Monday, 12 November 2012

'Never As Bad As We Had It'

Living with two elderly people, as I am doing at the moment, you quickly learn never to say anything negative about what has happened to you. It does not matter how ill you feel or how bad or mad the traffic you have driven through; it does not matter if you have lost your job or your house or are separated from those you love. None of these things can even come on the scale of what the elderly have experienced. I guess if this was the 1950s and I was living with old people who had experienced the late Victorian period, then the First and Second World Wars, I could accept that they had a point. However, the two I am living with are 74, i.e. they were born in 1938. Yes, they remember the war as children and better remember the rationing which persisted until 1956. However, most of their lives have been lived in times of what seemed to be for at least two decades, increasing prosperity and improvement in society. Any elderly person, who is younger than them, say 65, has even less to complain about as they were born into the welfare state and a period of full employment. The 1980s were a horrible time but the experience varies considerably depending where in the country you were living. For many in coal-mining and other heavy industrial areas it was the end of their working lives. However, in London and other prosperous cities, it was a time of making profit from property; foreign travel and consumer goods. Even the slump of 1990-3 now seems to have been a blip compared to the decade of economic depression we are now assured.

Of course, in every period, even the greatest boom, there are people who miss out. I lived in East London for over six years and on £9500 per year in the 1990s was a wealthy man in the districts I inhabited. Even then in what now seems to be a boom time, I knew people living in bed and breakfast hotels with their babies and young children, eating in fried chicken shops as they had no kitchen facilities and never travelling more than a couple of miles from their homes, just as if they were a medieval serf. Yet, even they were better off than their Victorian equivalents and were not starving to death on the street or separated and exploited in a workhouse. They were, of course, worse off than their 1960s equivalents who could look forward one day to getting a council flat and a job. Even in the 1990s, things seemed far better than now. As yet, I have not read anything written about the impact of the introduction of the minimum wage on areas like East London. Certainly I noticed a great change, even when employers tried to claw back some of the pay they were now supposed to (and generally did) give, through various tricks. The doubling of someone's hourly rate due to the minimum wage, I saw had a significant impact, if only on the profitability of convenience stores, takeaways and laundrettes in the area I lived.

I guess I probably look back on those days with nostalgia. When I saw a programme some months ago which said that many British people would probably view the period 1997-2007 and the 'best years of their lives', I was a little sceptical but think I have now come around to that perspective myself. It is argued that the post-war boom ran from about 1948/55-71/73. However, with 2008 we seem to have ended even the post-boom period. It is as if the experiment of the third quarter of the 20th century, has finally, through the sustained efforts of hardline Conservatives been brought to an end. The sense that society needed to work for prosperity in general rather than for the already rich alone and the belief that people fell on hard times through no fault of their own so needed state support, have been crushed. That period now appears to have been simply an anomaly. Instead we are getting back to the kind of society that someone in 1892 rather than 1962 would be very familiar with. If you think of the Dickens novels so many of them could be translated to now. No, there are no workhouses and instead Oliver Twist would be in a children’s home where he would be sexually abused, just as children were in the Victorian period; the age of consent was only raised from 13 to 16 in 1861. Workers are losing rights by the day and for example, employees at Comet turn up to find they have two days work left. Housing is beyond the reach of most people even in the middle classes.

Two-thirds of people receiving benefits are in employment. I will say that again, two-thirds of people who receive benefits are in work. This is not because they are cheating the system, it is because their employers are allowed to pay them so little that the state has to subsidise their income in order for these people to have a basic standard of living. Without rent control, rents are rising, far faster than incomes. Most young people have given up on the idea of owning a home and people like me have slipped from being property owners to being tenants once again and exposed to the tricks and exploitation of landlords/ladies and especially letting agencies. Food and petrol have always been expensive in Britain and remain so in relation to incomes even with supposed competition between supermarkets. Utilities since privatisation have always been cartelised and prices continue to rise unchecked. The government continues to peddle the myth that to get into work is to solve your problems, whereas in fact that is a lie. Back in the 1980s, some Conservative argued that Britain had to become the Taiwan of Western Europe, a low-wage, high-tech economy, banging out cheap consumer goods. We are roughly in that position now, though with less of the high-tech than we might like. Yet, despite the low wages, British industry is not booming, in large part because so much of profits is not reinvested and instead goes on salaries, bonuses and paying shareholders. Apparently a company director can earn as much as 350 times what the lowest paid employees in that company earn. We have returned to a Victorian socio-economic pattern yet lacking the output and sales that Britain enjoyed back in that era.

Despite all these problems, to the elderly, it can never be as bad as the times they lived through. The traffic now, despite its increase, the presence of so many huge cars driven poorly and the disappearance of traffic police, somehow cannot be worse than it was in the 1990s. Employers with their ability to sack whomever they choose, with their obsession on minutiae and workers’ declining ability to go to tribunals, somehow cannot be as bad as twenty years ago. Yes, employment might be better than in 1952 or 1972, certainly in terms of discrimination, but it is certainly not as good as 1982, 1992 or even 2002. There is a particular challenge in being listened to in Britain and that is the country’s love of complaining. I know other countries have people who moan and complain but if it was an Olympic sport, Britain would have won gold every time. One point of moaning is to trump the others around you, something well satirised by the sketch from the Monty Python comedy team in the 1970s when a group of northern English men keep portraying their lives as worse than the others to the extent that one states he lived at the bottom of a lake and worked 29 hours per day.

There is a chain of behaviour. An elderly person says that it is not as bad as what they experienced. Thus, you being unable to cope with it shows you must be incompetent. As you are incompetent, you are unworthy of any help. The help they give, however inappropriate, they believe they give for charitable reasons. No matter how grateful you say you are for the help, you are not then permitted to criticise anything about your current situation. The elderly believe that their charity eliminates any problem that you might ever encounter for ever more. Consequently if new problems arise or old ones remain unresolved, you cannot mention these without triggering charges that you are ungrateful. You have to accept the help no matter what other costs there are or even if the help is in fact less helpful than if they had done nothing. I often use the example of my father giving a lift to my girlfriend and driving so fast and recklessly that she was terrified. Simply expressing that terror at the time means that even five years on she is regularly criticised for that statement she made as it apparently shows how rude and ungrateful she is after all this time. I know The Who said, ‘I hope I die before I get old’, certainly if I ever behave to younger people like this I insist someone comes and shoots me. Life is hard without incessantly being told you are useless and ungrateful for years to come.

Is there any risk in the elderly dismissing the challenges and concerns of younger people? Yes, because it means they do not take serious problems seriously. They dismiss them as nothing compared to the burdens they had to face. Consequently they do not give appropriate practical support or even listen to what they are being told. Sometimes just being heard can be vitally important to someone under stress. Above all they are prone to being deluded by politicians who tell them that there is no need to worry about benefits cuts as these are only impacting on the lazy and the feckless. The elderly public’s view of younger people as simply complaining about trivialities rather than the genuine problems they encountered, feeds right into this. Of course, we know that 60% of benefits are paid to people actually in work and many of the unemployed go in and out of the job sector as they are employed on short-term contracts that are so common these days. Benefits are a subsidy to employers wanting to keep wage rates down and their profits incredibly high. Cutting them off would have no impact on their behaviour, they would probably simply relish the control they have over people who had no alternative but to work for low wages in poor conditions or face starvation. The number of children in Britain not eating breakfast or not eating breakfast and lunch is incredibly high and the reappearance of rickets caused by malnutrition, an illness almost eliminated in the mid-20th century in Britain, shows that, no matter what the elderly feel, we have returned to the lifestyle of the Victorian poor.

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