Why don’t the Middle Class do Forward Planning?

I know it’s pumped up for journalistic effect, but this lady writing in the Daily Mail bemoaning her impecunious Christmas tickled me as yet another example of the so called middle class’s lack of clue.

Charlotte Metcalf can't afford Christmas this year

Charlotte Metcalf can't afford Christmas this year

Charlotte’s reasonably attractive, working as a television producer, previously on a decent screw of at least £62,000. If her £1200 weekly salary was net then it’s a darn sight more than that.

Now unlike some of the precious SAHMs writing for the Guardian, our Charlotte is in her early fifties, and therefore has some experience of life :) And her story seems to be a breathtaking litany of failure to look around her and take stock.

She works in TV. Now when I worked as a grunt studio engineer in Television Centre a couple of decades ago, even I noticed something. Production was a young person’s game. You only had to look around the production gallery to see that most of the faces were in their twenties and thirties, and even those in the gallery were among the youthful and prettier specimens of the human race – both the guys and the girls. People in the gallery don’t appear on screen, it’s where production hung out directing the talent and switching the cameras and barking out the instructions to the talent and camera crew on the studio floor. Engineering was, by contrast, the domain of the, ahem, experienced, and the, let’s face it, more ugly members of staff, who were also predominantly male.

I was obviously not the only person to observe this, and there’s been a hoo-hah about it. Yes, you can rail about it all you want, though I wonder what part of television people don’t understand. The human race isn’t noted for getting more beautiful as it gets older, and sheer self-preservation would seem to make it a good idea to bear this in mind. Freelancers’ incomes are also notoriously variable. So what does Charlotte do? Let’s take a look.

She lives day-to day. Loads of wonga coming in? Splash with the £45 jars of face cream as gifts. Says much for her warm and perhaps over-materialistic heart, less for her active use of some of those five decades of life in learning that a freelance income has an ebb and flow… This is against the backdrop of a career in a field that appears to favour youth over experience, and in a creative field to boot, where it is notable that having kids sometimes takes away from the single-minded zeal that is sometimes confused with brilliance. All that adds up to past performance may not be a guide to future results, and that it might be wise to take that into account in one’s planning.

She and her significant other buy four houses, two pads in London and two in the country, one as an ‘investment’. Okay, so if you get together with a partner after 40 you may well end up with two houses.

Colour me naive, but before you go as a couple to buy another two abodes, maybe you should, y’know, get round to selling one of the existing ones? If you can’t sell a London pad for the price you’d like, maybe that is telling you something about the property market that you should listen to before you go long on property again? Particularly in a part of the country that doesn’t have rich Russian oligarchs, financial whizz-kids and tax-evading Greek shipping tycoons pumping London prices up ?

So what is the nature of the financial drought she is experiencing? We’re not talking slumming it on JSA with the unemployed. She’s down to £500 a week,  which my trusty calculator is telling me is about £26000 a year, so still appreciably above the average national income. So what is she and her circle of ‘middle class’ friends doing about their straitened circumstances? Obviously not getting a clue, by these choice quotes:

Many of my friends are in quiet despair. One girlfriend told me that she’d planned to spend only £50 on her 15-year-old daughter and yet the same daughter is now asking for an iPad, which can cost more than eight times that.

FFS, this daughter is 15. In three years she will be considered a fully grown adult. Isn’t it time to introduce her to the little known fact that you can’t always have what you want in this world? I’d quite like my own private island, yacht and helicopter, thanks. But I know I won’t be getting that in this life, never mind this Christmas. Boo Hoo. It’s still possible to live a happy and meaningful life without an iPad, or an island, yacht and helicopter ;)

The lady who’s dragging this materialistic 15-year old up should perhaps ask herself what kind of values she is passing on to her daughter. Unlike the 1987-2006 period, her daughter is likely to be dealing with a world where decline, rather than growth, is likely to be the dominant theme of Western economies as perceived by most of the population. And she seems eminently ill-prepared for dealing with the world in which she will be scraping a living.

Just as I used to do as a ­little girl, my daughter has written a wish list to Santa and is confidently expecting him to wiggle down the chimney with a sack bulging with goodies ranging from a violin to Silly Bandz, the ubiquitous rubber bracelets all the rage among young girls.

She has been aglow with anticipation and her face lights up every time she hears the word ‘present’.

And the idea of having to disappoint her makes me feel sick to my stomach.

Charlotte, my dear woman, you should have started this process earlier, but now isn’t too late. Stop teaching your child that value is only measured in Stuff. She will chase an endless chimera of empty dreams and unfulfilled promises. But before you can do that, perhaps it is time that you searched in your own fifty-something year-old heart and asked yourself what your values and beliefs are. You made a pretty good start here. Time to take it to the next level – it wasn’t Stuff, but relationships that mattered to you. How about saving your child twenty of those empty years chasing the “having it all” dream then? You’re old enough to have realised that if you try and have it all you end up with having nothing. Pass it on ;)

I feel for you, Charlotte, because I have been some of where you’ve gone. It was only in 2009 that I was rudely awakened from the assumption that I would work until 60 in my current job and then retire on a reasonable pension. I was awakened. And looked around, and saw my company which had originally been an elite research facility was now a jobbing shop, more and more of the work was being outsourced to Indian subcontractors, and that basically the bell is tolling for me. I do know what a creeping lack of situational awareness does to you.

But I woke up, and smelled the bitter coffee. Then started doing something about it. That means starting saving and chopping costs. Stuff is just stuff. At your age, Charlotte, you will realise that it is the relationships and the people in your life that illuminate it, not the Stuff you have in the attic, or the expensive leather boots on your feet, or the fancy sofa. That’s the icing on the cake. The feature most important to you in your photograph is centre three-quarters right, and didn’t come from a store.

It is who is in your life, not what is in it, that matters, leastways it’s what matters for someone on your money. I can have sympathy for the people on Britain’s average household income. They may genuinely not be able to take any action to secure their future. But about 70% of households have less income than Charlotte’s, assuming her partner is bringing in about the same.

It’s time to do less of this

My mother always had a glossy, fat-berried holly wreath on our front door, but today something similar can cost well over £40, even if you try to track one down cheaply in a local market.

and time to take your child down to the local park or for a trip into the countryside and pick some holly from the hedgerows and make that darned wreath.

Don’t pick all of the berries because some strapped mistle thrush, fieldfare or redwing may miss them, but take some and you can have your very own fine wreath. If you hear the football rattle sound above, it’s a mistle thrush letting you know that he would rather appreciate if you left his winter food store alone, thanks very much :)

It's perfectly possible to make Christmas wreaths :)

It's perfectly possible to make Christmas wreaths or even buy them for less than £40

She might even see some birds, and it’ll keep her away from the shops and the TV and the incessant buy, buy, buy, you need this thneedmessage. Don’t be such a daft materialist, woman. You seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and it’s time to get a clue and look at where you’ve come from and where you’re going in life. If not for your own sake, then for the sake of your daughter!

Charlotte’s a microcosm of the middle classes, frightened like rabbits in headlights. Circumstances have changed. There’s less money about, and an awful lot of what we thought was money, such as housing equity, has been shown to be false. You need to do some forward planning, change what you’re doing and spending, and change it fast. It got through to my thick head a year and a half ago. There’s an economic shitstorm blowing into town, and you can bend with it or stand fast and be destroyed. Choose, but don’t be an ostrich!

Spot on.

Her writing is in bad taste. Try living on minimum wage, I bet it is impossible to get ahead. The boots on her feet no doubt cost her a pretty packet. £45.00 face creams? I feel ill. She’s just pissed off that she cant keep up with the jones’.

6 Dec 2010, 6:16pm
by Jeremy


What kind of reaction was she expecting when she wrote her article?

Did she really think that people would feel sorry for her?

Ghastly, isn’t it? I’d remind you though that when we have the debate about moving from oil to renewables, say, this is the ‘standard of living’ we’re mainly being asked to dial back in the West.

Not anything that matters, but a surfeit of ephemera and tat.

6 Dec 2010, 8:38pm
by Lemondy


Are you sure that Mail article is not a hoax? I know it is the Daily Mail, but still. It reads like flamebait. Or maybe trolling.

Oops… I meant to say “next have the debate” ;)

Also, I’m not saying we should dial back all ephemera and tat. But I genuinely believe we could take 10-20% out of household spending p.a. mainly by clamping down on the waste consumed and spewed out by the Charlottes and Clarksons of the world.

@Dreamer, yes, I’d feel a little bit sick if I’d been rushed £45 for face cream, it’s a different world out there!

@Lemondy, Jeremy – I wondered if it was a wind-up too, but it gave me a laugh, and Charlotte’s got form – she is at least setting up a consistent story over time, as seen here. She’s also spinning a good yarn – let’s face it this article wouldn’t be quite as good if she wrote ‘money’s a bit tight this Xmas because work’s dried up, so Deia can’t have as many things as she had last Christmas’. Her twitter feed at least tells the same story on 6/12/10, and a ticking off for all us heartless types – to wit
# I’m off to feed my daughter. To those who’ve offered compassion and understanding, thank you. 10:36 AM Dec 5th via web

# @fleetstreetfox Obviously you don’t have children otherwise you’d understand the extreme guilt and pressure a parent feels at Christmas. 10:34 AM Dec 5th via web

# @jearle I deeply misjudged the amount of bitterness, venom & schadenfreude in this country. I’m saddened by it. 10:33 AM Dec 5th via web in reply to jearle

# Yesterday’s article is not a ‘re-hash’ – the concerns of the August article are felt so much more acutely at Christmas. 10:25 AM Dec 5th via web

# @fleetstreetfox Christmas is foremost about children, and I thought it important to show economy affecting them & the guilt parents suffer 10:22 AM Dec 5th via web

# Also, my daughter is six years old. She does not want an ipad. The text clearly refers to a friend. 10:16 AM Dec 5th via web

# To clarify: I never claimed poverty. The article admits I’m middle class but we’ve experienced a huge loss in income.

so we should stop being so mean to her ;)

@Monevator, Scary, n’est ce pas? Her article about wanting children was coherent and heartfelt, if on the mawkish side, but it kind of goes out the window when she seems to forget that what matters doesn’t always come from a shop! And I’m with you, there should be a place for ephemera and tat. I’m all for £45 face cream – for people who can afford it. It’s when it becomes a symbol of who she is and what she’s worth that it all starts going wrong IMO.

She’s tapping into a tradition which panders to our liking to see the wealthy, but improvident, get some comeuppance. With the earlier article, I felt a little more warmly towards her, if only because she has lived through the reversal of fortune and is now exploiting it.

The later article, which prompted the blogpost, really was too whiny.

> I deeply misjudged the amount of bitterness, venom & schadenfreude in this country . . .

I doubt it and I bet the DM didn’t either. At bottom, the unspoken assumption of the DM article, like many others elsewhere, is that if you are middle class, but on middle income, you are poor; whereas if you are lower/working class and on middle income, you have all you could possibly want.

> She’s tapping into a tradition which panders to our liking to see the wealthy, but improvident, get some comeuppance.

It’s a fair cop! Though I’d challenge the notion of someone being wealthy unless they have independent means. If you need to work for a living, then you’re only a few paycheques away from penury. Some of what I’m trying to do here is fix that in my case, so it’s why it’s so galling to see Charlotte whining when she could do the same.

I don’t have kids, but if I had and felt about them the way Charlotte feels about Deia then I would make it my #1 priority to secure her/my future and hold fire on the three unneccessary houses, butler sinks and hyperexpensive face cream. Not having Silly Bandz pales into insignifiance compared to not having a roof over your head, and I’d have thought it would be obvious that one that you own outright beats four that you don’t. I don’t think they put anything funny into the London water, though I do wonder sometimes ;)

If you really want to get crazy, read the Globe and Mail business section on Saturdays when they do an Financial Facelift on married civil servants ( no kids ) bringing in a couple hundred grand a year and wondering how they’ll make ends meet in retirement etc. etc. We have this disease in Canada too !

I enjoyed these guys, :)

It didn’t take me that long to see their problem –

Liabilities

Line of credit $72,200, mortgage $24,300. Total $96,500.

vehicle lease payments $975 (for two vehicles); fuel $330; maintenance $85; cable, phone and Internet $225; food and restaurants $900; vacation $750; other $393; line of credit $1,000;

this for a couple w/o kids? I don’t get the concept of leasing vehicles – this is a depreciating asset, and as my Dad told me all those years ago if you can’t afford to buy a car cash and insure it fully comprehensive then you can’t afford to run a car…

How do people get this way? They’re spewing cash on thneeds on a grand scale. And they don’t have the excuse of youth – they’re old enough to have discovered it’s who is in your life and what you do that matters, not what things are in your life – certainly if you have to borrow money to do it…

4 Jan 2011, 10:01am
by Marco Polo


This woman, like so many others, does not seem to understand what “middle class” means. Perhaps she thinks it means being able to buy the kinds of things her parents bought her, if not better. She forgot the bit about hard work and particularly thrift. She obviously thinks a middle-class lifestyle grows on trees.
And where is her husband in all this? Why isn’t he setting her straight? Is it possibly because he’s as confused as she is? “Just do what everyone else does and it will all get better and better forever.”
They are typical of their generation, unfortunately.

Ha. And they say MY generation has no idea.

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