The Ermine considers returning to work

I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’

Bob Dylan, 1960-something

I retired eight years ago. There are many people who retire and return to work because they find their lives have no meaning without the 9 to 5, or they miss other aspects of work. I’m not one of them.

If we didn’t have coronavirus in the world I wouldn’t give the idea the time of day. I am old, and compared to the young mustelid that graduated in the early 1980s I have no human capital left. I look at some of the jobs that come through LinkedIn and I have have neither the desire nor really the capability. Imagine the job interview

“Yes Mr Ermine, tell me about how you tackled blah blah blah”

“Well, nine years ago I….”

Nope. Not gonna wash. Plus after a few years out of the workplace I dress like Dominic Cummings, so I am on a sticky wicket from the start. Or maybe not, I quite fancy being untouchable in the workplace. 1

So why even consider it. Everybody wants you to be passionate about work, and I’m not.

Financially I am OK. I have a DB pension that pays my needs and wants, particularly at the moment when some of my wants can’t be had anyway. I have a couple of S&S ISAs which are probably about half the value backing my DB pension, and I don’t need to touch them. In less than 10 years I will draw a State pension. But –

A hard rain’s gonna fall

We have taken a massive economic shock, but on its own we could probably overcome it. The trouble is the background  – the Western Empire is falling, and this shock could accelerate the decline, because predators always prey on the weaknesses.

Most likely I will pass another couple of decades, cash in my chips and then the state of the world will be other people’s problem. But I have already had the experience once of blithely carrying on as if nothing will change while there’s fire burning underground, and then playing catch up to deal with the outbreak – getting out of the workplace in three years rather than a decade.

I need to also qualify what I am trying to fight, because some things are unfightable. I am at the coffee end of the spectrum. Social collapse, zombie apocalypse – wine is for that. If the answer is guns, beans and ammo, the question is wrong.

Let’s scope the enemy

Monevator is the cheerleader for never stopping work, and part of the problem is summarised in it takes a lot of money to replace a salary. But this is not relevant to me, after all, I am unlikely to get sacked from my pension, so in some ways my income is more secure than my salary was. The bar to getting it is to keep on breathing. Compared to the misery of mendacious metrics that’s a low bar 😉

But there’s an enemy in town. That enemy is inflation. It moves slowly, but irresistibly. My pension will keep up until it gets to 5%, and every year inflation overtops 5% I get poorer by the difference for the rest of my life.

Monevator has a depressing table of the value of capital in terms of income.

This is not quite so bad for me. For starters I began a few years back, so I have gotten myself a fair way down the chart already. While inflation will erode my pension it is unlikely to destroy it, unless we have a Germany situation. In which case nothing will help me, other than wine.

Inflation is good for people in work, as long as they stay in work. It’s even better for people who stay in work and take out big mortgages. One reason2 my Dad paid off his mortgage on a blue collar wage earlier in his life than I did on a white collar wage and without kids was inflation – his wages rose in numerical terms quickly but the value of the debt was frozen in time at the nominal value when he took it out.

Inflation is bad for people on fixed incomes. There will be enough people going inflation – schminflation. The hazard is deflation. At the moment you can make the case:

Petrol at less than £1/l in May 2020 (diesel was £1.04). The short shutter speed on a sunny day meant it didn’t catch all of the information on the sign due to strobing.

Compared to this picture, taken over ten years ago

This photo was a year old in 2010

and in the short term that is probably true. But we have borrowed a shitload of money, and the easiest way of making that cost less is to devalue the currency. The pound in your pocket stays the same, you just get less Stuff for it.

Change offers opportunity as well as hazard

So what are the possibilities for me? I could look at the electronics/IT industry, there is a lot of aerospace around Bristol. Main pros here are the money. Cons are everything else:

  • Employers
  • performance management crap
  • Commuting
  • The Man
  • I am out of date

Probably the biggest con is a serious mismatch – I don’t need to earn a huge amount, and my time is more valuable to me. I could see if part-time work were available, but the engineering industry, being male-dominated, despises part-timers.

I am more after a side hustle, but without the main job it’s a side to.

Big downside: hustle. I am neither entrepreneurial and nor do I hustle. I lose interest in people very quickly when I detect they are trying to network/sell something to me, and I could not do that convincingly to other people. It seems a very big part of the contracting/self-employed world, and I have been an employee all my working life. I despise hustle, and this may be a show-stopper. Also I am going to be in an environment full of people trying to hustle once the furlough scheme stops.

Passive income

Ah, remember the halcyon days of five or six years ago when every FIRE dude and their dog were after passive income? I actually have some from ten years ago, because I sold pictures and recordings to stock agencies. This seems to be reliable, it has been static for about ten years. I did a lot of that in the early fearful days of setting my exit plan, and it pays off. Unlike when I was writing for a content mill, which was, in all fairness, quite successful to the tune of thousands of pounds until it wasn’t, when Google deprecated their stuff and the business case went titsup overnight.

I could look at this again. I am less desperate and perhaps more creative now. There is some network effect, the more you do the more your other stuff sells.

A big disadvantage I have is that I don’t play computer games, which is what a lot of field recordings are used in. So I don’t really know my customer, what does well and what doesn’t is purely a matter of luck.

Other vaunted wheezes for passive income in the FIRE community were –

Matched betting . It’s too much like work to me, and bullshit work at that. Plus I have zero interest in sports.

Chuntering out Kindle ebooks. Sort of like writing for a content mill but a little more control. There was a fellow called Huw who was big on this a few years ago. I presume the business model went titsup, which I am grateful for as a Kindle reader, because there is a lot less shit to wade through on Amazon these days. Presumably Amazon deprecate the results of that sort of desperation.

Non-passive income.

I have made a slight name for myself in some electronics/recording areas by writing a couple of rants deconstructing why some sensors sound crap as typically misused. There is perhaps a product in there. The hazard with selling electronic products are

  • lead-free solder- just hurt for hand soldering
  • regulation – I’d have to wing it with CE marking
  • it’s Stuff, and there’s a lot of hurt in selling Stuff
  • The large country full of copycats who can work at scale for little that is China

Some of these are tractable, you can get things made cheaply now. The maker community has solved a lot of these problems. For instance I recently bought an AudioMoth to scout recording locations.Sure, I could have got the boards made and done the work myself, but CBA.

I could leverage that reputation, perhaps, and also it would save me having to answer some questions from wannabe makers that make me totally despair about the current state of training3 of electronics engineering courses. Some of the things being asked I knew before leaving primary school, FFS… But it’s Stuff. I don’t like selling Stuff, because some things about it don’t scale. Like going to the post office.

Oddball coronavirus opportunities

One thing that has happened is everybody is spending much more time online, and videoconferencing is a much bigger thing these days. I have occasionally helped some performers locally and shot some movie clips for them. I’m fiercely aware that this is an area where there are huge numbers of young media studies4 folk in prime competition.

And yet being in basic control of sound and vision seems ill-taught, along the general lines of “take that f*cking thing off auto, you muppet” as well as educating people that if your microphone is where your camera is then either your sound is shit or you subject will have the most enormous conk and teeth like a horse.

However, for every 100 muppets there are a few of these media studies people that are really good, particularly when it comes to NLE editing. I stopped working as a studio engineer at BBC TV Centre in the late 1980s, so vision mixing was still done in real time although shots were of course assembled in nonlinear time with VT5. Nowadays most of what was done in real time vision mixing is done in non-real time on computers with a NLE editor. There are great similarities between the old method of working and mixing/producing a live presentation with multiple sources. You can do all that on a computer, you don’t need hundreds of thousands of pounds of Grass Valley‘s finest hardware.

However, with the increase in the use of Zoom and live conferencing and presentation, there are opportunities for live vision mixing but with software. And I may have some relevant skills there, both from a background in videoconferencing, and also being able to  set up scenes and vision mix live. There’s nothing in there that a half-competent YouTuber won’t know, but many people only seem to know the boundaries of their phone…

Whether it will amount to ‘owt remains to be seen, after all I have to both add value and find people who will pay. But I was surprised that a couple of opportunities along those lines have opened up here.

many of us have learned new things about ourselves in the last couple of months

There are lots of problems, but some interesting possibilities. I don’t have to make enough to live on, and indeed I have just signed off being self-employed, so I wouldn’t expect to make more than the £1000 tax-free earnings allowance. It would kind of make me sore to pay 20% tax on the output of any such sideshow. I may hate it. And I will have no lifestyle benefit, though through this coronavirus lockdown I have discovered that while an introvert, I am not as much an island as I thought I had been. So perhaps helping other people do interesting shit will have some intangible value, even if I bank all the income against the troubled times to come.

There there is the question of whether such frivolity will hold in hyperinflation. After all, knowing how to make knives out of vehicle leaf springs, or use car batteries and scavenged solar panels off roofs to make light and comms work in a grid down situation are more relevant skills for that sort of world. But – red wine is for that scenario, you have to be 20-something to have a chance of making a good life in that sort of hazard.

So I don’t really know what I fear, other than financial capital draining through my fingers as the underlying assumptions of western capitalism begin to fail. There are too many of us, and we don’t create the amount of value that we consume, and somehow things that can’t go on for ever don’t.

But none of what I am looking at needs a huge investment of capital, so I may end up losing money I can afford, as well as some time and effort, in finding out I am still unsuited to working. And that’s OK. But it may turn out differently, and that’s OK too, and it may give me some resilience in the troubled world to come.

Even in this post I see that most of what I think about working is negative, and I need to overcome this, because otherwise I will hamstring anything I try to do. And the impetus is more a degree of fear than the deep search for meaning and purpose many seem to attach to working. Perhaps I will get over it. Perhaps the stock market is right and we will have a V-shaped snap-back recession.

Our beautiful blue skies are increasingly scarred by aircraft trails, supporting the snap-back theory

and this will be an oddball post that never went anywhere.  But at the moment – nah. The stock market6 is still bloody mad, and snap-back ain’t gonna happen. There’ll be hell to pay, and I can’t work out who is going to pay it.

  1. Correlation is not causation – Dom isn’t in charge because he doesn’t dress like a gigolo, he can dress like a slob because he’s in charge 
  2. The other reason he got there quicker was absolutely terrible market timing in my part into the residential property asset class. Unlike buying shares, which is always elective, you get to the stage of wanting to buy a house roughly as a function of the date you were born. So while there was financial muppetry there, some was forced. Buying that house is still the #1 personal finance mistake in my life. 
  3. In analogue electronics. Although it is a much, much smaller part of the electronics world now than when I started work, typically only where sensors meet the real world, sensors are finicky oddball elements which usually don’t tolerate sloppy analogue design well. 
  4. Why on earth is meeja studies so popular? It strikes me as a serious misallocation of capital. There used to be money in it, like journalism, but the film and TV industries in the UK are a place for rich kids with decent connections and the ability to live in London while doing unpaid internships. And my second gripe is why do these courses chunter out people who can sort of control their equipment, kind of string a story but abjectly can’t handle people. I am an introvert and not great at it, but I was at least able to see that I had to get better at directing the talent in front of the camera to get better results. You can learn to get decent results from equipment in reasonably short order, but getting decent results out of people, now that is a lifelong learning curve 
  5. Professional video tape recorders were shockingly expensive in the mid Eighties, and a bitch to maintain and keep lined up within spec. They were also mechanically noisy as hell, a dire chainsawing noise you had to keep well away from any open microphone. As a result in Television Centre VT was in the basement, where they have about 10 recorders servicing a 8-studio production centre. Nowadays you can run and record all the cameras and do all the mixing in post on a NLE, but then you could only really afford to record one signal, so you had to mix the cameras in real-time and record the output of the vision mixer. 
  6. The stock market is absolutely freaking outrageous. I have just had a look at my ISAs and the total value is shamelessly more than it was in January. WTAF? There is absolutely no earthly reason, hundreds of thousands of firms will go bust, output is dramatically down and a lot of consumers will not just be skint, they will be destitute. Even the mid-cap index is in the bloody money. The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that the Great British Pound is worth a lot less now than it was in January. The gold price lends that some credence, £1150 on Jan 1 and £1400 now, so the £ has fallen 20%