Ambitions

When I left school in 1983 my ambitions boiled down to owning a van and being in a band. The two things were not unconnected: I was a terrible keyboard player (punk, yo) but if I owned a van the band would still need me to cart the equipment around from gig to gig, free festival to free festival.

I never bought a van – in fact, I never learned to drive – but neither did I replace that ambition with another. Leaving school at the age of 16, with four CSEs at the height of Thatcher’s era of mass unemployment basically meant I had no expectation of ever even working. And if I did, it would be a shitty job, probably in a shitty shop. When a local Wickes store opened, I applied and didn’t even get a reply, let alone an interview.

The trajectory of my escape from that world is long and complex and deserves its own piece of writing, but the important point is this: I had no ambitions. Ambitions were something that other people had, but not working class kids from Derby. I had dreams, sure. But there was no possible path from here to there.

Since then, though, ambitions have become the playground of the young, and there’s been an expectation actually rooted in reality that a young person’s ambitions can be fulfilled. You could travel and work in Europe. You could go to university. You could get a job, buy a house, something that so so few of your parents were able to do. Some of these simple things moved from ambitious dreams to expectations.

The past ten years have chipped away at this. A house has become something no one can afford unless they can rely on the bank of mum and dad, while the media bombards you with messages about how it’s your own fault you can’t save a hundred thousand pounds. Jobs which offer long-term careers and progression have been eroded, to the point of destruction. There is no such thing as job security if you are young.

Brexit and COVID, though, have been the twin hammer blows which have destroyed the opportunities of the young. Brexit’s retreat to cosy little Englander fantasies of an idealised 1950s Britain mean putting up borders and robbing the young of a core part of their identity, while reducing the ability of the poorest to up sticks and work wherever they can across the continent. Looking abroad for work was one of the few routes out of Thatcher’s newly-impoverished Britain when I left school, and that option just won’t exist the young poor in a few months time.

But it is probably COVID which will have a longer term impact, and which will break the back of ambition, particularly for those reaching maturity now. In a long and brilliant Twitter thread, David Hayward wrote that “a pandemic is a killer of the dreams of the young” and nothing could be closer to the truth. I have been lucky to live for 53 years in a bubble of safety, with the freedom to roam and to dream. Until we find a vaccine, that freedom is basically gone. Who can have ambitions, who can have dreams, when the next person you meet might be the one that passes on a deadly virus rather than the person who changes your life for the better?

COVID 19 is tailor made for our culture

I should start with this: I’m not an expert. You should listen to those that are.

COVID is an almost perfect virus. It rarely kills its host. Unlike its distant relative MERS, which makes people ill fast and kills them before they get chance to infect many others, it creeps up on you.

In fact, for the majority of sufferers, they will remain ambulatory. They may have outward signs, like a cough, but they may not – and our culture has trained us to keep going if we feel under the weather, to ignore symptoms.

It hits us when economically we’re weak to it. Zero hours contracts mean there is a pool of people who have no choice but to keep working, and a set of businesses that are built around the idea that you don’t have to keep people on staff. If you’re under 50, you’ve never really experienced a dangerous infectious disease that spreads like this. Yes, there was HIV, but that could mostly be avoided. COVID can’t.

But it also hits us when we’re mentally unprepared.

I’m 53, and as a child I was vaccinated against two things: smallpox (one of the last wave of children to get the smallpox vaccine); and polio. I got my immunity (such as it is) to measles, mumps, scarlet fever and German measles the hard way, by contracting the disease. And I remember the steps my parents had to take to keep me isolated (no playing outside, stuck in my bedroom, no friends visiting, EXTRA COMICS) because some of those diseases could kill other children. And, of course, could have killed me, although their undoubted worry didn’t register at the time.

If you’re younger than me, you’ve grown up in a world where most of the major childhood infectious diseases didn’t exist: you’re used to infection being something that either you didn’t have to worry about (colds, seasonal flu) or affected someone else, somewhere else.

And if you’re older than me (OK, boomer)… well, you should know better.

The generations currently alive are probably the first in history not to have anyone who remembers the last global pandemic in them. The influenza of 1918 was a distant memory to my grandmother, born in 1910, but for anyone of my mother’s age or younger – everyone currently alive – the danger of pandemic has faded from the collective memory.

Having lost the folk memory, all we have to keep us cautious and keep us alive is the knowledge of experts, and yet we also live at a time when major Western countries have turned away from an understanding of the important of expertise. Brexit, the pride in ignorance that characterises Trumpism, all show us that the respect for expertise which built post-war prosperity has vanished. Even amongst my generation, the notion of the “wisdom of crowds” tell us that while everyone can’t be an Einstein, if we all click our heels and wish three times, a hundred of us can add up to one.

No one is going to crowdsource a new treatment for COVID. Wikipedia isn’t going to discover a vaccine.

Social media allows accurate information to pass faster than before, which would be a ray of hope were it not for the fact that rumour, speculation and outright lies spread faster. The old, early internet idea that “good information drives out bad” is probably still being touted by the Digerati somewhere, but it’s really now pretty laughable.

And of course the news that your local supermarket is running out of bread can spread faster than ever, letting the well-off drive down in their cars and buy up the last remaining stocks to put in their chest freezers, while the poorer wait for a bus and find shelves empty. We have even forgotten that “panic buying” doesn’t mean everyone gets a fair share, it means that the poorest and weakest will go hungry.

Never has a culture been less prepared for a pandemic, and never has a virus had a better chance to become endemic in a population. COVID almost seems tailor made to capitalise on every single weakness in our culture, from expert denial and anti-vaccine madness to our lack of experience of pandemic to the way our economy is structured. I said earlier it was almost perfect. I was underplaying it. I think it actually is the perfect virus for our times.

But it’s not hopeless, and life will go on. These are obstacles, and it is down to each of us as individuals to use them as ways to improve ourselves, to do what we can for others, to make ourselves better people for the experience. “Amor Fati”, as the Stoics said.