Monday 21 March 2011

A Very Middle Class Recession

There is a very interesting article in today's (21st March 2011) Financial Times. It is about the so called 'squeezed middle' of the U.K. Specifically it uses the term 'Austerity Britain's ultimate losers'to describe middle class public sector workers in the north of England. It gives a case study of a Newcastle City Council worker who is having to re-apply for her current Policy job. Sadly I am very familiar with the situation of people like her. I am doing a regional job and daily meet people who are losing their job, having to re-apply for their job, having their job downgraded or who are simply worried and uncertain. Some local authorities have put all their staff on redundancy notice so that they can later decide who to actually make redundant. As you can imagine this will not be doing much for staff morale or indeed sonsumer confidence- more on that later. It is not just local authority jobs which are being lost.Regional bodies are going or shedding staff including most of the staff at Government Office North East (G.O.N.E.). Agencies are awash with highly skilled middle age public sector workers. There are few new private sector jobs which can mop up all these public sector employees. A public sector manager is going to be overqualified for a job at Starbucks.
Most of these workers will be people who have devoted their whole career to public service, some because it was the best use of their talents or seemed like a good career and many because they also care passionately about public service. Unfortunately their job worries are being compounded by a campaign in rags such as the Daily Mail to characterise such people as bureauocrats with 'non jobs'. This tactic- together with the campaign against 'gold plated' public sector pensions are part of a deliberate strategy by the coalition and thge right wing press to poison the general public against public sector workers and soften people up to prevent them resisting job cuts.
There is a particularly nasty element to it. In the early days of the colaition Norman Tebbit wrote a sinister piece in The Times (I think) in which he said that front line nurses and social workers who read The Express had nothing to fear. Rather it was The Guardian reading classes who should be afraid of the coming cuts. This is of course not altogether true. All parts of the public sector will face massive cuts in pay, stafffing and conditions. However, the present Government seems to reseve a particular scorn for the the white collar part of the public sector workforce. I am not a huge fan of The Guardian but I probably fit into the demographic that Tebbit wants to tackle- bleeeding heart middle class liberal types who are interested in social issues and who work in Government or not for profit. There is an element to this which is of a kind of class war of the right wing upper classes against the left wing middle classes.
If one was inclined towards conspiracy theories one might wonder whether these workers need to be eliminated because they represent an intellectual buffer zone between the front line and senior management and therefore could be a barrier to rampant privitisation. However, I think the real reason is proabably that the present Government are incredibly niaive and don't realise how difficult it is going to be to achieve the widescale reforms and transformation they want to bring about in the public sector without any kind of middle management and without many of the senior managers who are going.
There is a huge brain drain currently going on in the public sector with many experienced people leaving the workforce for good. Some are taking early retirement. I know of one council manager who is buying a newsagent and another who is buying a sandwich shop. Interestingly, I don't know any who are setting up businesses to supply the public sector.
In the north east the public sector crisis has major implications for the wider economy. In some North East towns public sector workers make up almost 50% of the workforce. People who think they may lose their jobs become very risk averse about big purchases such as a new car or recarpeting their house. When I work at home I get a new type of hawker round the doors- People from up-market kitchen showrooms, roofing contractors, you name it - selling door to door with special offers. They deserve points for trying to make sales but it also smacks of desperate times. In the north east much of the middle class is accounted for pubclic sector managers. As these people become worried about their finances it will spell bad news for the housing market and falling house prives will erode confidence even more.
The Thatcher Government devastated the working class communities of the north east. The coalition are hell bent on detroying the North East's middle class.

This is my first blog in about a year. I am going to write another soon about my experiences in the local Govt. sector over the past year. I promise it will be a lot more chearful than this one. I am going back to the higher education sector on 1st April and I am going to try to blog daily from then.

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