where did we lose the basic skills of self-reliance to cope with financial austerity?

The Grauniad’s had a series called Breadline Britain about how dreadful life is for our increasingly financially challenged nation. Now I just about experienced Britain in the 1960s, as it was pulling itself out of the post-war austerity, and one of the things that strikes me about the difference between the Britain I saw as a child and that of now is that adults have become far less self-reliant. We have lost many basic skills that soften the issues of having less money, and it appears that many adults just don’t seem interested in learning. The second thing that strikes me is the appalling incompetence at household financial management. Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation because borrowing money was much harder in the past, so people had to live within their means or just lump it. And the last thing that is obviously wrong is people don’t seem to be asking themselves whether they can afford to have children before doing so. This lady has four children – on a family income of £44k. It isn’t hard to see why she is struggling.

People design in fixed costs into their lives without giving them enough thought. It first struck me when I reflected on a colleague who lived 25 miles away from work, where I was 6.5 miles from work. We were both higher rate taxpayers, and I calculated that he needed to earn ~£5k more than me, just to have the same disposable income. How’s that? Well, design in a 50 mile round trip instead of a 13 mile round trip. That’s an extra 37 miles he needs to drive, each and every day. That’s about £1300 a year in fuel alone. He’s putting 8100 extra miles a year on his car, with all the wear and tear that entails. I could keep my cars for 10 years and buy them well secondhand; he bought his cars new – in the service life of one of mine, he’d have put 80,000 miles on the clock, so that just wasn’t an option for him. I could bike to work when the weather was congenial. Taken in the round he was taking a hit that was probably equivalent to a salary cut of £5000 a year. And of course he was losing about an hour of his time each day.

Every time you pay someone to do something you can do yourself, you have to earn enough to be able to pay tax on the money you are paying out. If that person is employed, you have to cover the overheads, sick pay, employer’s contributions, the lot, whereas if you are doing it yourself, you do not have to earn the money and pay the tax and NI on it.

It is always much more expensive in cash terms to pay someone else to do something that you can do yourself.

Now that isn’t a reason to insource everything, because there’s the opportunity cost to the money you could be earning at the same time 😉 If you are hiring someone on minimum wage and you’re on minimum wage yourself, that is barmy – do your own cleaning. If you’re earning £50k then knock yourself out and hire the cleaner if it means you can earn £20 an hour net and paying them £6.19.

The cleaner on minimum wage is the obvious example, but there are more subtle costs. For instance, it’s more expensive to get Tesco to prepare your meals for you rather than do it yourself, which is why ready meals are more expensive than the ingredients, and if the cost is the same then the ready meal will contain ropey ingredients 😉

I was staggered at this bunch of Guardianistas who are struggling to feed two children and two adults on the meagre income of… £35,000 if you please, and they’re living with his parents! Let’s take a closer look. They were on a combined household income of £75,000. Now I have never lived in a household that had this much income – ever! I haven’t been in a household with two incomes for most of my life. The Ermine is not one of the 1%. So I ask myself how the hell these good people managed to get made bankrupt. She lost her job when they had twins. Now I appreciate that it’s not meant to happen that way but in general many mums leave the workforce for a few years after having kids, so the loss of that income was to be expected. Have they never heard of savings? Now they are complaining of not being able to afford decent food, and having to use ready meals. Mrs Ermine has examined that fallacy in this post and found it wanting – the problem there is food preparation skills, or the lack thereof, as well as a shocking lack of imagination and general get-off-your-backside-and-do-something smarts.

Now eating is one of those fundamental things that everybody needs to do. If you’re rich enough to afford ready meals, then have at it, but if you’re not, or you have the temerity to want your food to taste of something other than sugar. vegetable fats and monosodium glutamate, or maybe you are rude enough to want vitamins, then you have to re-acquaint yourself with the food prep skills that humanity has preserved across generations – until now. Sometimes I wonder if people realise that food doesn’t only come from supermarkets – it’s actually possible to grow some things yourself 😉 I particularly like the line

I’m not stupid: I know this is going to have a detrimental effect on my children’s health.

For God’s sake, woman, you’re running on £35,000 a year, and have more time, being unemployed. And yet you see fit to switch from cooking yourself to using ready meals? Where’s the rest of that £35k going, on the horses?

It is the loss of skills that will hurt people in future. In the past people grew food on allotments and in gardens, which saves a lot of money – Mrs Ermine qualifies that at about £2000 a year saved; for a basic rate taxpayer that’s equivalent to needing to earn about £3000 less every year! As an added bonus, although your veg will look gnarlier that Tesco’s, it will actually taste of something and be good for you, as well as filling you up.

Food does this – it just sprouts from the ground, despite what Tesco would have you believe, and here some citizens of Ipswich are taking advantage of that fact

There are other skills that could save people money. When I bought my first house, I had a problem with a stuck main intake stopcock under the kitchen sink. Now I could have called in a plumber, but because I had seen my Dad do plumbing, I figured I’d change this myself. I had ambitions of using a blowtorch and Yorkshire fittings but couldn’t reduce the seepage from the Water board stopcock enough to get enough heat into this, so once I got within 5cm of the inlet with some abortive attempts I sucked it up and used a compression stopcock. Job done. I replaced the guttering myself on that house – for the cost of an aluminium ladder and the materials, which was a lot cheaper than when I had that job done on this house; I was time-poor and wanted the soffit and bargeboads changed to uPVC which wasn’t within my capability. I fixed my heating system when the timer/programmer died and again when one of the motorised diverter valves died. I changed my own cold water tank, taking the opportunity to relocate the bugger to the apex of the roof to give a decent head of water to the shower, rather than run a power shower. I changed the water pump on my car, and replaced brake pads in the past. I did this because I grew up with the expectation that any halfway competent person who wasn’t rich would be able to do those – people just couldn’t afford not to.

More work, yes. More money, no – I can’t save any more money on heating 😉

Mrs Ermine asked me recently if I was going to run the wood stove in the day. I don’t generally, because the heat is preserved in the house from the evening before. I said no, because I didn’t want to spend the money. She looked at me as if I was crazy. “How’s that going to cost us more then?”. She was right – we don’t pay for heating, because we are prepared to chop up wood and pallets. I did some of that today. Heating less doesn’t save us money. But we need to chop up more wood.

In Britain we need to become more self-reliant. We need to learn how to cook decent food from ingredients that our grandmothers would recognise. We need to learn to fix some of the basics ourselves. We need to learn to go without if we haven’t got the money, rather than borrow money and have our future selves pay even more back. In the last decade or so we have outsourced a lot of these basics to outside agencies and to the welfare and benefits system, to try and buy our way out of needing to tackle the gritty basics of life. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands, and get to work relearning some of the basic skills our grandparents used to take for granted.

Where’d they print the instructions on this darn thing?

Knowing how to feed yourself and your children from food not sourced from supermarkets and food that doesn’t come with instructions printed on the back is a skill we seem to have lost somewhere. My mother’s opinion of supermarket veg was unprintable – she got that from Lewisham market stallholders who would get it from Covent Garden market in the early morning. Even as a student supermarket veg was tired and low-grade. Fortunately students don’t need veg 😉 The supermarkets have found how to make veg last longer by chicanery like de-oxygenated atmospheres in plastic packaging and the like, but they can’t get round the problem that the flavour of food fades with time, and most of it seems to fade in the first day or two. It’s why those stallholders got their produce from Covent Garden barrow-boys in the early morning – because they’d have got an earful from their customers if their produce tasted as poor as Tesco’s finest. But it was more faff, and somewhere between the 1970s and now we collectively decided that all the adults in a household should go to work, so we don’t have time to buy decent fruit and veg, or grow it, or cook our own food, or fix our own plumbing or any of those things that our grandparents took for granted.

We could afford the luxury of losing those skills in the last couple of decades. From the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series it looks to me that these skills are now being very sorely missed. We need to stop borrowing so much money and start living within our means. We need to think about whether we can afford to have as many children because it looks like some of the freebies there are drying up. And all in all we need to man up and start to take responsibility for the choices we make in our lives and skill up to be able to do more with less. The Guardian’s we never had it so bad is absolute bullshit. I grew up in a London of coal fires where only a single room in a house was heated in general, where most people didn’t have cars, and where people grew their own food and cooked it themselves.

Fridges had no freezer compartment – I recall the excitement when we got the first one with a two-star icebox – you could store frozen food in that but couldn’t freeze it I think. Respiratory ailments were widespread, because the damp and condensation were endless problems; I got bronchitis nearly every year until we moved to a house with central heating. That was not poverty in a Guardianista sense of the word – nearly everybody was like that. But what we did have was a broad base of basic skills, and good and reasonably stable communities. The move to paying for everything and having both adults working has atomised those communities and we have surrendered some basic skills for the blandishments of advertising. It would make the Guardianistas wring their hands in horror.

And yet there was some satisfaction and camaraderie there. People had hobbies other than watching television, and often these were creative, in quite eccentric ways. There may not be so much money about in future, but we have enormous advantages over those times, communications are far cheaper, the relative level of wealth in much higher.

The essential difference is that Britain in the 1960s, though it was far poorer than the Britain of 2012, was improving. It was better than Britain in the 1950s, and immeasurably better than the Britain that had endured its darkest hour standing alone against the Axis. The Britain of 2012 stands wanting compared to the Britain of 2006/7, and the Britain of 2015 will probably be wanting in material terms compared to today never mind 2007, for many people.

We probably can’t dodge that, but we can soften the blow by taking our lives back from the endless messages of spend spend spend. There is a certain reward in taking control of some of the variables, and pulling back from the money economy to improve our quality of life, rather than our standard of living. In a previous life, I used my meagre skills to grow tomatoes in the back garden. The crop was variable because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but for a lot of the time they were far better than Tesco’s Finest vine-ripened tomatoes-  because they had experienced th sun until the day they were eaten. Some simple pleasures can’t easily be bought, and perhaps we will find pursuing these more rewarding than chasing the admen’s plastic dreams. There’s something peculiarly short-lived about the enjoyment derived from satisfying a want that is created by marketing, because it is always a hostage to the next updated version. The stillness when the treadmill stops is a silence that is valuable in itself…




12 thoughts on “where did we lose the basic skills of self-reliance to cope with financial austerity?”

  1. Great post as always. Be careful burning pallets though – I recall reading somewhere that many of them are chemically treated. . . .


  2. I saw that article too yesterday, couldn’t believe my eyes. Made me wonder exactly where in south east Asia I’d be heading for my winter holidays with the surplus money left over from feeding (well) and clothing four people on ‘only’ £35k per year with no accommodation costs. Not a surprise that the Guardian hasn’t allowed users to comment on this one, would be a free for all!


  3. The lifestyle you remember was still prevalent in the 70s when I was growing up, and I returned to it in the second half of the 80’s when I fled the familial nest and set up home on my own. This was still a time when credit/mortgages/loans were something you had to physically apply for (and sometimes be denied) – often in person at your bank – rather than have it offered to you by spotty Saturday shop workers at the till in Debenhams. I’m pretty sure the penalties for non-payment were spelt out quite explicitly, and you felt the bank implicitly made you think bout whether you really wanted to enter this arrangement before signing up. I guess that’s why I have an in-built resistance to credit in all its forms.

    Self-reliance is something I’m personally beginning to regain – as I’m tired of being at the mercy of some other organisation when something goes wrong. Part of that is sloughing off all ‘crap*’ that I’ve allowed my home to be filled with and that requires me to constantly feed money, effort, time or energy to.

    (*sorry – I couldn’t think of another word to describe the draining nature of some of the fixtures, appliances, services and commitments we’ve allowed to insinuate into our home over the years!)


  4. I agree with everything here and I’m starting to learn a few more DIY skills for when I can’t afford to outsource stuff.

    I found the Guardian article hilarious in that £35k is seen as the ‘breadline’ for a family with no rent or mortgage. It’s another reason why I’ve stopped reading newspapers, either print or on line, including the BBC.


  5. @Franco your quite right that one shouldn’t burn treated wood. We build some items using tanalised wood so I know the characteristic smell of the raw wood, and you can also hear the difference in the running tone of the saw. However, most of the pallets we deal with come from suppliers of building materials, so these are one-way only, and untreated.

    If you do end up with treated wood on a fire, one way you know is a greeny tinge to the flame. I’ve avoided this in the wood-burner but I’s seen it once with the rocket stove till we stopped people harvesting offcuts from the construction work 😉 Fortunately tanisation doesn’t contain arsenic any more, but the fumes still aren’t healthy.

    @Alistair I hadn’t noticed the Grauniad didn’t let cynical SOBs like me comment till you mentioned it!

    @MM I was born in the early sixties so I did some growing up in the 70s, and despite its bad rap it was probably the peak of self-reliance, and not too many ready meals 😉 Good luck with clearing stuff, it’s harder than it looks at first. I’m slowly trying to run down a decade or so’s worth of consumerism and it takes time. Like you I’d prefer to not just toss it – I don’t want to pay to get rid of it but if I can off it on ebay to someone who wants it I’m happy to cover my postage costs and a little bit.

    @Mike maybe I should go on the news detox diet. I hardly watch TV but do read a fair amount online. And it makes me wonder what has happened to my fellow countrymen, as you say £35k as breadline is crazy. It smacks of dreadful money management rather than necessary hardship IMO. BTW I’d changed your URL to escape to the west country from escape to the country which doesn’t quite look like your site 😉 Let me know if that’s nto what you meant to happen.


  6. Read the same articles in the Guardian to.
    Glad Im not the only one, who couldnt believe what he was reading.
    I especially couldnt believe that in two of the articles people were complaining about not being able to afford to eat, but in the next line saying how they had Sky TV and couldnt give it up.(Surely providing food for your family/self is more important that SKY TV!!!)

    These believe people seem unwilling/unable to acknowledge that there life choices have lead them to where the are(and some bad luck) and that it up to them get themselves out of it.(Seem like the Guardian saying that the government/state should step and do it for them.)


  7. I don’t make light of redundancy and repossession, but really I simply don’t get why these people cannot now manage on £35,000. Where I work, there are plenty of people who are managing to bring up young families on one salary of around that amount.

    Why are they buying disposable nappies, for heaven’s sake? It really makes me want to scream with frustration – can they really not see how they could manage perfectly well and enjoy the benefits of having one parent at home (with the bonus of no child care costs)?


  8. I got angry enough reading your article that I went over to Guardian gave them an earful of a “feedback/survey” and supplied your link as an antidote to bad journalism. 😐

    Well, in hindsight, that feels pretty good! 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: