A friend of mine, a soul musician, recently commented in despair that his Facebook feed had descended into massive ideological conflict over the US election.
Most of you should be ashamed of yourselves. Both sides need to calm the f**k down. Whatever happened to humanity – to loving your fellow man? It seems as though we are miles from resolve and have forgotten – at the end of the day we bleed, breathe & hurt the same. Though I am extremely relieved at the outcome, I am also saddened at the careless way in which we treat each other. DO BETTER AMERICA!!
In the heat of ideological battle, there’s barely even a concern for anonymity any more. Public fora become bear pits. Faces often glower beside churlish remarks.
On Easyjet’s recent decision to allocate seating rather than allow the melée of old, a commenter satirically suggested: “It was better the old way. At least Brits then had to talk to one another”. Judging by some of the insects that crawl the internet world, it’s probably safer if we don’t.
One-Upmanship / One-Downmanship
The internet propagates an ‘I know best’ mentality, where one-upmanship is not just demonstrated but actively sought. Ironically, this is often achieved by lowering one’s position rather than inflating it.
Take the grim situation with personal finances. Returns on savings in the UK are plummeting by the day. Banks are still resisting any lending to small businesses. And the docking of child benefit from January adds to the cumulative suffering of the so-called ‘squeezed middle’. A cack-handed policy means that families with a household income of £100,000 could see child benefit left untouched, while those with a single earner earning over £50,000 will see their benefit reduced by 1% for every extra £100.
But it’s the controversial claim of ‘hardship’ that really riles people like little else. I’ve read several provocative accounts of people reportedly struggling on six-figure household incomes.
“Try living on OUR household income”, comes the infuriated public response, as commenters compete against each another in a desperate attempt to establish themselves as the most poverty-stricken, most unfortunate, most victimised and most insulted.
Often justifiably, it must be said. A freelance columnist complaining at the cost of childcare last week firstly had a grumble at the quality of staff in these institutions, and then, incredulously, at the need for elocution for her poor children who emerged from day-care using the word ‘toilet’.
But notwithstanding, there’s an ingrained and unforgiving sense of one-upmanship in the face of hardship. There’s a tendency to go too far, and such reporting encourages a momentum of aggression fostered by lazy assumptions and a narrowed vision of accomplishment.
Shame on those who’ve built themselves up to a position where they earn more! How can they possibly struggle? How dare they complain!? Those who earn more don’t work as hard. Allowing column space for households earning in excess of £100,000+ is asking for all of this. It’s the Mail’s coup de main.
However, closer to the bone, it’s clear that affordability is something that we overlook too quickly.
Helen Carroll’s piece on financial struggles visibly tried to differentiate itself from these preceding pieces. She’s far more considered and unassuming, though the prolonged emphasis on having “climbed the social ladder” overshadows the greater achievement of building from the ground up.
And her basic expenditure contains some boggling sums. The combined household income, one assumes, is between £70,000 and £80,000. With three children in a three-bedroomed house, the family’s monthly outgoings include £1,000 on groceries and £375 on utility bills. The latter is especially remarkable because the central heating, she says, is only used periodically for hour-long spells in the evenings.
- Groceries – £1,000
- Mortgage (Interest only) – £708
- Utilities / Telecoms – £375
- Loan Repayments – £300
- Council Tax – £208
- Insurances – £208
- Petrol – £150
- Kids’ Trips and Activities – £110
- School Dinners – £77
There’s undoubtedly room for tighter money-management here, and the Big Energy Saving Week (just gone) is designed to help people reduce their bills and find ways of becoming more energy efficient.
Context and Circumstance
But my response is not about the validity, but more the context. Ms Carroll’s piece reads in part like an apology to her husband, who supplements a full-time lectureship with supplementary evening and weekend work for two other institutions to bring in £50K gross.
“I don’t know anyone who works harder. He stays up until 1.30am most nights, leaves before 7am most days, and puts in more than 60 hours’ work every week,” she says.
It is easily forgotten that the extent of the economic hardship we currently find ourselves in could barely have been anticipated six years ago. Many had little choice but to buy into property at over-inflated prices and move to expensive regions without the crippling concerns of affordability that would later begin to dominate decision-making.
Now, we find that living and housing costs are rising while wages are stalling. Work is harder to come by, while job security is sketchy (causing Ms Carroll’s husband to switch to the other side of London). Transport costs are soaring (see our feature here). And the upper tax band is becoming tighter in real terms. Income over £35,000 is currently taxed at 40% – £2,400 more than last year.
Notwithstanding the article’s perplexing financial implications, the ‘squeezed middle’ is not a phantom concept; there is plenty to suggest that those on seemingly comfortable incomes could now face issues of affordability.
There are many with much lower incomes and greater difficulties; that’s not in question. One of the great facets of humanity is how we all face different circumstances with different degrees of tolerance and endurance. Thus, there cannot be right or wrong opinions, though the perceived difference between situations will always force provocation.
But despite what many heightened commentators tend to think, those coping admirably on the bottom of the rung are not the only ones to be facing difficulties.
“He’ll get 20 weeks holiday a year”, some commenter growled about Ms Carroll’s husband. This caught my attention because I know academia well enough to know how misleading and lazy an assumption this is. It’s an insult to his profession and his integrity as a father.
And what stunned me was that a furore over child benefit had little to say about the children. My lasting opinion is that it’s a damned shame another ill-conceived policy would see child benefit docked for a father’s earnings nudging a little higher when his work to keep them afloat barely allows him to see his children.
As I say – no strict right or wrong opinions as such – but ‘whatever happened to humanity?’ seems an apt question for the hour.