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.