“You could see them all bitching by the bar, about the fine line between the rich and the poor…” Drinking in LA, Bran Van 3000
I am in one of those all-or-nothing job sectors where wages range from almost zero to six figures, and where some are on low incomes bolstered into the stratosphere by ‘good’ marriages. This is to the haves, from one of the have-nots…
This isn’t an attack on anybody. I think you’re wonderful, and I don’t hold your life and circumstances against you, any more than you should hold mine against me. I just want you to know and understand what it’s like to be here. The entire world is geared towards people like you or aspiring to be you. No-one who’s me wants to admit they’re me – including me mostly. So, just for a moment, I want you to see the other side of life.
I had another rude letter from the bank today. Over the last few years, my bank has basically gone from wolf-whistling “Ooh, you’re earning quite decently, have all these things” at me, to blowing a raspberry and exclaiming: “Haha, you’re broke!” I’ve never been like this. I am not a big spender. As a student, I panicked if I was so much as a fiver overdrawn. I thought taking four or five months to find my first proper job after university (pre-credit crunch) was a big deal. Now I’m in this position, it’s a bit like being sent to the headmistress for the first time, and bursting into tears as she looks at me askance and says: “You’ve never been in this much trouble before. Is everything OK at home?” (No, it isn’t).
I vividly remember a Human Geography lesson in year 9 when the teacher explained how some people hide poverty by spending a lot of money on one or two status goods. Say, they might have a TV but never go on holiday, or wear nice clothes, but not be able to afford to eat. Or they might keep wheeling out something that they saved up for years for, or bought when they could afford it but could no longer do so. I know all those tricks. Because they’re my life now: appearing well-off when I’m absolutely anything but. The luxuries I own, I bought when I was earning well, or got for Christmas, or from tax-rebate money, or a (modest) inheritance. Christmas and a summer birthday pretty much take care of my wardrobe and haircuts, and familial goodwill takes care of a lot else, including the current roof over my head. A charitable trust pays for my office space, and I sometimes work in libraries (I still have to pay to get there). Or sometimes, I’ll get paid to go to conferences and suchlike but often only travel expenses, not for working. I’m lucky to have the support I have, and I know that – but I think you can see my point: I shouldn’t need it by now.
I sometimes see you linking to restaurant menus where a three-course meal costs more than I’ve had in my current account for two or three years, and I wonder whether you know how expensive that is to most people? I see you chatting to friends who resemble Viz caricatures of media/City types and I wonder what someone as lovely as you sees in them. I see you complaining about flying economy on press trips to exotic locations and I wonder (despite my knowing rationally that no work trip is ever as fun as it sounds) have you thought that there are people who would love to do it and never will? Not just people on some distant estate but people actually in your own industry, reading and listening to you? And, since most of you are ten or more years older than me, are you aware that the generation/s below you can’t afford to do things you took for granted? Can you remember the position you were in at my age, almost 30, and compare it to the position I’m in now? How does that make you feel?
I just want you to be aware, to make you think. Because I genuinely don’t think a lot of people are or do, judging by the reaction of many media types in their late-30s and upwards to that BBC Class Calculator, who seemed surprised to learn of the existence of a huge amount of very educated twenty and early-thirtysomethings with no money. No-one is asking you to apologise, no-one’s asking you for all the answers: just some empathy. A moment of reflection that there are people in your own country and your own social circle who would kill to be you. That’s all.