The strange naivety of some in the middle-class in relation to work… July 11, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Class, Culture, Economy, The Left, Uncategorized.
…there’s a piece in the current issue of Prospect magazine that will infuriate many. Under the heading ‘Middle-class survivalism’ it argues that since ‘we’ are ‘the prime target for politicians struggling to restore the public finances…is there any escape?’
The author is a former financial writer:
Looking back, I can put my finger on the time when clutch of appealing illusion I had carried unquestioningly with me throughout my adult life began to fall away. It was 2009, just two years into the financial and economic debacle that still surrounds us, but long before I or most other people finally realised that what we thought was just another temporary downturn – albeit a bad one – was in fact something totally different. it was game over. An old way of thinking and doing things was finished.
What was the cause of this damascene conversion? Well his wife was pregnant with their first child, there were issues with his extended family and…
…a happy and supportive relationship with my employer which had lasted almost 15 years, suddenly became the exact opposite. By the following sprint I had an infant son, a disorientated mother living among strangers behind locked doors and a cheque instead of a career.
Now, he appears a little trusting. For example, who could disagree with the following:
Life is a lot easier and less stressful if you like your job and the company you work for.
But I often wonder how much that would be true of many many working lives?
That said there’s a lot of truth in what he then says:
The money turns up every month and the seasons roll around. Colleagues can become good friends over the years and the social life of the office is something you miss when it’s gone.
And that is true, and inevitable, at least in many workplaces, because this is a primary focus of life in this period if one is working. The office, factory, whatever the space one is positioned in is where so much of living takes place. It may not take up all the conscious part of the day but it is easily the most prolonged period in a day in a single place – at least for most working.
And having been made redundant myself I know all too well, and this I’ve mentioned already recently, about how friendships, networks, contacts are broken, often for good. All pattern is taken from the day to be replaced if there is no work with… nothing much.
Still, again the thought strikes that he was particularly naive…
The first big illusion I left behind that spring was that any company would ever really care for me, as opposed to the role I was being paid to carry out.
Perpetuating this comforting illusion is a key function of middle management and stupidly I allowed almost 15 years of positive experience to lull me into believing it. That turned out to be a profound mistake and one I won’t make again.
It reminds me of a former boss, an MD of multiple companies. On occasion his thing was to drag his sales and management teams from the various companies into what were optimistically called a ‘sales meetings’ where in some magical ‘synergistic’ fashion great things would be plotted and achieved.
Unfortunately due to the nature of my work I was forced to lurk at these in the corner and saw that the drab reality was that he would proceed to talk for hours about what should be done with little or no purchase on what was actually feasible. Eventually, I realised, as many had before, that these served as a sort of therapy. His catharsis and us paid for the privilege. Fair enough, and there were sandwiches at lunch, so few complaints. As the years progressed these became more and more absurd and that was essentially the spirit in which people engaged with them.
But on one occasion a new recruit, a senior manger in a company appearing for the first time made the rookie error of addressing the MD by his first name. None of us passed comment, but I heard back from the individual – let’s call him ‘Bob’ – involved that he had been taken aside directly afterwards by the MD and informed… ‘Bob, I’m your boss, not your buddy’.
This wasn’t news to me, given my political orientation, but a useful object lesson in terms of the real power relationships at work, nonetheless.
That someone, the author of the Prospect piece, could be a financial writer and not understand these from the get go is a disturbing testament to how orthodoxies actually function (indeed here from a few years back is another angle on this).
Sure, he says:
Being a financial writer, I’ve naturally come across other, more impersonal ways to view the true balance of power that exists between companies and the people that work for them.
But one has the sense that that penny never quite dropped. And note not a mention of unions or workers organising to ensure their rights or extend them further.
Anyhow he continues, being concerned with the anguish of the middle-classes in the newish dispensation. Though, I guess in fairness, it is worth considering how the precariousness of working life that has characterised lower paid work is now reaching well into the self-ascribed middle classes.
And also in fairness he makes an interesting point discussing his mother’s situation. He talks about the general sense of unease in the middle class, amongst the ‘well-paid’ and so on in the current situation. And he suggests that ‘having gone through the process of unravelling my mother’s finances after she went into the care home, I can see good reasons why they should be [uneasy]’.
I grew up thinking my parents were comfortably off and once we tracked downy he paperwork this belief turned out to be broadly true. As part of the wartime generation, she had worked hard, saved and owned property through its long bull market with the result that, at 85, she had a teacher’s pension, property she owned outright and a decent sum in personal investments. What she didn’t have was enough income to meet her monthly bills.
How could this be? She had apparently done everything right but was till well short of being able to pay her way in the world.
And here it gets very interesting indeed.
The reasons will, I suspect, be depressingly familiar to many others who have been through the same process with their parents. From what I could discern, my mother must have had a financial advisor at some point – at least this was the most obvious explanation why her money had been spread across a roll-call of the UK’s leading fund management groups (all the big names got their share), and why all of its as invested in equity funds that held shares in the same narrow list of large companies. The other things these funds had in com,mon was that none paid out any regular income to her and they all charges at least 1.5 per cent a year in management feeds, around a third of which would be handed to the advisor who had channelled her money into these funds and then departed the scene.
But why is this a surprise? To be a capitalist requires capital, serious capital. Handing over the facade of capitalist endeavour, attempting to understand let alone play markets, requires much much greater resources than his mother could bring to bear. Add in the noxious intersection of deep self-interest that serves to pass for much of the financial industry and the capacity for personal losses are enormous. And that’s before we get to the marketisation of social services which really only the state has the heft, or the willingness (and even that increasingly partial in the current context), to provide.
He argues that it was an ‘accident of bad timing that meant we had to overhaul our mother’s financial arrangements to try to secure her a low-risk income form her investments at about the worst moment in living memory to attempt such a manoeuvre’.
Well, yes and no. These are cycles, subject to the market. Markets boom, markets bust. And they’re entirely indifferent to such matters as the welfare of his, or anyone’s mother or father.
What lessons does he take away from this? Tellingly he blames ‘the people we elected, trusted and paid to manage this country’s financial affairs knew what they were doing. They clearly didn’t.’
That’s okay as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. It wasn’t just politicians, it wasn’t just supposed regulators, it wasn’t just the private sector, it was an ideology where the needs of the latter were serviced by the former and largely ignored by the regulators. Where political policy was dictated by laissez-faire approaches. Where markets became ever more central to socio-political activity with little or no questioning as to whether they were, or ever could be, fit for purpose.
And his solution is no solution at all. He writes that ‘I’d far rather rely on myself and my family than on any of the institutions I used to believe would ‘be there for me’ when I needed them’.
So he now works for himself, a nice place to be – well bar the enormous and very real pressures – but one that is beyond the scope of most working. He has decided to ‘make my own mistakes in deciding how to manage our money than pay for the privilege of having someone else to blame when things go wrong’. He’s gone off the ‘pensions system’ – though he doesn’t call it by its correct name, the ‘private pensions system’. And one presumes that he feels his mothers pension, which presumably was state, did such a bad job.
Still he also makes another interesting point.
…the other goal of this exercise [he’s put money into a small pension for his children] is to find more ways to pass on wealth from one generation to the next – not just by bequeathing what we have left when we die (inheritance tax permitting) but also by doing some of the hard work of saving for their old age well in advance, so that when they reach adulthood they will have greater scope to spend or save the fruits of their own labour, rather than racing against the clock to amass a pension fund from scratch.
To which the obvious response is that this generational socialism in one family is all very well (though one does have to wonder where individual effort and endeavour fits in), but it does absolutely nothing to address the wider system problems addressing millions both in the UK and further afield who are in a similar or worse situation, trapped in employments where they are, let’s not put too fine a point on this, exploited in a multitude of ways from low wages, poor working conditions and so on, where they have little or nothing to look forward to at the end of their working lives, where they are increasingly pushed whatever their circumstances towards the market. Even after the events that he describes which we have all lived through.
Why he can’t see that community/society/social systems are the way to go escapes me where instead of the risk being borne by the individual, which is what it has been and effectively what he seeks to perpetuate, albeit in a lower key way, it would be borne by all. His is an analysis trapped within the constraints of his own class horizon.
And in all honesty, his middle-class survivalism (sic) doesn’t strike me as that great to begin with. Yet more grabbing the crumbs and trying to make do. And what that means for his offspring…