I suppose it is unreasonable to expect things to stay the same, nothing ever does, but is it unreasonable to expect things to get better? Is it unreasonable to expect Britain to become a fairer and more equal society?
I guess so!
I am lucky to have the job that I have. When I was young I became interested in Electronics and when I left school I got a job first in telecommunications where I did a three year apprenticeship, and then in Medical Research doing electronics and I have stayed there ever since. It wasn’t so much a job as a career. It didn’t really feel like a job as electronics was my hobby. I am now approaching retirement in a few years. If the Conservatives don’t do yet another raid on public sector pensions then I might even have a pension at the end of it.
I have seen some remarkable breakthroughs in electronics and been part of some innovative developments, one of the instruments we designed is now in use in virtually every hospital in the developed world.
As a parent is it unreasonable of me to expect that my children should have either the same opportunities as I did or better opportunities?
But unfortunately the world of work has changed.
Karl Marx, the 19th century German philosopher and economist believed that capitalism was radically unstable. He wrote that it had an inherent tendency to produce ever larger booms and busts and over the long term he thought it was bound to destroy itself.
It seems that he was correct about the booms and busts but capitalism hasn’t destroyed itself just yet.
It’s not just capitalism’s inherent instability that he understood, Marx also understood how capitalism destroys its own social base, the middle-class way of life.
He argued that capitalism would gradually force the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the oppressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re now struggling to come to terms with.
Capitalism has been described as a process of creative destruction, and nobody can deny that it has been extremely productive. Practically anyone who is alive in Britain today has a higher real income than they would have had if capitalism had never existed.
The trouble is that among the things that have been destroyed in the process is the way of life on which capitalism in the past depended.
Defenders of capitalism argue that it offers everyone the benefits that in Marx’s time were enjoyed only by the bourgeoisie, the settled middle class that owned capital and had a reasonable level of security and freedom in their lives.
In 19th century capitalism the vast majority of people had virtually nothing. They lived by selling their labour and when markets turned down they faced hard times.
But as capitalism evolves, its defenders say, an ever increasing number of people will be able to benefit from it.
It was predicted that fulfilling careers would no longer be the prerogative of the few. No more would people struggle from month to month to live on an insecure wage. Protected by savings, a house they own and a decent pension, they will be able to plan their lives without fear. With the growth of democracy and the spread of wealth, nobody need be shut out from the bourgeois life. Everybody can be middle class … .. . .
But ask yourself if that is what we are seeing today?
In fact, in Britain over the past 20 years, the opposite has been happening. Job security is reducing, short term contracts proliferate, the trades and professions of the past have largely gone overseas and life-long careers are dying out as people retire only to be replaced by someone on a short term contract.
A dwindling minority can count on a decent pension on which they could comfortably live, even less if David Cameron diminishes public sector pensions in the name of equality with the inadequate private sector pensions, and only the wealthy have significant savings.
More and more people live from day to day, with little idea of what the future may bring.
Middle class people used to think their lives unfolded in an orderly progression. But it’s no longer possible to look at life as a succession of stages in which each is a step up from the last.
In the process of creative destruction the ladder has been kicked away and for an increasing number of young people a middle-class existence is no longer even an aspiration.
As capitalism has advanced it has returned more and more people to a modern version of the precarious existence of Marx’s proletariat. Our incomes are far higher and to some degree we’re cushioned against shocks by what remains of the post-war welfare state, but the Conservative party are hard at work dismantling that as fast as public opinion will allow.
When my eldest son left university he expected to get a job in engineering, but there aren’t many good jobs out there and those that do exist want experience. It seems you have to have experience to gain experience, a catch 22 situation. So eventually he got a job in retail on a zero hours contract on the minimum wage as a till monkey.
Zero hours contracts are a poisonous idea which has allowed unscrupulous employers to drive a coach and horses through all the employment legislation and protections which we have and which have taken many decades to win.
Let’s be realistic here, most companies would quite happily dispense with these ‘unwarranted burdens on their profitability’ if they could possibly get away with it. Wages and conditions have been fought for over a long period by the unions, many of the benefits we now enjoy were the result of prolonged battles between unions and employers. No employer wants to pay any more than the absolute minimum necessary, and now they have a way to circumvent these protections.
Zero hours contracts.
There were 1.8 million such contracts in the UK, as of last summer, covering well over 600,000 people.
Once upon a time, if an office or a shop was busy at some times and quiet at others, the employer managed the peaks and troughs. Now in a world where part-time and zero-hours contracts abound, the employees carry the financial risk of only working when they’re needed. This is certainly good for the employers and for government unemployment statistics but it doesn’t make for a happy workforce, how could it if you’ve got a mortgage or bills to pay, or a family to feed?
My son stuck with the retail job for a while but after about twelve weeks he was let go, and was unemployed for a long time, now he has a job working in a laundry on a night shift. This is one of the services which was ‘outsourced’ (privatised) from one of our local hospitals. It is a hard dirty job but at least he is not now on the minimum wage.
My other two children are staying on in further education hoping to put off the day when they have to go out and look for work as long as possible because the prospects are grim.
During the budget Mr. Osbourne tried to play up the economic recovery. And certainly I must admit that many jobs have been created and the GDP has gone up. But that is a very blinkered view of the economy.
More jobs have been created but most of those jobs are on the minimum wage, many of them are on zero hours contracts or short term contracts and a lot of them are part time. According to the TUC, since the financial crash of 2008, just one out of every 40 jobs added to the economy has been full time. The minimum wage was originally meant to be a safety net against being paid a pittance, but now it has become the ‘going rate’ for a lot of employers.
The economy has improved but this figure is based on an average and all that it means is that the rich are getting richer. If the wealthy and powerful prosper then the average prosperity will increase but this means nothing to the poorest in society who have seen no increase in their income. It means nothing to public sector workers who have had a pay freeze for three years followed by a non consolidated temporary pay ‘uplift’ of 1% and whose pensions are being eroded by the government doing a Robert Maxwell on the pension pot whenever they feel like it. It means nothing to the young people who have no hope of putting together the deposit for a house when they are employed on the minimum wage. It means nothing to the council employees who are loosing their jobs because of government cuts.
If you elect a Conservative government then the results are very predictable. What you get is an erosion of workers rights, an erosion of tenants rights, an erosion of the welfare state and an erosion of the NHS.
But at least the bankers are still getting their bonuses.