Tuesday 11 April 2006

Getting precious

While monetary inflation may have been under pretty tight control for the last decade, the inflation in British people’s aspirations and expectations has continued unabated. In my own parasitic trade of PR, I always worked on the assumption that the client’s needs came first. I gave them honest advice – telling them what they wanted to hear would have rendered my service worse than useless – but if they wanted something practical, like a cup of tea or some urgent photocopying, I went and did it.

Now PR agencies are multi-layered specialists in delegation. Because if even your account management trainees come equipped with honours degrees in PR from Bridport University (formerly the West Dorset Institute of Further Education and Turnip Grading), do you seriously expect them to degrade themselves by nipping out and putting the kettle on?

Something remarkably similar seems to be happening in most other walks of life. In the NHS, when every nurse is a graduate, should it be any surprise that there isn’t a rush to perform the bottom-end tasks involving bedpans and wiping? Or taking a mop and bucket to the dirty corners of a ward that have been neglected by the cleaning contractors? Where the needs of the patient were once paramount, one gets the niggling feeling that the object of healthcare is increasingly to provide rewards, status and job satisfaction for its providers.

In the apparently sacred cause of social mobility, we’ve created a situation where everyone seems to pass exams (and most of them get As), thereby rendering the exams worthless. Where half the population go to something that at least calls itself a university, and emerge expecting a nice, cushy job behind a desk, ordering other people around.

To address this surplus of chiefs over Indians, we end up importing hundreds of thousands of immigrants who are prepared to do the things that we consider to be beneath our dignity, but which still need to be done. Nothing wrong with that, so long as we appreciate that it’s a never-ending spiral as the new arrivals assimilate our culture and realise in turn that they are far too important to be a cleaner or a barmaid.

I’m not a xenophobe, though I am enough of a sexist to think that importing lots of beautiful, blonde women from the former Communist bloc is actually a pretty neat idea. It adds to the gaiety of existence for all of us sad old men. But if this country as a whole is to be a happy place, we really need to get away from the idea that life is a ladder to be climbed.

The key facts that the young need to remember are that their time here is remarkably short, and needs to be enjoyed. If you can help others and leave the world a marginally better place than you found it, that will be all to the good. But don’t be conned into thinking that a degree and a glittering career are all that matters. No-one ever wasted their last breaths wishing they’d spent more time in the office.

If you want to be remembered with real affection, as opposed to the sort of contumely that is the lot of most of our former leaders, being a loving parent is probably the most important thing to which you can devote your time and energy. Good teachers and caring nurses also score highly. How many of us look back fondly on an inspirational chief executive?

Time is much more precious than money, so if you can trade lower earnings for more leisure, grab that chance. I did it myself two years ago, and can’t recommend it too highly. And when you’re wondering how to fill all that newly free time, remember the wise words of Philip Larkin: ‘What will survive of us is love’.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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