest it becomes a liability. According to the National Mental Health Survey of India, approximately 7.39 percent of youth aged 18-29 years have mental disorders. According to government data, at least 4,000 children aged 14-18 years committed suicide after failing to pass academic examinations between 2017 and 2019. There is a high tendency to take the burden of aspirational failure on ourselves, ignoring the ingrained structural inequalities and succumbing to mental pressure in the absence of clarity about what lies ahead or because of aspirational failure.
Being social creatures, we covet pleasing society more than personal growth, seeking appreciation, which never seems to come or comes momentarily. We need to stop aspirations from taking a mental toll on us and instead use them to motivate us. We cannot allow this ghost to haunt us any further and impede our progress in the present as we try to bring out the best in each day and walk towards our future boldly, even if we might not know where we will be in the coming five years.
"Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Confucius)
By Gaurvi Saluja