July 10: I’d like to be a laundry packer, please.

I remember my sister telling me about a careers class she had at school in the late seventies. Helen went to a Secondary Modern School. She was aged fifteen and being prepared for working life. All the students were handed a questionnaire to be filled in with questions like Which job would you prefer to have? 1) Teacher 2) Doctor 3) Optician 4) Singer. The pupils excitedly filled out the questionnaires. The teacher gathered them in and then theatrically ripped them all up and dumped them in the bin. These are jobs you can never hope to have, she said. Then another set of questionnaires was handed out. Which of the following jobs would you prefer to have? 1) Laundry packer 2) Cleaner. 3) Cloakroom attendant. 4) Baby-sitter. She went on to explain: these were the kinds of jobs you could aspire to. Very cruel and demotivating, of course, though you see the idea behind it. Whether it was justified or not, the idea was to give pupils a realistic sense of what life could hold in store for them. Helen chose laundry packer because she wasn’t quite sure what it entailed..
We shoot forward to today and that notion has turned round 180 degrees. Now anyone can do anything. You can win X-factor and become a star. You can be on Big Brother and become a star. Your dreams can come true, no matter what your class, race, ethnicity, circumstances. Ther is no preparation for failure. There is only preparation for success. This is also abusive. The great sacred word ‘choice’, an inalienable human right, sits in splendour over all. Its self-evident dominion is illustrated by anecdote. Here, we read in a tabloid, is the story of boy who went from nothing to a fortune. What we are not shown are the fifty other boys who went from nothing to nothing or the ten other boys who went from being backed up by family assets to further success and fortune. The great swathes of facts would tell us that you do not, in general, escape easily, and, if you do, there might be some collateral damage.
Should we go back to the bad old days of hopelessness? No. But should we combat the tyranny of the American dream? Yes, we should. By the way, Helen isn’t a laundry packer. She made the jump to the first list and became a primary school teacher. But I wonder how many other members of her class made that same leap.


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