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Talking ’bout our Great Depression… October 10, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Society, The Left.
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It sort of hit me this week how tired I am sitting in taxi’s listening to drivers my age (early to mid 40’s) or a bit older, or sometimes a bit younger, telling me how the younger generation won’t know what hit them if the economic situation gets out of hand. And it’s not restricted to taxi drivers either.

It’s a bit like a sort of economic displacement activity. Talk and talk and talk about how only those hardened souls like ourselves who experienced the 1980s really understand what a recession is like and how that somehow, in some unspecified manner, positions us to ride out the storm, or at least endure it, more easily than those who haven’t had the pleasure.

It’s not that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind or that I haven’t on occasion nodded complicitly when the point was raised but there is a problem. It’s rubbish. Firstly, who is able to face a recession with any degree of equanimity, other than those who have very very deep pockets indeed. Secondly, how precisely does ‘experience’ of the 1980s, or the 1970s, inoculate against it. A jobs a job. Unemployment is unemployment.

I’m fairly certain that having been in my late teens and early 20s during a particularly bad economic period it does nothing to steel me in any way to future redundancy. Fairly certain because I lost my job in the early 2000s after years with a company. This was at the height of the boom and all I can say is that the sick feeling when I was given notice continued with me for perhaps a year or so after. It was something between panic and fear. I was then in my late 30s with an okay but not great track record in my area of work and hugely conscious that there were scores of people younger than me and better qualified by experience. It was, to be honest, scary as hell and even thinking back writing this it raises thoughts I’d rather not have to think. As it happens I managed eventually to get contract work, but even now half a decade or so later many of the habits I formed then, such as taking almost any work I was offered, have remained. One thing I took from it was a sense that no job is safe, that security is an illusion. Maybe that’s a good lesson, but it’s not a pleasant one. It also made me more self-dependent. Again, that’s perhaps good, but perhaps not.

Would it be easier if all around me were losing their jobs too, or not? That I don’t know. What I do know is that if economies are built on sentiment, as they appear to be after the last couple of weeks, well, so are lives. Continuity and expectation, or continuity of expectation, in a life depends upon stability. That can be dull, but it can also be a refuge. I don’t want big surprises, and I’ll bet neither do most people.

Nor am I certain that those who have known relative (and it has been relative, dependent on who you are and where you live) prosperity are doomed to emotional collapse as their iPods (and mine, come to think of it) and cocktails are pried from their uncomprehending hands as the bailiffs storm in. In fact what does it mean when people say that others ‘won’t know what hit them?’. They certainly will – and it’s not as if there weren’t a couple of wobbles along the way. It’s apparently forgotten now how there was a mild recession in the early 2000s. Now, most over 25 would remember that, even tangentially and many would have had some sense that – as the ads say, shares can go down as well as up.

Nor is it as if the entertainments that currently exist were exactly unknown in my youth. For better or worse cinemas were open, pubs full, gigs – well, arguably better. Life goes on, but so too does a grinding struggle.

Again, it seems to me that there is a hint, or more than a hint, of puritanical distaste for people enjoying themselves. Now, this isn’t new. Many years ago I remember reading an Arthur C. Clarke novel years ago and being struck by a phrase that went something along the lines of ‘… the inevitable envy the old have for the young…’. But I’m not so certain it is envy, although that plays a part, as much as simple dislike. And since this would appear to be a continual process that refuels itself in each and every generation (watching a BBC4 programme on Dance on Sunday evening it was very striking how 20th century dance forms were a perpetual source of offence to those older than those dancing) there’s more than a touch of hypocrisy about it – after all they (and we) got their chance to dance too.

Part of it is a distaste about the conspicuous consumption that we’ve seen. And it’s a neat inversion, this sense that the young are somehow pampered, that they’re somehow got above their station. But it’s worth noting that relatively few have experienced the worst excesses of same and for every one that has there are thousands more whose lives have been rather less exalted. Or put it another way, the comforts of the boom were not restricted to those between 18 and 30. And any of us who have canvassed across the last ten years will know that the fruits of that boom were distributed a lot less widely than some commentators make out.

And perhaps there’s a little bit of fear, which I do understand, the sense of ‘…oh, no, not again’. Because as with so many other topics of conversation all too often the real subject is the individual speaking. It’s not that others will have it bad, as they invariably will, as the unstated recognition that in a recession almost everyone is touched in one way or another. Which leads to this sense of bizarrre superiority.

Either way… glib talk on this, or vainglorious posturing, does no one any favours. Already for many this is a source of anxiety. Maybe for most of us. And for a smaller but growing band of people the reality of recession and global finance crashes have come home quite literally. A sense of solidarity mightn’t go amiss. Yep, solidarity – there’s a word to think about.

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1. Tomaltach - October 10, 2008

WBS, I think I know what you mean ;-)

You said the effects of your being laid off in around 2000 hovered over you for about a year. Oh no. Don’t say that!

I have to confess I’ve been an exponent of the ‘they won’t know what hit them school’. You’re right – they will soon know what hit them. But I think for many under 30s they don’t have a conception of what a real recession feels like. At least for the rest of us we have already begun to adjust our expectations and set our priorities (some of us. And some of us have had it happen rather rudely than that!).

But people are very adaptable – even the under 30s will soon learn to live on lower income, or cope with working away from home. So I suppose the shock theory is probably overstated.

You end on a theme that I’ve been thinking about lately – solidarity. I was wondering the other day how would we handle the severe downturn as a society, as communities. The tiger period was accompanied by significant changes in Irish society which we are probably still coming to terms with. One example is the rapid growth in the number of immigrants. We heard a lot about how the Famous fáilte had disappeared (has it? was it ever real or amyth). There were huge increases in the numbers living in commuter towns, and average commute times had grown hugely. The number of double income families etc. And we have been anxious about the erosion of social capital – the bowling alone theory etc. So I’m wondering how will the new, altered society react to harder times. Are we more likely to resist sharing the pain, by perhaps ignoring the plight of the vulnerable? How will this all play out? I suppose the first indication will be next weeks’ budget, to see how much or how little protection is afforded to the most dependent among us. We shall see.

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2. Eagle - October 10, 2008

Tomaltach

Let me tell you that the fáilte for newcomers/outsiders didn’t exist in the early 90s. I was married to an Irishwoman and of Irish descent, but none of that mattered as the attitude to me was far more often “Here’s your hat …” than “Welcome”. I can’t tell you how many times people asked me during job interviews, “What are you doing in Ireland”? followed closely by “I doubt you’ll actually stay”.

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3. Eagle - October 10, 2008

WBS,

I’ve thought a lot about this and never put it together so nicely. There’s more than a little envy among people my age and older. Many of them seem to think that the recession will be a nice littler cleanser that will rid the young of their sense of entitlement, etc. I’ve caught myself thinking that way at times; wondering why ‘young people’ put no value on money, etc.

Well, what you say about unemployment is important. It gets harder to endure as you get older, not easier. You’re less adaptable, less energetic and more cautious, worried about the future. And what all these smug recession-cheerleaders seem to miss is that the value of their home represented a significant financial perk that might have made their retirement years easier, but now that’s being reduced daily along with their pension values.

Really the joke’s on them (me, us?) because people in their 40s and 50s will find it harder than those ‘spoiled’ 20 somethings.

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4. skidmarx - October 10, 2008

I sometimes think that Norman Tebbit’s “Get on your bike and look for work speech” of the 80s is a good example of the operation of dialectical materialism or the law of unintended consequences: it merely encouraged people to fiddle the dole as there was likely to be mass unemployment anyway.
Much of the depression that results from unemployment is due to failing to get work rather then unemployment itself. So if you can survive for a while unemployed, it may be healthier to look for work as little as possible.
“an Arthur C. Clarke novel years ago and being struck by a phrase that went something along the lines of ‘… the inevitable envy the old have for the young…’.”
An early Isaac Asimov story talks about “the paler emotional surges of the late thirties”. After another 30 years had gone by he thought he’d really mischosen his words.

I see the is no cod but cod wars are back.

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5. skidmarx - October 10, 2008

That last line should be:”I see there is no cod but cod wars are back”

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6. Damian O'Broin - October 10, 2008

Well, I’m definitely guilty of they-wont-know-what-hit-them-ism – indeed I may have said as much in your company recently!

You’re very right though – there is probably a strong streak of envy and a little puritanism is our/my thinking. And equally age does erode the feelings of invincibility and heighten and extend what there is to worry about.

Your point is well made and true.

But I think there’s other things as well. When we talk about the under 30s in that way, we’re talking about a specific subset. More Blackrock than Ballybough. Maybe it is jealousy, but there has been an arrogance, selfishness and almost extraordinary materialism about the place these last 10 years. Coming from where I do and when I do I’ve found it distasteful. And perhaps to blame the young is wrong – they’re just acting as a signifier for a broader malaise. I certainly don’t welcome the recession and I genuinely fear that it could get a lot, lot worse. But it does as you say teach that security is a rather insecure thing – and that is a lesson that is worth taking to heart.

Solidarity. A good marker for what we need to do.

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7. sonofstan - October 10, 2008

Great post.

One thing about a recession that has occasionally been noted is that it gives a certain amount of license to the young not available in other times. When i was in my early 20s, with musical ambitions, there was perhaps less pressure from parents and peers in the direction of getting a ‘proper job’ than would have been the case in recent times. And since everyone I knew was just as poor as we were, there was little in the way of consumption envy – the few half- decent bands that emerged here in the early/ mid- eighties probably owe some of their existence to this.

Secondly, while emigration of the scale seen in the 80s is obviously an indictment of a nation’s ability to look after itself, on a personal level, it often had a positive effect; and the exposure to a larger world that a huge proportion of that generation had almost certainly had a influence on the extrememly rapid social liberalisation this country experienced simultaneously with many of those emigrants returning.

I’m not suggesting that recession is character building or any such crap, and you’re absolutely right that just because we went through it once, we have survival skills honed that will allow us to do it again – equivalent, if you think about it, to John McCain parading his POW experience as a index of his ‘toughness’ now. I think, in fact, that people may find a trauma repeated harder to bear rather than otherwise. I would argue that our supposedly ‘pampered’ youth with their sense of entitlement may come through this a lot better than their elders fear (or secretly perhaps hope)

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8. Ian - October 10, 2008

I see the point you’re trying to make WbS. There is a degree of puritanism coming out against the young, and with some justice too. As a young person in their mid twenties who lives in an admittedly suburban middle-class area, I see many people my age sneer at the notion of having to tighten their belts or take a paycut despite them being well educated and qualified. The reality is that things aren’t going to be as rosy as they were for some time to come.

The credit crunch is a paradigm shift which hasn’t caught up with many people yet. Last night I suffered an unbearable conversation with a muppet who was convinced that while his beloved market may be going through a tough time, the downsides would eventually bottom out. He lacked any idea of what a recession means for ordinary people and instead continues with his delusions of grandeur around how unregulated capitalism has been the be all and end all of Ireland’s economic success.

On the other hand, my generation and those a little older than me (specifically those around the 30 years old mark) will have it the hardest. Those who are in their 40’s and 50’s and who bought houses before the boom are never going to face negative equity, have coined it for the maximum possible period and are probably heading into retirement with enough investments and assets to see them out – despite the economic outlook.

So while we (in a generational sense) are naive and silly, you oldies have got all the aces!

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9. Dunne and Crescendo - October 10, 2008

Anyone remember last March or so National Irish Bank had a big splash in the papers saying that almost everyone in Ireland was worth a million euro? They advertised it with a photo shoot at Carlton House in Kildare, complete with two models drinking bubbly and posing on a Bentley and a sports car. I pointed this out to a group of 20-something students as a example of hubris; they looked at me as if I had two heads. So I am prone the occasional ‘lets see how they like this’ feeling about the younger generation, although to be honest I worry more because I think that Ireland is as meaner place in some ways than it was 20 years ago. Two examples;
When I was a kid Travellers were regarded as a bit of a nuisance, but often as unfortunates and a lot of people still talked about them being the result of the Famine etc. Now loads of people I know, hate, and I mean hate, them and happily talk about shooting, burning, killing them.
From 1984-85 the entire union membership at Waterford Glass donated a portion of their wages each week to the British miners. Imagine an Irish workforce today, giving up money each week to a strike in a another country? It just would not happen. Most people I know under 30 think unions are for civil servants and nobody else. Therefore I feel a lot of people won’t respond too well to a recession.
As for the Celtic Tiger cubs; fuck them, they can sleep in their SUVs for all I care.

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10. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 10, 2008

Having taught people like that (and not only in An Saorstat Eire), I can only agree with Dunne and Crescendo.

Next week: angry unemployed academic shakes fist at cloud.

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11. yourcousin - October 10, 2008

I believe the term would be schadenfreude. My mom was *this* close to being able to retire when everything went to shit and now it looks like if she is able to keep her job (of course there are lay offs coming) then she’ll have to work another five years minimum. Its not all about housing, but also the fact that many pensions and annuities are invested in the stock market and are taking a serious hit. I believe that 2 trillion in retirement have already been lost.

I cannot speak for any real grouping of young people, but I would say that as somebody in my mid twenties, I’m not quite scared shitless but I’m apprehensive. It’s not just that my annuity is vaporizing before my eyes (I have another thirty of work to rebuild it) but obviously as a construction worker I’m a little more prone to the economic hiccups. My contractor specializes in healthcare and education so they’re a little more insulated against the normal bumps but are definitely being hit hard by a state wide construction freeze which is a far more serious sign.

My thoughts are that I’m safe until the end of the year when my current jobs ends and then it’ll be,”so long, don’t call us we’ll call you”. I’ve worked straight for the last five years or so (not too shabby for a hammer swinger) and I’ve got plenty of unemployment coming. The thing is that I’m newly married, buying a house (a “cheap” one), and am expecting a son in January. So alot of the anxiety is not about buying a new truck or big TV but about being able to provide for my family.

The only consolation prize is that since the market has trumped the nation I no longer have to worry about joining the military as a last resort since private contractors are now doing the work. Instead of getting paid shit to get my ass shot off in Afghanistan I can now go as a private contractor, bring home six figures tax free and keep up my benefits as the contractors have national contracts with the union. That is of course unless I get blown up.

Oddly enough class is making a resurgence here right now due to ballot issues in my state so we’ll have to wait and see what happens. I have a feeling that it’s going to get worse so hopefully we’ll see some new thinking and ideas pop out there instead of the tired old ones.

It’s my first recession as a member of the work force but I remember with particular vividness times when members of my family were laid off previously and the effect it had on me. To see my father laid off after 24 years with company so a multi millionaire could take a tax cut was more radicalising than all of the literature put out by the entire anti-capitalist movement could ever hope to be.

It always pays to bear in mind the fact that we’re just man hours/cost codes to our bosses. And speaking as someone who’s normally made above scale due to the fact that my bosses liked me it goes doubly, just because they like you doesn’t mean they won’t push you in front of the bus when the time comes.

I know this is an Eire-centric posting but I thought I’d my two cents.

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12. yourcousin - October 10, 2008

Oops, last line should read, “I thought I’d add my two cents”.

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13. sonofstan - October 10, 2008

On the other hand, my generation and those a little older than me (specifically those around the 30 years old mark) will have it the hardest. Those who are in their 40’s and 50’s and who bought houses before the boom are never going to face negative equity, have coined it for the maximum possible period and are probably heading into retirement with enough investments and assets to see them out – despite the economic outlook.

well I’m in my forties, and yeah, i bought a house years ago – but ‘investments and assets’? *hollow laugh*

When I was a kid Travellers were regarded as a bit of a nuisance, but often as unfortunates and a lot of people still talked about them being the result of the Famine etc. Now loads of people I know, hate, and I mean hate, them and happily talk about shooting, burning, killing them.

True. Last night there was a mail in my inbox from a lecturer in my (academic) department passing on one of those ‘humorous’ pics that are (almost) never funny – the crux of it was that being a traveller is inherently funny and contemptible – I’m guessing he sent it to the entire departmental mailing list by accident; I doubt if he wanted 60 odd people to know what a prick he is – still, no academic 20 years ago would have done this.

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14. Dunne and Crescendo - October 10, 2008

Not surprised class is making a comeback in the US yourcousin, the bailout means ‘No Banker Left Behind’ after all. I just wish Obama or somebody would give voice explicitly to this anger.

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15. yourcousin - October 10, 2008

I think the fact that the dems are so bankrupt (so to speak) on the class issue will actually help us (the working class) as people will realize that the ballot box and their local politician either doesn’t give a shit or can’t do shit for us. And then hopefully we’ll turn to one another instead of the state.

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16. Eagle - October 10, 2008

When I was a kid Travellers were regarded as a bit of a nuisance, but often as unfortunates and a lot of people still talked about them being the result of the Famine etc. Now loads of people I know, hate, and I mean hate, them and happily talk about shooting, burning, killing them.

Just curious because I haven’t perceived any real change with regards to travellers. When I first came here as a student – 1986 – I stayed in a house in Darndale, Co. Dublin. From what I could make out the local people couldn’t stand (hate? – not sure) the travellers who were living on a vacant lot near-by. Couldn’t stand that they ‘had all that money’ and got ‘everything'; couldn’t stand the fact that you can’t trust them and would drive them out of the estate if they came calling to do odd jobs or whatever; couldn’t stand the mess by the side of the road.

They disliked, distrusted, and resented them. I hear the same things nowadays that I heard then.

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17. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 10, 2008

Darndale would have been pretty urban even then. And I think it’s the urbanisation of Ireland which pulled the rug out from under the Travellers.

Fifty years ago they were on the bottom rung of the ladder, but they were still on the ladder. Now they’ve been pushed off it completely.

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18. WorldbyStorm - October 10, 2008

Tomaltach, that may just be me. A few issues combined simultaneously to exacerbate it all. I’ll PM you about it.

Darndale Eagle? I didn’t know that.

Damian, I’m sure you didn’t…I certainly didn’t hear it.

Ian, I’d echo sonofstan and Eagle. The thing is no-one is covered if this really goes to the wall. Not 20 y.o’s, not 40 or 50 y.o’s. That’s what is so frightening. I might add that at lunch I met a good friend whose partner had just lost her job after four years. The partner is in the late 30s, etc, etc. And each etc contains many of the points above…

yourcousin, that word came to my mind *after* I wrote it…

Incidentally on the academic thing, I was speaking to a group of 20 somethings very recently and pointing out that for them they would in a year or two be entering the worst job market for – possibly – 15 years or longer (bar the early 2000s blip). I don’t know if that message has hit home yet but I think it’s beginning to.

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19. Eagle - October 10, 2008

Darndale. Yup, for a couple of months.

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20. ejh - October 10, 2008

ut I think for many under 30s they don’t have a conception of what a real recession feels like.

I think this is true, and fundamental to the reasons why there are large generation gaps in political outlooks. It’s not the only reason, but it matters a hell of a lot. I grew up in a Britain marked by mass unemployment, huge strikes and near-permanent economic crisis. The younger generation don’t know any of that, and if they consider them historically, they may well blame them on the unions. But they may soon find that much of what they’ve assumed can’t be assumed so easily.

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21. ejh - October 10, 2008

Incidentally, my fiancée and I are about to take over a small business – not a good time – which involves a lot of driving around – not a good time – which we had hoped to finance by selling our house – not a good time – and which will involve her giving up her job – not a good time.

God bless us all, every one.

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22. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 10, 2008

>>>they may soon find that much of what they’ve assumed can’t be assumed so easily.

At this juncture we will point our fingers and laugh, like the wee lad in the Simpsons.

And at least you have a fiance my friend!

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23. WorldbyStorm - October 10, 2008

ejh, I wish you well on that a chara. On the other hand the only way is up…

Eagle, we must talk about that… soon :)

DJP, it will be us next… first they came for the under 25 year olds, then the under 30 year olds, and then the under 35… etc, etc…

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