Friday, 6 July 2012

On Banks, Bosons, and Getting Your Big Break

Can anyone lend me ten billion quid?
Why d'you look so glum? Was it something I did?
So the breaking news this week is that the bankers have gone and broken everything again. Or rather, we're reassessing the damage that they did when they broke everything before. Although it's old news, it looked for about five seconds like the government might have decided to actually do something about it. Turns out they haven't. No surprises there.

Meanwhile, back in the world of real work for ordinary pay......well, there isn't any, as any new graduate this year will miserably inform you. I recently read this Independent article which gets the facts mostly right, though quite what Ms Heawood's friends' cooker has to do with the price of bananas I'm at rather a loss to explain. My problem with the piece has less to do with her actual advice (“Stop moaning”, which is generally very good advice) and more to do with its disconcertingly cynical tone. It's true that talking about how you expected the world of work to be like Sex and the City isn't likely to win you points with anyone (though again, where she got this material from, I couldn't begin to imagine – S&tC is, or rather was, aimed at women who are now in their thirties and forties, not my generation, who were just kids when it was aired), and it's true that wallowing in your newly realised unemployability is only going to make you feel worse yourself, rather than changing anything. However, there's a whole world of difference between making a legitimate complaint while still trying to find work, and just plain moping around. To go back to my first point, if the government weren't busy spending billions on bailing out banks and giving tax breaks to other big companies, they might actually have a bit of money left to invest in all the young people, many of whom are likely to more than make it back. Here's what Kim Newman has to say on the subject:
When I graduated in 1980, I was able to move to London (well, near London) and live in a bedsit for three years thanks to benefits. Then, after doing a lot of unpaid work while on the dole, I started supporting myself as a freelance writer. Now, most years, I pay more in tax than I received in state hand-outs during that period - and I've covered my student grant many times over too. Under the system David Cameron wants, where those under twenty-five aren't eligible for housing benefits, I'd never have been able to leave my parents' home in Somerset and would have remained unemployed and unemployable to the present day. So, the kind of career I have is now pretty much barred to those without rich parents ... maybe if the Prime Minister just began all his speeches with 'fuck you, poor people' it would end any confusion as to what kind of big society he wants.
If we don't talk about this, then certainly nothing's going to be done about it. Like Ms Heawood's friends, if we don't speak up, we might as well all take to the good life, because the farming practice might well come in handy for the day when the country reverts back to the feudal system. Heawood utterly fails to make the distinction between constructive criticism and the kind of useless cynicism that annoys her which is (somewhat understandably) increasingly taking hold of young people. Funnily enough though, as far as I can see, the latter is much more akin to her own outlook. Heawood's attitude is one of (as my mother would say) “put up and shut up”: basically, we can't win, so we shouldn't even try. Just get used to it, kids!

Received wisdom at the moment seems to be that students just aren't willing to pull their weight, but there are a whole host of general and particular circumstances which are affecting people's chances of finding work, many of which aren't solely to do with the number of jobs available in the country in general. The first is the (apparently surprising, to some people) fact that not everyone lives in London. I'm not going to dispute Londoners' firm belief that the whole world revolves around their precious little city here – I've lived there long enough now to know better, and besides, at the very least it pretty much has been the centre of the universe in the past, and it's still the only place to be if you're young and looking for interesting work. Unfortunately, current London accommodation prices, coupled with David Cameron's decision that under-25s don't deserve any help with housing, means that those of us who don't have parents living in and around the city (i.e. the vast majority of us), simply cannot afford to live in the capital and work unpaid. But nobody wants to pay you if they can get you for free, and this “free labour market” is becoming increasingly competitive. I studied for my degree at a major London university, but as soon as I finished my course, I gave up my flat there. I had to. I have about enough money left in my current account for one month's rent at ordinary London prices (let alone at the skyrocketing Olympic period rates). I could break into my savings (yes reader, I am a student who has managed to save money, so don't let anybody tell you we're all careless spendthrifts), but then I'm left with nothing to fall back on: despite my present situation, as the managers of a very small, seasonal, business, and with my much younger sister still at school, my parents have even less disposable income than I do. Besides which, even the savings I have wouldn't get me very far in London: once you've added up crazy rent prices, crazy transport prices and all the bills, I'd probably manage for about two or three months max. And I may as well give up all hope of ever owning anything or ever being out of debt, ever. It's bleak and alien world for someone with a working class background like mine, where you grow up believing that debt is the devil, and that it's much better to have something you can call your own, however inadequate, than nothing. Renting has always felt frighteningly insecure to me, and not without reason: I have plenty of friends who've been kicked out of their flats by dodgy landlords who ought to be sued. But hey, we're students, we don't matter. And of course, Grant Shapps says it's unnecessary to introduce stricter regulations for private landlords, and Mr Shapps is an honourable man....

Fundamentally, I'm not opposed to the idea of internships or, as we used to more honestly call them back in the day, work experience placements (giving flashy names to rubbish things just to make them seem more desirable is something that really irks me). I completed a fantastic one myself last summer with the BBC, which ended in real paid work for me. Unfortunately, I stopped working there once my third year of study started. Part of me is already starting to feel this was a mistake, and I'm sure many other people in my situation would think so too. But I never wanted to work while I was studying, and I certainly didn't want to give up on my degree half way through it, even if it was an arts degree (which, incidentally, haven't always been useless, as any cursory glance at the academic histories of our MPs and leaders will show you). Going to university was, for me, a major investment, so I wanted to work hard at it and make it count for something. It paid off – I came out with a first. I'm still not convinced, however, that this makes me any more employable than the next person with a 2.1 or a 2.2 or even a third, since all us students are lazy and self-important, right? The fact that I've already done one unpaid placement with the BBC recently means that I cannot do another one until a full twelve months is up. And really, that's as it should be. This is surely an anti-exploitation rule. I shouldn't have to work unpaid again, and I can't really afford to, but if I don't manage to more or less get my old job back, I will probably have to in order to open up my options.

Still, I tend to look on the bright side of things. As long as I can stay at home and not have to pay rent, I'm happy to carry on working for nothing with other companies if needs be. And there are plenty of people out there who just don't have that luxury. A friend of mine made the decision aged 16 to stay behind when her family moved away, and, without going into details, if she returned to them now, she'd be in extreme danger. But of course, she's not entitled to any help with housing, because David Cameron thinks she should still be living with her parents, and David Cameron is an honourable man.... Fortunately for her, she's managed to find a live-in job, but if she hadn't, I really don't know what she'd do.

Now, I don't know about you, but I'd say that all this put together constitutes legitimate cause for complaint, and depending on how you go about it, raising your voice about it can be a lot more worthwhile than arbitrary and ineffective moaning. That said, of all the people that I know, the friend I mentioned above is perhaps the least likely person in the world to openly complain about anything. In any case, I think Ms Heawood is wrong. We shouldn't stop moaning. We should just be careful about how we go about it.

In other, much more exciting news, CERN has announced that it has finally discovered the all-elusive Higgs Boson, four years after the completion of the LHC in Geneva (or fourteen years since work on the machine began). It's a terrifically exciting time for all of us (including those who went on to become arts students) who got caught up in the big hoo-hah the first time the machine got switched on. I suppose this is probably going to be one of those things that ages us fairly soon. Ehy, when ah were a sixth-former.... .Man, they won't even have sixth-form soon, will they? Well anyway, when I was in sixth form, we had celebratory cake and LHC t-shirts and all sorts. Well, to be fair, we did have celebratory cake for just about everything, even when there wasn't anything better to celebrate than that our English teacher let us bring cake into lessons. My little brother who's a physicist has been very annoyed that all the banking stuff has completely taken over the news, relegating such a significant scientific breakthrough to relative obscurity. While beating the banking scandals may well be classed as more in the public interest than finding out cool stuff about particles, I really can't help but agree with him. Let's have a good news story for once, shall we? So many millions were invested in the banks and look what happened. Meanwhile, so many millions were invested in CERN and the LHC project that we should all be looking up and taking notice now it's coming to fruition. It's great that this has happened, isn't it? It's hardly any wonder that so few people do amazing things when they've always got so little recognition for it. What with the sort of mind-numbing crud people sit down to watch on television these days, you're more likely to get rich and famous (or at least to get a bit of cash on the back of being slightly famous) by behaving like a complete ass than for doing something worthwhile. I almost don't blame the bankers for thinking it's acceptable to be stupid and reckless.

Here's an idea: maybe if we stopped giving all our time and money and attention to the idiots who are going to waste it, we could start taking heed of all the really, truly wonderful things that human beings are capable of. We might end up happier. We might end up more confident and ambitious. Who knows, we might even manage to stop the tide of cynicism that's turning us into a nation of Neil from the Young Oneseseses. I for one say we can do better than this. There is surely a point at which every person who goes on to do something great realises that the “great” men and women who went before them were really just ordinary people like them. By the same token, if the people you look up to are all morons, you're not going to have a whole lot of faith in your own power to succeed. Let's set the bar higher. I haven't given up yet, and neither should you.

Finally, just in case you hadn't already guessed, I'd like to add that I honestly don't think there's any shame in doing an arts degree. Have some more words of wisdom from Mr Newman:
I heard Sir Christopher Frayling on Radio 4 this morning making the valid point that the arts/culture/design/music/whatever sector is only a percentage point or so less lucrative to the UK economy than the financial/banking one. Yet the government bends over backwards to placate and protect 'the City' while going out of its way not to support, encourage or foster us poncy wasters whose doodles and scribbles and twangings earn about the same amount. I don't know any potters who bank in the Channel Islands to avoid tax and can't think of any musicians who've brought about a recession.
Proud to be a literature graduate. (y)

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