Downturn’s generation gap
Recession can have its upside. Perhaps, says Merilyn Canet, it’s a timely opportunity for people to rediscover the true value of things after years of abundance and heedless waste. “Real life isn’t about just having everything when you want it,” said Canet, 67, who grew up on a farm in south England and still grows her own fruits and vegetables. “It’s sometimes about saving up and looking after things, and the joy of making pumpkin soup from your own pumpkins.”
Talk to Adam Hayes, however, who is Canet’s junior by 40 years, and the silver lining of lean and uncertain times is harder to see.
Two months ago, Hayes felt the chill wind blowing through the financial sector and opted for a buyout from his job as a currency trader with Citigroup, the New York-based banking giant that recently received billions in aid from Washington. He is taking classes in graphic design, which suits his creative interests. But without the plump paychecks, the ski vacations and the dinners out he enjoyed before, the future looks daunting and contrary to expectations.
“When you’re my age, you’re used to an ever-increasing standard of living. . . . Suddenly it goes in reverse, and it’s not a nice feeling,” Hayes said. “It’s a real change of mentality. You actually start looking at the price of things rather than just buying them regardless. It’s difficult.”
After years of letting the good times roll, Britain is hunkering down for a recession that analysts predict will last at least a year. Property values have shriveled, unemployment could hit a recent-memory high of 3 million, and retailers are slashing prices in a bid to salvage what’s beginning to look a lot like a bleak Christmas.
Last week, the government unveiled a $30.2-billion spending and tax-cuts package to help keep the economy afloat.
A deepening gloom has descended upon almost every segment of society. But the downturn has also pointed up a divide between those old enough to have toughed out previous slumps -- or worse -- and those for whom tales of hard times were, at least until recently, almost apocryphal.
Britain’s economic nose dive has posed a bigger shock for many people in their 20s and 30s than for their elders. These are young adults whose entire working lives have been spent in the sunshine of steadily rising prosperity, a generation that believed economic growth to be perpetual and that saw penury as “principally a theme for the alternative rock songs of their adolescence,” as one columnist recently put it.
Hayes was just a schoolboy when Britain last gritted its economic teeth, in the early ‘90s. After college, his six years in the financial services market rode the country’s boom, an era when the wine and money flowed and the urge to splurge was celebrated, not denied.
“Because you don’t know any different, you just assume that that’s the norm,” Hayes said.
Downscaling his life has been rough. He gave up a spacious flat for a one-bedroom apartment. Going to the gym became an unjustifiable luxury. He found a part-time job as a sales assistant to help pay for his studies.
“It’s a strange scenario for someone of my age group, where you assume that your career is going to be on the upswing for the foreseeable future, and suddenly you’re out of a job and the prospects of getting a job with another firm doing the same thing [are] non-existent,” he said. “What do you do? Do you sit on your hands for the next five years?”
What some of his peers have done is seek psychological help, not just career guidance.
At the City Psychology Group, a practice with a heavy caseload from London’s financial district, business has shot up, psychologist Michael Sinclair said. Many of the new patients are young people stressed out by the unstable times.
“It comes as a bigger shock to them. There’s a false sense of security because they’ve been spoiled by the economy in recent years,” Sinclair said. “They feel invincible in the beginning -- they’re very sought after, they can get a tremendous amount of inquiries for their services, they’re constantly hounded by headhunters. . . .
“But now they’re starting to panic a bit,” he said. “What they’re finding in reality now is that the phones aren’t ringing and it’s difficult to find a job.”
For older workers, the economic pinch may be unpleasant, but they have weathered such storms before. Especially for Britons older than 60, who grew up experiencing the privations of the postwar period, the upper lip remains stiff, even if the lower back now is also.
They remember the long (and orderly, since they were British) queues for staples such as sugar, butter and eggs, all tightly rationed. Envelopes and paper were reused until they nearly fell apart. Soap, clothes and fuel were in short supply. A few desperate homemakers did battle with “snoek,” a cheap imported fish that the government promoted but that turned out to be too dry and bland even for British cooking.
“We didn’t waste anything. Somebody said to me one day, ‘What did you do with leftover food?’ I don’t remember any,” recalled 78-year-old Doreen Cunnington.
For Britons such as Cunnington, the easy credit and spending that helped spawn today’s financial crisis are matters of bafflement. In their youth, thriftiness was second nature; buying things one couldn’t afford was preposterous.
The moans of some younger people nowadays over having to forgo holidays in Majorca or nights out at the club sound suspiciously to the older generation like the complaints of the coddled -- hard times for the soft.
“It’s an entirely fair point,” said David Kynaston, author of “Austerity Britain,” an acclaimed portrait of the nation in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. “In the immediate postwar period, there was very little to go around, in terms of food and materials. It was absolutely ‘make do and mend’ -- that was the motto. We’re nowhere near there yet.”
But, he noted, the downturn presents one scarier aspect: the rise in joblessness. After World War II, Britain boasted nearly full employment. People had some money in their pockets, if little to spend it on.
Now, department stores brim with goods but have trouble moving them because many consumers have been laid off and wallets are thinning.
“It’s one thing to have to rein in expenditure and be a bit more frugal, but it’s another threat or concern of a quite different order to be unemployed,” Kynaston said.
Jessica Butler, 26, who lives in the seaside town of Brighton, enjoyed her well-paid public relations job until her contract was not renewed last month. As with so many others, the swiftness of her reversal of fortune caught Butler by surprise, leaving her to rue the extravagant summer holiday she’d taken in Turkey and the armload of clothes she’d bought.
Down but not out, she knew where to go for help.
“I’m turning to people like my parents and my grandparents for advice, because they’ve lived through it before,” Butler said. “My grandmother said, ‘Get a job -- just get any job that’s kind of a safe job.’ ”
Two weeks ago, Butler attended a teacher-recruitment session in London, buoyed by how much she enjoyed a temporary teaching gig in Japan a few years back and by another simple fact: There will always be a need for teachers.
“You’re paying for stability,” she said, acknowledging the lower salary she is likely to receive as a teacher compared with what she earned in PR.
She plans to spend the next several months doing temp work to save up for her teacher training. After the recent turn of events in Britain and the rest of the world, she is taking nothing for granted.
“I’m worried about what will happen. I’m worried about what kind of job I’ll be able to get,” Butler said.
But, she added, with a trace of that old-fashioned British stoicism, “I’m trying to use it as a positive experience.”
Janet Stobart of The Times’ London Bureau contributed to this report.