Despite a queue of experts welcoming the return of the good times things can never be the same, writes Alf Young
IN THE aftermath of the great crash of 2008, one plaintive refrain was frequently heard. When can we all get back to normal? But what was – what is – that cherished state of normality? The normal so many seemed to yearn for was for a world of steadily rising material wellbeing and plentiful, absorbing work.
A world where the job market more or less matches the qualifications gained at school, college and university. Where what you are paid year-on-year covers rising prices, with some reward on top to reflect your growing skills and experience.
Where your home and your savings will be worth modestly more next year than they were last. Where banks are boring but secure. A world where each generation can aspire to live a more comfortable, more fulfilled life than that of its forebears.
In short, a world of progressive but secure mass prosperity.
This summer, as the sun has shone, there have been plenty of signals that the worst for western economies might soon be over. Economic forecasters, large and small, who struggled to keep up when growth was collapsing are again in serial revision mode, vying with one another to predict where GDP’s rising trajectory might climb to next. Survey opinion is also strikingly more bullish.
The Halifax has just told us house prices are rising at their fastest rate since June 2010. The average price of a house across the UK, it claims, is now back at its highest level since September 2008, the month Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, marking the biggest financial collapse in US history.
Last month new car sales recorded their 18th successive monthly rise. Year-to-date sales, 1.39m in August, are back within 130,000 of the total sold at this point in 2007, before the great crash struck.
So is the old normal so many wished for in the wake of that crash now back within their grasp?
A couple of weeks back the Observer published an analysis of house price rises in various parts of London, the hottest of UK property hot spots. Since 2008, house prices in Herne Hill, south of Brixton, an area I know well from spending university summers there in the Sixties, are up an astonishing 53.8 per cent. As prime central London cools a little, outer suburbs, like Herne Hill, are fast becoming the new hotspots.
“It’s all about demand,” claimed the head of residential research at one of the UK’s top-end estate agents, dismissing talk of a fresh housing bubble in the making. I remember Andy Hornby, then chief executive of HBOS, telling me the exact same thing back in 2006, before reckless bricks and mortar euphoria brought the bank formed from the Halifax and Bank of Scotland near to oblivion.
If we are now getting back to normal, it may not be the normal so many seemed to yearn for. Apart from the makings of a new housing bubble, aided and abetted by the coalition’s Help to Buy scheme, we have Europe’s elite football clubs pouring even more millions into the transfer market, trying to buy the success that marginalised home-grown talent can no longer deliver. Outwith that elite, the broad swathe of the game, at club level, swings from financial turmoil to growing fan apathy.
It’s not just in terms of kicking a ball around a pitch that the normal we may get back to will have a distinctly them and us feel to it. Glasgow, the Office for National Statistics revealed this week, had the highest proportion of workless households anywhere in the UK in 2012, at 30.2 per cent or nearly one in three. Together with Liverpool, Glasgow has been in the top five workless areas in the UK for each of the nine years since such data was first collated. Those of us who have followed the city’s fortunes closely for longer than that know Glasgow has struggled with mass worklessness for much longer than that. I’ve lost count of the inquiries and initiatives launched to combat it. To little discernible effect.
Meanwhile the ONS has published other data from the 2011 Census showing one in ten people in Britain of pensionable age are still working or looking for work. In the 65-74 age group, the percentage still economically active (16 per cent ) has nearly doubled in just ten years. For those 75 and over, 158,000 were still economically active in 2011. Some will still be working because they want to. A much larger number are working or looking for work because, thanks to inadequate pension provision, they feel they have to.
Another new normal is taking shape at the other end of the age scale. Getting a first job that pays a living wage is an increasing challenge. It’s not just the emerging world of unpaid internships and zero hours contracts. It’s the casual humiliations heaped on applicants like 21-year-old Alan Bacon, freshly graduated with a degree in documentary film making in South Wales. Bacon prepared meticulously for a job at the Cardiff superstore of Currys, the consumer electronics retailer. He researched the company and its latest product lines. Aware he would be invited to talk briefly about his hobbies, this astronomy enthusiast took along some pictures he taken with his telescope. Instead he and nine other applicants were asked to dance, like The Office character David Brent, to rap music. When the values of the Big Brother house infest official recruitment processes in a leading retail chain, it’s time to say more than: “Sorry, one of our local management team screwed up”.
An awful lot of people have been through some very hard times since the great crash of 2008. Those of us with young adult offspring know, first hand, just how hard it has been for many of them to make their way in the world. If getting back to normal simply means a fresh dose of boom and bling – another incipient housing bubble, even more lavishly rewarded celebrity footballers and the like – it’s a betrayal of all their futures.
The deficit may be down. GDP may be up. But our collective indebtedness, at an individual, household, corporate and government level, remains stubbornly vast. We have already mortgaged their futures, as we struggle to redeem it. And were another American-led incursion into the Middle East, however honourable its intent in the face of unspeakable horrors in Syria, to go wrong, the blood that would be shed would be the blood of more of our young too. They deserve better.