“If you have an undying passion for something, why not make money from it?” that’s Liam’s opinion, a young entrepreneur working in the creative industries. But Liam’s passion is not only a personal asset, it’s a national asset. If young people are regarded as emblems of the future then it’s no surprise that their passion to make money is now considered to be nationally important. The current political message is ‘Let’s harness young people’s natural drive and ambition to help rescue the nation from economic distress – after all they are our greatest resource!’ In this guest post, Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn question the values driving the growing convergence between education, enterprise and popular culture.
Young people have long been seen as the vanguard of neoliberalism, not just as workers who are potentially better-suited and more adaptive to the radical social and technological changes that have taken place since the 1980s, but as social characters who typify optimism, futurity and brazen ambition. In his analysis of the expansion of youth media, for example, media specialist Bill Osgerby recalled the growing cross-fertilization between 1980s new right discourses championing the entrepreneurial spirit and the development of commercialised youth cultures and lifestyles. His evidence included polls and market research which claimed to reveal a new ethic of success among young people which was underpinned by the growth of the enterprise culture.
In the wake of rolling recessions it seems that now more than ever we need that ethic of success to lead the nation out of austerity. The fostering of young people’s business initiatives has attracted considerable and consistently favourable media coverage often based on the assumption that entrepreneurial ambitions are unequivocally good. So too business-related entertainment programming such as Up for Hire, Young Apprentice and Dragon’s Den (all aimed at, or popular with, youth audiences) have helped promote the benefits of the entrepreneurial mindset.
According to the Financial Times newspaper, television shows such as The Apprentice have run alongside a huge expansion of schooling and training of youngsters to become future entrepreneurs with some business leaders, such as multimillionaire Dragon’s Den investor Peter Jones, strongly advocating enterprise training even in primary schools. Jones is quoted as saying: “Until you have entrepreneurship education from seven to 17, you will not have people leaving school and starting a business”.
The Financial Times enthusiastically outlines the extensive mobilization of enterprise projects, courses and initiatives in British schools and colleges across the social spectrum including at elite school Eton, the northern schools networks and post-16 colleges. Jones’s own school programme entitled Tycoon in Schools forms part of the wider Peter Jones Foundation’s “campaign to put enterprise at the heart of the education system … it seeks to encourage people to make it in Britain and to live their dream. It does this through inspiring excellence through a network of enterprise academies where passion, self-belief and ‘go-getting’ attitudes are nurtured.”
The message of the Foundation is that “you can make it in the U.K., that there is a British dream for real people…” As such it implicitly references the much-vaunted notion of the American Dream of social mobility. It also gestures towards the wider political endorsement of enterprise as the motor of Britain’s future success as evidenced by the British government’s support of Tycoon in Schools as part of its Start Up Britain initiative.
Young entrepreneurship is promoted as an economic necessity. It’s part of the wider push to re-boot the nation’s economy in keeping with the usual neoliberal beliefs in competition as the driver of wealth. But neoliberalism is not simply an economic theory. It is also a social model which insists that we are the authors of our own lives and the architects of our own destinies. So, hand-in-hand with the systemic changes in the organization of paid work, the economic market and the promotion of enterprise there has also been a re-organisation of models of responsibility and blame for worklessness across all social fields. Plenty of TV programmes highlight the problem of the work-shy, poorly organised or simply inadequate young person whose unemployed status is largely (if not entirely) their own fault. Shows such as Up for Hire, Working Girls, Who Know’s Best: Getting a Job and Jamie’s Dream School stress that young people are held back either by a poverty of aspiration (originally Tony Blair’s phrase) or through a refusal to work hard. Jamie Oliver declared that schools have somehow failed these children, but also notes an absence of stamina and ambition in the kids themselves, traits which allowed him to succeed despite his own rather poor educational achievements:
When you’re unleashing students into an economy where there’s trouble with jobs, the ones who haven’t got academic verve, they need to have a basic approach to physical work. You need to be able to knock out seven 18-hour days in a row – you need to know what real fucking work is… I’m embarrassed to look at British kids. You get their mummies phoning up and saying: ‘He’s too tired, you’re working him too hard’ – even the butch ones. Meanwhile, I’ve got bulletproof, rock-solid Polish and Lithuanians who are tough and work hard.
Economic success is driven by go-getting attitudes, passion and self-belief underpinned by a training in neoliberal values delivered in popular culture and increasingly in education. But the critics of neoliberalism might well ask, how is the message that ‘You can make it in the UK’ to be read by those who, despite their best efforts, despite working hard and aiming high are not making it? How will they be judged? It seems that young people must look to themselves as the source of their own failure or success, whether they are in education or employment. Success is increasingly characterised as not only achievable for those who work effectively but also as only achievable through the deployment of one’s personal, private resources of passion and drive. According to this model the individual is the only, or at least primary, source of their own success and their performance will be judged accordingly.
About the authors
Anita Biressi is Reader in Media Cultures at the University of Roehampton. Her recent publications focus on the convergence of political discourses with popular culture and include : “‘I’m passionate, Lord Sugar’: Young Entrepreneurs, Critical Judgment and Emotional Labor in Young Apprentice” forthcoming in S. Panse and D. Rothermel (eds.) A Critique of Judgment in Film and Television, Palgrave Macmillan.
Heather Nunn is Professor of Politics and Culture at the University of Roehampton. Her writings on Thatcherism include the book Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy (2002), “Shameless? Picturing the underclass after Thatcherism” in L. Hadley and E. Ho (2010 eds.) Thatcher and After and ‘Thatcherism and the big society.
Anita and Heather’s chapter on education, social aspiration and Jamie’s Dream School appears in their new book titled Class and Contemporary British Culture (Palgrave, 2013)
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