I’ve been chewing it over in my mind for a while: the idea that market forces dictate that we’ll always work as hard as we can; that houses will always cost as much as people can afford to pay for them, that the more we shift the goal posts, the bigger the pitch becomes. Give people a leg up getting on the first rung of the ladder, and the rung shoots up, soon becoming out of reach. Make it a pre-requisite that people need a degree for entry level jobs, and soon, you can’t get a job, however basic, without one.
We’re chasing out tails, and it’s hard to see that there’s a way out of the increasing hurdles we set up in this rat race we’ve made for ourselves, be it in education and employment, finding somewhere to live, or even, in health.
A useful allegory for modern living is TB. It’s evolved to be multi-drug resistant . Now that rich countries no longer suffer from this Victorian killer, new drugs aren’t being developed despite the thousands of people who die from this hideous disease every day in poor countries. But it’s this sort of attitude that’s going to come back and bite us in the ass. TB is making a comeback in Tower Hamlets, where I live, but then it’s historically thrived in areas of high deprivation.
A NASA funded study, plotting the algorithms of the fall of empires, tracks how civilisations collapse once society divides into haves and have nots. It’s happened relentlessly throughout history and it will happen to us. And soon, if the study is anything to go by (and it WAS written by NASA, so you’d think they’d have done the maths.)
The only way out of the nightmare scenario, where the starvation of the masses pulls the rug from under the comfortable, well appointed living environment of the elites is greater democracy. But it’s hard to see, in the dog eat dog world we’re living in, how this is ever likely to be achieved. Perhaps, we humans are just not evolved for sustainability.
Whenever a problem is solved, another is created; we swarm to fill the gaps left by the previous occupants of society’s lower reaches. Where one underclass is lifted out of poverty and made dependants, another comes to fill its place. In this world of internships, zero hours contracts, soaring rents and stagnating wages, the value of human labour is dropping ever lower. Blame population, which will hit 9.5 billion in 2050, the year my son turns 45, or machines, which will take 50 percent of our jobs within a decade, but the basic problem is inequality.
The divide is going to get bigger not smaller. At the top end of the scale, we’ll all work harder and produce less. I service the internet, writing stuff noone reads to improve site rankings. The more content I churn out, the more someone else has to churn out to keep up. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s some wonder we don’t all give up and go home, this eternal one one-upmanship of a economy that must be always seen to grow despite having nothing left to produce – we raped the fat of the land, decades ago, chewed it up and spat it out – probably back in the 1970s, when in England, at least, democracy and equality seemed, for a split second, within our reach.
So that is what I have to say to a friend of mine, who said, over Prosecco, and a chat about London property prices, that the economy’s not fucked for people like us. She meant of course, London home-owners in full time employment. So, forgive me if I’ve been reading the Guardian too frequently, but this is why she’s wrong.
She went on to say, this person who works in the public sector – the higher echelons of government, to be more precise, “I don’t know a single person that has been affected by the financial crisis personally,” to which I mirthlessly smirked, “Well as Tom was a banker, we’ve been on the front lines.”
Her eyes widened, remembering the two year Tom and I spent scrimping, getting by on the what the government deigned to give us and handouts from Tom’s mother to save us from going under. Yes poor us.
But I’m not asking for sympathy, and we’d never expected - or received – much, but those were the facts; we accepted them, and still accept, that as a broker in European government bonds, the future’s not exactly looking rosy. But we were privileged enough to have a modicum of support when we needed it. And owning a London property, even if , for a while, we struggled to keep hold of it, means we’ll probably be better off than most.
I don’t want to go into a public vs. private service debate. I don’t know enough, to be honest. But sheltered from the harsh realities of the global market, it’s only a matter of time before any pretence of national socialism all just implodes.
With a strike looming at my children’s school, I can’t help thinking that teachers, for all they may work 60 hour weeks (and I DO struggle to believe this, particularly at primary level, if you average it out over holidays and so on) don’t actually know they’re born in an increasingly competitive, cut throat world economy, where the NHS is busting at the seams, and even Noel Edmonds is talking about buying the BBC. It’s end of days, indeed.
When I look to my poor sister, who has signed her actual life away, plus her mental health, her daughter’s childhood and one marriage to the multinational where she may well hold a position of relative superiority and get paid a decent wage, but she still lives in a modest three bedroom house for all she drives a (company) sports car.
Public service workers have had pay freezes, granted, but they can still demand something akin to a pension. In the private sector, wages have been stagnating for a decade. Tom earns some 60 percent less than when I met him (which, frankly, was a ridiculous amount for someone who never went to uni, though of course, back in the late 80s when he was a young adult, you didn’t need one to get into the murky world of banking.) He’d not have half a chance now.
For all my first class degree and postgrad qualification, my skills are two a penny, and I know it, so I’m better off keeping my head down, my mouth shut and just getting on with it.
And that’s the reality for most of us save an increasingly small slice of super elites. If this generation of post grads feels hard done by, stacking shelves in Amazon warehouses with a degree from Cambridge, then it’s not looking great for our children, however determined we are to teach them to code, so they have half a chance of wresting back control from the machines. But basic market forces teaches that unless the economy is massively restructured in the next 20 years, then our children are going to be royally fucked over. Although, as is the way of things, the children of royals will probably be all right.
So yes, I am luckier than most. But even then, it’s been no picnic getting to this stage, keeping my head above water, peddling like crazy beneath the surface to help me and my family stay afloat. And if owning a poky London property makes me something of an elite, then the fall of civilisation as we know it really can’t be all that far away.
It’s got to be tough times when pole dancing my way through uni was a more sensible decision for my long time future than going to uni itself. But at least my fees were capped. I’m not even going to mention the numerous girls who see this as their only option for paying to study now, alongside loans which they’re more likely to default on than not, given their chances for scoring a well paid job when all is said and done.
It’s a rat race all right, but we’re not all in it together, that’s for sure.
This article,by Helen Lewis from, you guessed it, the Guardian, cites the then vice-president Richard Nixon’s proclamation that by 1990, we’d all retire by the age of 38, and reading it gave me the kick up the arse I needed, as I twiddle my thumbs, pen push and otherwise fulfil my in-office hours as largely underproductive desk meat, to articulate it.