1964 – unforgettable and life-changing. I am 11 years old and it is my first encounter with the power of social media. Some kid in my sleepy village – a bit older than me and who is at the grammar school in town – tells me that he’s seen my name on a noticeboard list. Apparently, I have passed my 11-plus and, even better, I will be in the top (Latin) stream. Sure enough, a few days later, the official letter arrives. Unwittingly, I had become yet another test case of how grammar schools could be an engine of social and economic mobility. Working-class kid makes good; and, on reflection, I have certainly lived that cliché.
Admittedly grammar school was a bit of a struggle in the first year; not just the academic stresses but the commuting, the uniform, the bullying, the authoritarianism. Yet it was not long before I got hooked by the pull of prize day, hearty renditions of Jerusalem and the school song, and all the other trappings of State-financed mimicry of the public school ethos. Luckily(?) I made a conscious decision to get my head down, win the prizes, pass the exams and subsequently glided into sixth form – in that era, regarded as an elite within an elite.
University was already beckoning. But it was the pull of a degree – the badge of honour du jour – that drove my ambition. In my early teens, I had ill-defined notions of a marketing career that had sparked my initial interest in A-level Economics. But then I spiced it up with French Literature, Politics (then called the British Constitution) and History.
Oxbridge applications followed. Getting rejected by Sidney Sussex – I was terribly ill-prepared academically and socially – dented my overblown, teenage self-esteem. But it was a setback, not a disaster, and the allure of Sussex University – new, brash, radical, sexy, rich, and as far as you could get from my parents and rural Lincolnshire – proved irresistible.
University: finding my feet
So, it is now 1971 and my Dad gives me and my stuff a lift to university. I am lauded as the first in my family to get into university. I felt special. Well, until it became clear that I was not the only bright spark in town and that my “stuff” was a junkyard embarrassment amongst the latest hi-fis, sports cars and other expensive accoutrements of the London/Home Counties crowd, then swelling the corridors of Falmer House.
Financially, university was tough. Admittedly, there were no fees to pay but I only got a small maintenance grant and my parents could not afford to make it up to the recommended amount. Definitely no binge drinking – a night out was playing darts in the pub and making a half-pint last a few hours. It’s all I could afford, despite being subsidised by my working girlfriend.
“Home” in my first year was a truly awful B&B: full of students, mice and a landlady who severely rationed access to hot water (as well as getting uppity about visiting girlfriends “flaunting themselves”). Getting work during the summer was a financial must: fruit picking, dry cleaning, sandbag filling, frozen food processing. Yes there were job “opportunities”, but they were typically hard manual labour. It was unpleasant, sometimes nasty, but it had to be done.
As with school, I began to find my feet after the first year and this is where politics came into view. I got involved in the local Militant Tendency movement – even then I sensed it was too radical for my taste – and did a bit of social volunteering. As one of my course research projects, I chose to do a survey of empty housing in Brighton that brought me into contact with local politicians and the press. It was the start of a long association with the Labour Party that was to last at least another decade. Again, I appreciated the benefits of luck but in the context of a social structure that, at the time, seemed far from lucky. As now, averages can be misleading and the huge disparity between the lucky few and unlucky majority seemed all too evident.
I graduated from Sussex in 1974 and, having decided long ago that I would not be returning to Lincolnshire, took a postgraduate offer from University College London (UCL) – after, of course, the obligatory summer job. I was already married and, with help of my (working) wife and a full maintenance grant, our finances became a little more comfortable. And, yes, I was still totally debt-free. We rented a two-room flat, at a subsidised student rate, in Fulham and life was comparatively exotic – occasional visits to the oh-so-cool Pizza Express in King’s Road, riding floats in the then small-scale Notting Hill Carnival and starlit parties in the old bomb sites of Covent Garden.
Looking back on my student life in the 1970s – it was exciting and privileged. But it was painfully obvious that my life was being led in a bubble. In the real world, Britain was in meltdown and I knew it. Power cuts, IRA bombs, uncontrolled inflation, nationwide strikes, even a whiff of revolution. Of course, it all ended horribly with Britain going cap-in-hand to the IMF only to be followed by the ultimate indignity: the country’s lurch into Thatcherism. I recall that not long after finishing school Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! was released. It is a film that presents a dystopian Britain emerging from, and ultimately succumbing to, the capitalist remnants of its colonial past. Disturbingly prescient, it still resonates and is a tale about “luck” in the sticky mix of principles, compromise and power. The young generation wants more luck? Just be careful what you wish for.
The pressure to work, financial as well as social, was still being keenly felt as I finished my UCL course. But the combination of an MSc Distinction and a Sussex First meant that it was not long before I exited my summer job at the Parsons Green building depot for a plum job as a research officer at the House of Commons Library. Still living the modest life but feeling lucky – and determined to keep that luck flowing in my direction.
Initially we stayed in Fulham but by 1976 had bought our first house (actually a small maisonette) in the more affordable Kingston. The purchase was aided by my wife’s parents who lent us a deposit. Yes, the Bank of Mum and Dad has a long history. Already our best friends had bought a house in the area; home ownership for couples in their twenties was entirely normal – almost expected. Yet despite the financial struggle we still had enough to enable my wife to leave work to study at Kingston Poly.
Since then over 30 years of full-time employment followed – as an academic, an adviser at HM Treasury and as a Chief Economist and consultant at a variety of City banks. Though I paid little attention at the time, my pension arrangements were top-notch – defined benefit/final salary schemes that, with hindsight, have proved enormously valuable.
Working in the City for 20 years at a senior level clearly had its financial perks – certainly not typical for my generation but, as an individual, luck played its part. And I was lucky enough, grounded by family life, not to follow several City contemporaries who blew it all with unsustainable lifestyles, alcohol and drugs. And, as a family, we were lucky enough that my wife could exercise the option to be a full-time Mum – a rare privilege that few could enjoy today. Undoubtedly the accumulated wealth (and mortgage debt repayments) in those years enabled more flexibility in the later stages of my career – including taking my children to and from school on many occasions!
Recently I have been teaching at American universities with study-abroad campuses in London. As a London property owner with no mortgage since the 1990s and in good health (thank you NHS) I have few concerns, and plenty of options, should I ever wish to take full retirement.
Reflecting on the past few decades, was I lucky? Definitely. But luck was not the only factor, and arguably, not the most important. And I am not convinced it was a lucky generation. There were few frills and fun when growing up. Cultural and travel opportunities were limited. Narrow-mindedness and prejudice was rife. There was enormous risk embedded in the 11-plus and university admission systems. Getting a degree was very special. If you made it, then fine. But a lot didn’t and it was all too easy to fall by the wayside.
A generational reckoning
Is the current generation unlucky? Undoubtedly there are enormous barriers in terms of job availability and housing costs. But there are more safety nets – the Bank of Mum and Dad has been recapitalised and backed by huge housing collateral; there is much wider access to higher education; a greater diversity of lifestyles; travel options; and much less pressured expectations about “doing the right thing”. Intergenerational inequity might be a taxable project but many families are already making significant transfers in their children’s favour. Of course, it could be so much better, but then when I look at the low participation of young people in the electoral process I can’t help thinking that they are missing a real chance to grasp the political agenda and to shape their own future. Disillusionment is a ripe environment for meaningful political involvement and action. I just hope that it’s the good guys and gals that fill that inviting vacuum.
Do I worry about Tom’s generation? It would be a strange parent that did not feel concern about their offspring. But I also see huge opportunities, more than I could ever have imagined at a similar stage of my life. Of course there are obstacles, disappointments, injustices. But the 1970s, riddled, in far greater excess than now, with risk, sexism, racism, violence, terrorism, and yes, Jimmy Savile! – would you really wish that on the kids?