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“Hopeless” Kiwis

 “A lot of the Kiwis that are meant to be available [for farm work] are pretty damned hopeless. They won’t show up. You can’t rely on them.” 

Responding to questions about increasing migrant workers on farms, these words got Deputy Prime Minister Bill English into hot water recently with the Opposition and unions. Labour claimed the Government was “writing off a whole generation of New Zealanders.”

Despite these critiques, the Minister stood by his words in subsequent interviews. While he could have been more tactful, I think he’s right. But the word “hopeless” has two meanings – the first is lacking the skills and abilities to be up to the task, which the Minister was referring to. 

This is a problem we often talk about—those who can’t read, write or get a license are going to have problems getting a job. Up-skilling, training programmes and education can be effective here. The second meaning, however, isn’t talked about hardly enough. It is to lack aspirations for the future, and no amount of up-skilling will fix this. 

A piece in the UK Guardian a few years ago by Linda Tirado illustrated this second type of hopelessness. While working two jobs, studying and raising two daughters, Tirado said that from her experience, “poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain.” “Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week, “she continued, “[n]one of it matters. We don’t plan long term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it…it’s certainly self-defeating, but it’s safer.”

Now this isn’t everybody’s story, but the sentiment resonates with conversations I’ve had with struggling families. The literature is clear that scarcity—money and time—diminishes our decision-making capacity by reducing our ability to be future-minded. Our “long-term brains” switch off and we tend to live in the moment. Delaying gratification makes zero sense if the future “payout” is beyond our reach anyway.

Living in the moment leads us what Richard Reeves, researcher at the Brookings Institute, calls “vague hopes.” Research shows that the vast majority of parents—rich and poor alike—want their children to get a good education and be successful at work. Reeves contrasts these with active aspirations: goals “towards which a person is consciously and deliberately working.” It’s one thing to vaguely hope for a good education, it’s another to not go out with mates and stay home studying. Those on low incomes are more likely to lack these active aspirations—the concrete steps towards the goals. 

This is a huge issue that we’ve been ignoring for far too long. Because many New Zealanders are brought up in communities where there are very few stable families or well-educated full-time workers, we can hardly expect vague hopes to magically transform into active aspirations. Alongside building skills and providing opportunities—as best we can, we must begin by inspiring hope. 

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