Three years ago we were in terrific shape. The housing market was booming, the public sector rapidly expanding, the financial industry taking the world by storm. If you weren't making money you probably didn't have a pulse; if you sounded a note of caution about the sustainability of our economic model you were an embarrassment to yourself and everyone else. In 2006, when I began writing my latest novel, that's how things were.
This gave me a dilemma. I needed an economic context for the story I wanted to write. The protagonist, the executive head chef at a large London hotel, is plotting a secret move to set up his own restaurant. He requires substantial financial backing. A new venture is always risky, but I wanted to heighten the tension by embedding the notion that economic circumstances were rather more shaky than they might seem. After all, in a downturn the restaurant trade is always immediately and badly hit.
My solution was to have the protagonist's father, a man who has spent his entire adult life working in a single Lancashire mill and whose horizons are therefore viewed by his son as somewhat limited, give voice to these concerns. When the son assures him that the economy is booming, he replies that 'the emperor's got no clothes on. The whole country's living on tick.'
The country, he argues, is living in a dream world and 'wants waking up.' Well, we have our eyes open now. And so do Americans and other Europeans and the Indians and the Chinese. So does everyone.
There was something illusory about the good times even as they rolled. The recession has shattered many of those illusions -- that bankers got rich as Croesus because they were worth it; that the housing bubble would never burst; that being in debt somehow made us better off. There is a grim sort of satisfaction to be had in recalling the fatuousness of some the claims that were being made until recently.
But with thousands losing their jobs and benefits each week, and others taking forced time off or pay cuts it seems scant compensation merely to be able to point out the previous era's bullshit. On a deeper level, though, the recession offers a valuable opportunity to examine other, more complex, illusions which we hold about our work and personal lives.
Never, for instance, have the commonly espoused 'values' of the workplace sounded more hollow. Every recruitment ad of the past decade has called for a 'good team player.' But when cost cutting and redundancies come around, how much does the 'team' count against individual self interest? In the modern office, with its supposedly flattened structures, the boss is everyone's mate, but when push comes to shove the interests of workers and management clearly do not always coincide. My ambitious fictitious chef is sophisticated enough to operate well in the contemporary workplace, seeming to engage in teamwork and cooperation whilst making no real commitments. He is disparaging of his father who was always 'caught as fast as a shuttle in a loom,' and has no idea how these games are played. And yet when he imagines in the future that he might take a son of his own into the kitchen, as his father took him to the mill, he is perturbed by what lessons he might teach him -- not about how to hold a knife, but how to conduct a life.
The sociologist, Richard Sennett, in his book The Corrosion of Character, argues that the values which today make for success in the workplace threaten the decay of personal character. 'Character is expressed by loyalty and mutual commitment, or through the pursuit of long-term goals,' he writes. 'How do we decide what is of lasting value in ourselves in a society which is impatient, which focuses on the immediate moment?'
The 'values' spouted by corporations are chimerical when the hard reality of recession bites. But if we are better able to see them for what they are, is this not also an opportunity to ask some fundamental questions? How, for instance, have the short term attitudes and superficial allegiances of the work place infected our attitudes to our family and community lives? Is it, in fact, possible to live out separate values in those arenas or must there come a time -- as happens for my chef protagonist -- when they become impossible to reconcile?
Another collective illusion with which we have lived for too long is that the increasingly commodified market in unskilled labour carries no human cost. We have all read stories about unscrupulous and exploitative employers who pay below the minimum wage, make deductions for imaginary expenses, house workers in unsanitary conditions, or even confiscate passports. Yet somehow the pressure for better regulated, better policed conditions for -- as they have largely been -- migrant workers has always been outweighed by the demand, for instance, for cheaper food at the supermarket. The recession may prompt us to look again at this situation. In the UK the head of a government agency which oversees casual labour reported last month that 'we are starting to see British people in the some of the places we go to, which we haven't seen before, a lot of people are having to take whatever work they can.' And a New York Times editorial earlier this year suggested that the pressures generated by the downturn potentially 'clears the way for laid-off Americans to pick lettuce, wash dishes and cars, and wait all morning outside Home Depot for a contractor to drive up.'
Although it is uncomfortable to think that we should be any less concerned about the welfare of migrant workers than native-born ones, let's not delude ourselves here as well. It is not until my protagonist finds himself, stripped of his own identity, working alongside Ukrainians and Byelorussians on a farm on the east coast of England that he confronts these harsh realities. And that too may be the story at a national level.
Gabriel, my chef, faces a number of personal crises which rob him of his illusions and force him to re-evaluate who he is, what he believes and what he wants. The recession, painful though much of it is, presents us with similar opportunities, to pause long enough to look beyond the most obvious illusions of the boom years and think if this is how we really want to live.