Among the words that have infiltrated the vocabulary of common sense during the recent past, none is as egregious as ‘aspiration’. Its rampant use in the economic and political spheres has dented public awareness of reality. In the sphere of economics, in terms of both policies and propaganda, the use of ‘aspiration’ in various combinations and contexts has pushed aside common sense knowledge about life’s necessities. Things have come to a point where something as important as the need to work in order to make a living is referred to as aspiration. As political coinage, ‘aspirational India’ connotes revolutionary change. The users of this phrase ignore the long and tiring struggle of countless youth to find work. The vast majority spends years waiting, or in ‘time pass’ as an economist has called it. Those who portray India as ‘aspirational’ look at other basic needs in a similar vein. The security that a house gives and the basic amenities of life one needs in a house are deemed to be part of an aspirational package. We are not far from the day when the desire to avail one’s constitutional rights will be treated as a sign of aspiration.
In an ethos where words and meanings are mutating fast, we must ask whether a right — any right — can be described as an aspiration. The debate whether the right to work is fundamental or not will hopefully be settled one day; for now, let us talk about one’s need to have some income, preferably by working. Someone who has no income can only survive as a dependent. That is how children and the elderly often do. The family provides the cover that the state does not explicitly acknowledge. In our society, the family provides a financial cover to the young for remarkably long periods. No wonder, university and college teachers routinely refer to their adult students as children. No matter how much you quarrel with this usage, its hold in academic institutions persists. One reason for this is that the family continues to support a student well past the official age of childhood. Parents go to remarkable lengths to support their progeny through expensive higher professional education for howsoever many years it takes.
Degrees and jobs
When they don’t find employment, what do students do? Many enrol in another course, aiming to qualify for one more degree or diploma. They keep gathering qualifications, hoping that more qualifications will get them higher-level employment one day. Things seldom work out that way. More qualifications don’t necessarily lead to better employment prospects. When a potential job slot does appear, you are told you are over-qualified. British sociologist Ronald Dore studied this phenomenon and presented his analysis in what soon became a classic title, The Diploma Disease . This book tells us that the tendency among youth to gather qualifications leads to devaluation of degrees. Dore was interested in the comparative study of industrial economics. He noticed that in Sri Lanka, only half the graduates in any given year ended up finding a job. That was in the 1970s; things are now worse. Although Dore did not study India, his observations were equally applicable here. Bureaucratisation had led to strong linkages between paper qualifications and selection for employment. When Rajiv Gandhi spoke about the need to de-link degrees from jobs, he was referring to the problem Dore had spotted.
Today, when people say that educational standards are declining, they are in fact responding to devaluation of degrees. They feel that a certificate or degree does not mean what it did some time back, both in terms of knowledge and its value in the job market. People’s memories are often subjective, but the phenomenon they are talking about is real. Quite often, the reason for devaluation of degrees is that institutions cannot cope with the increased number of candidates without letting norms become lax. Stagnant financial resources are often an additional reason why institutions cannot cope with swollen enrolment.
To say that the increasing clientele of higher and professional education is a sign of greater aspiration in society is to derive a misleading conclusion from the proliferation of degree-holders and degree-vendors. No doubt the market of degrees is wider today, but that has little to do with aspirations. Young people want to work and have an income; when they find neither, they occupy themselves by enrolling in yet another educational venture, without necessarily wanting to do so. When a relative or well-wisher asks, ‘What are you doing these days?’, it hardly feels nice to reply, ‘Nothing.’ To name a course you are pursuing now feels better. As economist and planner Santosh Mehrotra has pointed out ( The Hindu , Editorial page, “The shape of the jobs crisis”, February 13, 2019), the number of young people who are ‘not in education, employment or training’ — ‘NEET’ — has been steadily increasing. According to his estimate, there are more than 115 million young people in this category, representing what he calls a ‘potential lumpen fodder’ available for political misuse. This analysis does not imply that if we cannot employ our youth, let us keep them enrolled in one course or another. Prolonging student life will not solve the problem posed by disappearance of work.
Job versus work
The term ‘job’ is now more common than ‘work’, indicating a shift in perspective. It also signifies the emergence of a new ideology that reinforces the traditional denial of dignity to work. ‘Job’ and ‘work’ differ in that a job is what someone gives you whereas work is what you do. For some kinds of work, the two meanings may be close or similar, but this is not true for many other kinds. If the political economy is eating up work opportunities, it can still keep on creating jobs artificially, to avoid social instability. Short-term jobs are often used to cite the success of an economic policy which, in reality, is decimating work and de-skilling people. This is often done in the name of modernisation. Driverless trains and automated manufacturing are presented as symbols of progress. An automation-obsessed economy thrives by maintaining millions in replaceable, short-term positions involving low-skill tasks. Such jobs make it impossible for lower-income participants in the work force to gain experience and a self-identity associated with a specialised skill.
Those who justify all-round automation as a legitimate means of economic progress define the term ‘skill’ in a sense quite different from how it was understood so far. In its conventional sense, skill implies a specialised expertise that grows with experience and imparts a personal identity. Jobs that vanish after a brief period, forcing the work force to leave and look for re-training for a new short-term stint, offer no genuine opportunities for developing a skill.
An ideological trap
To treat such job-culture as a symbol of progress is to fall into an ideological trap. Supporters of reckless automation say that it represents a natural course of technological progress. They also suggest that there is no alternative to automation, so we have no choice in the matter now. This approach echoes a theory of destiny. It assumes that the human desire to find meaning in work and cultivate a personal identity through skill will soon surrender to economic pressure and acceptance of vulnerable jobs as a permanent fact of life. This is a rather limited and myopic view. The history of work shows that work is more than a means of livelihood. It satisfies deeper an urge which, if ignored or denied, takes significant political and social tolls.
Krishna Kumar is a former director of