Flânerie – and the drumbeats of war again?

One of the joys of having control of my time is to become a flâneur. I have always been a generalist at heart, even when I specialised for work. The world is full of an endless array of interesting stuff for an inquisitive ermine to stick his snout into, and learn. I was recently trying to make a cheap Chinese humidity sensor work, and lost myself for a few hours in the curious ways of Cuban cigars and learning why you need a humidor, why they are made of Spanish cedar. I have no expectation of ever smoking, never mind Cuban cigars, but I learned about humidity control and how I can calibrate my cheap and nasty sensor using saturated salt solution.

And now, if I want to chase a knowledge rathole I can, without the feeling in the back of my mind that I should be learning about something useful. What is useful, anyway? The previous experiments with humidity sensors improved our hatching rate on eggs to about 75% from 50% – sometimes intellectual ratholes can be useful in some unrelated field.

Goslings. Being waterfowl they expect to hatch from eggs in a more humid environment than chickens. Their aggressive heart of darkness begins to show later on...
Goslings. Being waterfowl they expect to hatch from eggs in a more humid environment than chickens. Their aggressive heart of darkness begins to show later on…

People sell fertile eggs and send them through the post at about £2 a throw, so improving the hit rate was direct gain to the bottom line.

With curiosity in mind I walked into town to take some library books back, and observe, in an active but detached way. That’s flâneur after Baudelaire, who described him as “gentleman stroller of city streets”. I learned something about Britain today. It was a marvellous day, sunny but not too hot. It started well with this tree

maybe it's just be that suspects a face in this tree bark
maybe it’s just me that suspects a face in this tree bark

before I entered the town. Too often when I go to the High Street I find the experience alienating, the clamour of all the advertising trying to sell me something right now. It’s attempting to create a perceived need, to which of course some particular product or service is the solution.

There are signs the economy is improving. For starters there isn’t such a rash of empty shops as there once was. Indeed, I didn’t see any, though the improvement wasn’t that great. For instance, colour me surprised that BetFred are offering you these hideous machines to help you basically flush your money way.

self-service money flushing terminals, whatever will they think of next?
self-service money flushing terminals, whatever will they think of next?

Self-service, apparently, presumably so you don’t have to look someone in the eyes as you take the shaft? So much nicer that way, I say. It puzzles me why you have to walk into town to do this job – if you simply want to flush some money away most homes these days have a toilet that will do the job perfectly adequately, and if you want the thrill of the chase I’m sure that there are online places that will debit your credit card for a suitable fee 😉

I’ve lived in Ipswich for nearly a quarter of a century, but never noticed this massive advertisement dating from the 1930s, though presumably I’ve seen it numerous times

Symonds chemists from the 1930s. Their paint was good, to stand up to 80 years of the British weather so well
Symonds for Kodaks. They were chemists from the 1930s. Their paint was good, to stand up to 80 years of the British weather so well

Somehow I don’t think that flâneurs in 2090 will be wondering what just essentials or Chinese herbal medicines were. I’m left wondering if there are planning rules now that limit shop signage to the ground floor, or if this is the invisible hand of the market. After all, it took 25 years and stopping work for me to lift my gaze, maybe first-floor and up advertising isn’t economically viable.

I also recorded the dire sound of people sitting in a darkened room flushing their money away on a different kind of fleece-the-punter contraption – the amusements, which seem to be blighting the High Streets in vast numbers.

Here I ran into one of the banes of the street photographer’s trade – the punk who doesn’t understand what public means. The proprietor/franchise holder objected to pictures being taken of the back door of this place from which this noise was emanating.

[audio: 130827-1226_arcade-money_lost.mp3]

Well, perhaps since it’s air conditioned you don’t need to leave the back door open, and that wouldn’t attract inquisitive ears to find out what the racket is all about 😉 However, since you did leave this door open

the sounds of good monye being thrown after bad emanating from this door
the sounds of good money being thrown after bad emanating from this door.

I’m perfectly within my rights to photograph it, and indeed almost anything and anyone from a public place in Britain. Being followed for a few hundred yards and harangued for intimidating her customers by taking pictures of them and accused of breaking the law was starting to piss me off. I can be charged with crimes against photography, it’s a shit picture, but it didn’t harass her or her customers because there’s nobody in the photograph 😉 It was a record shot of where the noise was coming from.

She was jabbering on about calling the cops so I inquired what particular crime she was alleging had happened, and invited her to go call the coppers if she wanted, but in the meantime I’d be on my way. For some strange reason she didn’t bother to call the cops. However, it is nice to know that the franchisee/proprietor at least feels a little bit bad about what they do, which is basically making a living out of the human weaknesses of their customers. If you open a betting shop or slot machine emporium then some people will occasionally going to say you’re exploiting people. Just like some people say fast food joints serve crap food.If you don’t want to feel bad about basically ripping people off, then here’s an idea. Stop ripping people off?

More foreign wars seem to be imminent

So minor altercations aside a pleasant time was had. Then I get back home and find apparently ‘The West’ has decided to go kick the shit out of Syria. All of a sudden it gets to feel like groundhog day. We get to see this fella again, delivering the usual message – Weapons of Mass Destruction. Must. Kick. Ass.

Hang on, Tone, how did this go last time?
Hang on, Tone, how did this go last time?

saying Go get ’em, boys, and I start to think to myself, this is the UN Middle East Peace envoy? Let’s just remind ourselves of how that went last time, eh, Tone? You were so enamoured with Dubya that you dreamed up some weapons of mass destruction to go in and get ’em. Okay, things can only get better – at least there is evidence of WMD being used, and at least circumstantial evidence that it was Assad. Let’s hear it from Tone himself

In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.

It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy. I detest the implicit notion behind so much of our commentary — that the Arabs or even worse, the people of Islam are unable to understand what a free society looks like, that they can’t be trusted with something so modern as a polity where religion is in its proper place. It isn’t true. What is true is that there is a life-and-death struggle going on about the future of Islam and the attempt by extreme ideologues to create a political Islam at odds both with the open-minded tradition of Islam and the modern world.

While I’m uncomfortable with the idea of charging in and telling people what to do, all that is Tone at his silvery-tongued best, it’s here where I really part company with him

In this struggle, we should not be neutral. From the threat of the Iranian regime to the pulverising of Syria to the pains of the Egyptian revolution, from Libya to Tunisia, in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East, wherever this extremism is destroying the lives of innocent people, we should be at their side and on it.

The evidence from Iraq indicates we just aren’t powerful enough of clever enough to improve things for those innocent people. That roll-call of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths shows it didn’t work there. Intervention did work in Bosnia and in Sierra Leone – well done Tone. It hasn’t worked in anywhere big. I suppose Libya counts as some sort of success because the oil is flowing again and Gaddafi is pushing up daisies which is why Cameron is all gung-ho. But it’s been a long time since the Pax Britannia was non-negotiable.

Now Assad is a sonofabitch, but the trouble with Syria is okay so you do the whole no-fly zone and bomb the shit out some of it, but exactly how is this going to make things better? The whole place seems to be running with people who have some sort of reason to hate each other. After all, in Eye-rack after 10 years of war it seems like 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. So maybe, Tone, and Cameron, and all the others who are gung-ho, you should just take five and ask yourselves the simple questions.

Have we got the resources and will for overwhelming force – which I would say is no. Let’s face it, Cameron preferred to wind down the Navy’s strike capability rather than ask the electorate to be taxed more. The whole point of an aircraft carrier is to, well carry aircraft maybe? So deciding we won’t bother shows where our priorities lie.

If we go in half-assed, is it likely that we will improve the situation in the long run, given that we can’t really see any good guys in this conflict, simply different sorts of bad guys?

In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to remember the Hippocratic Oath

First, do no harm

At least it was possible to understand why Iraq was invaded. There’s oil there. There was oil in Libya.  Just don’t try and pretend to us again that it’s for humanitarian reasons. To be honest Cameron and  Tone don’t give a shit about chemical weapons, other than as a pretext to get into the fight. Is it better to stop another 1300 people being gassed by starting another Iraq war in Syria that will top 100,000 civilians? I’m not so sure the end justifies the means, sometimes there is no good answer and shit is going to go down regardless. You can have more shit, but not no shit. As Cameron very well knows, shit happens. This is a rerun of The Great Game, the players are different 100 years on but it’s the same sort of thing. This isn’t about humanitarian anything, it’s about power.

And Britain is immeasurably less powerful relative to the rest of the world now than it was 100 years ago. It didn’t actually happen on Tone’s watch, but we went bust since taking part in Dubya’s misadventures in Iraq. We have run down our military because we couldn’t afford it. I don’t see how we can ask the British military to fight with what they haven’t got. If we want to go and kick some ass in Syria on anywhere else, it will mean making economies at home. Okay, at least Parliament will be recalled, but it appears that the decision has already been taken.

If you take the Wikipedia entry about the Great Game and swap British-Russian rivalry  for Western/Russian rivalry, and maybe throw in Chinese interests in there somewhere we are following the same path once again. It’s kinda scary that next year will be the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and here I get the feeling the history is perhaps not repeating itself, but it is rhyming…

Yes, looking at it from the personal finance angle war is a great opportunity to buy into the stock market as everybody is scared shitless. But I am human enough that I’d very much rather do without the opportunity if it sees fewer of my fellow humans slain in the crossfire of another Great Game. It took thirty years,  two world wars and a lot of shit to get the various forces into another semi-stable equilibrium the last time the Great Game was played. So for God’s sake, willy-waving macho war-mongers of the West, put a bloody cork in it. And if you can’t, stop lying to us about humanitarian this that and the other. It’s all about power, not humanity. This is not the century of the West. It’s somebody else’s century, We have grown effete and complacent, and we aren’t prepared to put up with the sacrifices that go along with being king of the hill.

In The Decline of the West Oswald Spengler called us out.

A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto- spirituality of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. It blooms on the soil of an exactly-definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when this soul has actualised the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts> states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul. But its living existence, that sequence of great epochs which define and display the stages of fulfilment, is an inner passionate struggle to maintain the Idea against the powers of Chaos without and the unconscious muttering deep-down within. […]

It was thus that the Classical Civilization rose gigantic, in the Imperial age, with a false semblance of youth and strength and fullness, and robbed the young Arabian Culture of the East of light and air. This – the inward and outward fulfilment, the finality, that awaits every living Culture – is the purport of all the historic ” declines, ” amongst them that decline of the Classical which we know so well and fully, and another decline, entirely comparable to it in course and duration, which will occupy the first centuries of the coming millennium but is heralded already and sensible in and around us today – the decline of the West. Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. […]

At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism in the womb of the mother in the grave. The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun – those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.

This is the spell that Cameron, and Tony Blair are trying to breathe life into, wishing themselves out of the overlong daylight.


what is the point of University?

According to the Grauniad today is A level results day and so a time when a lot of people will be thinking about going to university. So it seems a good time to think about what is the point of a university in today’s world, and what is the point of going to university?

The most common answer to ‘what is the point of going to university’ for school leavers is

to get a (better) job, innit?

Slightly to my shame this was the primary reason I started at Imperial in 1979, studying Physics. No decision is single-valued – my grammar school selected those with the most promising O and expected A level results and strongly promoted the idea of going to university for them, about 10% of the sixth-form applied. The past really is a different country, eh? However, this had much in common with the experience of Reue and Joe – it was just kind of expected of those with a more academic leaning. The nascent Ermine was unaware of some other influences. The late 1970s were a time of massive political hatred of academic elitism, particularly in the form of grammar schools, and rather than get turned into a comprehensive school mine had decided to try and become a fee-paying independent school. [ref]I had been lucky enough to apply and get in under the grammar school system – my parents would never have been able to pay fees[/ref]

To make itself more attractive to fee-paying parents the school needed to improve its university enrolment and get some people to Oxford and Cambridge It appears I applied to Oxford first. Although I did okay on the Oxford entrance exam subject papers I was nowhere near bright enough generally for it, and failed the general knowledge test abjectly with a ‘gamma’. Out of a sixth form of about 75 in total, about 10-20 people applied to university, and about four or five to Oxbridge. The school even paid for the prospective candidates to go take a look at the university towns in some sort of minibus trip.

Somewhere in the dreaming spires of Oxford in 1978. I was pretty talentless as a phtogapher, I have improved the composition of this by cropping out the primary subjects artistically set against that blank wall on the left, though I left the jaunty angle :)
Somewhere in the dreaming spires of Oxford in 1978. I was pretty talentless as a 17 y.o. photographer, I have improved the composition of this by cropping out the primary subjects (a couple of schoolmates) set against that blank wall on the left, though I left the jaunty angle 🙂

I think about eight of us did actually go to university. Most people fell on getting the A level grades. I recently checked mine[ref]it’s a strange feeling to think that I could throw the certificates out now. It seemed to matter so much once. I’m not saying they have no value, but the only persistent value is how the studies changed me, not the physical record of the results, which is now valueless[/ref], I got an A in physics, a B in maths and chemistry, and a D in further maths. That sounds really terrible and shit-for-brains now, but remember that I took these subjects under the old norm-referencing system.  In researching what the hell this actually meant I came across this Parliament report, which brazenly relates how the system was bastardised in 1984.

In 1963, the Secondary School Examination Council [SSEC] issued guidelines for a 5 level scale, indicating roughly the proportions of candidates to be awarded each grade: 10 % A, 15 % B, 10 % C, 15 % D, 20 % E and a further 20 % allowed an O level pass. One of the major problems with this approach was that it specified proportions of candidates […].

This system is sometimes described as norm referencing. In a norm referenced system, the assumption is that the numbers taking the exam are sufficiently large to ensure that standards will not vary greatly from year to year; therefore a given percentage will achieve an A grade, another given percentage a B grade and so on. Norm referencing was set up as a way of identifying the most successful candidates, but it is an unfair means of assessing the performance of schools and, perhaps more importantly, of individuals.

I can only say bollocks[ref]for a better informed critique from within the academic world see Atherton J S (2011) Doceo; Against criterion referenced assessment retrieved 15 August 2013 from http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/criterion.htm[/ref] to that last highlighted clause. My A level results pretty unequivocally place me in upper 10% of my cohort for Physics, and in the upper quarter for Maths and Chemistry, and marginally above average for Further Maths. Pretty damn clear and unequivocal, and in agreement with my abilities. Oxford and Imperial’s admissions tutors could see that it was reasonable for me to apply to read Physics (Natural Science in the case of Oxford, because they are peacocks and don’t do individual sciences) because, well, I was better than 90% of A level takers. Which is presumably why both offered me an interview and entrance test in the case of Oxford. There’s also the red warning light that I was running at the upper limit of my aptitude in Maths with that crap Further maths result, which was to show at Imperial, where I flunked second-year maths. To this day I have no idea of how to solve differential equations by substitution.

Physics intake 1979/80. Oy vey, look, no girls!  I was too cheap to buy the official photo, so I snuck this copy off the notice board and developed the film in digs
Imperial College Physics intake 1979/80. Oy vey! hardly any girls! I was too cheap to buy the official photo, so I snuck this copy off the notice board and developed the film in digs

So what is the point of going to university? Well, for me it was

  1. to learn how to learn
  2. to meet a wider range of people
  3. to make long-standing friendships
  4. to learn how to run a household in a protective environment, first in halls and then digs
  5. a rite of passage in turning from a teenager to a young adult
  6. to learn how to manage money
  7. to hear a lot of different musical tastes
  8. to get drunk a lot
  9. to hook up and find a lifelong partner are you kidding – studying physics in a joint with about 5% girls!

Oh yes, I suppose I did pick up something about Physics along the way. Hardly ever used it for work. Indeed, it was more learning how to learn and how to process and analyse data which came in more useful in my engineering career. How to separate your variables, not infer the general from the particular, and to try and avoid mistaking correlation for causation.

What came as a surprise to me, however, is this

The primary purpose of a University was not teaching students.

It was to do research[ref]I believe this still is the primary purpose of a University, but I’ve been out of the loop for so long I’m not sure any more[/ref]. To go into the Unknown, and drag a bit of it back and make it the Known

Teaching undergraduate students in particular, is a combination of helping pay the rent and wages, and an intellectual loss-leader. Some of those students will be bright enough to advance knowledge if they progress to original research, and you need new blood – one’s twenties is an incredibly creative and fiery time, where you can have tremendous focus and intensity, while also your intellect comes fully on stream for the first time. Even at a distance of thirty years that I can recall that intensity, the heated discussions in the Physics coffee lounge in the basement where passionate discussions were had about arcana as if it really mattered to us, over cheap plastic cups of ropey instant coffee from a machine.

I gained poise, balance and the ability to direct my effort better as I got older, but in my twenties sheer intellectual energy blazed brighter than it did before or since. I wasn’t bright enough to add anything to the sum total of human knowledge, so I graduated and eventually started work. But I posit that it is the job of University to find those than can add to the sum total, nurture that burning fire, channel it, teach it how to learn and inquire, guide it and then set it to adding to the total experience and awareness of humanity.

I looked at that in terms of Physics, but it applies equally in terms of the humanities, and indeed of any of the subjects that are not overly vocational. For all I know it even applies to Media Studies 😉 I am not Renaissance man enough to know.

Now I am unashamedly academically elitist, not because I am brilliant – I wasn’t, and didn’t take an academic line, undergraduate was about the high-water mark for me academically [ref]I did later do an MSc in Electronics and Information Technology, but that isn’t particularly academic, more vocational IMO[/ref]. But because it helped me, paradoxically precisely because I didn’t have parental advantage in terms of money. It matched me to work where I could add more value. I probably paid for my entire career at The Firm in what I added in the Olympics project in the last 3 years, after I’d gotten the message they wanted their old gits out. Presumably I did something for them in the previous two decades 😉 It gave me the opportunity to work in industrial research, which is where I wanted to be, even at Imperial I realised I wasn’t up to academic research and wouldn’t have had the taste for it anyway. And I’ve certainly paid more than my £50k worth back to the Treasury[ref]in real terms – £50k seems to be the going rate for ‘going to uni’ at the moment[/ref] in terms of higher rate tax over the years before I discovered pensions and early retirement as a way to take a bite out of the tax take.

I wasn’t sharp enough to contribute to the primary role of a university, which is to add to the sum total of human knowledge, but Imperial helped me contribute to a different part of the British economy, as it sifted for excellence to help its primary role.

The environment has changed, but the point of university still isn’t to get you a better job, at least from the University’s point of view. However, because of the shocking increase in fees caused by the hugely increased enrollment target, the incidental possibility of a better job matters more to potential undergraduates. Because you’ll be paying for it.

Britain does university well[ref]Times World Higher Education ranking 2013 by function and by reputation. and the Shanghai ranking (ARWU) Look at Oxbridge up there in the top ten in all three cases, with support from my alama mater Imperial College in the TWHE function rankings. Britain has a population of a fifth of the US, so even in a US/UK contest you’d only expect two out of the top ten slots to go to the UK. The fact that the world is fighting both countries shows that Greg’s comment stands up to scrutiny when he says “Education is one of the things we do well here – we punch hugely above our weight in research” [/ref], for historical reasons, but it is running down its store of capital there, because the enormous increase in enrollment has placed massive costs and loads on the infrastructure. The point of university still isn’t to give you an undergraduate degree, though that’s a useful byproduct. It does that to find the people who will broaden the sum total of human knowledge. It’s why society has institutions of higher learning – where else are we going to go to do that? I am deeply grateful that the human genome was sequenced by government-sponsored university research which stuck a spanner in Craig Venter’s works, because I suspect he would have patented key parts of it[ref]the temptation is there – in a rare outbreak of common sense the US Supreme Court pissed on the fireworks of litigating toe-rags Myriad thusly: “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated”. Too bloody right, just like I can’t patent the blue of the sky or the design of a robin redbreast.[/ref].

There may be ways to address the desire for a higher proportion of first degrees in the population, hopefully without hammering the personal finances of the degree-takers. MOOCs may be an answer, the Open University is another model. We used to have institutions that addressed the need for vocational qualifications that started to expand into first degree qualifications without the research facilities, they were called polytechnics. Two of our European neighbours, Germany and Switzerland, still have effective non-degree level higher education, and it seems to be working very well for them, and means their young people don’t have to slaughter their personal finances to get a foot on the jobs ladder.

Your student debt is not a debt, it is a greater liability to tax in future

One of the worst things that the Con-Dem government did to prospective students is failing to take the opportunity to change the framing of their greatly increased charges for higher learning. Nick Clegg did say sorry 😉 He could at least have tried to change the terminology away from the dreaded term student debt.

It’s left to poor old Martin Lewis from MoneySaving Expert to bang the drum for the changes which should have transformed the word debt into tax. Nobody wants to pay more tax, but it’s less bad than feeling that you start off in the world of work with a £50,000 debt. This normalises debt in the minds of our young people – what’s a £1000 credit card debt compared to a £50,000 student debt? It’s very different because the conditions are very different, in terms of the ability to call the debt in, whether it appears on your credit score or ability to get a mortgage, but most importantly you won’t have to pay it before you are earning over £21,000.

All that doesn’t matter, because it’s asking a hell of a lot of someone who is just starting out in life to be able to qualify these differences and assess whether they will get a return on their investment. I would have seen that headline figure, and the word debt, and run the other way. According to the LSE via GraduateFog getting a 2:1 means you’ll probably earn £81,000 more over your working life than if you didn’t have that.

Now if that were an investment proposition I’d leave it on the table – the chance of that £81,000 costs you over £50,000 right off the bat, so your ROI is 62% – over 40 years, and you better not retire early, because the high-hitting years are probably in the latter half. That’s 1.5% p.a.[ref]I’m assuming that the LSE has corrected the £81k to real money, because if not it’s virtually worthless[/ref] – forget it, stick your 50k in a S&S ISA, or use it towards your first house to save you paying rent.

Look at the whole picture – it isn’t an investment proposition

I’m not quite as hard line as Monevator’s university has now become an unaffordable luxury. or even Mr Money Mustache’s non-degree alternatives including skilled trades. That would short-change the offering society is making to you. Look at the whole picture. There are two ways to take the offering –

The academic proposition

First, ask yourself honestly how academically gifted you are. Previous generations had the honesty of norm-referencing to tell them unequivocally. Unfortunately two generations of lily-livered parents shouted that sort of thing down because they wanted to see more A grades, because it made them and their kids feel better. However, you’ll probably know roughly where you stand relative to your class. You probably want to be in the upper 25% to get the best from the university experience as an academic proposition.

It offers you something you can’t get anywhere else – the possibility to run your mind at 110%, to bounce ideas off your peers – to think in the fast lane. I was able to grasp things that I wouldn’t otherwise – even things like how Einstein’s thought model of riding a beam of light led him to relativity and the speed-of-light limitation [ref]I’m not claiming to be anywhere near as clever as Einstein – even following the train of thought is a stretch, and it’s much easier to follow an idea someone else has articulated compared to originating it[/ref].

don't snap one of these in half to try and get a N pole. I tried it as a kid but had to go to university to find out why it doesn't work
don’t try and  snap one of these in half to try and get a N pole on its own. I tried it as a kid but had to go to university to find out why it doesn’t work. The blighters are brittle and smash rather than break

I understood Green’s theorem for a short while (the duration of the lecture, roughly), and why one of Maxwell’s equations[ref]div B = 0, since you ask[/ref] denies the possibility of finding a North pole on a magnet unassociated with the South pole. If you take a cold chisel to a bar magnet, then a new pair of N and S poles appear as if by magic on the cut bits just to piss you off. I discovered this as a child snapping a Eclipse horseshoe magnet on the hole for the string.

You’re unlikely to find that intellectual concentration at any other time in life, and in your twenties is a special time for that anyway. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss, though at times it was depressing because I observed at first hand the hard limits of my capacity to comprehend things that other people were able to. That can be a sucker punch to one’s self-esteem. I still recall the lecture hall and classwork in second year with those differential equations, and how at least half the class could see what they needed to substitute the variables for, and I could see no rhyme or reason behind it. I had reached my intellectual high-water mark in maths, and it was short of the required grade.

You don’t forget the energy and electricity of that time. I knew some friends who did PPE at UCL, and going for a drink with them they had a similar electricity when the topic of conversation got onto stuff that sounded like a combination of random noise and pretentious claptrap to me. But it mattered – to them. And they had more girls at UCL 😉

You may be the Right Stuff to go on into research. I wasn’t, but the intellectual sparks increase from what I overheard, and the ride seems even more exciting, though not without its frustrations too. Along with the really bad dress sense and strange hair at times. It’s a different world, but there must be something good about it to make up for the job insecurity and crap pay.

Oh yes. Take up the academic proposition and you will probably get the 2:1 if you can make the bar. That should hopefully allow you to pass go and collect the LSE £81,000 graduate premium if you work for 40 years. At the moment the jobs market is in a bad space but it should improve. I graduated in the midst of the 1982 recession but did get a job, though I had to take a non-degree one for six months at first, and my second was only marginally a degree level position. Finding a graduate-level job in a recession is a bastard and may involve intermediate steps 😦

The academic proposition also includes –

The social and self-development proposition

uni is about more than study :)
uni is about more than study 🙂

You don’t suddenly change to an adult on your 18th birthday. It took me to about 25 and there are some aspects where I still haven’t cracked it at twice that 😉 Uni offers you somewhere to become a different person, and to explore who and what you are. That explosion of potential in your 20s and the lack of things that tie you down means this is a special time of self-development and becoming self-aware. Even if you flunk the exams these steps along the journey of individuation will change you, and doing that without the ties of work makes it easier to do. Unfortunately this journey isn’t simply a straight-line journey towards the light – the angst and ennui of teenage years doesn’t simply fall away as soon as you leave home.

There’s a lot to be said for the experience of going to university. It’s very formative and a rite of passage that will change you forever and be a lifelong memory, hopefully a happy one in the round. However, it is a damned expensive experience, and because you don’t know what your earning pattern is going to be it is hard to qualify the financial impact. For most people, however, paying upfront or even getting parental assistance to pay upfront isn’t going to be the right way to do that – consult Martin Lewis’s guide for why that parental assistance is probably best set towards buying a house rather than the cost of uni.

I learned something writing this

I was of the view that it’s all gone to pot, but I’m not sure now. On the downside, our criterion-referenced exams do give us less information than the norm-referenced ones before. They compress everything up at the top end, so they can show those with a total lack of aptitude but can’t discriminate between the able, the talented and the brilliant.

On the upside, five times more more people can go to university than in my day, and university is about more than the qualifications. We haven’t got that much smarter in the intervening three decades; if half of 18-year olds go to university then undergraduate intake is for those of average academic ability and up, by definition. This includes the people who would have passed the old exams, plus four times as many people who wouldn’t have passed.  We didn’t have to bugger up the exams – merely set the offer criteria to all Ds in old money. However, the change means there’s no way of telling which are which on entry, which saves the blushes of the less able. There is a hit on the universities, where crabby old gits grouch about nobody being able to do maths any more. I would probably pass that second year 😉

On the downside, all of a sudden there’s a paywall instead of an examwall and a hell of a lot is demanded of prospective students’ financial nous in the face of uncertainty, and the language used (student debt) is terrible.

Teenagers have unrealistic wage expectations. This is entirely as it should be – if you can’t be optimistic as a teenager with it all to play for then when can you be? However, it means they will overestimate the cost of university. It is probably a lot more affordable than they think, and nowhere near as expensive as the headline price. If you experience significant career progression in your 40s then reducing your student loan costs is a pretty good incentive to put more in your pension 😉 And if you start right off the bat on that expected £60k salary, well, it probably was a worthwhile investment so take the hit…

The experience of ‘uni’ has been opened to a lot more people. This was a clear desire of the community and politicians, so perhaps the right answer has been had. What is threatened IMO is the university system, since its primary purpose still  isn’t to award degrees, it is to expand human knowledge. A load of distracting noise and hum has been added to that function by pushing five times as many undergraduates through the system. Maybe we need to ask whether what we are asking universities to do still squares with their primary function. An industrial civilisation that throws sand in the works of its ability to further research, particularly non-commercial research, is playing with the fires that powered its initial success.

Why your spending may not be lower in retirement in future

My experience of spending post work was of a massive fall, but two commenters (Jane, Monkeynut) on the post describing that make me wonder if that may not hold so much for future retirees. So in the interest of balance I thought I might as well take the other side, though I’d not speaking from personal experience.

For what it’s worth my biggest spending was on mortgage payments which then switched to pension contributions and simultaneous ISA investing in the last three years. I am not able to think up anything I’d want to spend that much on – Stuff, Experiences, whatever. I’m in agreement with Jane that spending on myself has gone up as a proportion, though not absolutely, because working made me spend quite a bit just to dull the pain. But as a proportion, sure it’s increased.

Taking my ex-colleagues as a benchmark, two things clearly stick out as different about my lifestyle choices. One is that I am child-free, and the other is that housing is a much lower part of my net-worth than for most of them[ref]at work people with children tended to discharge their mortgages in their late fifties, unless they’d upsized in the 2000s, in which case it was interest-only all the way, with an expectation of house price appreciation and probably downsizing to solve the missing equity problem[/ref]. The reason for the lower percentage of net worth is I had a very bad experience of the housing market early on in my career, and never saw it as a financial investment that could only go up as everybody else seems to do. I have only as much house as I need, which is a three-bed semi for the two of us. The reason most of my colleagues had the dominant stake of their net worth in housing was because they have a lot more house than I do in general. It isn’t because not having children has made me particularly rich compared to them, though there’s an argument to be made that if you have kids you probably do need more house 😉

Having more house than you need is a hit on your net worth if you live in it, because you take on more massive debt on something that provides you with a consumer good – living space, as well as accumulating an asset. Over the course of a 25-year mortgage you pay about  twice nominal for the house, maybe 1.5 times  real terms[ref]I used MSE’s mortgage calculator assuming repayment, 7%, which was probably an average over my mortgage-paying time, in real terms probably about 4% over inflation[/ref]. You have to heat, furnish, maintain and service that space, and the more there is of it the higher your running costs will be. You do, of course, build up equity is a larger asset – when they have paid off their mortgages my ex-colleagues will have houses that are worth a lot more than mine. After which, by the looks of some who have got there, they will rattle around in them and keep spare rooms for the kids to visit, though those kids will not visit as often as they’d like. So they keep a lot of their net worth tied up in bricks and mortar, which doesn’t pay any financial return. Note this is totally different in the case of the buy to let owner – they may also have a lot of their net worth tied up in housing, but the return arrives in the form of the rent cheque every month.

Because I have the excess net-worth in financial investments I have less room to swing my cat in. Compensating me for this is the income from shares. The general return from the relative asset classes seems to be similar over the long run, accepting that the capital value of shares is hellaciously more volatile than that of houses. This is the evil twin brother of the higher liquidity, I guess.

I’m not telling people how to live their lives, each to their own. However, I do observe that there’s often a lot of emotional capital invested in a family home. In my own case, it was probably not a rational decision to pay down the mortgage in a time of low interest rates when I was planning to retire early. I mainly wanted rid of other people being able to tell me what to do by controlling money – I’d had enough of that at work and wanted shot of the threat at home from the mortgage company. It would have been much more sensible to keep the mortgage and use the cash to invest and bridge the gap rather than save the cash upfront and pay off them mortgage. But in the end, if you don’t want other people to be able to control you through money, then don’t borrow money from them and don’t depend upon them for an income. Paying the mortgage off was a dumb thing to do, financially, but sometimes claiming financial freedom isn’t financially clever. But it sure does feel good.

It’s usually a very bad thing to have a lot of emotional capital invested in something where you have a lot of financial capital too. You tend to end up with sub-optimal results, it’s hard enough getting a handle on personal finance as it is without adding a great layer of confounding emotional values.

The increasing opportunity cost of having children

Having children is something that the vast majority of people want to do, and while it leads to all kind of of rewards I don’t think that anybody claims improved personal finances is one of them. It’s frowned upon to send them out to work in the fields or down t’pit to do their bit for the family finances these days 😉 Something that strikes me comparing people having children now compared to the impact it had on my parents’ generation is that the opportunity cost of having children has dramatically increased. This is probably as a result of modern households being predicated on having both partners working. The baseline cost of living has shifted upwards, particularly in the area of housing, which has increased relative to individual incomes over the last 30 years.

That means the opportunity cost of one partner stopping work while the children are young has a lot more effect on the household finances, because housing costs remain at a level assuming two people earning. That’s a hit early on in one’s working life, because biology means that having children in the second half of your working life isn’t that easy. Inadvertently we have designed an economic system that disadvantages one of the most common things people want to do in life more than for the previous generation.

In return our households have twice as much coming in, so we have a more Stuff and experiences, as well as a larger proportion of our net-worth tied up in houses. An awful lot of people lay the increasing cost of housing at the door of immigration, but it started a long time ago, well before New Labour. I was twit enough to buy a house at over four times (single) income multiple, though I didn’t have to borrow that much from the mortgage company because I had a deposit. And an interest-free loan from a credit card 😉 I was already suffering competition from those dual-income households in the late 1980s, a decade before Things Could Only Get Better.

the 50% university target delaying financial independence

go on. Take a guess when the switch to criterion referencing happened

Something else that has changed is that children don’t become financially independent of their parents when they come of age these days,  and this is often to do with the cost of university, though the dearth of jobs for young people right now doesn’t help either. When I went to university the deal was simple. You had a very high chance of failing the exams that were necessary for university admission[ref]I flunked the general knowledge entrance exams for Oxbridge most comprehensively – some of the questions on Classical philosophy I didn’t even understand, never mind have any intelligent answer to. I scored a Gamma, which is Oxbridge speak for ‘thanks for signing your name, but we had expected better’ on general knowledge, though I survived the subject-related papers with an alpha and beta. The competition clearly had a much better general knowledge than I did[/ref], because your marks were allocated as a percentage of the performance of everyone who took the exams at A level. This is called norm referencing and strikes me as the obvious way to do exams, it tells you how good you are relative to others of your age. This is what universities and employers wanted exams to do for them.

Failing exams upsets people, and to avoid that we introduced criterion referencing – marking the exams against some supposedly absolute reference, and also raised the target for the number of children going to university. This all sounded very progressive and egalitarian, and of course an advanced knowledge economy needed more knowledge workers and fewer carpenters, machine operators and brickies.

Everybody believed Tony Blair’s story that more university – “education, education, education” was A Good Thing in itself, and yelled down the cynical who asked the obvious questions about grade inflation and cheapening the brand. I was therefore surprised to read in Ha-Joon Chang’s ’23 things they don’t tell you about Capitalism’ that the correlation between education and economic performance is very weak. One of his examples struck me as particularly remarkable.

That well-known backward and developing country otherwise known as Switzerland had a university enrolment rate of 16% in 1996 – only a shade over the 11% enrolment that Britain had when I started university nearly two decades before. And yet Switzerland is highly industrialised, though they do their best to make out that all they do is make cuckoo clocks, fabulous skiing, and, ahem, occasionally allow dodgy geezers to deposit money in their banks without asking too many questions about the provenance of the filthy lucre…

I must admit I thought “you’re having me on, Ha-Joon” when he said Switzerland is industrialised. I was thinking as a tourist, all cuckoo clocks, cheese, cowbells and mountains. And yet, to be honest, when you go there and you see all the stupendous rock-boring to straighten out the motorways you have to acknowledge these are not people who are afraid of big engineering works, and looking around I saw that indeed Swiss engineering had penetrated Ermine Towers; I didn’t need to step outside my door to find several examples of fine Swiss engineering, even though I have no desire to own a Rolex. The Swiss aren’t generally known for industrial output because they concentrate on business-to-business according to Ha-Joon Chang.

Switzerland - clever marketing makes you think it's more about this
Switzerland – clever marketing makes you think it’s more about this
than about this - Swiss quality: over twenty years old and still going strong
than about this – Swiss quality: over twenty years old and still going strong


You don't have to be a connoisseur of jigsaw baldes to see the Swiss quality even in the basic range compared to Wilko no-name
You don’t have to be a connoisseur of jigsaw blades to see the Swiss quality even in the basic range compared to Wilko no-name

Now there are others who declare the modern UK university experience an increasingly unaffordable luxury, but Ha-Joon Chang, bless his South Korean and Cambridge lack of egalitarian political correctness, delivers himself of the true purpose of university:

the main explanation for the Swiss Paradox should be found, once again, in the low productivity content of education. However, in the case of higher education, the non-productivity component is not so much about [… (Ed: I paraphrase: all the self-actualisation and citizen-building benefits of education …] as is the case of primary and secondary education. It is about what economists call the ‘sorting’ function.

Higher education, of course, imparts certain productivity-related knowledge to its recipients, but another important function of it is to establish each individual’s ranking in the hierarchy of employability.[ref]23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, Penguin, 2010, “Thing 17, pp 186/7[/ref]

In other words, university is there to help employers tell the bright bulbs from the dim ones. You can do that cheaply, using norm-referenced examination results to screen. Or you can do that expensively and poorly, by telling everyone they are special and should go to ‘uni’ and let the employers sort it out some other way. Because university adds little value to productivity[ref]I studied Physics at university, and in working as an electronics engineer some of the maths, in particular Laplace and Fourier transforms were used at work. I’ve used more of my Physics knowledge since retiring, in developing and using environmental sensors. I’m with HJC on the low productivity value of education. It still amazes me, talking to people in their undergrad studies, how they both take it so seriously and often assume they will use it at work[/ref], you unfortunately can’t sponsor it as a widespread experience as a government because the taxpayers will revolt, so if people want so much of the university experience they end up paying shedloads of money and incurring debt at the beginning of their working lives.

Parents, why on earth did you not have the guts to accept that some of your kids won’t be brilliant, and damned your children to this world of hurt by demanding politicians facilitate a 50% university enrolment? Why have we collectively as a society done this to our young people because we didn’t have the courage to tell them that people are of differing abilities? And use our extra wealth to create a vocational system that tried to address these differences?

I went on a satellite master antenna  TV(SMATV) training course once, and wiped the floor with everyone on the written part of the training course, enough to win a prize of a installer’s meter worth about £1000 (Thank you Sky – I still occasionally use it!). It was unjust, because you don’t need theoretical and design understanding to install a SMATV system, but the marks were measurable and what the prize was determined on. Everybody else in the room, who was either working for an installation company or apprenticed to one, could rig a satellite dish better and faster than me. Faster as in less than half the time. There were people on the course who couldn’t add 3, 5 or nine to a channel number – I helped a couple of guys by showing them how to use squared paper to do that, but they’d have your dish up and running and be onto the next job in half the time at less than half the cost. I would have been the slowest installer on the block. Even in many technical jobs competent workmanship often trumps theoretical smarts.[ref]I went on this course to learn the issues and practice of SMATV installation because I was designing systems to work with these systems, so I was never going to be an installer. Had I worked as such I’d hope I would have got a bit faster. I did well in the theory part because I knew it from designing some of these bits of gear and some large systems[/ref]

Now if university didn’t come with a mahoosive price tag these days then it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Our society has no coming-of-age rite of passage and it’s poorer for it. ‘uni’ provides some sort of safe environment for people to indulge in some of the boundary testing inherent in becoming a young adult. Not sure the rite of passage is worth the £40-50,000 price ticket, though. Even a Gap Yah seems like better value, and takes you out of the workforce for only one year rather than three[ref]doing a Gap Yah and going to university seems a rum do. It was extremely rare when I started at university, because people couldn’t afford it. That it’s common enough to satirize now despite those high fees shows just how much richer Britain has become in the intervening three and some decades.[/ref]

Going to university is bad for your wealth – parents and children alike

As well as setting up a society which makes one of the most basic and common lifestyle goals  – having kids – more difficult, we’ve produced a university system that places a big financial millstone round the neck of the children just as they leave home, where earlier generations would have become financially independent. That gives a double whammy – many parents look at the situation and understandably don’t want their kids to start off with the equivalent of a small mortgage before they’re earned any money. If you look at the lifecycle of humans, if you have children in your mid-to-late-twenties you will eat this hit twenty years later, in your mid to late fifties. In previous generations this is where the children would have left home and become financially independent, meaning the parents could now accumulate wealth a lot quicker, clearing their mortgage and getting set for retirement. The children now have two calls on their finances – the costs of university and the cost of getting a deposit together for the house they can’t afford to buy unless they have two incomes. Parents who do want ot help their children out at this stage may want to familiarise themselves with Martin Lewis’ guide to student loans. If you have £x to help your child, it’s probably worth a lot more to them as a deposit for a house than as an upfront student fees payment. It’s at least worth convincing yourself that’s not the case before ignoring it 😉

 Previous generations needed less income after retirement

Let’s take a look at a bit of history. A final salary pension scheme targeted  between 50% and 2/3 of the worker’s final salary; these were considered the gold-plated heyday of British pension provision. Blue collar ones seemed to accrue at 1/80th of final salary per year worked, a typical working life was 16-65 but sometimes the years up to 21 weren’t pensionable. Later white-collar ones accrued at 1/60th of final salary, graduates started at 21 and would work until 60. Both of these rough out about 60% of final salary. However, the experience of a professional career had more similarities then than the variety or career experiences now, and some of the assumptions were:

  1. mortgage was paid off
  2. the worker was 65 or older – people had children earlier in life so it was more likely that
  3. kids had left home and were financially independent

I fit the assumption that the mortgage is paid off and there are no child-related costs, so maybe this is why I share these earlier generations’ spending models.

These assumptions are less likely to hold with people coming up to retirement in future. In particular the interest-only mortgage nixes assumption 1, so perhaps people will have to shift their retirement dates to keep a constant spending rate.

When I analysed my own spending for why it fell, one of the biggest reductions in spending was the drop in pension contributions after retiring, it was larger than I had been spending on the mortgage before it. I gained a double win with the fact I stopped spending  more money than I should have done trying to compensate for a worsening experience of work. In particular holidays were too fast and furious, and expensive. The first time I had an inkling I was not living my values with respect to work came in 2005 on a whistle-stop trip of Western Scotland – I had been searching for ptarmigan at the Applecross pass, which is a remarkable drive in it’s own right and not one you’ll ever forget.

In the evening I watched a fabulous sunset over the bay and heard a cuckoo in the distance. Somewhere over dinner in the bar I realised that I was running away from something, snatching glimpses of this natural beauty in what seemed a never ending greyness of work. This sort of thing shouldn’t happen – you shouldn’t find yourself in such a beautiful, quiet and isolated part of the world with clean air filling your lungs and experience a down. I did not listen up to the signal, but drowned it in whatever fine ale they had.

Your spending patterns may be more sensible than mine were, and less susceptible to reducing. If you carry a mortgage into retirement then your spending may not fall that much, unless you are investing the money you release by not paying it off. If you’re the Bank of Mum and Dad, then clearly your spending may in fact increase… If you have more house than you need then some of your costs won’t fall, and indeed if you need to heat it in the winter they may increase. There are all sorts of reasons why your spending may not fall.

If you want to retire early, however, reducing your spending punches way above its weight. Earning more doesn’t help nearly as much; reducing discretionary spending lets you save more while working and makes it last longer when you aren’t working. I’ve also banged the drum at length about the value of time – we don’t have an endless string of days on earth.

However, I’ll leave the last word to Jane – and Monkeynut

I suppose I’m just wanting to suggest that whilst frugality has it’s place and usefulness, it’s important to have an idea of what gives your life meaning (and that’s different for all of us) and that doesn’t always mean we’ll potentially spend less in retirement.


Overall, my strong advice would be to work all this out to your own preference before you ‘go’. You CAN go and then live within what your spreadsheet tells you, or (as I prefer) get your spreadsheet to inform you how much you NEED, and fix your retirement date to match.

I couldn’t agree more – it is more important to live intentionally and in accordance with your values than to live frugally 😉

The festival of Lammas, and tales from the dark side

Lammas (Anglo-Saxon “loaf-mass”) is the first harvest festival of the year, that of the grain which ripens first. It’s probably jumping the gun a little this year and I don’t know what they’d have made of winter wheat back in the day 😉

ripe grain
picture taken in July 2009, it’s a bit on the drag this year

Lammas was also the time of odd intevals likethe ritual of hand-fasting, a trial marriage which only became a commitment after a year and a day, presumably Aug 2 the next year 😉

In the tradition of odd intervals, it’s been a year and a month since I stopped working, and it’s been good.  In a long thread on MSE on planning for retirement, the thought came to me that there are many assumptions people make about when they expect to retire. One of them is they project their future self and their job into the future. I was reminded of that when I came across a quote from MSE’s dlorde

I found that too – three years in and spending far less than I’d imagined. This is because, once I broke free of the work ethic, I discovered I no longer needed to drink away the stress, or buy stuff just to feel the work was worth it, or to get away whenever possible and splash cash on relaxing, etc.

Because I’m relaxed now, I’m a nicer person; I smile a lot and say ‘hello’ to people in the street, I chat with shop assistants. I cook more for myself than I go out to eat, I walk a lot, and I savour the coffee and the roses because I’ve got the time. These things cost very little, but hugely affect quality of life.

Many of the things I dreamed I’d do when retired, I don’t really feel like doing anymore; they were the escapist dreams of a 9-5 commuter…

It reminded me of the dark side. I see people planning to switch to part-time, gradual retirement, and lots of best-laid plans. The problem is that if you are going to retire early, you need to either be lucky, or you need to start early, or suck it up and live less large today to live larger tomorrow. Living large isn’t all about money. As dlorde summed up so well, a lot of spending is substituting for the rotten experience of the workplace. Out the rotten experience, and much of that compensatory spending is unneccessary.

Many people get this right, they plan carefully, and implement the plan. I envy them in some ways, but I’d say that planning to work to 67 or 70 or whatever is getting more hazardous now.

Where is the world of work going? There’s a power shift, and it doesn’t favour you in general.

The world of work is changing, and power is shifting from labour to capital, as globalisation allows firms to arbitrage production to the lowest-cost. What this means for people in rich countries is they will have to move up the value chain – that means working smarter or harder, or both. The trouble with this, is that we aren’t making people any cleverer, and the result is rising unemployment – and advanced economy just can’t really use people of less than stellar talent in a global workforce. Lest I become charged with being one of those old gits that loves the existence of crap jobs, let me expand, at the risk of being hated by some people.

An advanced economy just can’t employ an increasingly large segment of the population, who just aren’t bright enough, or driven enough.

the distribution of intelligence in humans as measured by IQ
the distribution of intelligence in humans as measured by IQ. IQ is proxy for many human characteristics. Top footballers aren’t noted for brains, but football talent follows a similar distribution – there are very few outstanding compared to the acceptably competent. The Premier League wants the outstanding, not the competent, just as Google does in the area of computing smarts.

Basically, if you’re in a job that requires a particular human skill and you are in the lower 74% of the distribution then the world of work will slowly grind you out of the workforce over the coming 40 years, unless some political changes are made. This particular chart is from these guys [ref]Their software sounds like arrant snake-oil. While you can coach for IQ tests – people do this for school tests and  and I did for the eleven plus (though it wasn’t allowed to be called the 11+ at the time)  I’ve never seen people become smarter at problem-solving in new situations in my entire career, though experience obviously makes you more skilled in action in specific areas. Some types of drug addictions can turn the clever into shit-for-brains sadly, but the other ways doesn’t happen IMO.[/ref] Imagine the work needle starting from the left-hand side in pre-industrial time. Historically, there was space in the workplace for the genuinely dumb, as long as they were strong, and indeed limited capacity in the workplace to use hyperintelligence. As time goes by the needle moves to the right – in the 1950s there was still plenty of work for those of average ability. Nowadays, however, firms like Google are probably looking towards the rightmost quarter. There is less space for hod-carriers in the modern workforce, even on building sites. I saw them all the time as a kid on building sites – when I worked on the Olympics I didn’t see one.

People start to call you all sorts of names when you dredge out images like that so I’ll stop there, FWIW an ermine is not bright enough to enter MENSA to I haven’t got a huge axe to grind. The distribution applies to a lot of human skills, not just general problem-solving. The distribution of good salesmen probably follows a similar distribution and you don’t have to be clever to be a salesman, though being a great showman doesn’t hurt. I’m in the 2% or worse on the wrong side of the bell curve as far as that skill is concerned. Although it’s become politically incorrect to say human talents vary, the beating heart of capitalism doesn’t give a damn. What it wants is the 0.1% on the right-hand side of the bell, and it’s prepared to pay them all the money that it would have had to pay the remaining 99.9% of workers in days of yore, when it wasn’t able to draw upon a global workforce and shift stuff and information across the world at low cost. Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism is illuminating. I have it on order at the library but from Amazon’s preview you can get a good inkling of the principles.

It’s one of those HR bullshit platitudes that people are a firm’s greatest asset, but it starts to become true as long as the firm can get rid of the 99.9% of also-rans which, with a global workforce, includes me, and, dare I suggest it, dear First World reader, possibly you too…

The power shift t0 capital is seen in various places. For instance,  the rise of zero-hour contracts. These wouldn’t be so bad if the zero-hours commitment went both ways – if the company had a job going and rang you up, but you could just tell them to piss off, you were busy working for someone else who would give you work, but it doesn’t seem to be that way. Zero-hours contracts seem to give the employers the right to bond your potential labour by forbidding you to work for someone else, while not guaranteeing you any pay. Why the second word of people’s response isn’t ‘off’ beats me. Years ago a young ermine worked in the City as a kitchen porter and table-clearer, where you’d rock up to the agency early in the morning as see if there was work. If there was and you could get into line, then you had work for the day, if not you at least could do something else with it.

UK labour productivity - falling according to the ONS
UK labour productivity – falling according to the ONS

Zero-hours contracts aren’t the only symptom – apart from the increased unemployment [ref]You must add increased economic inactivity of those of working age to unemployment, and unemployment doesn’t reflect underemployment though the latter is devilishly hard to track – I am economically inactive though not underemployed[/ref]- that is an obvious symptom, workers are accepting lower pay settlements, and productivity is falling in the UK because labour is becoming cheaper. The good side of that is that unemployment isn’t as high as it would otherwise be, because employers don’t have to sweat the asset so much. The bad side is Britain is turning into a low-wage economy for more people as wages fall in real terms.

UK underemployemtn and unemployment
UK underemployment and unemployment

The horrendously twisted wreckage that Britain’s private old age pension provision has become is another sign of the shifting balance to capital. When I started at The Firm, they had to offer a decent pension scheme as part of the overall package to attract enough starry-eyed young pups out into the sticks. They were busy degrading the quality of it by the time I left, indeed if they could have clawed back accrued benefits I’m sure they would.

The good news part of this story is that if you are part of the 1% particularly skilled in any employable skillset you will make hay and be far better off that you would have been historically, because improved communications let you take your skills to the marketplace better, and probably if you’re in the upper 5% you will do okay for a while though I wouldn’t bet on 40 years. The winner-takes all effect is not as bad as the 99%  Occupy grouched about because there are a range of non-overlapping skills that you can be the 1% of. Neverthess, it’s not good news for an awful lot of people.

Now there are political solutions to some of this. The 21 hour work week advocated by the NEF might be a much better solution to the question ‘what does a human-friendly economy look like’. We would have half as much stuff and goods and services like experience days balloon flights and city breaks to the Med to get ratarsed (because we would all be working half time, natch), but to be honest we have far too much plastic shit and pseudy wastes of time in the country as it is IMO. One of the things I discovered in retiring is that a lot of the stuff I looked forward to doing didn’t mean anything to me, it was the fevered dreams of a cube drone. So I didn’t do it, and dropped some of the cash I didn’t spend onto the mad, bad desparation that is a European ETF because at least the ride will be interesting 😉 I still didn’t find myself short of entertainment over the last year…

For all the people about to go red in the face and spit bricks about the idea of a shorter working week, one of the things that an awful lot of people in the UK still want to do is have children. It’s something that really matters to them. Way back in the 1970s and 80s, when women entered the workforce, we as a society made a Faustian pact with capitalism. There were two ways things could have gone. One would be that men could have stepped back from the workforce a bit, resulting in that NEF 21 hour week across the board. People would get to see their children growing up, and drop them off at school, but they wouldn’t have had so many toys, DVDs and all the other surprisingly high-tech junk that you see in skips some times.

What we actually seem to have done is pat ourselves on the back, high-five it and tell ourselves ‘we’re rich’ because twice as much money was entering our households. And immediately went on a bender, outbidding each other on houses resulting in high house prices, because God forbid that we’d use that extra money to go on holiday to do something fun with it, at least if we increase the price tag on our houses we can say we have a higher net worth [ref]I am of the opinion that my house isn’t part of my net worth but I’m in the minority. Unlike every other Briton, high house prices don’t make me feel richer[/ref]. Now that we’ve stowed the extra money into bricks and mortar, and buying more consumer Stuff, we now have to go out to work to pay other people to look after the children, particularly in the school holidays when the schools aren’t doing that job for us. Given that having chidren is something that an awful lot of people want to do, this seems to be a rum old way to run an economy. But that’s what we did. We have boarding kennels and catteries for our pets when we go on holiday, and summer camps for the kids while we’re stuck at work, earning the extra money to pay for the summer camps and the kids’  iPads.

If somebody had sat down and designed this system we’d have collectively run them out of town for taking the piss but it just sort of happened that way, as a result of us all realising “Hey, we can now buy Twice as much consumer gear, so lets go out and do that”.  We do have a lot more Stuff and Services – capitalism delivered the goods on the deal, just like Faust’s counterparty. When I had my house rewired ten years ago, I had to double the number of power sockets, despite the fact there were only two of us in a three-bed home. The families that occupied it in the decades before just didn’t have as much stuff as we did – and I’m nowhere near the high end of that spectrum!

Our working lives have also become far more complex. Although it lacks drama, the old fashioned model that Obama called out of being able to join a company and stay with it for most of your working life made it easier to plan one’s finances. On the debt front, fewer people had mortgages in the 1960s and 1970s, and consumer debt didn’t exist in the UK. People bought consumer durables on hire-purchase. Default on that and you lost your TV, and that was the end of it, the debt wasn’t endlessly sold on, and Wonga just didn’t exist[ref]I believe loan sharks did exist, but they plied their trade in person, along with the threats of breaking your legs if you failed to pay up[/ref].

One of the early steps on the road to perdition
One of the early steps on the road to perdition. Doesn’t hindsight make this ad copy look positively criminal in the incitement to live beyond our means? Were the regulators sleeping at the switch?

In 1966 Barclaycard was issued, followed in 1972 by Access, which took the waiting out of wanting, and we were done for.  It seems now that more than half of all Britons are seriously up shit street with their finances, from a combination of the power shift towards capital, the increasing complexity of finacial life, the fact that for over two decades in a child-centric world people don’t seem to learn that to have more later sometimes you must have less now. I look around Britain and what I see is a rich country, immeasurably richer than the Britain I grew up in. There’s no good reason why we have to have so much trouble, but we need to learn to have less Stuff in our lives, or at least if we want to have Stuff then save up for it first!

Work has always changed, and you will see a lot of change over a working life. Making a retirement plan assuming work and you won’t change isn’t a recipe for success. I was caught by the tail end of work changing. I’d like to think that a young ermine starting, say at 23 in 2013 would be able to make a success of it. But I’m not sure – although I am to the right half of that bell curve I’m not sure I’m smart enough to compete with the rest of the world. Being hypothetically thirty years younger means hopefully I would have a more entrepreneurial attitude to work. But would it be as entrepreneurial as Ha-Joon Chang’s developing world entrepreneurs? I’d have the rule of law, and property rights on my side, and let’s not underestimate that. But arrayed against me I’d have the winner-takes-all effect, a much wider base of competing labour, very high running costs and those housing costs. Plus an education system that seems to value my self-esteem at the expense of honest assessment. I wouldn’t have gone to university – I just wouldn’t have taken the risk. And whaddya expect if you charge people to go to university – they aren’t going to fail too many people are they, otherwise they have fewer applicants, which hits the bottom line 😉

Where are you going?

It’s not just the world that changes as you get older. You do too, and if you’re going to make retirement plans you have to make some allowances for the change in you. You become a little bit better with people, less of an arrogant twat hopefully as some of the rough corners get knocked off, but also less tolerant of crap as you get older. I see this in many areas of life – in my 20s I was prepared to live in a London bedsit with a shower and toilet shared with the rest bedsitters occupying that house, it isn’t something I really want to do now.

Beware getting more ornery and cantankerous, and work in a firm for more than ten years and you will have seen every permutation of management Next Great Thing that there is going, and you remember how the Thing That was Going To Sort It All Out the Last Time didn’t work, so when it’s served up again reheated you just don’t believe it. For an engineering facility there seems to be a tidal duality of

  • Increased expertise and focus and tech-specific SWAT teams  (typically in boom times) which leads to  Silos, which then have to be broken down into
  • Horizontal delayering and Flattening the Pyramid , empowering Information. Usually happens in recessions, as reducing the levels of the pyramid stops promotion and persuades people to clear off.

This is a cyclical process that roughly tracks the business cycle. However, as you get older centrifugal force slowly flings you outwards from the core as new blood must be sucked in to feed the Beast by believing the cyclic Next Big Thing. You gain some compensation by rising up the greasy pole as long as you don’t offend too many people. This seems easier for extroverts

So it is with the best laid plans, as Harold Macmillan perhaps didn’t observe when asked what could steer a government off course onto the rocks –

Events, dear boy, events

Or perhaps as Cameron more pithily put it, shit happens.

You may plan to retire at 67 and get all your ducks in a row. But don’t count on it. I don’t know if The Firm had a particular problem with stress, but once something snaps inside it stays broken until enough distance is had from the cause. I am less than halfway through the recovery period, at a guess. I was lucky in that I had unique skills, and was cantankerous enough to tell the oik that tired to off me with a quarter’s pay that he wasn’t offering me enough, and to curse him and the horse he rode in on. Then the people who needed my skills for the Olympics work got his division out of the way. But every time, which was once a quarter, I had to suck it up to the performance management system and justify my existence it needed a major visit to the bottle bank the next week to toss the empties. And then one day in Tesco the image before me broke up into a random array of unrecognisable lines. It’s at times like that that one thinks ‘Self, you have gotten yourself on the wrong track here’

And I only planned to retire at 60, in about seven years’ time. The best laid plans of mice and men, eh 😉 At my leaving do the last line manager I had, who was a decent sort, commended me on leaving on a high – the Olympics work was a great project to go out on. Professionally, yes. Psychologically, I was a husk.

Build some flexibility into your retirement plan. You may one day come to feel that flushing your life away in service to The Man in return for overpriced houses and consumer baubles and special unique one-of-a-kind made up experiences isn’t all that. It’s good to have options at that point.

Everything is set up for a full-time working pattern, from the price of rent and housing to the whole way work is set up. I never understood the attraction of working part-time – it sems to have all the things that are wrong with working combined with less of the money, I’d rather work full-time or not at all. Perhaps those Seventies visionaries were right, but rather than the NEF 21-hour week we end up with the shorter working life. One of the ways of working less is, paradoxically, to retire early. The NEF solution would be much more compatible with the whole having kids scenario, but the trouble is this isn’t a universal desire. The DINKs would work 40 hours, drive up the price of housing and we’d be back where we are now. This either needs a political movement for change, placing an upper limit on working hours, or that needle will scan across the bell curve so only 1% of people end up employed, in which case there may be a revolution.