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Modern attitudes towards self-improvement help governments to avoid blame for economic stability of citizens, City sociologist tells annual lecture

Professor Ros Gill discussed class, gender and austerity at Rosemary Crompton Memorial Lecture


A social drive towards self-improvement is helping governments to take less responsibility for the economic stability of their citizens, according to City sociologist Professor Ros Gill.

Speaking at the annual Rosemary Crompton Memorial Lecture 2017 at City, University of London, the academic said modern attitudes towards personal resilience and confidence have complemented austerity politics.

Professor Gill, who is the co-editor of a new book Aesthetic Labour: Rethinking Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, said the two issues have added to the global financial crises to create more inequality and less job security over the past decade.

She added these developments have also combined with the emergence of new technology that has boosted the “gig economy”, where people earn money through one-off jobs with companies like Uber and Deliveroo.

“Austerity isn’t just about economics, it’s also a site of a cultural and ideological battle, and it’s part of a battle to impose neoliberal values on us all and put them at the heart of our society,” she said.

The academic, of the Centre for Culture and the Creative Industries in the Department of Sociology, said the establishment of a meritocracy in UK society, where there is an assumption that merit is all that is needed to succeed, has created “staggering inequalities”.

“What’s common to this and to all these cultural mechanisms, is the way that structural inequalities get reformulated as individual, personal failures,” she said.

Professor Gill explained that many more people are now working and living in precarious conditions, and this group now includes people who are highly educated and working in “high-status” occupations.

She explained this included those in the cultural and creative industries, such as film, television, and design, new media and higher education.

The role of the media

According to the academic, the notion that success and failure should be the responsibility of individuals alone is being supported by messages in the media, with pressure for people to “do what you love” and have a “passionate ethic” with creativity shaping aspirations.

She said: “At the heart of that are ideas that come from positive psychology, and ideas such as the development of grit, the development of resilient subjects – confident, positive, happy, creative, flexible – all of those kinds of qualities.

“And if you look across education, if you look into employability discourse, if you look at leadership training, it’s this focus on psychological qualities that’s absolutely at the heart of these.”

Professor Gill highlighted examples from some feminist books that suggest confidence is all women need to succeed.

“They are absolutely committed to women’s equality, and yet through their emphasis on this individual quality of confidence, they entirely exculpate institutions, structures, histories, cultures,” she said. “They end up blaming women for their poor position in the work place relative to men.”

The concept of resilience is common on development courses in many professions, from soldiers to NHS workers, according to the Professor Gill, who argues this is removing government responsibility to create better working conditions and put money into the public sector.

“We see these things sweeping across our public sector, in fact sweeping across all employment situations, where people are stretched to breaking point and there is this idea that we need to go on resilience training workshops to help us cope with things that fundamentally cannot be copied with – to try to find individual solutions to structural, systemic problems.”

Tribute to Rosemary Crompton

The Rosemary Crompton Memorial Lecture 2017 also welcomed guest speaker Tracey Warren, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham.

Her talk, Class and Work in Post-crisis Britain, began with a tribute to Rosemary Crompton, a pioneering sociologist Rosemary Crompton, who passed away in 2011.

“It is an utter honour to be asked to be part of this third memorial lecture,” she said. “It’s an honour to be asked to think about Rosemary’s work and the impact on the sociology of class and gender and work.

“Rosemary has impacted my own personal research agenda, she also provided personal guidance, enthusiastic feedback, direct criticism, as well as ongoing inspiration.”

The annual lecture has been held at City since 2015.

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