The Global Auction – why learning isn’t earning any more in the West

There have been some interesting studies of work of late, and I took a read of some of these because the general picture I am getting is that the world of work has been steadily getting more and more horrible since I quit the workforce in 2012. A gem of a book that explains a lot of what is happening to work and what happened to my job is this book, which I discovered while web-ratholing via George Monbiot’s recent column. I was always going to be a sucker for his lede

It’s untenable to let salaried work define us.

although perhaps not so much for his line on volunteering 😉

The book is called The Global Auction: the broken promises of education, jobs and incomes, and as I started reading it I immediately thought of a couple I am vaguely acquainted with who have two children. They’re not rich enough to support their desired lifestyle and send both children to public school, so they send just one. This puzzled me as it seems an obvious way to fund an army of therapists in the troubled adult future of the child who is deemed unworthy, but I suspect that it’s a terrible misallocation of capital even in the case of the Most Favoured Child. It’s not particularly that the Most Favoured one is particularly clever or the Most Unfavoured particularly dimwitted. They’re both probably slightly to the right of the bell curve, for all I know they may well be sharper than I am, but the problem is in the conventional assumptions of their parents, that learning is earning.

The prognosis in the book for Most Favoured Child1 is horrific –

We believe that everyone has a right to know that the opportunity bargain based on better education, better jobs, and better incomes can no longer deliver the American Dream.

Continue reading “The Global Auction – why learning isn’t earning any more in the West”


London is a different country – they do things differently there

Mrs Ermine went to the Great Wen to wrangle some business there, and returned to the provinces with culture shock. London is at the leading edge of many changes in the way we do things, and the general principle of these changes is to take something simple and complicate the hell out of it.

That’s part of the way capitalism works, of course – there’s money to be made in the gap between action and comprehension. Never more, it seems, than in the simple act of getting a drink of water hydrated. The Coca-Cola corporation has been in this biz for donkey’s years, selling us sugar water, plus endless variants on sugar water without the sugar. Hell, they even tried to sell Londoners filtered tap water, which they filtered in some high-tech way that added bromate into to the Eau de Sidcup that Thames Water had competently filtered for them.

There’s a massive hoopla about plastic waste on now, and Mrs Ermine observed this piece of equipment in Hammersmith bus station

The Mayor of London’s water dispensing gear, along with the sign showing you it dispenses water over the floor

Continue reading “London is a different country – they do things differently there”

Mankind is hard-wired to work, sez Nick Boles

Bollocks, sez the ermine. I could stop there and make this the shortest post on here, but such spurious claims should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the idea you would die if you went over 30 mph and other such folly. I’ve batted on this wicket before, but it’s a good fight IMO.

Take it away, Nick:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral,” he writes.

“Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

“Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.

Why ever the hell not? If the robots are as good as they’re cracked up to be, then let ’em have at it. Where did this argument that work was an essential part of life come from? Clearly historically human work has been needed to arrange the world to a state more congenial to human life, such niceties as having food in the winter etc. We probably needed a narrative for why things were so shit at times, in Western culture I’d suggest it started with the Bible, to wit

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;

Clearly the search for knowledge was disparaged in Paradise1, once the necky Adam had chomped on the apple he got a right bollocking, In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread and all that. No work, no eat, buster, who’s a clever boy then?

When the Ermine household still had a telly, we watched a series by Niall Ferguson titled Civilisation – the West and the Rest. The dapper and erudite  Niall was no match for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation,2 but he made the premise that this was turbocharged by Martin Luther, to the effect that the rest of the world got to eat our dust up to about 1950, curiously the date so many of us would like to wind the clock back to. The problem with elevating the doctrine of redemption by faith alone is that it is an invitation to slackers to sit on their backsides, so Luther gives these idlers a pre-emptive bollocking

Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life.

and there we have it, a straight line of reasoning from Luther to Nick Boles, via the collective unconscious transmitted through culture.

In living proof that children have no taste, the young Ermine read a lot of science fiction back in the day. I recall my mother’s face blanching when I told her I had identified Asimov as one of my favourite authors at the grammar school entrance interview after the exam. I got in anyway despite this undesirable taste for pulp fiction.

Today’s readers should bear in mind this was a world where I saw Nasa putting people on the moon live on the school TV. There was no such thing as global warming, and the Limits to Growth hadn’t been published. These were the days when the white heat of technology was going to give us electricity too cheap to meter, well, that is, if it didn’t kill us first. As such the primitive awareness of my juvenile mind saw nothing wrong with the implied myth of continuous progress that underpinned Asimov’s stories, and anyway, he was a good storyteller.

I had a particular penchant for his Foundation series, but the story that Nick Boles and his fellow Calvinist work is good for you boosters need to read is probably The Naked Sun in which we are introduced to the Spacer world Solaria, settled some two and a half thousand years hence. It is populated by humans called Solarians.

Now it has to be said that Solarians are sick puppies by our standards3, not particularly physically but mentally/culturally, they hate being in each others presence, communicating with each other through screens. Anybody with teenagers probably thinks we are nine tenths of the way there already, Asimov’s genius lay in anticipating this pathology of the human makeup before it was technically viable and out there for all to see.

Solarians would never have tolerated being in the same room as each other, but we’re getting there

Solarians have the edge on our teenagers because they have cracked the work problem totally. They are vastly outnumbered by their robots, who do all the work. Our Nick really wouldn’t like it there.

Now I don’t believe for a minute that we will be colonising outer space, ever, and the pressing problem of using fossil fuels to vastly increase our population beyond the carrying capacity of the energy flow into the planet doesn’t bode well for the idea of settling Spacer worlds in a couple of thousand years. It’s not impossible, because perhaps as people get richer they have fewer children and we might be able to reduce the overall population to a sustainable level and have energy left over for that sort of thing. Or we might split into the .01% who own all the robotic resources and the rest of us be left to starve. Let’s hear it from Elon Musk

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

— Elon Musk, CEO and Lead Designer, SpaceX

Yup. Makes you wonder why Peter Thiel is such a lightweight then and has given up on seasteading as being technically too hard – at least you get a free atmosphere and fish. Maybe he should hitch a ride to Mars.

One of the main issues with Nick Boles is that a lot of his vaunted work is going to be shit work, like Uber or bussing tables and getting coffee. Now if we could train capitalism to value, or at least tolerate people, then let’s get the robots to do the work. At the moment we have people doing low end work that a little bit of investment could get the robots doing, and then let’s all chill a bit and get rid of this antideluvian work is good for you concept. In a world where human work was needed to keep it habitable and people fed, yes, we needed religious prohibitions on slackers. If the robots are up to scratch then we can let those prohibitions go and stop lauding work as an innate Good Thing. I figure a universal basic income would stop companies taking the piss and employing people on zero-hours contracts doing work a bit of investment could automate. Shit work should be automated out of existence.

Neoliberals will take pot shots at all sorts of things about a universal income. The owners of capital4 like houses will drive up rents and enrich themselves because people can pay more. After all, Piketty identified the problem, which is that the return on capital is increasing faster than the return on labour, so people who have labour and no capital are losing the fight. Not many of us are born with capital to our names, although the Guardian claims there’s hope for the millennials now, as we go back to the future and dynastic wealth starts to matter.

All of these are indicative of an economy running up against natural limits to growth – capital accumulated slowly across generations in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, but when productivity was boosted there was enough so that people in decent jobs in first World countries could accumulate wealth across a working lifetime in some cases. Productivity is falling and growth is lower than it was in the Sixties when I read those stories of extraterrestrial derring-do. Nevertheless, the Solarians have a good message for us, and we can read it in the story of the uber-rich, down to the Kardashians, the Ecclestone girls and all sorts, all the way down to Ermines. You really don’t need work to have a good time. It is a way, and it’s right for some, but don’t generalise, Nick. Work is overrated.

  1. one of the dreadful things the EU has been doing with our money along with spending it on Welsh roads and deprived areas in England has been setting up a website to disseminate European art, from which I got the cover picture The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Rubens and Breughel. You can read all about it and download a massive 9Mb image so you could use your 4k TV as a display of the finest art in the continent, all for free. I really am so glad we voted to get away from such effete pursuits. Presumably the Arts Council will use its vastly improved grant resulting from the Brexit dividend to do something similar in a year or so, focusing on British artists of course… 
  2. I was a little squirt at primary school then. The Ermine household was too poor to even know anyone with a TV never mind have one so I have never actually seen this, but my mother bought the book and I read it. I am of the general opinion that children have zero taste so it was probably largely wasted on me, but perhaps some of it stuck. 
  3. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I have a sneaking suspicion the Solarians would view us as the sick puppies, and I’m minded to say they really do have a point, in a world where for example we pay the Bath vice-chancellor half a million sods plus £2 biscuit money while we condemn young people to indentured servitude paying student loans off without having the balls to tell enough of them they aren’t bright enough to realistically get any return on investment. Not to mention a world where Nick Boles shoots his gob off about work being an inherent good. 
  4. Yeah, I know. And shares 😉 This is why we need regulation, to stop the owners of capital grabbing all of it. Nobody seems to be thinking never mind pitching for the happy medium 

Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement

It is now the winter solstice, the Holly King has vanquished the Oak King. It seems a good time of year to reflect on the balance of opposites, because uneasy lies the head that wears a crown...

The search for wisdom to go with knowledge is one of the themes of the second half of life.Joseph Campbell talked about the value of myth in passing on wisdom, in his magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces. For nearly two decades after my mid-twenties I hardly read any fiction at all, and it probably impaired my ability to comprehend the mystery of being human. That was okay then – you don’t become an engineer because you have a burning sense of wanting to work with people and understand how they work 😉

Establishing themselves in society in the Turning Outwards in one’s twenties, most people find some aspects of their psyche easier to face the world with. The extrovert seeks the company of people, and feeds off their energy. I was not one of these, I was never going to become a salesman, a politician or a motivational speaker. The inferior function, that aspect of one’s psyche that is not normally set against the world, slumbers across the working years, it is not efficient to play a weaker hand.

In my case this is pretty much the whole of the humanities in terms of knowledge, and perhaps a gentling of the introverted nature. I didn’t pick any of this up when I retired in 2012,  perhaps the first few years were occupied with the process of recovery.

But I am picking up signals from these inferior1 functions, now that enough time has passed since stopping work, and now that I have moved. Although we knew a few people here from before, it is invigorating to start anew, and the people we are meeting here value different things in life. They are generally from a more artistic rather than an engineering background. It is early days yet, but perhaps widening the range of activities I cover offers a different kind of reward, developing what has been idle for a long time. I am learning different things – to take one example I have become a better photographer in the areas of composition and the decisive moment, while perhaps weaker in the technical control of the camera since I let this be done automatically a lot more now. I needed to push myself in different areas of the craft, ones I have left fallow too often because they weren’t my strong hand.

Jung posits that the inferior functions of the psyche  still run in the background, and as one gets older these seek expression, to maintain balance. I was surprised to come across the same concept derived from a very different angle from the author Brene Brown, with an unusual twist.

Looking at others, there is a general principle, that energy and capabilities need to flow, the water must find its way to the sea. What is suppressed backs up and will out, but I hadn’t really thought this extended to what is unused.

life as a journey

I am fortunate in that the town I moved to has several bookshops2, and on some previous visit a couple of years ago I picked up one that was remaindered for £5, titled New Passages, by Gail Sheehy. I had already read the original version titled Passages, (predictable crises of adult life) as a library book, and drew on a lot of it when I wrote Journey’s End. There was also a lot of dissonance for me in the case-studies of people as they went through the stages of life. I assumed the dissonance was due to the fact that most of the cases were American, and the book was written when I was a teenager so it describes a world several decades old.

The blurb of the new book was

At last, this is your story. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your loves. You’ll see how to use each life crisis as an opportunity for creative change — to grow to your full potential.

Mrs Ermine appropriated the book so I never got to read it at the time, I figured she may as well read it first since I had already read the original version. I’ve only now started reading the new version, which was written in 1995, and the original version was written in 1976. And saw Sheehy had written about the end of my career when I was just over halfway through it.

“Just at the point when […] reached their forties. however, sweeping structural changes were revolutionising the American and Western European economies. A digital revolution happened under their noses. Worldwide industrial competition grows more fierce every year”

This did happen to The Firm, when I was in my thirties. I had just foolishly overpaid for my first house, so I kept my head down and sucked it up. I was lucky enough to be too young to be the obvious target for the massive rotating axe swung above the workforce’s heads in 1997. Some of those guys got fantastic payoffs, some in their 50s being able to draw their pensions immediately with no actuarial reduction, effectively transferring the cost of redundancy payment from The Firm to the pension scheme. And Sheehy foresaw that, and in applying it to the generation 10 years older than me, foretold what would happen to me just over a decade later.

Sheehy’s description of the experience of the American blue collar workers presaged Donald Trump’s base. I shared  with them a roughly fixed work identity after I had job-switched in my twenties. I was intellectually agile enough to change field entirely, from electronics engineering to software/IT/networking as well as leading people as I drifted up the greasy pole. But it’s nothing like Peter Drucker’s3 exhortations

“you have to take responsibility for knowing yourself so you can find the right jobs as you develop and as your family becomes a factor in your values and choices. […]Simply being well-educated is no longer enough.[…] When you don’t communicate, you don’t get to do the things you are good at.”[^4]

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. because all the decision trees that fan out from any one state have been collapsed into what did happen, the one path pruned from the bushy growth of potential outcomes. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the younger Ermine had picked up Gail Sheehy’s signal earlier. I can’t even take solace in the thought that others didn’t see that coming – Jim at SMHD saw the writing on the wall in his thirties,

I used to worry about losing my job in my fifties quite a bit, and it was quite a driver behind the saving and investing that I did in my thirties and forties.


and I am a similar age. Jim may have been ahead of the curve here. The Cambridge alumnus magazine4 Cam 81 has a spine chilling vision of the ‘new normal’ global economy 3.0 where everybody should worry about losing their jobs, pretty much stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. It’s automation wot’s doing it, and

the reason firms in high-income countries want to pursue automation is because they are under competitive pressure from foreign imports.

A deadly economic flat spin coming our way. But hell, the bear case always sounds smarter, so let’s all whistle a dancing tune and invoke the optimist’s cure-all ‘human ingenuity’ and hope it doesn’t happen, eh? Having seen Sheehy be right on the economic forces, I figured I would see what she had to say about the more personal future. Continue reading “Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement”

Of spending time and financial folly

Three months away from retiring I had been doing a lot of philosophising about a massive purchase I was about to make, for a few hundreds of thousands of pounds in opportunity cost. There was no need to add this purchase to my home insurance, and it wasn’t going to be delivered in a pantechnicon or even by Yodel.

It was eight years of the Ermine’s time, for delivery with effect of June 2012. It was one of the best things I’ve ever spent a shitload of money on, though it’s oddly intangible and ephemeral. In three years’ time it will be rendered to aught, I will be a few hundred grand poorer than I otherwise would have been. Je ne regrette rien 😉

Freedomsoul, a wise fellow who has clearly used his 25 years on earth well, reminded me of this in his post

Nothing…is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who wishes can oust us from possession…It is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight and the quality is vile.

Seneca the Younger

I don’t have the benefit of a classical education, so I have to hoover such wisdom up off the intertubes, but I have to hand it to the old boy Seneca, he’s a lot more poetic than the oft-quoted modern form of this principle from Paul Tsongas

Nobody on their deathbed has ever said “I wish I had spent more time at the office”

Time to turn this into action.

Kill off matched betting and get it right out of my life

I’d already come to the conclusion that matched betting bored me and wasted my time. I am most definitely not saying that you can’t make a very handsome sum, probably in the tens of thousands of pounds a year at the upper end. But I am definitely saying I can’t be arsed. If I was rich enough to be able to buy eight years of my own time back for a few hundred grand[ref]opportunity cost – I didn’t have to save this up first[/ref] then WTF am I doing selling my time to the lowlife scum/bookies of this country at a lower rate? At least at work I was occasionally creating something.

I lost about £200 to the bunch of thieving scum otherwise known as the betting exchange Betfair (Queensbury rules, about a week and a half after writing the first draft this and providing about ten different items they enabled the withdraw button. I am not sure I have enough ID to pass as a sentient mouth-breather in the modern surveillance state.)

I am old enough to have opened that bank account in the innocent days of the late 1990s, when I could rock up to the branch, show my photo passcard from The Firm and get an account. It apparently doesn’t match the verification on the electoral roll, and despite supplying a copy of my passport and birth certificate to Betfair, they have still frozen my account and won’t let me withdraw it. One of the things that I found distasteful about matched betting was swimming in the same currents as sharks, it’s not a restful experience.

Remember Seneca’s dregs that are slight and the quality is vile. No point in pouring some of the good stuff down the drain 😉 You get to the bottom soon enough.

Gnothi Sauton – know thyself

Know Thyself in Greek in a stained glass window
‘Know Thyself’ in Greek in a stained glass window

‘I’m a big picture guy, I am poor at fine detail’, was what I first thought about why matched betting was a mismatch for my temperament and financial situation. It’s something that involves a lot of fine detail, you as basically trying to match one big risk against a counter-big risk. It’s easy to screw up [ref]my biggest fail was expecting Betfair to have a modicum of integrity in returning my money – the takeaway is only deposit the minimum with any betting shop to test if they will verify your account. I didn’t actually screw up any of the matched bets and I am up overall despite the shafting. I was only in this biz for a month and a half. The ROI on matched betting is crap when you factor time into the investment, the money is fine.[/ref].

There are other aspects of life where this shows too. I don’t bother yomping cash through a bazillion accounts to try and get an extra two percent on the deal[ref]I’m not hard and fast on that, I save £500 a month of my SIPP pension with the Nationwide because they’ll give me 5% on it and it can be set up once. It’s the stuff you have to do every month and watch what goes where and when I CBA with[/ref]. Part of this is if I am going to allocate headspace to finance I find getting better at equity investing is a much easier win, even if the result of getting better turns out to be do less and sit on your backside more. Life is too bloody short to chase a few percent here or there on cash, particularly when your fellow countrymen can have a brain fart that destroys ten years of that sort of streetfighting at a whim.

I’m a slack blighter in other areas. I clocked up a £45 credit card interest fail because I bought something for £3k and failed to actually clear the balance over Christmas. I have the minimum paid by direct debit but pay the main part on manual. And just didn’t give this enough attention in December. Of course when I got the bill in January I paid the lot off plus £100 to stop them adding more interest. Shit happens sometimes. I had the money in December because I don’t buy things before I have the money, but cocked up.

But it’s the big picture that matters. Diversifying risk and reducing fees in many, though not all cases has enabled me to get up on the Brexit dividend this last year, and that puts crapping out on £245 into perspective. Look after the pounds and the pennies sort themselves out or don’t matter 😉

Pointless pastimes like learning Morse Code still teach me things I didn’t know about myself

At the moment I am toying with pointless ideas like dragging some radio gear to high places and making contacts. For the umpteenth time I figured I’d have a go at learning Morse code. Its advantages are few, but mainly that the display and keyboard are compact, the display is visible in the sun because it’s auditory, it doesn’t involve a computer and I can contact people, which is totally ridiculous in the modern world when you could call them up on your iPhone. But what the hell, hobbies are like that. It made slightly more sense when I tried the first time as a teenager when the phone was most definitely fixed to the wall. In those days I didn’t have the money and had other concerns, as teenagers do. Now I have more time, I get to see a decent view and more of the attractive parts of this sceptred isle. Fits in okay with an interest in prehistoric stones, too, they tend to be in out of the way places to, so I get to use the same petrol if I can solve the travelling salesman problem. One needs variation in one’s decadence as well as challenge.

The usual way of learning Morse is to go on LCWO and use your computer. Two things mitigate against this for me, one is I want to play with radio and get away from the damn computer, and the other is an oddball discovery I never suspected. One of the joys of not selling great wads of time to The Man is getting to learn bizarre and useless facts about life because I can be curious about the world and have the time to dig deeper. Turns out that the way I parse text is way more odd that I had suspected.

I learned to type as a teenager on an old typewriter[ref]for anybody born after 1980 a typewriter is a machine where the keyboard is connected straight to the printer without the computer we didn’t have in those days jammed in the middle[/ref], using some Pitman book.

I’m sure that keyboard is way too high by modern standards

Funny how all the pictures in that book of how you were meant to hold your hands and sit the right way were women in miniskirts and manicured nails rather than spotty proto-geeks trying to grok code, but that was the Seventies for you. I never learned to touch type where you don’t look at the keyboard, but once in the right position I know where all the keys are and use all fingers. The school end was a teleprinter which saved the programs using punched paper tape, and there was only one, connected periodically to the North East London Polytechnic via an acoustic modem.

I did that because I was able to get about three lines of BASIC code written in a half hour period on the timeshare computer system at school, which wasn’t any use at all, hence the need to type faster. Presumably they teach kids to type at school nowadays, since it’s probably more useful in the modern world than cursive handwriting.

I never needed to type any faster than I could think, since I was usually originated ideas, or code, or whatever. Looking at the rate that I am writing bits of this, using a watch and the WordPress words counter, it appears I can type at about 50wpm tops. I can’t really think that fast in a sustained way, but it was the peak over about 10 seconds.

No problem, I should be happy copying Morse on a keyboard at 20wpm. Trouble is, if things come in one character at a time, I am turned into a hunt-and-peck-er, and I am down to 6wpm. I never realised this, so I have the good fellow Chuck Adams to thank for warming me up to the fact with the manual for his freebie Morse CD image. So I read his manual, which tells me to go get a particular type of gel pen and an A5 spiral bound notebook, and I will find that at lower speeds I can write any character as soon as I hear it, rather than the ‘oh, that was a C, now where the hell is that on the keyboard, damn, the next character has started’.

In the depths of one’s brain just behind the ears there is a guy with a tape recorder recording incoming sound on a loop of tape about a sentence long and ready to roll tape again routed to the speech decoding systems of the brain in case the first pass didn’t work out, which is why sometimes when you go you what? and by the end of what you have got it the second time round without the need for the speaker to actually repeat. When the tape is playing the ears aren’t connected, so with Morse I get the first two characters and then I’m out for the count trying to use a keyboard. The average data rate of conversational speech is about 120wpm, but I would probably be able to catch the first sentence in copying speech, because I am capturing the words as units, not a string of characters. We used to have people called stenographers who used a special script shorthand to capture speech at 120wpm, I guess these days we use a digital recorder and set a bunch of people in India on the job.

Chuck is right. I can write much faster than I can type if the signal comes in character by character. I discover trying another system that even if the characters are read out to me in English, so no decoding needed, I am stuffed as far as comprehending things coming in a character at a time at 20wpm. Now in the early 1990s I found out that I could easily read at 300 baud[ref]300 bits per sec in ~10 bit character chunks at 8,n,1 is 30chars per sec. A word is about five character average so 6 words per sec, or 6*60=360 wpm[/ref] at ~360wpm. Clearly there is more to this reading and understanding speech malarkey. I had no idea all this went on. All the other times I had tried to learn Morse I had no idea that I had no hope of typing at 20wpm or even grasping text read out a character at a time at that rate, so I was never going to get anywhere until I crack that. I can forget using Morse code until I fix these issues. So I am a long way ahead of my teenage self even if I the contents of my cranium is three decades older. Oh and a day where I learn something new is a day well spent, who’d have thought all this language processing is that highly tuned to specific forms.

I discover it’s now become OK to borrow money to buy cars. WTF?

Schroders tell me that loads of Brits are buying new cars on the never never. WTF is up with that? Pretty much first rule of personal finance is never buy depreciating assets with borrowed money. Seems to be what people are doing

This ain’t gonna end well

This is a bum steer. Modern cars are a lot more reliable than they used to be, and every time I pass a used car lot near me I am staggered at what you can get for not much. I used to take the line that about 5k was a reasonable price for a used car which would give me a good few years’ service, but you can now get pretty good value for £3000. If you can’t afford that much then you sure as hell can’t afford to borrow money for a new car, and wasting assets should be bought with cash or interest-free credit backed by cash. I have never bought a new car, not because I can’t afford to, but I can’t stand the dreadful clattering sound of half its value falling off as soon as you drive it from the sales lot. A bit like Merryn over at the FT, though probably more tight; there’s a breathtaking kind of metropolitan decadence in hiring an agent for £600 to buy you a used car IMO. Even if you do get dashboard ambient lighting[ref]let’s hear it from Volkwagen for what ambient lighting is and why Merryn S-W or you might need want it[/ref].

Dashboard ambient lighting on a Mercedes S-class. It’s the blue glow in a line

Mind you, given an ambient lighting kit is £117 I guess the used car buying agent may well be worth his salt. Personally I’d go with electroluminescent wire or LED strips from China, but I’m not the target market it would seem. Maybe that’s why Brits and buying new cars on the never never, because they’re getting too decrepit to find their cars in the night. VW tell us

When you’re driving at night, the glare-free light also helps you to find your bearings and locate things more easily.

Hmm. What, exactly, is wrong with the old-fashioned courtesy light, particularly now they delay the switch-off long enough that you wonder if you locked the doors when you look back 50 yards away from your car? Anyway, back to the never-never.

Schroders dig deeper into the PCP farrago and have an entertaining report from the front line:

[lessons from the financial crisis] Most people, you would imagine, might say an important point to take away from that time was that lending money to those who cannot afford to pay you back is not a particularly sound business plan.

Some people have apparently reached a different conclusion, however – that while lending money to those who cannot afford to pay it back may not be a good idea in the context of the biggest asset in people’s lives – in other words, their house – everything  will work out just fine if it is only their second-biggest asset – their car.

Hell, yeah. The story’s pretty simple. If you need to borrow money to run a car then you can’t afford it. Move downmarket or do without. As Schroders say, however, it takes two parties to make a right hash of this –

Or, if they have learned a lesson, it is a very specific one: that sub-prime is not helpful – but only when lending to people who cannot afford to buy a house. Cars though? Game on.

One of the things that disturbs me is that ‘other’  in green. Some of it is securitized auto loans. When was the last time were heard securitized? Ah, in the financial crisis. It usually takes a generation to forget the lessons of the past, but I guess everything happens quicker now, it’s all a bit The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without the good bits. There’s the wider point that if your second biggest asset really is your car then you are seriously doing something wrong, generally along the lines of having too much car, particularly if you need to borrow for it. By the time you are 40 your pension should be a bigger asset than your car. In fact FFS if you are buying new cars your general savings should be worth more than your car IMO, certainly after you drive off the forecourt.

The timing on that ‘other’ looks very much like P2P to me, and I’ve just upped my P2P by a few grand. I am beginning to wonder if I am not that stupid sub-prime lender in some ways. After all, last time I looked at what people were using Zopa for it looked like this

which is a litany of conspicuous consumption and financial folly. Zopa still needs an Ermine behind a desk with a green banker’s lamp to introduce these good people to the following infographic

How to decide if borrowing money to buy it is a good idea

In general, Zopa punters, the answer is save up or go without more often that it’s not. I guess Zopa would go bust if they took that line. But heck, I can eat the loss of my Zopa stake if it all goes titsup, I will take a far bigger hit on my ISA, because I am not the only dumbass counterparty out there. No doubt the banks are in there too, and while I have no banks in my individual share portfolio, the index stuff is riddled with them. I need to think about this. The Zopa risk premium isn’t particularly big, I will stay with the instant access[ref]as Northern Rock showed, instant access can fail you when you need it[/ref] and start to wind out of the non-instant access.

It’s too late when this happens

It always pays to be one of the earlier panickers in financial crises, so when interest rates start to rise I want to be able to suck my cash out of Zopa before all these indebted car buyers start losing their jobs or feel that their mortgage is a more important debt than their Zopa car loans.

It’s kinda odd that it took us 80 years to get into deep shit again by dismantling the financial firewalls built in the 1930s, and only 10 years comes to pass before this all looks like a great idea again. This is not progress.

to live different you must do different

The Ermine has been using some of that extra time you get in retirement to go travelling, after a jaunt round Salisbury Plain with the archaeologists working for  military[ref]It’s seriously unwise to go for a looky-loo on that bit of Salisbury Plain without the military’s help ;)[/ref] and then on to Dartmoor, when I met up with Andy from to talk about the modern workplace. Andy is a driven and hardworking chap so he’s already written the post by the time I get round to writing this, so I will stick with this picture of Haytor on Dartmoor, which is near his neck of the woods.

a fine rock and worthy fo a moderate scramble to get up to
a fine rock and worthy of a moderate scramble to get up to

where we had lunch. Lots of stuff discussed, because he has a different take on the world of work.Very different to mine, particularly how to approach it.

Occasionally a younger fellow has managed to use their initiative to find out how to contact the Ermine by email, along the general lines of all that work philosophy’s all very well, but how does it apply to me? And it’s saddened me that I’ve never had much of an answer to that. My story is a tale that started in a different era, and while many of the tools of the trade are the same, many things are tougher now, while conversely some specific opportunities are much greater now. After that discussion, perhaps there is a way to mitigate some of the adverse changes, of which more in a future post.

We humans are storytellers, but we often narrate the story of our lives in other people’s words

Let’s face it, we call that culture – Romeo and Juliet stand proxy for infatuated lovers even after 400 years. Less inspiringly the Kardashians stand for sucess, and  Donald Trump for alpha maleness, froth and scum float to the top as well as the cream.

All the world's a stage, and this is one of the 'alpha male' castings. I don't get it either.
We aren’t fussy about where we get our stories – all the world’s a stage, and this is one of the ‘alpha male’ cast of characters. I don’t get it either, but he does it for a lot of people.

We borrow from stories and weave the threads into the image of our ideal lives. The story of how work and life fit together comes from many places – it comes from how we saw people do that growing up[ref]which of course puts it about 30 years behind the times we actually try to live it in[/ref]. A lot of it comes from advertising, where clever people tell us stories to try and get us to spend money on things and services. Take a look at Ad Age[ref]I am tickled that they don’t like people using ad-blockers. Reconnaissance behind enemy lines is always a tough game[/ref]’s top 15 campaigns of the 21st century, and the way they talk:

Some of these ad campaigns are here because they changed the way consumers thought about the world around them

Their words turned into your stories… The lead quote was a corker

“Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities.”

Marshall McLuhan

Your life has been designed, and not particularly by you. Most readers of PF blogs[ref]This is a total guess, but you’re not going to be worrying about financial independence and retiring early much lower down the scale. You’ll be worrying about making next month’s rent[/ref] are earning more than the median wage (~£27,000, FTE) – I hazard that this is the point where the fight switches from earning more to spending less, and the spending has a lot of the narrative written by people paid to make you spend more. Sometimes it’s good to see the extreme point to understand yourself – take a look at the phenomena of superyachts, which as PhD researcher Emma Spence has discovered, is basically all about consumerist willy waving writ large. You, dear reader, have to make do with with more house than you need and an iPhone. Nobody needed an iPhone 20 years ago, now everyone is walking around with £500 worth of easily pinched/broken hardware on their person…

That is one tasteless ugly piece of kit, non? And this is the attractive side. Apparently something to do with Philippe Starck, he of the elegant lemon squeezer. Where’s a Viking longboat or Jonny Ive when you need ’em eh?

What you consume is often the most egregious version of others writing the script, other parts of life have elements of this. I got to nearly 50 without realising that I actually had agency over how old I was when I retired. I hadn’t realised this was under my control, FFS – I took the age of 60, the normal retirement age at The Firm, and accepted that without bothering any brain cells with asking why this was so.

Some of the things we can do are constrained by what other people do. The price of housing, for instance, given an endless supply of credit, will tend to find a level where the cost of servicing a loan can be managed by two people working full-time, because that’s what most people in that market are doing. Low interest rates and low inflation won’t help to pay off the loan over a working life, because it makes all the numbers bigger. For some odd reason we think low interest rates make houses more affordable. It just makes them dearer.

Most people don’t get to financial independence under their own steam. To be different you have to do different.

Many people’s idea of financial independence is getting the State pension, roughly when they are 67-70. They effectively outsource the job, although whether that gives a decent standard of living very much depends on whether they are paying rent and/or have other sources of non-work income on retirement. That’s the default setting, both in terms of time and in terms of money.

There are two major areas you can do different to your peers. You can earn more, and you can spend less. The greatest win to be had is, of course, targeting both. Retirement Investing Today is an example of what you can do here. Unfortunately you immediately have a major problem when you want to swim against the tide, and that is that humans are social animals. If you are going to do different then spending less is going to make you look poor to your peer group. And most people just hate that feeling.

Earning more is the obvious other way to go, then. You need to have the talent and the luck, but even if you have those, you tend to take a hit along the spending axis. This is because your work peer group becomes more spendy as they earn more. In practice the axes of spend less and earn more aren’t orthogonal and mutually independent. There’s probably no real way round it, in the accumulation phase you are likely to look on the poor side to your colleagues. I guess this is what seems to makes it easier for introverts to chase FI  – one of the few cases where this trait is an advantage.

Not so easy after all. How about spend less? Fight consumerism by targeting the base of the fire.


You’re changing the story there – in this case the story pumped out by the advertisers of what a good life looks like. After all, good ads changed the way consumers thought about the world around them. I presume this was in the direction of spending more and consuming more, because otherwise, what’s the point? I’m quite taken with the poetic description from Brandalism in this piece of agitprop 😉

Advertising shits in your head – but, first, its torrential, golden flow stains your magazines, your phone, your computer, your newspapers and your streets. Advertising shits all over and dominates our culture. It is a visceral, powerful form of pollution that not only affects our common public and cultural spaces, but also our deeply private intimate spaces. Advertisers want your ‘brain time’ – to shit in your head without your knowledge.

It’s why I run Adblock Plus and Ghostery, both set to 11 – kill ’em all. Destroying advertising as much as possible makes life simpler and more pleasant. It is a shame that at the inception of the Internet, we failed to craft a decent payment model, so advertising and the surveillance model became the original sin of the Internet, but there we go.

I don’t have a beef with real people recommending real things they have trialled, it is the automated stuff like Google Ads that is the problem – anonymised mind-spam sold to the highest bidder. A while ago I went to a meeting in Leeds where I discovered how people think about blogvertising. A very few of you [ref]those that aren’t running adblockers, and if not, why not?[/ref] will see I have an Amazon box on here – all of those are books I’ve read or things I’ve mentioned on here. I was running Google ads, but never saw them, because that’s what AdBlock Plus does for me 😉 When I realised I was running ads for Wonga and consolidating loans, because that’s what personal finance is about to most people I pulled it. Not because I thought any of my readers were going to be swayed to the dark side and toddle off to their local Money Shop to buy some overpriced money at extortionate rates, but because I didn’t want to be part of the problem.

There are three non-spending areas that cause a lot of hurt for British consumers below 45

Consumer spending causes a lot of trouble, because it’s a never-ending tactical battle fought one little piece at a time. But three strategic changes have caused a lot of damage to the personal finances of people starting out now. Let’s take a look at these

University, and the apparent dearth on non-university alternatives

When I started university in the late 1970s, fewer than 10% of school leavers entered university. It was much easier to fail exams in those days, because they were norm-referenced. It isn’t entirely clear to me what you have to do to fail exams now, because we have lost the cojones to tell some young people, and more specifically their parents, that they simply aren’t up to the mark academically.

In itself that’s not so bad, but because so many more people go to university, the old system where the taxpayer fronted the cost in the hope of getting more tax revenue in the future from the higher earnings became unaffordable. Even if everything else were the same, it would cost five times higher proportionally [ref]I am making the handwaving assumption that the increase in population is roughly tracked by the increase in taxpayers[/ref] to take 50% of school leavers through university than 10% was in the 1970s.

When you flood a market with five times the product, you also devalue it. When I started work, having a degree was a serviceable proxy to indicate I was in the upper 10% of academic ability, and for jobs that suit that sort of thing (engineering, science, research, for me) that was relevant. When nearly 50% of people go to university a degree tells you roughly they are of average brightness or above. Knowing someone is average or more is useful, but probably not something you’d pay £60k for over a working life.

There appears to be no control of numbers going to university in the UK, it’s all about the money, which is a shocking abdication of political will IMO. Contrast this with the situation in Germany where numbers are controlled in some cases. Yes, it goes against the free-market-money-is-all mantra, but it’s also a damn sight cheaper to go to university in Germany. In fact it seems a damn sight cheaper to go to university just about anywhere in the EU other than England and Wales. Shame this option is probably only good for the next couple of years for British wannabe graduates, who are SOL afterwards[ref]It wasn’t me wot did it despite being an old git, I was a Remainer[/ref] 😦

The fundamental problem with university in the UK is the product is getting astronomically expensive at the same time as it is being devalued. University has become an unaffordable luxury. Unlike Germany Britain is also not particularly improving the non-university options, much noise is made of apprenticeships but it is often simply a mask for cheap unskilled labour. The trends in the world of work are running away from unskilled labour. An apprenticeship where the apprentice learns something about a craft is good, but is only good if the craft is likely to remain one done by people in the future at decent rates of pay.


In Britain we used to build social housing but we sold that off to the then council tenants to buy votes. I seem to recall Thatcher expressly forbade allowing councils to use right-to-buy revenues to build more housing. As a result less than a fifth of social housing flogged off cheaply is replaced, I am surprised it’s that high. We used to have credit controls up until 1980-ish but removed those, because the free market always delivers the correct solution, even when it is banks incentivised to lend money to people who have no capital but need to buy an essential good. So we have high house prices and richer banks. It’s not just the banks, anybody with capital, from banks to people who buy up houses and then rent them out to people without any capital at exorbitant rates and no real duty of care to make the joint habitable. So we now have high house prices, richer banks and richer BTL investors. Well, at least somebody is winning I suppose…

As an example of just how out of touch the government is on this, Gavin Barwell, the Housing Minister, no less, delivers himself of the Marie Antoinette-esque recommendation that people should leave their housing equity to their grandchildren, FFS. That is so deeply fucked up it’s not even wrong. We’ve seen this movie before. When you go and see National Trust stately homes

concentrating inherited wealth led us to stately homes and a tiny part of the population owning nearly everything
concentrating inherited wealth led us to stately homes and a tiny part of the population owning nearly everything

you are looking at what happens in a world where inherited wealth accumulates across the generations, combined with a world where the return on labour was very poor. It took a couple of world wars and a lot of technological progress to break that up. Even then, the aristocracy, sharp blighters that they are, simply requested an inheritance tax exemption on agricultural land, got it, and this is why most of Britain by area  is still in the hands of a few hundred family estates who were gifted the land by William the Conk more than a thousand years ago. Obviously they don’t drive the tractors themselves – they get contract and tenant farmers to do the dirty work, kill our birds, pollute the drinking water, flood our towns and cities and then claim subsidies for the activity for shits and giggles  because they can.

What should happen IMO is a total escheat of all property on death[ref]I’d generalise that further but the great thing about land is you can’t hide it in overseas tax havens[/ref]. Those damn grandchildren didn’t work for it, and if they aren’t to get their throats cut by the massed and desperate hordes of people who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths in the accommodation dystopia being created, then the current trajectory of ever-increasing housing costs needs to be shifted. I was able to save enough money through my working life to buy a house from a standing start. That’s getting harder and harder to do as more and more funny money chases property, but no, Gavin and George Osborne, more inherited housing wealth is part of the problem, not the answer. Unless you are actually going to go out and kill all the poor people who are dirtying up your nice world.

The world of work is changing

The accelerating trends in automation and globalisation, are part of a general shift of power from labour to capital that has been going on for the last 20 years. In a double whammy for poorer First World residents, globalisation is amplifying the shift of low-skilled jobs that can be moved to cheaper labour forces. While this is undoubtedly good for business and capital, if you were part of that unskilled labour force in the UK you get so see your jobs go. The last 20 years have seen a tremendous fall in poverty and inequality, but that’s worldwide. Let’s hear it from Tim Worstall – right-wing nutjob and apologist for unfettered free-marketology sans compassion for poor saps less clever than he is, riffing off this paper written by Ayn Rand Chari and Penlan. Take it away, Tim:

According to a World Bank Study, in the three decades between 1981 and 2010, the rate of extreme poverty in the developing world (subsisting on less than $1.25 per day) has gone down from more than one out of every two citizens to roughly one out of every five, all while the population of the developing world increased by 59 percent.8 This reduction in extreme poverty represents the single greatest decrease in material human deprivation in history.

That’s a pretty good outcome from an economic policy and it’s why I support the process of globalization quite as much as I do. Absolute poverty, that peasant destitution, is something I regard as an abhorrence. Killing it off through economic growth I thus regard as not just desirable but a moral duty.

OK, but there’s a problem with this, as the paper points out. For some policies will be good for one set of poor people, those absolutely poor out in the Great Big World, yet bad for another set of the poor, those who are the poor in the already rich societies. And this globalization and free trade mixture is exactly one of those policies that has this effect. Rising inequality in the rich nations is a logical result of adding those couple of billion low wage workers to the global economy. We could predict it would happen, theory tells us it should happen and it has happened: no one should be surprised about that.

I’ve made clear around here a number of times that I both understand this point and also think that it’s a perfectly fair price to be paying. Yes, of course, that’s easy enough for me to say as I’ve not got to pay it. […] But that the relatively lowly paid in the rich countries stand still for a bit while the absolutely poor of the world climb the economic ladder to the joys of three squares a day, yes, I think that a price well worth us all paying.

Delightfully technocratic, Tim, and for all I know you’re right, it is indeed tough to fault the logic from a strictly rational/intellectual POV, the reason I can be sanguine about it is that while not as rich as Tim I am still on the right side of that inequality divide. You’re a clever cookie, Tim, the the sleight of hand is that price well worth us all paying. Seems a bit rough that it is just the poor who get to pay the price, Tim, might have been a bit more helpful if you’d like to chip in and  help out. As it is you only have to weep crocodile tears and wring your hands, because that’s conveniently precluded by the Ayn Randian logic. The UK poor aren’t standing still, they are going backwards – unskilled jobs are shit and getting shittier, for the simple reason that the value of unskilled work is falling. The second part of Tim’s article is a load of rationalising about why you can’t do ‘owt about that because if you redistribute towards your locally poor you shaft the globally poor- to wit

It’s entirely possible that we could have some policy or other that makes our own, rich world , poor better off. But which at the same time makes the absolutely poor of the world worse off. And if we did have such a policy, and we were also concerned about the poor, then we shouldn’t have that policy. Even though it benefits our poor they’re not in fact all of the poor. And given where our poor are in the global income distribution then they’re almost certainly not the poor that we should be worrying about.

He uses the specific examples of agricultural subsidies[ref]Agricultural subsides subsidise the rich landowners in the UK, I don’t know enough about the US situation to know if it’s different, though I’d say CAFOs, and subsidised high-fructose corn syrup are indicative of a different sort of pathology than consumers sponsoring the aristocracy[/ref] in the US to show how this works, and the EU has its own version of this. [ref]One of the tragedies of Brexit is that a big potential win from it, canning agricultural subsides, was nixed early on[/ref] I can’t fault his logic, but I would pay money to watch him try and develop that line of thinking with some of the people in the UK who have been at the losing end on globalisation. A government isn’t voted in by the people of the world, but by the people of a specific area. The Brexit vote was an example of regional pushback. Trump is another. Poor people find it deeply offensive when rich people tell them their standard of living has to fall to help some bunch of poorer people elsewhere while the rich swan off and don’t take any hit themselves.

This process of requiring more skills is drifting up towards what used to be known as middle class jobs, because it’s now automation that is coming for some of those jobs. When I considered learning something about accounting to become more competent and doing the books for a business, I came to the conclusion, supported widely in the comments, that it wouldn’t make sense to invest in training for something that is likely to disappear or be outsourceable. This is a microcosm of the wider ‘should I invest in university problem’, which is part of the topic of Poppy Noor’s little rant here, though I do think she needs a dose of  ‘if you want to live free, your utopia is irrelevant‘ to get her to be effective about changing her lot in life rather than be right about how it isn’t right.

Being right about how things aren’t right makes for a deep and satisfying rant, but the chat with Andy on Haytor left me wondering how a 25 year younger Ermine would tackle the changed world. It would need to be different from the way that served me okay.


The Smartphone as a tool of oppression in the Gig Economy

Smartphones connect us with the virtual world, but also bind us. [ref]I don’t speak of it from experience, because the first smartphone I got was after I finished work. And I decommissioned the bugger about a month ago because it was seriously pissing me off. It did most of the things I could do with a computer, but all at half cock, and was poor at answering phone calls.[/ref]

A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these
A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these, they never had it so good

The smartphone epitomises what has changed about the world of work, and a whole bunch of articles this last week have reminded me that it has changed, in my view adversely for many workers. I am beginning to understand why so many people are pissed off at the lower end of the employment spectrum. At the middle and top end, they are having a blast – the smartphone is emancipation of the four hour work week, the contractor, the digital nomad and all that. All these dudes are whooping it up and going “wassup, you never had it so good?”. Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week is the bible for this crowd. . Back in the real world, it’s the lumpenproletariat taking the shaft, along with a lot of disrespect through what has become a tool of oppression.

How low end work used to be in the 1960s to 1980s

The world of work in the analogue world had a lot of hazard and unpleasantness in it, there was overt racism and discrimination is many areas, and humans did a lot of physical work which was terrible for their health. Some of the improvements in longevity and the narrowing of the expected lifespan between men and women of recent years has been due to running some of these jobs out of town. My Dad worked with glass bottling machinery, he was already losing his hearing by my age and was stone deaf by the time he died. There’s a whole gratuitous rant in this post about for God’s sake don’t trash your hearing with loud sounds and use hearing protection with power tools when you’re over 40 inspired by his experience. Blue collar work was a bastard and took it out of you.

Arthur Scargil, 19 years a miner and rabble rouser deploying flying pickets against Edward heath. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984
Arthur Scargill, 19 years a miner and then rabble rouser successfully deploying thugs otherwise known as flying pickets to switch off the lights under Edward Heath’s 1970s administration. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984.

As I child I used to listen to the revolting turkey Arthur Scargill harp on on the radio about how mining was a tough and dangerous job demands oodles of pay, and yet resisting like hell when Thatcher offered[ref]I know it was an existential fight and all that but the miners lost my sympathy when they turned the lights off while I was at school and I heard arrogant SOBs like Scargill tell how they were going to run things by sending thugs round to stop other people working.[/ref] to stop future generations going down t’pit by switching power generation away from coal to natural gas. WTF was going on there? Scargill called a strike to guarantee that uneconomic pits should not be closed, presumably a social service to keep dangerous employment open despite it not making money. Coal mining was typical of a lot of blue collar work in the past – dirty, dangerous but compared to low-end unskilled work now, paid better to compensate for that. This Is Money have an interesting contrast of working conditions between 1952 and 2012. In pretty much all aspects conditions in 1952 were worse. But there was a place in the economy for unskilled labour, and people knew where they stood. On the downside, opportunities were dreadfully limited for women and for the brighter poor.

Many blue collar jobs had a decent level of community spirit among the workforce, which manifested in the strong union presence. These jobs were stable across years, even a working lifetime, largely because work practices didn’t change much. In some manual jobs skill and experience built up over decades. So although there was a lot wrong with many jobs, there were some things right. In particular the sense of community and the dignity in work. Some employers provided pensions which were defined – my Dad was a fitter but benefited from one of these.

A key part of  most jobs in those days was that they were clearly defined into working time and non-working time. When the factory whistle blew and the workforce downed tools they were off the clock and work was out of mind. This was because communications were limited – phones were connected to places not people. I personally feel the smearing of work into non-work has been one of the most pernicious things to have changed over the last 20 years. As John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said in 2012

The world of work has fundamentally changed, but it is not a change which is making many of us happy, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

He blamed the invention of new technology, from laptops to the BlackBerry[ref]Doesn’t that date the report – this was a year after the hot summer of rage when da yoof ran amok and rioted in London for better trainers, communicating via BlackBerry Messenger. I don’t know if you can get a Blackberry these days[/ref]  and the iPhone, which is ‘imposing entirely new pressures on staff.’

While it has liberated people to work from home or from outside the office, it has resulted in ‘information overload, created pressure for an instant response, enabled more sophisticated monitoring and surveillance of employees, and blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time.’

It is possible that I have a limiting belief because my idea of the place of work and leisure was formed in the previous generation – Stephanie Buck (H/T Monevator) puts it elegantly:

Leisure came to define a person’s identity during this time, in many cases superseding career identity. Having a hobby was not only accessible, it was a status symbol. It meant one had time to relax, a privilege previously enjoyed only by the very wealthy.

This is probably one of the reasons why I just don’t miss working at all. I have been able to surrender a career identity because it had less meaning to me. That is the upside of my antediluvian understanding of work. I was also fortunate enough to have spent most of the time working in a reasonably congenial environment with enough challenge to be interesting. I don’t recognise most of my job in Buck’s later observation

Instead of viewing work as the inevitable grind and hobbies as core to one’s identity, as in the post-war era, today’s professionals strive to equate career with leisure.

I started work in 1982, in the transition period between that world and the one we have now, and benefited initially from the improved flexibility but the old community structures of the workplace.

That was then – better communications is changing the workplace massively

Communications have improved over the last 20 years – the advent of the Internet and WWW came in tandem with mobile communications where you now call a person rather than a place you expect them to be, and of course you have more modes of communication.

Strange things have happened as a result. In the early days we expected better comms would mean people to be able to do remote working from anywhere, even on the beach. See digital nomad, above – just imagine all of us doing that. At school I was really told that the future would have lots for leisure time and  we’d be typically working one day a week. How did that turn out for y’all?

In fact what has happened is that high-paying jobs have concentrated in London[ref]I know, not all of them, but the drift has been huge[/ref] which sucks in people and money, creating a lot of misery in the middle range of ability because they are all in competition with each other for finite geographical space and skyrocketing housing costs. It really wasn’t meant to turn out like this, but it seems the network effect, combined with the increasing instability of jobs means workers need to concentrate geographically, both to interact more with each other but also to have a better chance of replacing one job with another when they get the chop without having to move or take huge commutes.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but the limitations on communications and physical transport of goods and services was a great equaliser. As a thought experiment, say we still made chairs by hand but otherwise had all the information comms and containerisation and Deliveroos we have now. When a horse limited a day’s range to 20 miles, every market town could support, say, a skilled carpenter. In a globalised and high transport world, you’d only need as many carpenters as you need to make the amount of wooden stuff needed. Put them all in one place, call it Heartwood Valley and transport the goods for next to nothing. The quality of the carpentry will probably be a little be higher, and the price probably cheaper, but there will be far fewer carpenters employed worldwide. House prices in Heartwood Valley will probably rise, both because the star carpenters will be making more money but they all have to live where the jobs are.

So now take finance, management consultants, IT and stick ’em all in London. No wonder grunts can’t afford to live there. This is not a new phenomenon, though the intensity of the effect is increasing. Thirty years ago an Ermine in a modest but above-average paying technical job was driven out of London. Where I was more fortunate than Millennials was that the concentration of jobs in London and hollowing out of the rest of the country hadn’t happened, and that jobs were more stable so the risk of ending up in a one-hoss town was less strategically dangerous than it would be now.

Zero-hours contracts aren’t new

I worked on what would now be called a zero-hours contract, in 1979/80-ish ISTR. As a kitchen porter – the idea was you go to an agency early in the morning and they would allocate work on a first come first serve basis. There was no guarantee of any work at all, but you generally got to know the system. No phones or anything. When I inflation adjust my earnings to now I was working for a lot less than the minimum wage, too. That sort of work allocation existed elsewhere too,  dockers used to line up in the morning on the same sort of basis to get casual work unloading ships.

Smartphones let employers dynamically allocate work to people via apps, that has the opportunity to turn zero hours contracts into oppression. Casual work is casual because anybody can do it – if you can drive you can drive for Uber, for Deliveroo, and pretty much anyone can flip burgers for McDonald’s. The best way to improve your earning power is to get out of this commodity competition for replaceable skills, because if you have undifferentiated skills then competition is always going to drive your pay down to the minimum wage or lower.

The lower than minimum wage is achieved by zero hours contracts – there are fixed costs associated with being available and ready for work – commuting to the workplace, having a car in the case of Uber, not being able to work for someone else or take your children to school. So you are always are risk of taking a hit if you can’t get your hours up enough. Now in the past the agency sometimes did take a dislike to some people and would always call out others for work before them, but at least that discrimination was visible, and done in person. When an app doles out the work you have no protection against that sort of thing and may even be unaware – as the FT’s “When your boss in an algorithm” describes.

The problem isn’t so much zero hours contracts as such, or even app scheduling – after all every taxi company used to have dispatchers who would match the drivers to incoming jobs over the radio. The problem is zero hours contracts combined with unskilled work, where the work allocators can simply pitch the workers against each other, micromanaging jobs and people in a never-ending treadmill. When one hamster falls off the wheel, there’s an unlimited supply of  rodents to replace them.

One hamster is pretty much like another – hamster work is fungible

In that sort of environment the advantages of flexibility accrue to the employers not the workers. To add insult to injury, the welfare safety nets like unemployment benefit are predicated on the job for life, or at least the job for weeks. They just don’t help you fight that sort of here today gone tomorrow employment pattern. These are not entrepreneur hamsters playing the market for their talents. This is unskilled piecework.

The so-called joys of self-employment

The Grauniad asks whether zero-hours contracts really are worse than jobs for life. Sure, for many people with skills that command a premium, contracting and zero-hours contracts can be great. There are the guys that write about how great the opportunities are. Heck, a retired Ermine hasn’t been able to avoid making money totally, and I would be happy with the lack of commitment of zero-hours contracts[ref]that which I do is probably closer to individual contract jobs, I wouldn’t take low end ZHC jobs where you have to be there for them but they don’t have to be there for you, because I am not having people take the piss out of me for money, the second word in my response to such a proposal would be “off”[/ref] – if it pissed me off in any way, I’d just walk away. I can afford to do that because I am financially independent. Financial independence is very rare in a first world consumer society – there are many, many people who have far more wealth and income than I but who are not financially independent because of their spending.

It’s easy to big up the joys of self-employment. Yes, you have the freedom of self-defined work and your time is a little bit more your own. Set against that you have the stress of managing a variable income, you have all the grief of self-assessment and the trials of HMRC, you have to run the business, make the judgement calls on capital spend versus return. You also have to carry a massive cash float to manage contingencies, else you risk getting slaughtered in the first cashflow crisis that comes along.

Those that make self employment work for them tend to be the more entrepreneurial, and those with skills that can command a premium. I look at Liberate Life’s description of how to live life working without a job and it looks like one of Dante’s Inferno’s circles of Hell to me – I hate selling in all of its forms[ref]I chose LL because he is an engineer with IT and electronics which was what I used to do in a former life[/ref] – all that hustling would be a nightmare for me. I am so glad that I managed to get to the end of my working life before these changes happened. Perhaps there is sample bias – if I were 21 again then this gig economy world would be all that I had known and I would follow such a path, which looks a great way to play that sort of hand.

But I knew another way, and to my eyes it was a far better compromise for the majority of people, who are of average talent but want to have some stability, have kids and FFS do something other than thinking about work all the time. It served me well, I like to think I had a little more talent for the scientific, engineering and analytical than the average Brit, though I am nowhere near clever enough to work for Google. It isn’t like the compromise kept everybody down, and if you really wanted to run your own business and had talent then you could knock yourself out and go do that too.

Maybe I am simply at odds with current thinking. There was an interesting thread on MSE where a fellow retired, and got so bored he went back to work, which made me think what was summed up in this post

It’s a bit sad to spend such a large part of your life working, retire, and then realise you haven’t actually got a real life to enjoy so go back to work again. It suggests an absence of hinterland

Whereas now you’re increasingly on call all the time without getting paid for it, at below the mean level of ability you seem to be yanked about on a smartphone string and have to think about work all the time. In particular, the sort of digital Taylorism the FT’s Sarah O’Connor talked about in this podcast and article treats their unskilled workers with a shocking level of disrespect.Not only are these unskilled workers micromanaged via their smartphone apps, but they are stripped of the employment rights that used to protect casual workers from the variability of the workload (by paying them for their time, including downtime during the working days). The work providers talk up the virtues of self-employment and being able to choose how much you work, but decline too many jobs in a row and you’re embargoed for 24 hours, so the choice is pretty clear, do as we say or piss off. Hobson’s choice, not a better work/life balance.

It tickled me to hear John Gapper’s faint public school accent debating the plight of the precariat with O’Connor’s slightly preppy uptalking and lashings of vocal fry. I don’t think they know the territory, though kudos to Sarah O’Connor for doing some fieldwork at Uber Eats. It’s epitomised when Gapper asks Sarah at 2:24

“Are they employed? I means what is their actual status? Are they workers…”

It’s not so much what is said – it’s a reasonable question, but you can hear the arm’s length treatment in Gapper’s tone of voice – these aren’t the sort of people the FT hacks typically consort with. I can almost picture him holding the dirty rag at a distance asking “so what exactly is it that we have here?” 😉

Elsewhere in the FT, however, it seems that there are still a lot of recalcitrant proto-Ermines among the millennial set that aren’t that enamoured with the go-getting entrepreneurial dynamism of the gig economy. Over to Sarah again

young workers seek traditional permanent contracts to unlock the necessities of life …

The traditional permanent job contract is still the key that unlocks a range of life’s necessities. Without one, you will struggle in many countries to secure a loan, a mortgage, a mobile phone contract[ref]I have never attempted to get a mobile phone contract because I am a PAYG aficionado, but presumably as someone without a permie job I would be SOL on that one too[/ref] or even a room to rent.

like all that boring shit like a roof over your head and not having to think about work for 24 hours every flippin’ day.

There’s hope. but not soon

New ways of working have often led to oppression of the weakest party (generally labour) until regulation can catch up with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with better information and mobile platforms, after all Uber and GPS means relatively unskilled drivers can provide a low cost London taxi service that was previously the domain of cabbies in a guild with The Knowledge. Because these things started in the teeth of the 2007-9 recession and regulation hasn’t caught up, they have spread quickly, because they give an advantage to the work providers and probably the work consumers, at the cost of the work doers. Our definition of employment and self-employment that has been acceptable for many decades isn’t fit for this sort of employment/work. So regulation needs to catch up, there’s probably space in the marketplace for smartphone mediated work matching to give novel services with a better balance between the conflicting interests of capital, labour and the consumers. It’s inherently the way of capital to to misuse it’s power over people, for the reason identified by Baron Acton in 1887

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Capital is a claim on future human work, the power to get people to do what you want. It needs regulation to gentle it away from being purely a tool of oppression, and it takes time to find that balance. Of course there is always the head-banging Ayn-Randian counter proposal for a no-holds-barred let it all get sorted out in the market. I guess once we’ve killed off the weaklings perhaps the water will find its own level. It’s a bit harsh, but I guess it works. For some strange reason it tends to piss people off seeing that sort of thing happen to their friends and family members, so unless there really is a Galt’s Gulch Uber can retire to they will probably have to come to some less one-sided agreement in time.

It’s not all about the money

though at the bottom end it is… Some of it is about dignity and respect. When I boil it down to the essentials, what I came to hate so much about working at The Firm when they laced it up with stupid performance management metrics wasn’t that the pay was crap, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what I did, which was okay and mildly interesting when it was the actual job in my job title, as opposed to feeding the performance management system bullshit. It was the increasingly demeaning and disrespectful nature of the micromanaging performance reviews and endless justification of my existence, the gamification of the workplace. This crap was unnecessary – it was either a deliberate ploy to make people feel so shit about themselves that they would leave, without having to pay redundancy, or it was some sort of management fad. I recently heard from someone still there, at a more senior level than I reached, who was going through this again – he had to justify his existence, say why he was meeting objectives half of which had been imposed without discussion, and I was so glad to be out of there. But at least the pay was enough to reach FI with a bit of grunt.

When you’re working at the casual end of things, your boss is an app, you have the same sort of arbitrary rules plus various ratings for jobs taken, customer feedback etc you have the same disrespect without the compensation of getting paid the FU money.It’s one of the tedious things about buying online from the gig economy. You get bombarded with requests for feedback to up their metrics. Sorry, but I don’t do feedback any more. I just want to pay the money, get the goods and get out of there.

Recently I bought a replacement car battery from Halfords because I had been a jerk and ignored the signs the old one was fading. So I jumped the battery with a leisure battery and got lost on my way to the cheaper joint. Knowing I was at risk of not starting the engine again if I stopped it took the hit at Halfords. Then realised I only had spanners in my car toolkit, not a socket long enough to reach the lower battery clamp, and my 30-year old jump leads weren’t man enough to turn over a diesel engine from the new battery. So I was faced with pay the £10 fitting charge or buy a socket set, well,  I was idle and paid up. It was a pleasant enough transaction, but no, I didn’t actually want to get a card soliciting feedback on my experience. It’s bad enough online, and there’s no need to feed these stupid monitoring systems in bricks and mortar shops too.

No wonder people are pissed off at the bottom end of the gig economy – they are paid sod all and treated like shit. One or the other you can live with, but not both.