For fear of worrying

I come from a line of worriers. My mum is a worrier and my nan was a worrier. If worrying had ever been an Olympic sport, my nan would have been a gold medalist for sure. She one worried about men working out on the road and whether they had proper protective clothing for the terrible weather. I mean, some worries I can understand but that one was properly beyond my comprehension.

Worrying to me has always seemed pointless. It doesn’t solve anything or change anything. I have always subscribed to the Sunscreen philosophy:

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday

Instead, I plan. Rather than worry something might happen, I’ve instead been one to plan when something does happen. My immediate response to something is to work out what I’m going to do and what I’m going to do if that doesn’t work. I don’t just have a Plan B, I have a Plan C, D, E and F. My way of feeling in control of a situation I have little control over is to make sure that whatever happens, I know how to respond. So why worry?

I suppose I’ve grown to think that maybe people aren’t born to be worriers but rather, become worriers. The two biggest worriers I knew, my mum and nan, were both mums and I suppose I always ascribed the worrying to being a primary caregiver and that worrying that your safety-oblivious toddler might stick their finger in a plug socket turns into worrying that your child will fall off their bike and smash their teeth in which turns into worrying that your teenager will fail their exams and turn to a life of crime. By the point at which your kids finally leave home you’ve had 18 years of worrying practice and the prospect of not having anything to worry about becomes a worry so you create things to worry about.

So how is it that I find myself sat here, child-free, worrying?

I had a lovely weekend being visited by my mum and sister, but at one point over the course of the weekend noticed that my mum’s jeans looked a looser, something I hadn’t noticed when I’d been home recently. Now perhaps it might not be unexpected after my nan died at the end of December, but of course ignoring Occam’s Razor, I’ve been sent down a fear spiral that it’s linked to her cancer. A cancer we never got an all-clear for as such, more a move to what they called ‘survivorship’ and a lack of desire on my mum’s part for them to do any more poking around than they had to while she felt well. Her initial diagnosis was in Summer 2014 and after many months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy she defied probably all expectations to get well again. Of course, those sort of things never really disappear, right? Even if we’d had an all-clear, I’m sure part of all of us would be half waiting for something to rear its head again, the knowledge that against something with an unknown cause we are all King Canute.

What can I do about it? Very little really. Just worry, which is why it’s pointless. If it’s back, it’s back. I can only hope it isn’t. And worry. Being 150 miles from home means I have to trust what I’m told, if I’m told. Despite being worriers, my family aren’t an ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ kind of family, we worry to ourselves and try not to worry others until something is either solved or beyond repair. I thought after her first diagnosis that I’d found a new normal, where the fear doesn’t really go away but it gets pushed back behind either practicalities or later on, a new normal. This is new territory. There’s no medical diagnosis, no reality, just worry and bubblegum chewing.

 

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Privilege and the City

An article in the Guardian the other day drew attention to a hashtag on Twitter #mypathtolaw by which people were sharing their stories of entering the legal profession from a non-privileged background. The stories selected were just a few of those shared but generally came from the more disadvantaged end of the spectrum – an asylum seeker, a mother with two children and those with parents with real issues. Their  non-traditional routes into the profession were admirable. However it got me thinking about the more subtle issues that surround access to the City for someone who came from a ‘normal’ background.

Now, I don’t pretend to be the most disadvantaged person to have accessed the City. Class has always been a funny issue for me, I’m not really sure where I could be said to sit within our class system. I was born and primarily raised in a town in the East Midlands which had traditionally been a proud working class town, serving the local coal and textile industries. With the closure of the pits and the relocation of many of the factories out to areas of cheaper production, the town stagnated and has never recovered. As a family though, we never fit in a bracket. My dad died when I was young and his life insurance meant that my mum owned our house outright, as a result, she never had to work full-time to support us and so whilst we never had money to burn, we were comfortably enough off. My grandad (my hero and a sort of substitute father who sometimes accidentally refers to my sister and I as his kids) had grown up the son of a miner and had worked hard all his life, moving up through the ranks, far beyond what would have been expected of him. He loves to travel and always took us all on family holidays to far flung places. So I never really felt in any way disadvantaged. Not then anyway.

A friend and former colleague who grew up working class in a Northern town once asked me “What made you think you could do it?” when referring to my decision to pursue a higher education and a career in the City. She had never so much as thought about law or even university until a college teacher had encouraged her to consider it.

She fell into one category of the working class – those who believe they can’t do certain things. I fell into another category. Mine and my family’s lack of experience of professional careers like law or medicine or accountancy led us to think that nothing was out of reach as long as you worked hard enough and met the minimum criteria for admission. As a result, I believed that anything was possible.

If I’d have known at 16 what I know now, I’m pretty sure I would have changed my career plans and instead aimed lower. Perhaps it’s better I didn’t.

See, the problem is, disadvantage is more nuanced and insidious than it’s often portrayed. Because it doesn’t just apply to those who grew up in poverty or to those who were neglected or abused but to those of us who probably number in the millions – those who went to comprehensive schools and didn’t have professional parents or contacts. It manifests itself in a number of ways:

  • Access to the profession – applying for work experience or graduate schemes in the City means filling in various application forms with answers to questions about motivation for the profession and the particular employer. It also means demonstrating that you’re well-rounded, someone with interests, someone that won’t make their deskmate want to throw them out of a window after a few hours. It’s not enough to just meet (or even exceed) the minimum academic requirements because there are hundreds of people who will do that. Here’s what they don’t tell you though, it’s not enough to be a person with interests. Those interests have to be worth something. They have to be measurable. When asked about interests, it’s not enough to say you like reading or painting ceramic unicorns or horse-riding. Heaven forbid that you should do something for the pure enjoyment of doing it, instead you have to have accomplishments or derive transferable skills from your hobby. Two people on my trainee intake competed on their own horses in various competitions. Now compare that to someone who can just about scrape the money together for a lesson every two weeks. Which looks better on paper? But what does it come down to? Money. It’s the same with work history. I know (from having been involved with reviewing applications against our internal criteria) that applicants are given more points for relevant industry experience and for transferable skills. I worked every summer because I had to, I never felt I could ask my mum to subsidise my decision to go to university (although my mum is so supportive and would help me in any way she could, it would never have been fair to do so) and so I worked to give me a bit of extra cash to spread throughout the year. I signed up with a temp agency and did whatever they asked, I packed tights for one whole summer, pudding basins for another summer and even worked in a drinks factory supervising bottles on a conveyor belt. Ok, sure, if we were really pushing it then I could have said that the tedium was ideal preparation for life as a trainee, but in reality, the biggest benefit I derived from those jobs was the money. Now, compare that with people who could either afford to spend the summer volunteering to save turtles or who could do unpaid work experience in local firms. Which one looks better? But what’s behind it? Money and privilege. Those of us who aren’t rich are disadvantaged even before we get off the starting line.
  • Work experience – Work experience is a funny one. Employers want to see that applicants have really considered their choice of career and know what they’re getting themselves in for. How do you show that? Work experience. So, when applying for work experience it helps to have … work experience. Tell me how that one works out when you’re 19 and a full-time student! From an employer’s perspective, there is generally very little benefit of taking on a work experience student so it tends to happen in two circumstances: firstly, where the student can be there long enough to make themselves useful and secondly where the student is the son/daughter/niece/nephew of an important client or a close friend. Now in order to be there long enough to make yourself useful, you need to be able to afford to not work and still live – which requires, yes, money. And in order to be the relative of an important client or close friend you need to have parents with contacts or pending legal matters. I abused my mum’s contacts in the only way I could and scraped a week of work experience when I was at school thanks to my mum’s friend being a secretary at a local firm. One of my friends at university spent time shadowing his Aunt at one of the top City firms. Pretty impressive looking for his CV. I think a lot of places have now clamped down on informal work experience, mostly due to the introduction of the Bribery Act, but it won’t stop relatives getting in.
  • Money for internships – One of the ways in which the big law firms (and I assume accountancy firms etc) do better than other industries and smaller firms in terms of work experience is by offering paid work experience. They do give those offered places a few hundred pounds per week for living. When I did my vacation schemes over 10 years ago now it was a fairly standard £250 a week (in London). Now, those firms that advertise their pay seem to have increased it, albeit not by a huge amount, although I suspect that many of the firms that haven’t disclosed their pay don’t have anything great to shout about in terms of remuneration. At first blush and compared with many industries, such as journalism, that doesn’t look too bad. But let’s break it down a bit further. Taking a more generous £300 as the baseline and assuming that you would need to stay from Sunday and would go home Friday night, that’s five nights and five days to pay for – £60 total. For someone who isn’t at university in London and who doesn’t have parents, friends or relatives near to London who also have a spare room and don’t mind a temporary lodger, it’s going to mean finding accommodation. The cheapest accommodation I could find when doing mine was staying in University accommodation. LSE’s Rosebery Hall in Clerkenwell offers a night in a single bedroom with shared bathroom facilities and breakfast for about £40 a night. You aren’t getting much cheaper. Five nights therefore brings us to £200. Plus public transport at c.£5 a day is £25, so we’re now at £250. That’s just for staying in London and getting to work. If you also factor in that there will be the cost of the train to and from London and the need to buy food for lunch and dinner whilst in London (most of which won’t last long in a communal kitchen fridge in university halls), you can safely say that the cost of a week on work experience quickly outstrips the remuneration. Of course if you’re a student then there will also be the cost of buying a week’s worth of work clothes to factor in too and the opportunity cost of earning actual money over summer. Difficult for anyone without help from their parents or money behind them. Getting work experience in a firm that doesn’t pay anything will be even more financially prohibitive for those who aren’t well-off.
  • Talking the talk and walking the walk – Getting in is one thing, but then you have to fit in. Most places aren’t looking for the finished article, but they will be asking themselves whether they could put you in front of a client and work with you. Which means looking the part and also being able to be confident and join in. The thing is though, that whether we like it or not, our conversations at work tend to reflect our position (and salaries), in addition to conversations about the TV series we’ve been bingeing on Netflix we also have a healthy does of conversation about restaurants we’ve been to, new bars we’ve frequented and holidays we have planned. The other day we had a twenty minute conversation about cheese. So far, sounds egalitarian? Right? Well maybe. Although even I had to check myself the other week when I realised that I was holding my own in a 20 minute discussion on cheese, especially given that it was mild cheddar that was stocked in our fridge at home and filled our sandwiches when I was growing up. I can only imagine that if I’d been a part of that same conversation when I was 19 I’d have felt just as at sea as when I was 23 and clerking a trial and the (very posh) QC turned to me during a conversation and asked me “so, what different calvadoses have you tried?”. He was in no way trying to make me feel small or ignorant but the world he inhabited was so different from mine. It takes a lot for someone without any history of so much as working in an office to confidently fit in and the wider the social and economic gulf there is to cross, the more difficult it is to fit in.

So how do we fix it? I don’t have the answer to that but I do think that it has to be led by those of us who have have somehow forced our way in. We have to point out the subtle assumptions of privilege and get people who are recruiting to look beyond what looks good on paper and question the reality behind it. We need to start to distinguish between those candidates who are better and those who are just better off.

The fallacy of travel

To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice – Elizabeth Gilbert

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page

Just go.

Chances are if you’ve spent any time on Instagram or follow a certain category of people on Twitter then you will have seen any one of these ‘quotes’ set against a backdrop of the sea, a mountain or the open road, imploring you to pack up and get on the road.

Now quite apart from the fact that ‘travel’ seems to have been adopted by many as a synonym for a holiday, presumably because it sounds more exotic and glamorous than the idea of a sanitised trip to a five star Westernised hotel (probably the subject of another post entirely), these quotes have always troubled me as being symptomatic of a generational short-termist view.

We, as a generation, have grown up into a world in the aftermath of a worldwide economic crisis, where job prospects are more uncertain, lending criteria for properties are tight and the cost of our university educations continues to be a tax on our incomes for many years after graduating. Is it any real surprise then that our development into what most people would consider ‘proper’ grown-ups has been put into suspended animation? Unable to afford houses and children or any of the things our parents seemed to all possess by the age of 25, we seek out small pleasures, things to make the inexorable daily grind more bearable. That Friday mid-morning Pret coffee, a lipstick or, yes, an avocado toast brunch at the weekend. Because none of those things are ultimately going to jeopardise the ability to buy a house, unless you are actually having avocado toast topped with gold flakes and diamond dust for breakfast every day. Travel has become an extension of this, facilitated by airlines like Easyjet and Ryanair who offer flights to Europe for less money than a train ticket to Nottingham or Manchester.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Because who doesn’t enjoy a holiday? Drinking sangria at 11am is infinitely preferable to sitting at a desk going through spreadsheets and fighting with lever arch files. So of course, I can see why people extoll the virtues of travelling and sometimes temporary sabbaticals from work. The problem though is that we have to wake up and face reality sooner or later and the reality is the insecurity of our financial future.

I’m 31 now and I suppose I always had in my head that I would be living a swishy life by now. A swishy life where I lived in a fancy flat, could buy designer shoes and handbags on a whim and dine out in fancy restaurants. The reality is that I live in a one bed flat in Whitechapel with my boyfriend which has no outside space on a street which has recently started to function as a place for early morning drug purchases from drive-by dealers, my handbag is well over two years old but roomy enough for me to carry my life about with me and whilst we do enjoy eating out it’s generally not done in places with tablecloths.  Why? Because although my city salary could allow us the nicer things, I still hold out the hope that I will be able to own a house and so I make sure that I put away as much as I can afford to in savings each month. Of course I would love to be able to own a house so that I could paint walls whatever colour I want and so I could actually have furniture that I have chosen, rather than whatever the landlord decided to have, but the greater imperative is to be able to secure my future.

Sure, the lack of responsibility and greater flexibility that comes with renting is fine, and is definitely something to be grateful for whenever something needs fixing, but the problem is the roofs over our heads never become an asset. Again, fine. Until it comes to retirement. Not owning a house means needing to pay for rent as well as living expenses in retirement. This article suggests that in order to get an eventual pension of £20,000 a year, someone who starts saving at the age of 25 would need to put away £246 a month, net of tax. Our current annual rent is £17,220(!) and whilst I wouldn’t necessarily be living in London, a quick Rightmove check suggests that a two bed flat in Nottingham city centre would clock in at around £10,000 a year.

I still have the occasional panic that I’m not saving enough despite the fact that I have been paying into my pension for a number of years now (and make sure to increase my contributions by a percentage with each annual pay review), plus I am lucky enough to have my pension contribution matched up to 7% by my employer. But I do wonder how many of those who advocate travel at the expense of anything else have their own finances sorted or have contemplated how they are going to fund retirement. Now I’m not blind to the fact that many of the bloggers who are constantly jetting here there and everywhere are privileged. It’s not difficult to tell that those who are always brunching and lunching in the middle of the working week clearly have money behind them, either because they are being paid well enough from blogging, have family money behind them or a wealthy spouse. However, equally I know that many people who advocate a lifestyle that prioritises travel do not have those same advantages. The message that’s put out is the same and it’s a message which ignores the reality that most of us face – that we need to save for retirement and we need to be doing it now.

Maybe there need to be more inspirational pretty pastel-toned quotes posted on social media about building a pension pot, an acknowledgement by us that an online grid of photos might not show us living our ‘best lives’ 24/7 but that in forty years time when Instagram and social media in the sense we know now it is barely remembered, and when technology is being explained to us by our grandchildren, we’ll still be able to travel because we invested in our future.

The cult of travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Travel isn’t the only thing you buy that makes you richer, pension pots, ISAs and stocks and shares can also make you richer, but then that just doesn’t look as aspirational on an Instagram grid, does it?

A new discourse

I’ve read blogs for years. I remember being sat in my room in halls at university (back in 2004, before the world went to shit) and reading a number of blogs before they were ever really a ‘thing’. A time when blogs were places for people to write about their passions, to diarise their life or to collaborate with friends. Despite living in hoodies and t-shirts I lived a world of fashion and catwalks via I am fashion and Manolo’s Shoe Blog and dreamt of being as well-versed in music, life and culture as the girls of No Good For Me (now defunct but I still stop by Laura’s Strawberry Fields Whatever from time to time to revel in her voice and remember what blogging was when it was more about putting some of yourself out there than it was selling products and building a personal brand).

For a short time I even started my own stream of consciousness via Opendiary. Thankfully the pain of reliving my own aengstlich teenage musings (mostly over a boy who in no way was as into me as I was him) has been erased by the passage of time. The suggestion that “Allegedly, all content has been preserved.” via Wikipedia haunts me.

Gradually things changed though. Technology evolved. Digital cameras became better, the Facebook became Facebook and we all grew into a culture where sharing personal information on the internet wasn’t something we feared anymore. We tagged ourselves when we went somewhere new, unafraid of paedophiles, rapists and burglars, we started sharing our thoughts, useful or not, valid or not and slowly with the advent of Twitter we all came to have an audience beyond those people we knew from school or nights out at university. The people we spoke to on the internet were now friends, people we would meet and who would become part of our real lives. Stranger Danger made way for a generation of people who have sold at least an element of their privacy in the hope of following in the footsteps of early adopters who startedAs  writing and talking on screens – the Zoellas of the world who capitalised upon being pretty and relatable in order to make carve a new money from exploiting teenagers.

When I moved to London I discovered a blog which I derived a lot of inspiration from (What Katie Does) and perhaps naively I maybe believed that one day some of the things I did in London might have been of use or inspiration to someone else.

So, I started blogging. Or rather, I started imitating others. I gradually leant towards the style of blogs which were coming to the fore at the time which started to trend towards a very specific theme. Lots of glossy photos, elaborate meals out in restaurants with marble-topped tables, travels to luxury hotels and a voice which suggested a level of expertise towards every aspect of life. At first I was, like many I’m sure, led to believe that these were genuine insights into someone’s life. Why wouldn’t it be? People have always diarised their lives. But the further down the wormhole I fell, the more I realised that not only are the more unsavoury elements glossed over or cropped out, but that people were being paid to product place their own lives. The more that opportunities were given to bloggers, the more that bloggers started to glossify their own lives to attract those opportunities, papering over the reality with a layer of sticky-back marble plastic. The veneer of shine only occasionally broken when someone hinted at what was going on behind the scenes in a blog designed to make them seem more relatable, yet without actually giving away too much. Look, I’m just like you, I’m being wistful and pensive in my knickers and cashmere off-the-shoulder jumper. I feel. Life is hard.

A time away from blogging mostly caused by a need to focus on my job and writing my Masters dissertation meant that I fell out of the habit of writing and reading blogs. A return has been difficult, exacerbated perhaps by my own feelings of inadequacy and, for want of a better word, grief for a life I believed I’d have by now. The micron-thin gloss no longer appeals. Don’t we have more to give to the world? To a generation of girls who will need to be more resilient and more worldly-wise than we were?

I’m not suggesting that blogging is frivolous, but some of the unconscious messaging sits uneasily with me, especially from the privileged (probably a thought to be developed, particularly with regard to the culture of travelling which is prevalent amongst at least a lot of bloggers I follow).

I want to change my contribution. More and more over the past year I’ve found myself wanting to put my thoughts down in a way which gets them out of my head but which would have been incongruous with my photo-filled posts on my old blog. So here we are.