Great expectations cannot be realised

September 22, 1995

It is a commonplace that revolutions happen when expectations rise and are then unmet. If this is so we may face some surprising frictions in the next few years. At the end of this month Demos will be publishing the results of an extensive survey of 18 to 34-year-olds which shows a yawning gap between what people, particularly women, expect of work and what they are likely to get.

Education may be to blame. Sharply rising numbers are going through higher education at a time when graduate unemployment has become a fixture. But this is only part of the story. The generation now entering the labour market is by far the most educated ever, even excluding university degrees. Over 90 per cent of 16 to 24-year-old women now have some kind of academic qualification, while nearly half of women aged 35 to 55 have no academic qualifications at all.

The result is a marked shift in what people expect from work. In the past most people saw a job primarily or even solely as a means to earn money. Nowadays people expect far more. Seventy-eight per cent of 24 to 34-year-olds say they would work even if they did not need to. But the sea change is most visible among clerical and skilled manual workers, although a minority of professional women also stand out for working longer hours than any other occupational group.

Today's 20-somethings expect work to give them not just a good income but also to be exciting and to offer chances to be creative. Nearly half want a job that gives their life meaning, and 55 per cent of women in the age group want management responsibilities.

These attitudes represent a massive cultural change. In some respects they make young people better suited to a more fluid labour market, in which firms are smaller, in which more responsibility is devolved downwards and in which more jobs demand many skills. But the larger story is that culture has moved ahead of reality. The dominant experience for most young employees is of insecurity and dissatisfaction with poor quality employers. Most work remains repetitive and dull, and whereas in the past people could accept dull work in the knowledge that jobs were secure, today employers act as though they owe no loyalty to their staff. It is hardly surprising that their staff respond in kind. As David Cannon of the London Business School puts it, young people's list of what not to trust has grown very long indeed. You cannot trust your parents to stay together, you cannot trust that your education will lead anywhere and you cannot trust your employers to provide secure jobs for either you or your parents.

But for all that, there is still remarkable optimism about jobs and life among this age group, particularly among younger girls, many of whom seem to assume that they will effortlessly rise up to edit newspapers and run businesses. Sixty-nine per cent of men and 43 per cent of women in the 18 to 24-year-old age group say they would rather be self-employed entrepreneurs than work from nine to five. Heightened aspirations have made people want more academic qualifications. But as John Tate of BTEC warned recently, the prejudices against vocational skills which parents pass on are the biggest challenge we face. Not everyone can be a computer scientist or work in the media (now top of young people's aspirations list).

Of course there is nothing wrong with rising expectations. They are one of society's great motors of change. But everything we know about human happiness tells us that the best guarantee of unhappiness is to raise expectations far beyond what can be realised.

Geoff Mulgan is director of Demos, the independent think tank.

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