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Interview — Alex Vanopslagh says that young people today are too focussed on looking successful. He recognises this in himself. But the problem is not that there are too many requirements and expectations, he says. The problem is that there are too few.
Only three years have passed since Alex Vanopslagh graduated as a student. And yet he has little to say about his own education programme.
He had nothing against studying political science, first at the University of Southern Denmark, then at the University of Copenhagen. He just did not turn up for lectures that often. Sure, he will say that it was a waste of time to go to class in a text that he had already read up on the night before. But most of all he was not there because he had to do a bunch of other stuff.
He became chairman of the youth section of the Danish political party Liberal Alliance, worked as a public affairs consultant, and became a father, all before he got his master’s diploma.
There have been liberals who have gone too far in terms of laissez-faire liberalism.
So even though Vanopslagh, who at the age of just 27 became the political leader of Liberal Alliance, was not a prize student, he knows what it is like to be young and in a goddamn hurry.
And he knows what it means to be focussed on what other people think about what you are doing.
»I had this tremendous drive to do and achieve something, and the consequence was, that I was busy. It wasn’t a priority in itself, but one of the things that made me hooked on politics was that it was something that I could gain recognition and be acknowledged for. Just like others do when they try to get likes on Instagram or whatever,« says Alex Vanopslagh.
»At the time, I don’t think I was aware that it was a driving force for me to cultivate external success. I was just passionate about liberal politics – and I still am. But I can see in hindsight that there was also the motivation to achieve success.«
Maybe he can see it, because it has become a hot political theme: young people striving for perfection in the eyes of others – and in some cases not being able to withstand the pressure.
It has been dubbed the culture of perfection, and politicians have recently been queuing up to take a stand against it. First the former Ministry of Higher Education and Science Tommy Ahlers set up a campaign called #shareyourmistakes, or #deldinefejl, in the hope of getting students to take the chances that sometimes lead to mistakes.
And when he handed over his post to Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, the new minister immediately said that she intended to continue this initiative.
»The debate about the culture of performance Tommy, that you have skilfully set in motion, I am also looking forward to continue pushing for. This is one of society’s biggest problems,« she said to Ahlers.
»We can have the most talented lecturers, the best research and the latest teaching equipment. But if the students don’t feel OK, it is not worth much.«
Halsboe-Jørgensen has shown that she takes it seriously: A new office for the well-being of young people – consisting of a head of division and five civil servants – will now learn more about how to cut back on part of the stress and loneliness that plagues the students of today.
It is not just young people whining when they, to a greater extent than in the past, seem unhappy and distracted. It is real. But it is whining if you say, ‘oh no, it's terrible that my work has to be graded.’
Alex Vanopslagh agrees with the minister that young people are far too interested in being perfect in the eyes of others.
But he rejects the idea that it is the pressure to perform that is is the root of the problem. This is actually the symptom. It’s not, according to him, about having too many requirements. It is more about having too few.
So when politicians and commentators call for reducing grading and admission requirements to alleviate the pressure on students, they have misunderstood what the problem actually is.
»We have become incredibly self-absorbed, and we are really interested in how we believe others perceive us. It just doesn’t only come from requirements and the pressure to perform. Because the only place where society requires anything of you nowadays is in the educational system. In the rest of society, there are no more expectations. You just have to actualise yourself, you just need to be happy, they say. I think this is really what unsettles many young people,« he says.
»We have got this culture where everything is up to us young people. The world lies at our feet. We can be just what we want. It is in some ways without any expectations. I believe that it leads to an emptiness that has some people are extremely focussed on the grades, extremely focussed on self-actualisation and career, or, like me, extremely interested in succeeding in politics.«
The hunt for success was not something that bothered Alex Vanopslagh. It was a driving force for him. So strong that it helped push him towards the post as political leader at a surprisingly young age.
But, he adds: »I have realised that I will not be happy, no matter how much success I have in politics. This is not the only thing that will lead to that.«
According to him, what makes him happy – well, what makes us happy – is what we are for other people. People were more aware of this »in the old days,« he says. When, according to Vanopslagh, more efforts were made to educate young people to be industrious, polite, proper and civil.
»The good life was not in self-actualisation. It was in directing your attention to your surroundings and trying to involve yourself in a good way.«
»This also means that it is wrong to say that we should not have grade requirements, that we should not have any expectations at all. The problem is instead, that we have no overarching frameworks left at all.«
He mentions several times the Danish psychologist and author Svend Brinkmann, who has put this tyranny of self-actualisation into words. In his recent trilogy of books, this psychologist claims that we should stop focusing on our own emotions and turn towards the outside world. Some fixed points – or positions – that can be the cornerstones of a meaningful life.
As he writes in a first book, Stå Fast, or Stand Firm, a parody of self-help books that he disparages: »Stop trying to feel your self!«
You could note that Brinkmann castigates capitalist society and its inherent demand for continuous growth. But the Liberal Alliance is that party in the Danish parliament at Christiansborg that voices the most support for capitalism.
We have become incredibly self-absorbed, and we are really focussed on how we believe others perceive us. This doesn’t only come from requirements and pressure to perform
Alex Vanopslagh points to the fact that the 60’s student protests helped erode many of today’s norms, but he also admits that the 1990s bubbling, liberal, optimism went too far.
»There have been liberals who have gone too far in terms of laissez-faire liberalism. As in ‘the world is at your feet, you can do whatever you want. You are the king of the world’.«
Unlike them, Vanopslagh emphasises the importance of having a wider societal framework and a responsibility for the community. But certainly not the framework of a welfare state. You could almost say his political project is to go against a model of society that enjoys a wide political consensus in Denmark.
He calls it a whining society.
One of the events that has helped define him as a politician was when he stood up at the Sankt Annæ Gymnasium school in Valby, after the pupils’ council chairman asked him to talk about the well-being of young people.
»I don’t feel sorry for you,« he said to the students.
Perhaps he would formulate it differently today, he says, but he still believes that there is a hint of whining in the debate about the culture of perfection.
»That young people today are unhappy and unsettled to a greater extent than in the past, this is not whining. It is real. But it is whining to say, ‘oh no, it’s terrible that my work has to be graded,’« he says.
»This is because we generally have a whining society. Where you can always take umbrage and say poor me. Where now the world and the rest of society needs to change and expect something else from me, or pay me some services. They have systematically promoted this way of thinking over the last thirty-forty years.«
The most important thing is that we need to be something for each other. We should not have to run around in some stupid system where you constantly have to generate profits for the welfare state. This is not meaningful for any human being.
Vanopslagh believes that citizens’ money is wasted away on the welfare state, and it is one of his set pieces to remind his political opponents that they can easily find money for their political programmes if they cut off some of the fat from the public sector.
Recently in a featured comment in the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten, he wrote to the Minister of Finance Nicolai Wammen (S) should not be so saddened by the fact that he had found DKK 3.5 billion in extra bills at an audit. He just could fill up the shortfall by cutting the job centre bureaucracies, abolishing various social sector pools, and cutting unemployment benefits to new graduates. And this just to start.
But Vanopslagh is not in favour of all efficiency improvements. In fact, he and the Liberal Alliance want to abolish both the Danish cap on education programmes and the study progress reform, even though both reforms have saved the government huge sums (according to the former minister, Tommy Ahlers, it will cost DKK 300 million a year just to remove the cap on education programmes).
The difference is that the reforms are not based on liberal ideas. They were based on the logic of the welfare state, he says.
»The Study Progress Reform is about the need to rush and get out and generate a profit for the welfare state. This is not liberal. I can understand people find it pointless. But it comes from the fact that people have been granted privileges, so that craftsmen and all sorts of other people are paying for your education, your SU Danish study grant and unemployment benefits to graduates. They don’t want to cut the privileges, so you introduce new requirements to retain them.«
I have realised that I will not be happy, no matter how much success I have in politics. This is not the only thing that will lead to that.
»But then it will be on the premise of the welfare state and not on the premise of the meaningful human life, where we try to get people to take responsibility and be something for themselves and for each other.«
But you have talked about the need for requirements for students. Shouldn’t they just pull themselves together and complete their education programmes in the required time?
»I would rather change the system than change people.«
What do you mean?
»If there are students who are taking too long to complete their study programme, I do not want to change them because this a drag on the treasury. I would prefer to reform the system. In the long term, this will mean looking at, say, user fees. If you were to pay DKK 5,000 a semester, you would take your education programme ten times more seriously. You would also expect more from your lecturer, you would demand a higher return and choose a study programme that paid off.«
But you would also risk losing some people, that is, the least wealthy?
»Then you should just allow for some good loan options, like in Sweden and Norway. I am not concerned about the fact that if there is a higher degree of student loans, or a symbolic user payment, then there will be many who will drop out. I don’t see this happening at all.«
»Moreover, we have the world’s highest student education grant, and it is still overwhelmingly the children of the well-educated who take the longer university study programmes.«
But the sense of pressure to perform and the stress that we have talked about – would you not contribute to this by pushing the students harder financially?
»I would look at this differently: If you do a good university education today, and all goes well, you pay taxes in the highest tax bracket for the rest of your life. You have to pay back for the rest of your life. In the second model, you take a loan, but once you have paid it back, it is over. You live in a country where there is growth and prosperity and good opportunities.«
»Pressure does not come from holding too high expectations in the education system, or by having too low an SU study grant. It is an inner pressure, that comes from a feeling of emptiness. Because we have deluded ourselves that a meaningful life consists in self-actualisation, performance and in external things. That you in this way, project success.«
Alex Vanopslagh acknowledges that it is difficult to solve this politically. Perhaps especially for a hotblooded free market liberal. After all, liberals are opposed to using government power to ‘constrict’ citizens, as he puts it. And some of this is not about politics, but about a culture change that takes place through a public conversation.
»There are some things that are filled with dilemmas, for example grade requirements. What is the good liberal answer to this? You would like to place responsibility for this out in the institutions. But at the same time you have to recognise that it is important that we expect something from each other.«
»The most important thing is that we need to be something for each other. We should not have to run around in some stupid system where you constantly have to generate profits for the welfare state. This is not meaningful for any human being.«