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The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Saying no to the rat race

"Ambition is the last refuge of the failure." Oscar Wilde

I still rent a flat & work in a job which I stick with mainly because (i) I have basically a good set of work colleagues (one or two are gits, but such is life) & (ii) I get a lot of time off to do things I think are really useful (like this blog). I don't have the callous, me, me, me mentality to be a big shot in the City, or make people redundant en masse. Also people I know who are self-employed or run small businesses, who I greatly admire, seem to be under the hammer 24/7. The state and its cronies in big business do not like small business. In the same way the old Actual Existing Socialist states glorified The Worker in the abstract but hated him or her in the flesh, the same goes for Actual Existing Capitalism's treatment of The Small Business.

I digress. I survive and don't let things get to me too much. One day the oil will run out and our current way of living will melt into air. So how to survive until then? The following two articles I saw recently and sort of gave a post-facto justification of how I've lived my life for the past 6 years or so (ie since I've moved to London). Of course, if I suddenly get a £100k per annum job in the City "with prospects" I'll delete this post like there's no tomorrow!

How low flyers dodge the flak: The'happily underemployed' are not slacking off, says Ian Wylie. They have simply decided that their real lives matter more than shinning up the greasy career pole
The Guardian: Saturday October 8, 2005

When Eve's boss asks her to fetch him a cup of tea, she manages to smile sweetly. "I make him tea because it's my job. But tea-making doesn't require a degree in French and linguistics."
Eve's degree comes from Oxford, but the 29-year-old has been working as a PA for the past five years. "I work mostly for people who have fewer academic qualifications than me and much of what I do is menial. But I have an active life outside of work - I'm very involved in amateur dramatics - and I get very annoyed if I have a job that means I can't attend rehearsals.

"I once had a job in banking, which was great until 18 months down the line I quit because I was so exhausted. I managed to fit in only one play in that time and even then I couldn't remember my lines because I was so tired. Now I work just to pay the bills."

She is not alone. There are many well-qualified, intelligent people who spend their 9 to 5 working in clerical posts, sales, bars, call centres or restaurants. But some, such as Eve, choose not to moan about their dull, menial or repetitive work because they simply don't see the attraction of a prestigious, high-paying career. They - let's call them the "happily underemployed" - reject the idea that their work is their "calling". They work only to live.

When it comes to underemployment, Britain is a world leader. UK workers are some of the least engaged and emotionally attached to their companies in the world. A survey of 15,000 workers by research firm ISR reckons a third of all workers are indifferent to their work and employer. It's not just a British condition, though. A quarter of Americans show up at work "just for the pay cheque", says research group TNS.

But the happily underemployed are not slackers. They go about their work honestly and professionally. They don't "goof off" on company time. "Conducting market research interviews is like a factory job," admits Michael, a 29-year-old English graduate from a top university, who previously worked in paralegal and teaching jobs. "But I have a gene that takes satisfaction from being able to point to a physical product I've made. Feeling like a cog in a machine is not necessarily a bad thing. I don't have existential crises at my desk."

Being happily underemployed runs counter to the prevailing wisdom that passion should be as common in the workplace as in the bedroom. These people are passionate - just not about their work. They reserve their passion for pursuits outside of work, whether it's amateur dramatics, playing in a band, film-making, painting or rock-climbing. So long as they earn just enough to service their debts and finance their hobbies, the happily underemployed are willing to forgo working a "fulfilling" 80-hour week for fun, satisfying lives outside the office.

"The happily underemployed are actually often fully employed - but not in the course of their paid work," says Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College, London. "They're often very busy with hobbies and passions that are intrinsically motivating."

These people are dropping out of the rat race - except they're doing it at work. They don't feel compelled to imprison the meaning of life in their careers. "An outside interest give structure and meaning to their lives," explains Furnham. "It gives them a friendship and social support network and a sense of identity too."

Of course, few people leave university plotting a career in underwhelming jobs. But student debt and "degree glut" have precipitated a shift from graduate unemployment to underemployment. In the early 1960s, the percentage of young people going to university was 5%. Today that figure is closer to 45%. And since the number of "graduate jobs" has failed to keep pace, up to 45% of graduates from some disciplines are destined for menial work, says the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Saddled with debts of, on average, £13,000, an increasing number of graduates relegate chasing their perfect job behind getting themselves back into the black. But escaping "transitory" non-graduate roles can be as easy as climbing out of quicksand. Seven years after leaving university, one in 10 are still in "non-graduate" jobs, according to the universities of Warwick and the West of England.

But the happily underemployed are, in fact, exercising choice. "I chose in my mid-20s to buy a house, when I had a job with a dotcom," explains Eve. "It's my choice to keep that mortgage rather than sell up and pursue a career change. I don't deny that I'd like to have a job I love, but to work in theatre I'd have to take a 50% pay cut."

A decade ago, in a tract for thinktank Demos, David Cannon described what he saw as a different work ethic among Generation X - those born between 1965 and 1978. A decline in loyalty to employers meant young workers saw work in purely transactional terms. What's the deal? What's in it for me? Why get saddled with a stressful job?

The happily underemployed are less likely to channel their passions into a job. The purpose of the working week is to get them to the weekend, when the fun begins. While their friends in investment banking or law will spend much of today flaked out in front of a TV, Eve and Michael are ready for action.

Where the office zombies roam

There's another group of workers not so happy in their underemployment. Like the happily underemployed, their abilities are completely wasted. But these people have no outlet for their passion. No outside interests. They're not being fulfilled in any area of their lives.

David Bolchover, author of new book The Living Dead (Capstone), reckons he did no more than six months' work in six years working for a City insurance firm. The implications, he says, are grave.

"Being bored at work inevitably affects your relationships, energy levels outside of work and self esteem. Not much good can come from doing nothing for long periods of time."

Why I don't want my foot on the ladder: Observations on property by Kira Cochrane
New Statesman Monday 7th November 2005

In a country fond of declaring that an Englishman's home is his castle, it is hardly surprising that attitudes to renting have traditionally been negative. To admit, beyond your early twenties, that you're still a tenant is to send middle-aged heads tilting on to shoulders, brows furrowing, hands wringing. "I'm sure you'll get on the property ladder soon," they opine, implying that to avoid the ladder is as unlucky as walking beneath one.

There have always been horror stories to bear this view out, but recent evidence suggests that Britain's younger generation have stopped worrying and learned to love their landlords. A survey found more than half of 18- to 34-year-old tenants happy to put off ownership, with two-thirds saying it allowed them to live in a better area and a third citing the freedom to live with friends.

This is, of course, lucky, given that even the narrowest house in London (all 5ft 5in of it, beside a massage parlour in Shepherd's Bush) can tip the coffers at more than £500,000. But I, for one, was pleased by the survey, interested to see we're moving towards a continental view of renting, and relieved to find that I'm not alone.

In the past five years I've shuttled, spider-quick, between rented houses and flats, between new and old boyfriends, lost and found flatmates, somehow ending up moving a total of 12 times. At first I tried to kid myself that this was bohemian, but now I've accepted the truth. I'm just plain indecisive.

There are downsides to renting, of course - the regular theft of your maintenance deposit, the two months' notice informing you that you have to move out, the fact of throwing good money after bad - and I'm certainly not a fan of the embryonic property tycoons who have cropped up, determined to out-yuppie the bankers of the 1980s. Overall, though, I like renting. While I can see the point of investing in a property, any escalating value is really only relevant if you plan to move to a cheaper area or downsize. And I like the freedom of being able to move when I choose (yesterday, Brighton; today, London; tomorrow, the world!), to up and leave a house when it becomes too small, too dark or too damp.

Because to buy a house is to settle down, apply the brakes and accept that you're staying put - a lot like a marriage. This connection is borne out by the survey: one in five young renters say they'll only have the impetus to buy if and when they get married.

This makes sense. Marriage and house-buying have always gone together, the difference being that, way back when life expectancy was lower, people leapt into both in their early twenties. It's only more recently, with the growth of our property obsession, that people's first house purchase has often been made alone, or with a more casual lover or friend. With many people delaying marriage or commitment until well into their thirties, it's perfectly rational to put off property purchase too.

And, like dating different people before settling down, renting before buying can have benefits. In going out with different people, we find out what we can and can't abide in a partner and it helps our emotional development, helps us recognise "the one" .

And so with renting. By ricocheting from property to property I've realised, for instance, that I can never, ever, live in a basement. I've realised that if you don't check first you could spend six months or more in a balcony flat whose one window (yes, just the one) is covered at all times in thick plastic sheeting. I've found that two foot square of outside space can only, in the very loosest of terms, be described as a "garden", and that it doesn't matter how gorgeous the flat is at the top of those eight flights of stairs - you will soon hate it.

The beauty of renting is that when you do start loathing the property, or the person or people you're sharing with, you can move on. Not so once you've bought. As with divorce, property buying and selling is a matter of extreme emotion, and very often great expense, and, as such, not for rushing into. For now, then, I'll keep renting and wait for "the one".


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