Why Cameron and Miliband are both wrong about aspiration …

So Cameron and Miliband are having a catfight about aspiration with the PM saying “people working in offices and factories around the country need financial incentives too”.

He’s not wrong – but he’s talking codswallop. This idea that some jobs – those with qualifications and no need to clock on – mean a guaranteed life of luxury and as much houmous as you can eat could be destroyed with a moment of honesty.

As a trainee reporter I would go without lunch to enjoy a pint because I couldn’t afford both. While working on press agencies I would prioritise petrol over food – knowing I’d lose my job if I lost access to a car. Even when writing for a tabloid as “permanent freelance” – attending glitzy parties, interviewing celebrities, flying first class and getting black cabs to jobs – I wasn’t entitled to holiday pay or sick leave. If I was ill I’d drag myself into work and holidays came in the form of a night in a hotel having interviewed someone about their threesome, bizarre pet or wayward husband.

I was earning then what many people earn now – and the cost of living was much lower.

Now I stand in front of students and give lectures intended to help them prepare for the world of work: I wonder what they would think of career aspiration if they knew I have less than £30 to last me a fortnight. I bet it never crosses their mind that I have nothing for lunch. I doubt they even consider whether I had to boil the kettle to wash my hair. They don’t know their lecturer is now planning to sleep on the settee this week to be near the halogen heater rather than top up the gas meter.

I recognise that tips on living in poverty might come in handy for journalism students – and details of how slowly employers pay would help all new freelances – but I don’t share them. I also don’t suggest that the journalists going through Alan Partridge’s bins might’ve been looking for slung out cashmere jumpers or the scrapings of a pot of couscous. Perhaps I should.

I write now not to moan – although, to be frank, I am weary and in the mood for a whinge – but to point out the fallacy that is “aspiration” not just while we loom in the shadow of a double-dip recession but always when employers take advantage of workers: perhaps more advantage of those desperate not to be seen in a dreaded blue collar.

I’m enjoying working: I like to be challenged, to be tired when I fall into bed (or onto the settee), to be reminded of my abilities and to feel valued – by students if not those paying my wage – but I work to earn. Losing at least £20 a week on unemployment benefit to get to a part-time job seems completely ridiculous to me. I feel like I’m working to make a point, to get my foot in the door, to seem keen and not too demanding: I should expect to be paid what I’m worth.

But too many workers try to pretend that they’re among the elite staff, try to pretend they have qualified, experienced and well-read their way out of being labelled “a worker”. They might even call themselves a part of the “squeezed middle” to try to appear somehow different, above the norm.

We’re all workers: all selling our labour to someone else who decides how much we get and when we get it. This, in my experience, never changes.

I’d suggest we talk more about our employment situation and – rather than pretending we’re aspiring and deferring gratification – admit we’re low-paid and working long hours.

We should tell each other how much we earn; share our frustrations at the hours we work; explain the difficulties we have with childcare and its costs; ask colleagues if they get holiday and sick pay; talk about our shared conditions in the workplace; find out who else is struggling to pay utilities bills; ask how much debt people are in; ask if they too fear redundancy; make sure everyone has something to eat at lunchtime; find out if our workmates are being forced into retirement or paid a trainee wage while doing a senior job.

We should talk to each other. Imagine how much we’d realise we have in common if we just stopped pretending otherwise.

How much money I have: £46 to last a fortnight which is really £26 if I want heating and hot water

How many more hours I will have worked: 24


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