Susan Hill’s thoughts on a possible recession:
The people who are not affected are either the mega-rich, who are always cushioned but who do not live in our world, or the young, affluent single urban dwellers, who are not YET affected. They are the ones without mortgages – they rent -children to feed and clothe and educate. They are out at work – well-paid mostly – much of the time, so they don`t notice the cost of heating and they have as much spare cash to spend on eating out and buying what we will lump under the heading of ‘stuff’ as they did last year. But they are also, as a group, the ones who need a recession. They have never known hard financial times. They have been cushioned at school and university and into well-paid jobs in areas like sales and marketing, management and PR and recruitment. The financial squeeze, for the moment, is hitting families, the middle of the road ones with middle of the road incomes, and also with mortgages, heating bills, three or four children, two cars.
It is going to get tougher. So far job losses have been confined to the financial services and the construction industry. The next lot of dominoes to fall will be in all those non-job and cake-icing areas like Management Consultancy, PR, Advertising. Recruitment will come next [yay! – MD] -as there will be no jobs into which the recruiters can recruit people. Retail will shed some. And then the young, affluent single will begin to learn the value of money – and of money in relation to everything else – for the first time. And suddenly they too will resent it when a young woman such as Kelly Osbourne can blithely tell the world, on television, that she owns 750 pairs of shoes and WAGS boast of ‘putting their name down’ for a handbag that costs £12,000.
I’ve got to demur with Hill’s piece – which reads, incidentally, like a newspaper letter from a subliterate provincial. It’s always the hard working families that take priority; the three words were repeated like a mantra during the last election – as if to imply that hard working single people, or hard working unmarried couples, or families where someone is out of work, are not worthy of support.
But will families be the worst affected? I don’t know. The kind of people Hill is talking about tend to have good, permanent jobs with solid salaries and pension schemes. Their mortgages are often fixed at a certain rate of interest that protects them to some extent from the caprices of the market. If they need credit, most financial institutions will oblige.
For Hill’s ‘young, single urban dwellers’ the picture is not as rosy as she makes out. They are hammered by property-bubble rents. Their high degree scores and postgraduate work count for nothing in a mainly vocational job market. The impression I get is of hundreds of intelligent graduates fighting over the same few entry-level positions that pay a lot less than the average wage. (And if their income rises above this then the government will swoop for student loan repayments.) I’ve met people with MAs and PhDs working in bars, warehouses and call centres, not as a summer job but as an actual job. Many spend years in low-status and insecure temporary positions, with a third of their income skimmed away by recruitment consultants. They can find it hard to get credit and rarely qualify for work-related state benefits.
If a recession comes, will they get the same sympathy as the hard working families rhapsodised by Blair and Brown? I think not. In our society, to be worthy of respect you need to a) take out a mortgage and b) have children – although fewer and fewer people are doing these things.
I know almost nothing about economics but aren’t these things self-fulfilling prophecies? Gordon Brown warned the nation in early January that 2008 would be a tough year. Lo and fucking behold, times are getting tough. It’s in the government’s interest to portray the market as an unstoppable natural force like the climate or the tides. Otherwise we might get the idea that the government has some responsibility for the state of the economy.
Hill’s image of the money-burning WAG disgusts us. But so, I think, does the sight of a comfortably-off politician piously intoning that these are hard times, and we all have to make sacrifices. This always translates as: you will all have to make sacrifices. There will be no sale of the second home in Norfolk, or state school education for little Boris and Squiffy. At least the footballer dropping two grand in a strip club tends to be honest about his conspicuous consumption. As Irvine Welsh said, people who claim there’s no such thing as a free lunch generally enjoy several each day.
And at the public’s expense. When Fairpak went under, government did little to nothing about the low-income families, hard-working or not, who were staring at a lean Christmas. Oh well, politicians shouldn’t interfere with the invisible hand… except when it suits them, as when Northern Rock collapsed and was promptly bailed out by HMG. Labour’s friends in the privatised rail industry also enjoy substantial subsidies, despite atrocious performance. In these cases, the lame duck was not allowed to flail, sink and drown. The lame duck was dragged out of the water and blued into the nearest veterinary hospital.
In a classic phrase: socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. Will recession change that? I don’t think so.