Archive | March, 2012

Hey Mr Osborne, there is a Plan B (but you may have no idea where he’s coming from)

27 Mar

Wonklifebalance reads with interest that the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel has apparently concluded that it is a lack of opportunity for youth that caused last year’s riots.  Such lack of opportunity has its seeds in inadequate parenting, inadequate schools and excessive brand-led consumerism.  Hmmm…

This analysis comes as no surprise to anyone with a vague interest in the growing gap between rich and poor (or rather ‘anyone from the squeezed middle upwards’ versus ‘the poor who don’t care about education’).  Who are the troublemakers, the people with no stake?  As a couple of voices have already said elsewhere, they’re not just juveniles: 30 and 40 year-olds also burned and looted.  So how have we got to this place where thousands ruined the streets of London and no-one is altogether sure why?

Wonklifebalance recently attended TEDx and heard the rap artist/actor/director) Plan B speak about growing up in East London – before that a couple of his albums had crossed her threshold, so his views are not a novelty.  In his TEDx talk he referred to the unthinking use of the term ‘chav’ in the media, and how it had come to signify ‘Council Housed and Violent’; he made a bold contention that the stereotypes attached to this word and the group it described would  not be tolerated for other ‘out-groups’ (read our descriptors for race and gender distinctions) .  There was a sharp intake of breath in the Guardian-reading auditorium as the well-educated audience digested this proposition.  He has a point.  In a society where the habitual distinction is between ‘the haves’ and ‘the have-nots’ we’ve all got rather lazy in labelling the ‘nots’.  And they are people too.

Plan B talked about being some sort of parental figure for those who are ‘parentless’ through the inadequacies of those who care for them and the stringencies of the environment in which they do so: all rather patrician some may think – but at least he’s trying to do something – at least give some profile to the issue.  There are those who say this is a view which lacks coherent vision or underlying ideology: but think of the times we are living in – it’s not the Seventies of The History Man, where a gung-ho lecturer could reform the underlings with  ‘a bit of Marx, a bit of Freud and a bit of social history’  –  a bit of Nike, a bit of Puma and a sense of local celebrity perhaps?

Wonklifebalance attended a good University on the back of education encouraged by parents who where council-housed themselves – they had an escape through good schooling which is sadly lacking for ‘their sort’ today.  When first in London working for an NGO, a member of staff asked where I’d gone to school; when I replied ‘the local comprehensive’ the person looked flummoxed and then said ‘I had no idea that people like that could turn out to be you’ – just like that, straight-up.  Most would say that Wonklifebalance is thoroughly middle-class, but perhaps it’s time we all reflected on when we actually last met ‘poor people’ and precisely what we thought of them.  As John Cleese’s Robin Hood said of ‘the poor’ in ‘Time Bandits’, ’Oh you must meet them, I’m sure you’ll like them. Of course they haven’t got two pennies to rub together…..’

Part-timers

15 Mar

In sections of the City there’s a word for people who work 9 to 5: they’re called ‘part-timers’.  Want to be rewarded and get home in time to see your kids? ‘Get a life’.  Well some of us (mainly women, surprise, surprise) do baulk at the long hours culture and go about creating a balance in a variety of ways: freelancing, downshifting, leaving work ‘temporarily’ – or, the holy grail, finding a ‘quality part-time job’.

A report out today, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and commissioned by Women Like Us, the recruitment enterprise specialising in part-time vacancies, shows just how difficult it remains to find part-time work reflecting moderate to high skill levels.  Only 3% of vacancies are part-time and pay above £20,000 full-time equivalent wages.  There is only 1 part-time vacancy paying above £20K for every 18 full-time posts.  In other words, part-time jobs on the open market are a synonym for ‘low-grade’.

And the truth is that most higher-grade part-time work is negotiated down: posts that were full-time until someone asked to be retained on reduced hours.  This comes as no surprise to anyone who stepped off the ladder and has tried to find part-time work afterwards.  The commitment issue is the most galling: ever sat in a job interview for a skilled post advertised as ‘part-time and flexible’ ‘with the option of homeworking’ only to meet a brick wall on negotiating hours in the office?  Less committed people would give up and sit moaning at home after they had been told for the nth time that they were the best candidate for the job, but flexibility is on our terms only. Give one person part-time office hours, next thing the whole team will want them.  Perish the thought.  Be the change you want to see is the mantra: it means fighting for every decent bit of work that can be negotiated around family commitments.

Wonklifebalance is the blog of a policy analyst who likes to combine work and family life – the real scandal is that this is so difficult to achieve, and exacts such a high price for trying.  They have a word for this too: it’s called ‘choice’.

It’s your relationships, stupid

6 Mar

The Office for National Statistics has just released the first results of a government survey  into the (often contested) area of happiness – known to wonks as ‘subjective well-being’ or ‘life satisfaction’.

Governments are widely held to be for the economic, material and concrete parts of life: measuring GDP, industrial output, economic growth.  And through measuring these, what do we get?  A picture of ‘how well we are doing’ devoid of social content.  There are those who say ‘keep it that way’ – the last thing we should be doing as the economy crashes is to devote any time to feelings, when we could be quantifying more tangible stuff. The State has no business rummaging around in the affairs of the heart.  However, if we concentrate too much on the material, we miss out the things which give many of us quality of life: caring for children or other relatives; couple relationships; our sense of belonging.  If we have no measure of these aspects of existence, we know a lot about price and little about value – or even values, come to that.

So, perhaps measuring non-material well-being can tell us something about the way we live now. Who in the UK has been found to be the happiest  today?  Women report slightly higher levels of happiness (‘life satisfaction’, ‘feeling happy yesterday’) than men.  Having children in a household is associated with higher ratings of feeling that life is worthwhile.  It is also on this dimension of happiness that women and men differ most – with women scoring their lives at an average of 7.8/10 on being worthwhile, compared to 7.5/10 for men.  Perhaps greater involvement in family life is a part of women’s higher level of happiness; perhaps higher employment rates see more women today feeling fulfilled. However, the survey also measures anxiety, and women remain ahead of men on that measure – (reporting their level of anxiety yesterday at an average of 3.3/10, while men’s average stood at 3.1/10).  Capricious us, more satisfied and more worried than men? Maybe different areas of satisfaction (working life and family life?) are too often experienced in competition with one another.

It’s interesting that the lowest levels of happiness are reported by men aged 45-49. These are not only the years of the conventional mid-life crisis, but also of pressure to provide financially for current and future family needs.  Men today do this in the presence of children likely to be younger and more demanding than was the case for fathers of the same age in the generation above.  And more men aged 45 to 49 now are in relationships with women who are employed and who expect (as they expect of themselves) to have a stronger role in family life, than their own fathers did. The idea of the involved father has arrived: but often the realities of working life and economics prevent its full realisation. More men may now be experiencing the role conflicts familiar to women, albeit more often from the perspective of being locked into employment at the expense of family time.

Relationships clearly have a role in happiness – people in couples are happier than those who are not (e.g. divorced people rate their happiness yesterday at 6.6/10 compared to 7.5/10 and 7.7/10 for cohabitees and spouses). The data also indicate that Londoners feel less happy than those living elsewhere in the UK, even though economic power is concentrated here.

The ONS is keen to describe these measures of happiness as ‘experimental’ and has not as yet conducted analyses which might move beyond factors which are associated with greater happiness,  to look at causal links between social and relationship characterisitics and life satisfaction.  Since middle-aged, male people living in London run the country, it is unlikely that the happiness question will go away.

How to convert knowledge of happiness into effective policy is another vexed question – the mention of ‘back to basics’ shows the risks of political involvement in defining healthy relationships.  Many years ago, the story has it, Madame de Gaulle silenced a dinner party by saying that the thing she most looked forward to in her husband’s retirement was ‘A penis’.  Her husband remarked that in English we in fact pronounce the word ‘’Appiness’.  Early indications are that possession of the former does not automatically lead to more of the latter.

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