11 Oct 2016, 11:56am
personal finance rant reflections


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  • to live different you must do different

    The Ermine has been using some of that extra time you get in retirement to go travelling, after a jaunt round Salisbury Plain with the archaeologists working for  military 1 and then on to Dartmoor, when I met up with Andy from liberate.life to talk about the modern workplace. Andy is a driven and hardworking chap so he’s already written the post by the time I get round to writing this, so I will stick with this picture of Haytor on Dartmoor, which is near his neck of the woods.

    a fine rock and worthy fo a moderate scramble to get up to

    a fine rock and worthy of a moderate scramble to get up to

    where we had lunch. Lots of stuff discussed, because he has a different take on the world of work.Very different to mine, particularly how to approach it.

    Occasionally a younger fellow has managed to use their initiative to find out how to contact the Ermine by email, along the general lines of all that work philosophy’s all very well, but how does it apply to me? And it’s saddened me that I’ve never had much of an answer to that. My story is a tale that started in a different era, and while many of the tools of the trade are the same, many things are tougher now, while conversely some specific opportunities are much greater now. After that discussion, perhaps there is a way to mitigate some of the adverse changes, of which more in a future post.

    We humans are storytellers, but we often narrate the story of our lives in other people’s words

    Let’s face it, we call that culture – Romeo and Juliet stand proxy for infatuated lovers even after 400 years. Less inspiringly the Kardashians stand for sucess, and  Donald Trump for alpha maleness, froth and scum float to the top as well as the cream.

    All the world's a stage, and this is one of the 'alpha male' castings. I don't get it either.

    We aren’t fussy about where we get our stories – all the world’s a stage, and this is one of the ‘alpha male’ cast of characters. I don’t get it either, but he does it for a lot of people.

    We borrow from stories and weave the threads into the image of our ideal lives. The story of how work and life fit together comes from many places – it comes from how we saw people do that growing up 2. A lot of it comes from advertising, where clever people tell us stories to try and get us to spend money on things and services. Take a look at Ad Age 3‘s top 15 campaigns of the 21st century, and the way they talk:

    Some of these ad campaigns are here because they changed the way consumers thought about the world around them

    Their words turned into your stories… The lead quote was a corker

    “Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities.”

    Marshall McLuhan

    Your life has been designed, and not particularly by you. Most readers of PF blogs 4 are earning more than the median wage (~£27,000, FTE) – I hazard that this is the point where the fight switches from earning more to spending less, and the spending has a lot of the narrative written by people paid to make you spend more. Sometimes it’s good to see the extreme point to understand yourself – take a look at the phenomena of superyachts, which as PhD researcher Emma Spence has discovered, is basically all about consumerist willy waving writ large. You, dear reader, have to make do with with more house than you need and an iPhone. Nobody needed an iPhone 20 years ago, now everyone is walking around with £500 worth of easily pinched/broken hardware on their person…

    That is one tasteless ugly piece of kit, non? And this is the attractive side. Apparently something to do with Philippe Starck, he of the elegant lemon squeezer. Where’s a Viking longboat or Jonny Ive when you need ’em eh?

    What you consume is often the most egregious version of others writing the script, other parts of life have elements of this. I got to nearly 50 without realising that I actually had agency over how old I was when I retired. I hadn’t realised this was under my control, FFS – I took the age of 60, the normal retirement age at The Firm, and accepted that without bothering any brain cells with asking why this was so.

    Some of the things we can do are constrained by what other people do. The price of housing, for instance, given an endless supply of credit, will tend to find a level where the cost of servicing a loan can be managed by two people working full-time, because that’s what most people in that market are doing. Low interest rates and low inflation won’t help to pay off the loan over a working life, because it makes all the numbers bigger. For some odd reason we think low interest rates make houses more affordable. It just makes them dearer.

    Most people don’t get to financial independence under their own steam. To be different you have to do different.

    Many people’s idea of financial independence is getting the State pension, roughly when they are 67-70. They effectively outsource the job, although whether that gives a decent standard of living very much depends on whether they are paying rent and/or have other sources of non-work income on retirement. That’s the default setting, both in terms of time and in terms of money.

    There are two major areas you can do different to your peers. You can earn more, and you can spend less. The greatest win to be had is, of course, targeting both. Retirement Investing Today is an example of what you can do here. Unfortunately you immediately have a major problem when you want to swim against the tide, and that is that humans are social animals. If you are going to do different then spending less is going to make you look poor to your peer group. And most people just hate that feeling.

    Earning more is the obvious other way to go, then. You need to have the talent and the luck, but even if you have those, you tend to take a hit along the spending axis. This is because your work peer group becomes more spendy as they earn more. In practice the axes of spend less and earn more aren’t orthogonal and mutually independent. There’s probably no real way round it, in the accumulation phase you are likely to look on the poor side to your colleagues. I guess this is what seems to makes it easier for introverts to chase FI  – one of the few cases where this trait is an advantage.

    Not so easy after all. How about spend less? Fight consumerism by targeting the base of the fire.


    You’re changing the story there – in this case the story pumped out by the advertisers of what a good life looks like. After all, good ads changed the way consumers thought about the world around them. I presume this was in the direction of spending more and consuming more, because otherwise, what’s the point? I’m quite taken with the poetic description from Brandalism in this piece of agitprop 😉

    Advertising shits in your head – but, first, its torrential, golden flow stains your magazines, your phone, your computer, your newspapers and your streets. Advertising shits all over and dominates our culture. It is a visceral, powerful form of pollution that not only affects our common public and cultural spaces, but also our deeply private intimate spaces. Advertisers want your ‘brain time’ – to shit in your head without your knowledge.

    It’s why I run Adblock Plus and Ghostery, both set to 11 – kill ’em all. Destroying advertising as much as possible makes life simpler and more pleasant. It is a shame that at the inception of the Internet, we failed to craft a decent payment model, so advertising and the surveillance model became the original sin of the Internet, but there we go.

    I don’t have a beef with real people recommending real things they have trialled, it is the automated stuff like Google Ads that is the problem – anonymised mind-spam sold to the highest bidder. A while ago I went to a meeting in Leeds where I discovered how people think about blogvertising. A very few of you 5 will see I have an Amazon box on here – all of those are books I’ve read or things I’ve mentioned on here. I was running Google ads, but never saw them, because that’s what AdBlock Plus does for me 😉 When I realised I was running ads for Wonga and consolidating loans, because that’s what personal finance is about to most people I pulled it. Not because I thought any of my readers were going to be swayed to the dark side and toddle off to their local Money Shop to buy some overpriced money at extortionate rates, but because I didn’t want to be part of the problem.

    There are three non-spending areas that cause a lot of hurt for British consumers below 45

    Consumer spending causes a lot of trouble, because it’s a never-ending tactical battle fought one little piece at a time. But three strategic changes have caused a lot of damage to the personal finances of people starting out now. Let’s take a look at these

    University, and the apparent dearth on non-university alternatives

    When I started university in the late 1970s, fewer than 10% of school leavers entered university. It was much easier to fail exams in those days, because they were norm-referenced. It isn’t entirely clear to me what you have to do to fail exams now, because we have lost the cojones to tell some young people, and more specifically their parents, that they simply aren’t up to the mark academically.

    In itself that’s not so bad, but because so many more people go to university, the old system where the taxpayer fronted the cost in the hope of getting more tax revenue in the future from the higher earnings became unaffordable. Even if everything else were the same, it would cost five times higher proportionally 6 to take 50% of school leavers through university than 10% was in the 1970s.

    When you flood a market with five times the product, you also devalue it. When I started work, having a degree was a serviceable proxy to indicate I was in the upper 10% of academic ability, and for jobs that suit that sort of thing (engineering, science, research, for me) that was relevant. When nearly 50% of people go to university a degree tells you roughly they are of average brightness or above. Knowing someone is average or more is useful, but probably not something you’d pay £60k for over a working life.

    There appears to be no control of numbers going to university in the UK, it’s all about the money, which is a shocking abdication of political will IMO. Contrast this with the situation in Germany where numbers are controlled in some cases. Yes, it goes against the free-market-money-is-all mantra, but it’s also a damn sight cheaper to go to university in Germany. In fact it seems a damn sight cheaper to go to university just about anywhere in the EU other than England and Wales. Shame this option is probably only good for the next couple of years for British wannabe graduates, who are SOL afterwards 7 🙁

    The fundamental problem with university in the UK is the product is getting astronomically expensive at the same time as it is being devalued. University has become an unaffordable luxury. Unlike Germany Britain is also not particularly improving the non-university options, much noise is made of apprenticeships but it is often simply a mask for cheap unskilled labour. The trends in the world of work are running away from unskilled labour. An apprenticeship where the apprentice learns something about a craft is good, but is only good if the craft is likely to remain one done by people in the future at decent rates of pay.


    In Britain we used to build social housing but we sold that off to the then council tenants to buy votes. I seem to recall Thatcher expressly forbade allowing councils to use right-to-buy revenues to build more housing. As a result less than a fifth of social housing flogged off cheaply is replaced, I am surprised it’s that high. We used to have credit controls up until 1980-ish but removed those, because the free market always delivers the correct solution, even when it is banks incentivised to lend money to people who have no capital but need to buy an essential good. So we have high house prices and richer banks. It’s not just the banks, anybody with capital, from banks to people who buy up houses and then rent them out to people without any capital at exorbitant rates and no real duty of care to make the joint habitable. So we now have high house prices, richer banks and richer BTL investors. Well, at least somebody is winning I suppose…

    As an example of just how out of touch the government is on this, Gavin Barwell, the Housing Minister, no less, delivers himself of the Marie Antoinette-esque recommendation that people should leave their housing equity to their grandchildren, FFS. That is so deeply fucked up it’s not even wrong. We’ve seen this movie before. When you go and see National Trust stately homes

    concentrating inherited wealth led us to stately homes and a tiny part of the population owning nearly everything

    concentrating inherited wealth led us to stately homes and a tiny part of the population owning nearly everything

    you are looking at what happens in a world where inherited wealth accumulates across the generations, combined with a world where the return on labour was very poor. It took a couple of world wars and a lot of technological progress to break that up. Even then, the aristocracy, sharp blighters that they are, simply requested an inheritance tax exemption on agricultural land, got it, and this is why most of Britain by area  is still in the hands of a few hundred family estates who were gifted the land by William the Conk more than a thousand years ago. Obviously they don’t drive the tractors themselves – they get contract and tenant farmers to do the dirty work, kill our birds, pollute the drinking water, flood our towns and cities and then claim subsidies for the activity for shits and giggles  because they can.

    What should happen IMO is a total escheat of all property on death 8. Those damn grandchildren didn’t work for it, and if they aren’t to get their throats cut by the massed and desperate hordes of people who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths in the accommodation dystopia being created, then the current trajectory of ever-increasing housing costs needs to be shifted. I was able to save enough money through my working life to buy a house from a standing start. That’s getting harder and harder to do as more and more funny money chases property, but no, Gavin and George Osborne, more inherited housing wealth is part of the problem, not the answer. Unless you are actually going to go out and kill all the poor people who are dirtying up your nice world.

    The world of work is changing

    The accelerating trends in automation and globalisation, are part of a general shift of power from labour to capital that has been going on for the last 20 years. In a double whammy for poorer First World residents, globalisation is amplifying the shift of low-skilled jobs that can be moved to cheaper labour forces. While this is undoubtedly good for business and capital, if you were part of that unskilled labour force in the UK you get so see your jobs go. The last 20 years have seen a tremendous fall in poverty and inequality, but that’s worldwide. Let’s hear it from Tim Worstall – right-wing nutjob and apologist for unfettered free-marketology sans compassion for poor saps less clever than he is, riffing off this paper written by Ayn Rand Chari and Penlan. Take it away, Tim:

    According to a World Bank Study, in the three decades between 1981 and 2010, the rate of extreme poverty in the developing world (subsisting on less than $1.25 per day) has gone down from more than one out of every two citizens to roughly one out of every five, all while the population of the developing world increased by 59 percent.8 This reduction in extreme poverty represents the single greatest decrease in material human deprivation in history.

    That’s a pretty good outcome from an economic policy and it’s why I support the process of globalization quite as much as I do. Absolute poverty, that peasant destitution, is something I regard as an abhorrence. Killing it off through economic growth I thus regard as not just desirable but a moral duty.

    OK, but there’s a problem with this, as the paper points out. For some policies will be good for one set of poor people, those absolutely poor out in the Great Big World, yet bad for another set of the poor, those who are the poor in the already rich societies. And this globalization and free trade mixture is exactly one of those policies that has this effect. Rising inequality in the rich nations is a logical result of adding those couple of billion low wage workers to the global economy. We could predict it would happen, theory tells us it should happen and it has happened: no one should be surprised about that.

    I’ve made clear around here a number of times that I both understand this point and also think that it’s a perfectly fair price to be paying. Yes, of course, that’s easy enough for me to say as I’ve not got to pay it. […] But that the relatively lowly paid in the rich countries stand still for a bit while the absolutely poor of the world climb the economic ladder to the joys of three squares a day, yes, I think that a price well worth us all paying.

    Delightfully technocratic, Tim, and for all I know you’re right, it is indeed tough to fault the logic from a strictly rational/intellectual POV, the reason I can be sanguine about it is that while not as rich as Tim I am still on the right side of that inequality divide. You’re a clever cookie, Tim, the the sleight of hand is that price well worth us all paying. Seems a bit rough that it is just the poor who get to pay the price, Tim, might have been a bit more helpful if you’d like to chip in and  help out. As it is you only have to weep crocodile tears and wring your hands, because that’s conveniently precluded by the Ayn Randian logic. The UK poor aren’t standing still, they are going backwards – unskilled jobs are shit and getting shittier, for the simple reason that the value of unskilled work is falling. The second part of Tim’s article is a load of rationalising about why you can’t do ‘owt about that because if you redistribute towards your locally poor you shaft the globally poor- to wit

    It’s entirely possible that we could have some policy or other that makes our own, rich world , poor better off. But which at the same time makes the absolutely poor of the world worse off. And if we did have such a policy, and we were also concerned about the poor, then we shouldn’t have that policy. Even though it benefits our poor they’re not in fact all of the poor. And given where our poor are in the global income distribution then they’re almost certainly not the poor that we should be worrying about.

    He uses the specific examples of agricultural subsidies 9 in the US to show how this works, and the EU has its own version of this. 10 I can’t fault his logic, but I would pay money to watch him try and develop that line of thinking with some of the people in the UK who have been at the losing end on globalisation. A government isn’t voted in by the people of the world, but by the people of a specific area. The Brexit vote was an example of regional pushback. Trump is another. Poor people find it deeply offensive when rich people tell them their standard of living has to fall to help some bunch of poorer people elsewhere while the rich swan off and don’t take any hit themselves.

    This process of requiring more skills is drifting up towards what used to be known as middle class jobs, because it’s now automation that is coming for some of those jobs. When I considered learning something about accounting to become more competent and doing the books for a business, I came to the conclusion, supported widely in the comments, that it wouldn’t make sense to invest in training for something that is likely to disappear or be outsourceable. This is a microcosm of the wider ‘should I invest in university problem’, which is part of the topic of Poppy Noor’s little rant here, though I do think she needs a dose of  ‘if you want to live free, your utopia is irrelevant‘ to get her to be effective about changing her lot in life rather than be right about how it isn’t right.

    Being right about how things aren’t right makes for a deep and satisfying rant, but the chat with Andy on Haytor left me wondering how a 25 year younger Ermine would tackle the changed world. It would need to be different from the way that served me okay.



    1. It’s seriously unwise to go for a looky-loo on that bit of Salisbury Plain without the military’s help 😉
    2. which of course puts it about 30 years behind the times we actually try to live it in
    3. I am tickled that they don’t like people using ad-blockers. Reconnaissance behind enemy lines is always a tough game
    4. This is a total guess, but you’re not going to be worrying about financial independence and retiring early much lower down the scale. You’ll be worrying about making next month’s rent
    5. those that aren’t running adblockers, and if not, why not?
    6. I am making the handwaving assumption that the increase in population is roughly tracked by the increase in taxpayers
    7. It wasn’t me wot did it despite being an old git, I was a Remainer
    8. I’d generalise that further but the great thing about land is you can’t hide it in overseas tax havens
    9. Agricultural subsides subsidise the rich landowners in the UK, I don’t know enough about the US situation to know if it’s different, though I’d say CAFOs, and subsidised high-fructose corn syrup are indicative of a different sort of pathology than consumers sponsoring the aristocracy
    10. One of the tragedies of Brexit is that a big potential win from it, canning agricultural subsides, was nixed early on
    13 Sep 2016, 9:24pm
    economy reflections


  • October 2016
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  • The Smartphone as a tool of oppression in the Gig Economy

    Smartphones connect us with the virtual world, but also bind us. 1

    A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these

    A digital nomad in her natural environment (Bali I think). Smartphones work just fine for people like these, they never had it so good

    The smartphone epitomises what has changed about the world of work, and a whole bunch of articles this last week have reminded me that it has changed, in my view adversely for many workers. I am beginning to understand why so many people are pissed off at the lower end of the employment spectrum. At the middle and top end, they are having a blast – the smartphone is emancipation of the four hour work week, the contractor, the digital nomad and all that. All these dudes are whooping it up and going “wassup, you never had it so good?”. Tim Ferris’s The 4 Hour Work Week is the bible for this crowd. . Back in the real world, it’s the lumpenproletariat taking the shaft, along with a lot of disrespect through what has become a tool of oppression.

    How low end work used to be in the 1960s to 1980s

    The world of work in the analogue world had a lot of hazard and unpleasantness in it, there was overt racism and discrimination is many areas, and humans did a lot of physical work which was terrible for their health. Some of the improvements in longevity and the narrowing of the expected lifespan between men and women of recent years has been due to running some of these jobs out of town. My Dad worked with glass bottling machinery, he was already losing his hearing by my age and was stone deaf by the time he died. There’s a whole gratuitous rant in this post about for God’s sake don’t trash your hearing with loud sounds and use hearing protection with power tools when you’re over 40 inspired by his experience. Blue collar work was a bastard and took it out of you.

    Arthur Scargil, 19 years a miner and rabble rouser deploying flying pickets against Edward heath. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984

    Arthur Scargill, 19 years a miner and then rabble rouser successfully deploying thugs otherwise known as flying pickets to switch off the lights under Edward Heath’s 1970s administration. Met his match with Thatcher in 1984.

    As I child I used to listen to the revolting turkey Arthur Scargill harp on on the radio about how mining was a tough and dangerous job demands oodles of pay, and yet resisting like hell when Thatcher offered 2 to stop future generations going down t’pit by switching power generation away from coal to natural gas. WTF was going on there? Scargill called a strike to guarantee that uneconomic pits should not be closed, presumably a social service to keep dangerous employment open despite it not making money. Coal mining was typical of a lot of blue collar work in the past – dirty, dangerous but compared to low-end unskilled work now, paid better to compensate for that. This Is Money have an interesting contrast of working conditions between 1952 and 2012. In pretty much all aspects conditions in 1952 were worse. But there was a place in the economy for unskilled labour, and people knew where they stood. On the downside, opportunities were dreadfully limited for women and for the brighter poor.

    Many blue collar jobs had a decent level of community spirit among the workforce, which manifested in the strong union presence. These jobs were stable across years, even a working lifetime, largely because work practices didn’t change much. In some manual jobs skill and experience built up over decades. So although there was a lot wrong with many jobs, there were some things right. In particular the sense of community and the dignity in work. Some employers provided pensions which were defined – my Dad was a fitter but benefited from one of these.

    A key part of  most jobs in those days was that they were clearly defined into working time and non-working time. When the factory whistle blew and the workforce downed tools they were off the clock and work was out of mind. This was because communications were limited – phones were connected to places not people. I personally feel the smearing of work into non-work has been one of the most pernicious things to have changed over the last 20 years. As John Philpott of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said in 2012

    The world of work has fundamentally changed, but it is not a change which is making many of us happy, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

    He blamed the invention of new technology, from laptops to the BlackBerry 3  and the iPhone, which is ‘imposing entirely new pressures on staff.’

    While it has liberated people to work from home or from outside the office, it has resulted in ‘information overload, created pressure for an instant response, enabled more sophisticated monitoring and surveillance of employees, and blurred the boundaries between work and non-work time.’

    It is possible that I have a limiting belief because my idea of the place of work and leisure was formed in the previous generation – Stephanie Buck (H/T Monevator) puts it elegantly:

    Leisure came to define a person’s identity during this time, in many cases superseding career identity. Having a hobby was not only accessible, it was a status symbol. It meant one had time to relax, a privilege previously enjoyed only by the very wealthy.

    This is probably one of the reasons why I just don’t miss working at all. I have been able to surrender a career identity because it had less meaning to me. That is the upside of my antediluvian understanding of work. I was also fortunate enough to have spent most of the time working in a reasonably congenial environment with enough challenge to be interesting. I don’t recognise most of my job in Buck’s later observation

    Instead of viewing work as the inevitable grind and hobbies as core to one’s identity, as in the post-war era, today’s professionals strive to equate career with leisure.

    I started work in 1982, in the transition period between that world and the one we have now, and benefited initially from the improved flexibility but the old community structures of the workplace.

    That was then – better communications is changing the workplace massively

    Communications have improved over the last 20 years – the advent of the Internet and WWW came in tandem with mobile communications where you now call a person rather than a place you expect them to be, and of course you have more modes of communication.

    Strange things have happened as a result. In the early days we expected better comms would mean people to be able to do remote working from anywhere, even on the beach. See digital nomad, above – just imagine all of us doing that. At school I was really told that the future would have lots for leisure time and  we’d be typically working one day a week. How did that turn out for y’all?

    In fact what has happened is that high-paying jobs have concentrated in London 4 which sucks in people and money, creating a lot of misery in the middle range of ability because they are all in competition with each other for finite geographical space and skyrocketing housing costs. It really wasn’t meant to turn out like this, but it seems the network effect, combined with the increasing instability of jobs means workers need to concentrate geographically, both to interact more with each other but also to have a better chance of replacing one job with another when they get the chop without having to move or take huge commutes.

    We didn’t realise it at the time, but the limitations on communications and physical transport of goods and services was a great equaliser. As a thought experiment, say we still made chairs by hand but otherwise had all the information comms and containerisation and Deliveroos we have now. When a horse limited a day’s range to 20 miles, every market town could support, say, a skilled carpenter. In a globalised and high transport world, you’d only need as many carpenters as you need to make the amount of wooden stuff needed. Put them all in one place, call it Heartwood Valley and transport the goods for next to nothing. The quality of the carpentry will probably be a little be higher, and the price probably cheaper, but there will be far fewer carpenters employed worldwide. House prices in Heartwood Valley will probably rise, both because the star carpenters will be making more money but they all have to live where the jobs are.

    So now take finance, management consultants, IT and stick ’em all in London. No wonder grunts can’t afford to live there. This is not a new phenomenon, though the intensity of the effect is increasing. Thirty years ago an Ermine in a modest but above-average paying technical job was driven out of London. Where I was more fortunate than Millennials was that the concentration of jobs in London and hollowing out of the rest of the country hadn’t happened, and that jobs were more stable so the risk of ending up in a one-hoss town was less strategically dangerous than it would be now.

    Zero-hours contracts aren’t new

    I worked on what would now be called a zero-hours contract, in 1979/80-ish ISTR. As a kitchen porter – the idea was you go to an agency early in the morning and they would allocate work on a first come first serve basis. There was no guarantee of any work at all, but you generally got to know the system. No phones or anything. When I inflation adjust my earnings to now I was working for a lot less than the minimum wage, too. That sort of work allocation existed elsewhere too,  dockers used to line up in the morning on the same sort of basis to get casual work unloading ships.

    Smartphones let employers dynamically allocate work to people via apps, that has the opportunity to turn zero hours contracts into oppression. Casual work is casual because anybody can do it – if you can drive you can drive for Uber, for Deliveroo, and pretty much anyone can flip burgers for McDonald’s. The best way to improve your earning power is to get out of this commodity competition for replaceable skills, because if you have undifferentiated skills then competition is always going to drive your pay down to the minimum wage or lower.

    The lower than minimum wage is achieved by zero hours contracts – there are fixed costs associated with being available and ready for work – commuting to the workplace, having a car in the case of Uber, not being able to work for someone else or take your children to school. So you are always are risk of taking a hit if you can’t get your hours up enough. Now in the past the agency sometimes did take a dislike to some people and would always call out others for work before them, but at least that discrimination was visible, and done in person. When an app doles out the work you have no protection against that sort of thing and may even be unaware – as the FT’s “When your boss in an algorithm” describes.

    The problem isn’t so much zero hours contracts as such, or even app scheduling – after all every taxi company used to have dispatchers who would match the drivers to incoming jobs over the radio. The problem is zero hours contracts combined with unskilled work, where the work allocators can simply pitch the workers against each other, micromanaging jobs and people in a never-ending treadmill. When one hamster falls off the wheel, there’s an unlimited supply of  rodents to replace them.


    One hamster is pretty much like another – hamster work is fungible

    In that sort of environment the advantages of flexibility accrue to the employers not the workers. To add insult to injury, the welfare safety nets like unemployment benefit are predicated on the job for life, or at least the job for weeks. They just don’t help you fight that sort of here today gone tomorrow employment pattern. These are not entrepreneur hamsters playing the market for their talents. This is unskilled piecework.

    The so-called joys of self-employment

    The Grauniad asks whether zero-hours contracts really are worse than jobs for life. Sure, for many people with skills that command a premium, contracting and zero-hours contracts can be great. There are the guys that write about how great the opportunities are. Heck, a retired Ermine hasn’t been able to avoid making money totally, and I would be happy with the lack of commitment of zero-hours contracts 5 – if it pissed me off in any way, I’d just walk away. I can afford to do that because I am financially independent. Financial independence is very rare in a first world consumer society – there are many, many people who have far more wealth and income than I but who are not financially independent because of their spending.

    It’s easy to big up the joys of self-employment. Yes, you have the freedom of self-defined work and your time is a little bit more your own. Set against that you have the stress of managing a variable income, you have all the grief of self-assessment and the trials of HMRC, you have to run the business, make the judgement calls on capital spend versus return. You also have to carry a massive cash float to manage contingencies, else you risk getting slaughtered in the first cashflow crisis that comes along.

    Those that make self employment work for them tend to be the more entrepreneurial, and those with skills that can command a premium. I look at Liberate Life’s description of how to live life working without a job and it looks like one of Dante’s Inferno’s circles of Hell to me – I hate selling in all of its forms 6 – all that hustling would be a nightmare for me. I am so glad that I managed to get to the end of my working life before these changes happened. Perhaps there is sample bias – if I were 21 again then this gig economy world would be all that I had known and I would follow such a path, which looks a great way to play that sort of hand.

    But I knew another way, and to my eyes it was a far better compromise for the majority of people, who are of average talent but want to have some stability, have kids and FFS do something other than thinking about work all the time. It served me well, I like to think I had a little more talent for the scientific, engineering and analytical than the average Brit, though I am nowhere near clever enough to work for Google. It isn’t like the compromise kept everybody down, and if you really wanted to run your own business and had talent then you could knock yourself out and go do that too.

    Maybe I am simply at odds with current thinking. There was an interesting thread on MSE where a fellow retired, and got so bored he went back to work, which made me think what was summed up in this post

    It’s a bit sad to spend such a large part of your life working, retire, and then realise you haven’t actually got a real life to enjoy so go back to work again. It suggests an absence of hinterland

    Whereas now you’re increasingly on call all the time without getting paid for it, at below the mean level of ability you seem to be yanked about on a smartphone string and have to think about work all the time. In particular, the sort of digital Taylorism the FT’s Sarah O’Connor talked about in this podcast and article treats their unskilled workers with a shocking level of disrespect.Not only are these unskilled workers micromanaged via their smartphone apps, but they are stripped of the employment rights that used to protect casual workers from the variability of the workload (by paying them for their time, including downtime during the working days). The work providers talk up the virtues of self-employment and being able to choose how much you work, but decline too many jobs in a row and you’re embargoed for 24 hours, so the choice is pretty clear, do as we say or piss off. Hobson’s choice, not a better work/life balance.

    It tickled me to hear John Gapper’s faint public school accent debating the plight of the precariat with O’Connor’s slightly preppy uptalking and lashings of vocal fry. I don’t think they know the territory, though kudos to Sarah O’Connor for doing some fieldwork at Uber Eats. It’s epitomised when Gapper asks Sarah at 2:24

    “Are they employed? I means what is their actual status? Are they workers…”

    It’s not so much what is said – it’s a reasonable question, but you can hear the arm’s length treatment in Gapper’s tone of voice – these aren’t the sort of people the FT hacks typically consort with. I can almost picture him holding the dirty rag at a distance asking “so what exactly is it that we have here?” 😉

    Elsewhere in the FT, however, it seems that there are still a lot of recalcitrant proto-Ermines among the millennial set that aren’t that enamoured with the go-getting entrepreneurial dynamism of the gig economy. Over to Sarah again

    young workers seek traditional permanent contracts to unlock the necessities of life …

    The traditional permanent job contract is still the key that unlocks a range of life’s necessities. Without one, you will struggle in many countries to secure a loan, a mortgage, a mobile phone contract 7 or even a room to rent.

    like all that boring shit like a roof over your head and not having to think about work for 24 hours every flippin’ day.

    There’s hope. but not soon

    New ways of working have often led to oppression of the weakest party (generally labour) until regulation can catch up with it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with better information and mobile platforms, after all Uber and GPS means relatively unskilled drivers can provide a low cost London taxi service that was previously the domain of cabbies in a guild with The Knowledge. Because these things started in the teeth of the 2007-9 recession and regulation hasn’t caught up, they have spread quickly, because they give an advantage to the work providers and probably the work consumers, at the cost of the work doers. Our definition of employment and self-employment that has been acceptable for many decades isn’t fit for this sort of employment/work. So regulation needs to catch up, there’s probably space in the marketplace for smartphone mediated work matching to give novel services with a better balance between the conflicting interests of capital, labour and the consumers. It’s inherently the way of capital to to misuse it’s power over people, for the reason identified by Baron Acton in 1887

    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Capital is a claim on future human work, the power to get people to do what you want. It needs regulation to gentle it away from being purely a tool of oppression, and it takes time to find that balance. Of course there is always the head-banging Ayn-Randian counter proposal for a no-holds-barred let it all get sorted out in the market. I guess once we’ve killed off the weaklings perhaps the water will find its own level. It’s a bit harsh, but I guess it works. For some strange reason it tends to piss people off seeing that sort of thing happen to their friends and family members, so unless there really is a Galt’s Gulch Uber can retire to they will probably have to come to some less one-sided agreement in time.

    It’s not all about the money

    though at the bottom end it is… Some of it is about dignity and respect. When I boil it down to the essentials, what I came to hate so much about working at The Firm when they laced it up with stupid performance management metrics wasn’t that the pay was crap, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what I did, which was okay and mildly interesting when it was the actual job in my job title, as opposed to feeding the performance management system bullshit. It was the increasingly demeaning and disrespectful nature of the micromanaging performance reviews and endless justification of my existence, the gamification of the workplace. This crap was unnecessary – it was either a deliberate ploy to make people feel so shit about themselves that they would leave, without having to pay redundancy, or it was some sort of management fad. I recently heard from someone still there, at a more senior level than I reached, who was going through this again – he had to justify his existence, say why he was meeting objectives half of which had been imposed without discussion, and I was so glad to be out of there. But at least the pay was enough to reach FI with a bit of grunt.

    When you’re working at the casual end of things, your boss is an app, you have the same sort of arbitrary rules plus various ratings for jobs taken, customer feedback etc you have the same disrespect without the compensation of getting paid the FU money.It’s one of the tedious things about buying online from the gig economy. You get bombarded with requests for feedback to up their metrics. Sorry, but I don’t do feedback any more. I just want to pay the money, get the goods and get out of there.

    Recently I bought a replacement car battery from Halfords because I had been a jerk and ignored the signs the old one was fading. So I jumped the battery with a leisure battery and got lost on my way to the cheaper joint. Knowing I was at risk of not starting the engine again if I stopped it took the hit at Halfords. Then realised I only had spanners in my car toolkit, not a socket long enough to reach the lower battery clamp, and my 30-year old jump leads weren’t man enough to turn over a diesel engine from the new battery. So I was faced with pay the £10 fitting charge or buy a socket set, well,  I was idle and paid up. It was a pleasant enough transaction, but no, I didn’t actually want to get a card soliciting feedback on my experience. It’s bad enough online, and there’s no need to feed these stupid monitoring systems in bricks and mortar shops too.

    No wonder people are pissed off at the bottom end of the gig economy – they are paid sod all and treated like shit. One or the other you can live with, but not both.



    1. I don’t speak of it from experience, because the first smartphone I got was after I finished work. And I decommissioned the bugger about a month ago because it was seriously pissing me off. It did most of the things I could do with a computer, but all at half cock, and was poor at answering phone calls.
    2. I know it was an existential fight and all that but the miners lost my sympathy when they turned the lights off while I was at school and I heard arrogant SOBs like Scargill tell how they were going to run things by sending thugs round to stop other people working.
    3. Doesn’t that date the report – this was a year after the hot summer of rage when da yoof ran amok and rioted in London for better trainers, communicating via BlackBerry Messenger. I don’t know if you can get a Blackberry these days
    4. I know, not all of them, but the drift has been huge
    5. that which I do is probably closer to individual contract jobs, I wouldn’t take low end ZHC jobs where you have to be there for them but they don’t have to be there for you, because I am not having people take the piss out of me for money, the second word in my response to such a proposal would be “off”
    6. I chose LL because he is an engineer with IT and electronics which was what I used to do in a former life
    7. I have never attempted to get a mobile phone contract because I am a PAYG aficionado, but presumably as someone without a permie job I would be SOL on that one too
    15 Aug 2016, 12:40pm
    living intentionally reflections:


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  • work as a limiting belief post FI

    We all go through life accumulating experiences, and, inveterate pattern-matchers that we are, all too often we infer the general from the particular of those experiences. In the search to impose order and meaning on our world, we frequently conflate correlation with causation, and build up a mental map of the world at odds with the territory. Some of these beliefs about the world gained from experience are just plain wrong or get overtaken by events after they are formed. To take one

    “You need to work”

    When I left university I had no money and therefore needed to work. I hadn’t come across the option of dropping out and possum living, and it probably wouldn’t have appealed, a young buck must run with its kind 😉 Peer pressure is strong for young adults.

    But in that first year I built a limiting belief, by inferring the general from the particular. I needed to work, at that time and for a significant time afterwards. But not for all time. I needed to earn enough to pay the capital cost of some of the necessities of life. I didn’t think that deeply about buying a house, though I left London because it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to buy a house there and maintain a decent lifestyle. I really should have thought more about buying a house at a market high, but that’s another story. There’s a pattern developing here, an across the board intentional living fail.

    A considerable amount of luck saved me from myself – I was enterprising enough to shift myself from boring jobs until I found one that loaded the grey matter enough to be congenial, I was fortunate enough to end up in a company where I was looked after pension-wise and the pay was decent enough. And then got on with the job of spending too much but not more than I earned on consumer crap, partying, beer and travel.

    And so across the intervening years, the world globalised and loads more people joined the capitalist workforce, and it started to arbitrage towards cheaper countries. I was protected from that from a long time but eventually the erosion came to my door. There’s an argument that the Millennium Bug work of the year 2000 accelerated this erosion of developed world work in the IT world. The Firm opened a BPO joint in Mahindra and a couple of the localised Big Cheeses instrumental in setting it up benefited handsomely from their shareholdings in that.

    I wasn’t passionate about IT although competent, I moved into it and out of electronics engineering because that was what The Firm did. Some people did jump ship at the time, fearful that their electronics skills would atrophy. In the first glimmerings of intentional living I came to the conclusion that I worked to live not lived to work, I was in serious negative equity so I adapted and retrained. I suspected electronics design would go to cheaper countries, and it did – the tide would have gone out on me faster in electronics that it did in IT. 1

    Limiting Beliefs

    Steve Pavlina has a pretty decent summary of limiting beliefs –

    Limiting beliefs can seriously hold us back in life. But most of the time such beliefs are invisible to us. They control some of our thoughts and behaviors behind the scenes, enough to curtail our results in some area of life.

    His article also proposes a method of eliminating these. I don’t have his particular brand of materialist rationalism, so while I am prepared to acknowledge some limiting beliefs, I won’t fight all of them. One of mine is that something snapped in me mentally in the last few years at work, and that once something like that has broken it will never bear that load again. Since I’m rich enough not to have to challenge this by finding another job, I don’t have to go through the pain of challenging it, or indeed find out that it is in fact true. The evidence that countermands that belief is that people overcome much greater mental challenges than having a really shitty experience of working for a year.

    The way this belief limits me is that I will never be able to feel safe enough to deploy any money that I earn in working again to increase my lifestyle, because I will be afraid of losing having the FU nuclear option on work. So while I might well appreciate more baubles and jaunts, no consumer shit tastes as good as financial freedom feels. And I’ve gotten used to owning my own time. So I’ll pass on the extra money and enjoy the extra time.

    Over at SHMD Jim has returned to work. While that wouldn’t be right for me I tip my hat to a fellow who concluded a 0 hours week wasn’t enhancing his quality of life, and took the obvious corrective action – go get a job. I’d actually read Jim’s article before it was cited on Weekend reading and just thought good for you Jim, about time too 😉

    When I read the phrases selected by Monevator from Jim’s post I thought blimey, did I read the same article? Monevator is a much more pithy and concise writer than I am, but the precise extract and reformatting together with the extra narrative in his post I think says something about both the observer and the observed:

    I was struggling a bit with the retirement lifestyle, and finding the change from a full on, full time working week to a zero hour one quite difficult to handle.

    I just couldn’t shake the notion that I was too “young” to put my feet up, that I should be working and that I should be out there earning money.

    I might not have “needed” the latter, but it never quite felt that way.

    SHMD as cited by Monevator

    Jim’s evocative description of the problem shows to me an incongruity between his map of how things should be compared to the territory of how they were. He doesn’t need the money, but he needs things to be different to how they are to feel happy about it. This looks like a limiting belief to me, largely because Jim “shoulds himself” twice in one sentence. Two different takes on this issue, one from Psychology Today and the other from the A0M seem to indicate this limiting belief is from an external locus of control in the affected topic. He is measuring an internal state by a yardstick written by other people. Since humans are a social species some of this is inevitable, and there was an easy and obvious solution. Make the territory more like the map and go back to work.

    Monevator admits his gut belief later on

    But I believe almost everyone will benefit from having an ongoing economic relationship with society while they can – even if only for a day or two a week.

    Sadly, by the time most people reach the point of having options, they seem to feel too burned out by the workplace to explore all the various other ways of making money more freely.

    Protestant work ethic detector goes off. You don’t have to work to have an ongoing economic relationship with society. I allocate capital, society pays me for the pleasure of using it 😉 Heck, on the other side of the coin the consumers of Britain racking up unsustainable credit card debt have an ongoing economic relationship with society, even if they are on the dole, or reality TV show aristocrats.

    Reality TV show aristocrats

    Reality TV show aristocrats in an ongoing economic relationship with society

    I am thinking of buying a Naim 272 to replace my 30-year old preamplifier, tuner and audio streaming box, surely I still have an ongoing economic relationship with Salisbury then? I don’t even have to worsen Britain’s consumer debt mountain because I have the money.

    Now I am a case of the burned out husk Monevator refers to, although I have to say that the proposed alternative of endless hucksterism of selling your wares as a freelancer/contractor gives me even more the heebie-jeebies than the thought of going back to work for The Man. But I’ve already confessed to the potential limiting belief in my case, so far be it from me to criticise either of these two good people for tolerating theirs 😉 We can all afford to pay the cost of our limiting beliefs – I will be poorer by the opportunity cost of the money I could have earned, they will be poorer by the opportunity cost of the time spent working after financial independence. Conversely, they will be richer in money, I will be richer in Time, and each to their own. Neither course is right or wrong, it can only be right or wrong in combination with the individual’s predilections and temperaments, which may change over time.

    What’s that burnout process all about then?

    Like Monevator, the younger me didn’t understand the burnout mechanism. I saw burnout in enough other people at The Firm, but had been fortunate enough to occupy specialisms slightly removed from the ritual slaughter and yearly cull of too many project managers as the number of projects to manage dropped. I was offered enough PRINCE2 training but I’d rather drink my own urine than be a PM. I have respect for the job and the difficult balances to be made, but I don’t want to be it, and particularly for the Firm. I didn’t realise then that  the The Firm employed the same techniques as some Japanese companies on some of these guys – because there were technical reasons why compulsory redundancies were expensive for them, so they needed to mind-f*k people. They created a Redeployment Unit, which was ostensibly to re-educate some of their dead wood old fossils superfluous headcount. It had a terrible success rate – more than 50% of people eventually left on voluntary redundancy terms, because they couldn’t stand the endless Jobcentre style filling in CVs. You had to fill in so many a week, just because. It drove a fair number of people round the bend. In many cases they had been pulled from overworked teams to match headcount targets, it seemed to be a particular irony to then go for a coffee with their ex-team-mates and hear that deliverables were slipping because there weren’t enough boots on the ground. Which conveniently meant they could pull the project, outsource it to India and send the rest of the team to the RU, while marking down their performance management results. Conveniently you were barred from taking voluntary redundancy if your performance management score was needs improvement, so they saved money by sending people round the twist. Nice.

    Performance management clobbered me because for the first 20 years at The Firm, appraisal was roughly about how well you did the job. I was okay with that. For an engineer their work usually speaks for itself. However, performance management was a way of introducing arbitrary extra elements, FFS like giving 5 minute seminars at all hands meetings whose tedium was increased by 5 minute presentations on random stuff to tick the box, and it was a bewildering mishmash of capricious targets. Basically you had the choice of meeting the targets or doing the job.

    I pre-empted this with the last vestiges of energy I had in reserve in 2009, and fired off speculative applications because there was an opportunity to use some of my legacy electronics engineering skills for the London 2012 Olympics. I was fortunate enough to win that lottery and sweat out three years doing something interesting, time-bound and rewarding. I got a decent sendoff and the guy in charge of delivering the Olympics said I was leaving on a high, and in terms of what I did, yes. But I formed another belief about working then. Which is that working in the modern world of professional jobs is all consuming, over-controlled pissing match that hurts, and I want no more of it in my life.

    It took time before freedom from became freedom to, and I realised the value of the prize I had unwittingly taken with me on the way back from the pub at that final leaving do. Eight precious years of my life that I will never live again, and in decent wealth and health, and indeed I still have a few to go before I reach 60 where I’d join the original track of my retirement from work. What’s the point of burning them up working? As Arnold Zack said to Paul Tsongas

    Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

    Tsongas retired on (physical) medical grounds and cashed in his chips at 55.

    It is the privilege of youth to think you will live for ever in perfect health – in general this squares with your experience of life so far, but as they say past performance is no guarantee of future success. I got a long way into middle age on that assumption, and I am still to be to the best of my knowledge in good physical health. But when something existential that you took for granted fails in service, then the knowledge that can happen changes you. I like to think I got some wins out of the negative experience – I deepened, and took the opportunity to jump the tracks of the assumptions I had never challenged since first starting work. I took the glittering prize of my time back with me, but I only unwrapped it and saw its gleam after the first phase of decompression had passed after two years. I had to switch off so much of myself to get through the last three years of working that I had to train myself to see beauty and appreciate music again. It is all the more amazing because I know the emptiness of the burned out years. I have more gratitude for it. It is sweeter for having known the loss, and to discover in the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. 2.

    I hazard that Monevator hasn’t had that experience in the work area of life and I hope he never has, and Jim took corrective action much earlier in his journey out of work, or had greater resilience. Indeed, the younger Ermine knew the feeling of Monevator’s surprise at people’s passivity in the face of an adverse work environment –

    Sadly, by the time most people reach the point of having options, they seem to feel too burned out by the workplace to explore all the various other ways of making money more freely.

    It’s always a puzzle, why the hell don’t people sort their shit out and improve their situation? The reason it so often happens is that while mental stress may manifest in an obvious breakdown, the seeds are sown and grow in tiny incremental stages beforehand. It is in these days, months and years beforehand that the fightback must commence.The breakdown is the result of feedback mechanisms that are trying to compensate for the stress finally being overwhelmed. While they work OK these feedback mechanisms minimise the visibility of the problem by trying to maintain the norm. So by the time people realise something is wrong they have passed the point of no return, they do not have the energy to start the fight. I was fortunate in having good people around, and doubly so in having a rare legacy skill that was needed for the last three years it took me to buy my way out. There is much more luck than judgement in that narrative. Some judgement, yes – in the switched off nature where I had lost most of the function of the emotional centre I still had the intellectual centre working at half cock. I was able to see with unclouded vision that buying into a shattered market of 2009 might be a good idea 3, and the nonfunctioning emotional elements did not jam that with the ‘run for the hills’ response. But it’s probably the luck that won it. I learned from that experience, charging into the markets in 2011 during the Summer of Rage and again earlier this year. Last year I was into EMs, which was probably jumping the gun, though the addled brains of my fellow countrymen destroying the currency have helped buy me out of that trigger-happiness and even these dogs are starting to perform.

    Work meant more for me when I was younger, it was part of how I saw myself, and it took the long process of individuation to de-identify myself against external values and own my values.  There is a lot of existential value associated with work for many people – take Ruth Graham’s rebuttal of the deathbed quote. It’s also not terribly surprising that people who suffer burnout break the link between meaning and purpose and work. After all, if I felt like Jim about work I would have to go back into the fray, risking the burnout again. It is easier to change myself than the toxic world of performance management and meaningless metrics.

    Jim doesn’t have that link broken. There are hardly that many terrible consequences of working when you don’t need to. But it isn’t totally cost-free. Those are years you won’t get to live again. Work is a way for finding challenge and interest. But it’s not the only way.

    How to go nuclear on your career

    This is a bigger change that gradually inching down, or switching to a different type of work. If you have any lingering doubts, then don’t do it. Go for the slowly reducing your hours if you can, or alternative employment. After all, that’s the point of being financially independent. You can choose not to work, but you don’t have to. If you are reducing your hours, things are simpler, you probably want to stay in the same location.

    But if you are aiming to finish work, or do something else, then you have more options. Moving is one of them – of course if you have a partner/children and particularly if they are not retiring at the same time then this is out, unless moving closer to their work. For many people FI roughly coincides with their children coming of age, which I hear is also a big life change for the parents. It’s a good time to re-evaluate what you want out of life.

    Anybody living in London should seriously consider their options on reaching FI. It’s a young person’s city and no place for old men IMO – and you may as well leverage the closeness to massive pool of employment premium on the value of your house or reduce the rent you’re paying. It’s an opportunity to reduce costs, unless you value the lifestyle more than the cost.

    For many people work is a huge part of the amount of day-to-day intellectual stimulation they get, they are too busy in their non-work time making all the trappings of a middle class life happen and wrangling kids. Pull the plug on work in that sort of lifestream and there’s going to be a great big instant hole.

    If you are going to quit then you have to step up to the bigger change. You have greater opportunities too, simply because you now have all your time to allocate to living your unique life. In no particular order I toss these out as things worth considering, they work for me. I’m not saying they have to work for you

    Look to your social circle post-retirement

    Early retirees, very early retirees, men, those who move on retirement all have a particular issue with this and ideally want to start addressing it before they leave work. To stereotype shockingly in the interests of brevity

    Early retirees (30s-40s) and men often have a lot of their social circle connected with work. Retire early and half your social circle is still working and will be for the next 20 years. You want to at least think about backfilling this, and you’re probably going to have to make most of the effort.

    Those who move on retirement may face having to start anew in a different place. If you have an idea of where you are moving to, there’s a case to be made for cultivating social connections there ahead of time.

    Retiring is also an opportunity to leave behind people who have become toxic in some way, it’s not all bad 😉

    Toss your TV.

    Slightly tongue in cheek, but it is a particular form of a general principle. Create, learn and be intellectually active rather than a passive consumer. TV is great escapism to switch off from work. You don’t need that any more. And too much of TV is vapid attention-grabbing pabulum whose main purpose is to be a carrier wave to ram consumerist messages into your head.

    Learn something new every day

    You probably had to do this at work. If you are retired, then you have the freedom to cover new ground. Learn about new things just because. It doesn’t have to be useful. I am thinking of making a bull-roarer today. It is the diversity of what you learn that makes you a more rounded person, and exposes you to more viewpoints. Read at least two papers from the opposite sides of the political spectrum. Try and open your mind to points of view that you don’t agree with. Are they at least internally consistent? Are your views? Are your views perhaps wrong?

    Read books as well as the Web

    The Web is a fantastic resource for learning something new every day. But it is shallow, it is bad for your attention span, it is often unreferenced and unauthoritative, and there is always the vile commercial imperative in a lot of writing, which favours the attention-grabbing and the short form. I found too much web reading damaged my ability to take in information from books, I had to slightly relearn that

    When I say books, I mean books that have at least some print format that is not self-published. If a publisher had to take a risk on the book it is more likely to have merit. The massive swathes of ebooks written by money-grabbing incompetents are a way of trying to ‘monetise content’ and from my experience that content isn’t worth my time. There isn’t a book in everybody, leastways not a book worth anybody’s time. I wish there were a way of screening out the output of ebook content mills on Amazon. Using your public library to borrow real books is one way round that.

    Walk/bike everywhere

    I’m a walking guy on this front, but that’s because Ipswich is a relatively compact market town. most places I want to go are within two miles. Over distances like that walking wins over cycling by not having to park your legs outside your destination and worrying some scrote is going to pinch them. I’m of the opinion no retiree needs to use a gym 4. The trouble with walking when you are working it it wipes out a huge amount of your small amount of free time, after all if I want to walk somewhere two miles away and come back it’s going to wipe out an hour and a bit of my day. That’s tough if I only have four hours free time. But it’s no beef for a retiree. It’s good for you, and thinking while walking is somehow a different and more lateral experience too.

    Obviously there’s space for the car as well, if you are going to haul stuff. But don’t go nuts on it. I walk a mile and a bit to recycle glass, carrying it in a rucksack. You can easily carry 10kg in a backpack, more in panniers on a bike.

    Create experiences, don’t buy them

    Climb hills, learn about Nature, invent, carve, repair, originate before consumption. Many ‘attractions’ are simply commercial enterprises designed to separate parents from their money because they don’t have enough energy or imagination to distract/entertain their kids themselves. I personally avoid places like this like the plague. But there are similar joints for adults, and, I am sad to say, particularly targeted at men who have a weakness for extreme this and that. There are general trends to commercialise, professionalise and monetise recreation. What did kids do before Go Ape? They climbed the trees and built their own tree-houses from scrap wood. BTDT

    Do hedonism, but vary it. Prize diversity and  quality over quantity

    There’s nothing wrong with going to a decent restaurant every so often, but it should cost you more than £100 for two (Londoners probably need to think £300). Do better, but less often. There are vast swathes of middling and low end joints which aren’t worth your custom, go big or go home, but go infrequently. And spin it out with other sorts of hedonism.

    Travel alone sometimes

    You see far more of a place when you travel alone. Conversely the experience of travelling with your partner is a more congenial experience and gives you shared stories. Make space for both.

    Be insanely curious

    Poke about in the cornucopia of variety that is our world. Take things to bits, turn them over and wonder why. Lift stones and see what’s underneath 5. Play

    Do one thing at a time, and do it well

    There’s a trend towards multitasking – looking at your phone while listening to an audiobook etc. Humans haven’t suddenly become great multitaskers over the last 20 years. If it’s worth doing it’s worth doing well.

    Leave the smartphone at home

    This is a personal bugbear of mine. I decommissioned my smartphone when I realised it was simply pissing me off for no good reason, and swapped it for a dual-SIM plastic Nokia 150. Why? Dual SIM gives a better chance of getting a signal in the countryside if they are on different PAYG bearer networks, plus I can route outgoing calls and SMS via the cheapest option. I couldn’t stand the touch keyboard, and prefer predictive text SMS. The RF performance of a basic phone is so much better than a smartphone, people can actually hear me and I get to hear them (if they aren’t using a smartphone outside an urban area). Every photograph I’ve taken with a mobile phone is a little bit shit and makes me wish I hadn’t taken it or had used a real camera. I don’t regularly do Facebook, twitter and all that cobblers. A smartphone is a really crappy satnav, because again the RF performance of the GPS is poor in urban areas, which is of course where you really need detailed navigation and good responsiveness. They are great in the open, on motorways and A roads, the sort of places where it’s easy to navigate using map and road signs 😉 I bought a Garmin satnav after realising that I was going to more places I hadn’t been before even in Suffolk and was spending too much time and fuel overshooting, then turning round to back up. It performs properly in urban areas, uses DAB to update traffic reports rather than spying on me by using the mobile network. A smartphone does a load of things, all of them poorly, and I got sick of that in the end.

    Reduce unnecessary interruption in your life

    Most of these come from electronic devices and social media. You can probably still swim with the hive-mind by connecting every three hours and then disconnecting, and the old saw about connecting to email once or twice a day is also worth noting. Even if you are a social media maven, well, connect every hour or half-hour if you must, and then give your full attention to whatever you are doing. If you can’t be bothered to give it your attention, then perhaps just cut it out of your life altogether. You don’t have this choice at work, because obviously you are being paid to do what others want.

    Pursue novelty. For its own damn sake

    But try to avoid paying for it 😉 In general any new experience or thing should challenge you, teach you something  or make you grow some tiny bit. Too many manufactured experiences are designed to get you to buy something or take part in the sequel, hence try to avoid paying for it. I admit that three years of frugality mean I take this a little bit too far. I should become more prepared to pay for and honour quality and distinctiveness.

    Choose diversity in what you do

    You may think you want to lie on the beach or play computer games all the time. Too much of any one thing isn’t good for you. Mix it up. You have the opportunity now your time is your own. Seize it. If you’re sitting in the same place for as long as you were at work you’re probably doing something wrong even if it is on the beach or at a computer game.

    Does retiring early kill you faster?

    Towards the end of his piece Monevator opined,

    Incidentally, I also think retiring early is bad for your health.

    This is a hard subject to get any accurate research on. For starters, people who retired early in the 1970s and 1980s tended to be be educated white collar workers, which is a shocking sample bias. These guys are going to be richer than the general population, and, surprise surprise, richer people live longer anyway. Pretty much everyone reading this will probably have a longer life expectancy than average all other things being equal, let’s face it the poor don’t read about personal finance and early retirement because it’s not relevant to their lives. There are just too many confounding factors and statistical wrinkles to establish facts with a decent confidence interval. We diverge more and more from each other as we get older – at graduation you had more in common with your peers than you’ll have with them at the reunion year when you all start drawing your State pension. There are more subtle forms of sample bias. Some people retire early for health reasons, arguably I am one of them, although for mental rather than physical health. If you retire early for physical health reasons then you’re loading the dice towards shortened longevity, I don’t know what the stats on that are like for mental health. For physical health reasons it’s probably still the right thing to do – for you, and for the same reason as retiring early was the right thing for Paul Tsongas. You gotta play the hand you are dealt.

    There’s an ESRC report that concluded 6

    “Early retirement is generally good for people’s health and wellbeing unless it has been forced on them,” the study said.

    “Those forced into early retirement generally have poorer mental health than those who take routine retirement, who in turn have poorer mental health than those who have taken voluntary early retirement.”

    A moot point for me then. Arguably it was forced upon me, although I did not retire using any formal ill-health procedure, and indeed took an active part in the decision to retire early but using voluntary early retirement mechanisms. In that case Monevator’s prognosis is right and  I will die younger than my parents. OTOH I can hardly say the ESRC’s narrative on mental health squares with my experience of life post retirement 😉

    There’s sport for both of us in Sing Lee’s interesting piece using the pension funds from several big American white-collar employers’ pension funds. I confess that I agree with Lee in that technical creativity is probably at it’s peak in the 10 years around 30. Although he took a lot of shit for it Mark Zuckerberg was probably right that young people are just smarter. If people stopped berating him for his political incorrectness and listened to what he said, he proffers a mechanism which makes a lot of sense to me

    “Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family.” In the absence of those distractions, he says, you can focus on big ideologies. He added, “I only own a mattress.” Later: “Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

    Looking at the other end of the working life arc Sing Lee’s 2002 talk of over-funding of pension funds sounds delightfully naive now – he didn’t realise that the developed world was going ex-growth after the dotcom bust. However, when he charted the years of retirement versus age at retirement, I think his narrative is pretty much along with the narrative what I did, although I didn’t have the strategic vision and just ended in a tactical firefight.

    The pace of innovations and technology advances is getting faster and faster and is forcing everybody to compete fiercely at the Internet speed on the information super-highways 7. The highly productive and highly efficient workplace in USA is a pressure-cooker and a high-speed battleground for highly creative and dynamic young people to compete and to flourish.

    However, when you get older, you should plan your career path and financial matter so that you can retire comfortably at the age of 55 or earlier to enjoy your long, happy and leisure retirement life into your golden age of 80s and beyond. In retirement, you can still enjoy some fun work of great interest to you and of great values to the society and the community, but at a part-time leisure pace on your own term.

    On the other hand, if you are not able to get out of the pressure-cooker or the high-speed battleground at the age of 55 and “have” to keep on working very hard until the age of 65 or older before your retirement, then you probably will die within 18 months of retirement. By working very hard in the pressure cooker for 10 more years beyond the age of 55, you give up at least 20 years of your life span on average 8

    But anecdotally I see where Monevator’s coming from. I’ve seen people retire and then pretty much switch off. My Dad did this. He retired, at 65, from his job as a fitter, and while he didn’t zone out totally he watched far too many crappy TV game shows. On the upside he was also stuck to Teletext and share prices 9, he read company accounts and went to AGMs, as well as gardening and the occasional travel. In support of Monevator’s angle, as a non-early retiree, he got to 86 before leaving this mortal coil, which is still 16 years of extra time over his allotted three-score-years and ten.

    Retiring early does hit people who get a lot of meaning and self-esteem from work. It’s not inconceivable that if they lose meaning from life they may live shorter lives, and certainly have a lower quality of life. The obvious answer is ‘don’t retire early’.


    1. I still indulge the passion for electronics in making instrumentation, it’s of course different from the purely analogue world I cut my teeth on as a teenager but still fascinating. But there’s no point in trying to make money from it, too niche, too much regulation and too many Chinese copycats ready to eat my lunch. OTOH I would probably still be an employable bench tech/engineer, because there is still some niche instrumentation being made in the UK. But why the hell would I want to drive to Cambridge every day?
    2. pinched from Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa
    3. I am not a passive investor, because to build my portfolio I had an extremely short timeframe of only a few years. My contributory investing career is almost done now. To me valuation matters for new money, and 2009 was a good year to apply that. I may become more passive after I have finished contributing, though I will leave my HYP in place for the zero carrying cost and the income.
    4. If you get an endorphin rush, have masochistic tendencies or simply like the stale smell of sweat and pheromones, then damn well go for it – there’s nothing wrong with gyms if you can afford the money. I just don’t think they are essential.
    5. Old World only – don’t do this in Australia, where if it moves it wants to kill you
    6. I had the devil’s own job trying to locate this. It is called “Health And Well-Being In Old Age: It’s Still Money That Counts” by the ESRC in 2009 The press can get it from Science Daily
    7. how delightfully anachronistic, I haven’t heard reference to Al Gore’s information super-highway for years, it’s so AOL Connie
    8. Sing Lee does stand somewhat charged with inferring the general from the particular. For starters his stats about longevity are typically from people who retired 30 years ago, so the pressure cooker pace of change wasn’t so bad. Some of the jobs will have been more physically wearing 30 years ago which may have taken a physical toll. There’s no good answer to the delay in longevity statistics, we will find out what early retirement really does for my age cohort in a few decades.
    9. this was pre-internet
    12 Jul 2016, 9:49am


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  • Down the rabbit hole

    This is gonzo politics and puzzlement. What goes for normal service will be resumed when the dizziness goes away. I’ve tried to be equally offensive to all sides here, because none of them comes out with great glory.

    I’m wondering if someone’s put LSD in the water supply. It’s less than a month since some of us including me discovered the limits of our filter bubbles. It’s like waking up covered in engineer’s blue with a cow looking at you strangely and surrounded by Swiss guys in lederhosen and thinking “Eh? I only started out last night with three bottles of cider in Croydon”. There’s only one thing to do – invoke the spirit of Yeats

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    Vada a Bordo …Cazzo!

    Where’s Gregorio Falco when you need him? Been less than a month since the referendum and we’ve discovered that Cameron is made of the same stern stuff as Francesco Schettino. Having run the ship aground trying to appease the headbangers in his party that lacked the spine to join UKIP he starts calling for Mummy and abandons his post as the ship is taking on water. We then see a string of effective knifings and backstabbings which end up with the last woman standing allocated the role of top dog, while loathsome Leadsom who asserted having children uniquely qualified her for the top job exits stage left at the eleventh hour, pursued by a bear, the press pack and her own folly of denying the evidence of a tape recorder. Beware the hermeneutic rule about the bullshit before the but, dear lady, you parse such sentences by crossing it all out from the beginning until the t of but…

    Yes. I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible but genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake. She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.”


    Children – not prohibitive but not necessary and not sufficient to be PM, Andrea

    Reproduction has been done since time immemorial with unskilled labour, and anyway, that’s not why we’d hire you to run the country, though I admire the swift decision to exit the kitchen due to an excess of heat. Next time feel the bloody door for heat before you open it, huh?

    Back to the seminal question of the rabbit hole. Not only did I discover something about my fellow countrymen that I’d rather not have known, but okay, at least that’s opinions and like other parts of the anatomy we’ve all got one. It’s the succession of ghastly putative leaders in quick succession that did my head in:

    the effete narcissist BoJo, motto “think only of yourself” and let the devil take the hindmost

    cut down like a tree by the creepy wierdo Gove, who is apparently clever though he despises expertise in its many forms, frying pan, meet fire,

    Leadsom’s self-immolation would have been entertaining if it hadn’t been for the real possibility of her trying to steer the ship off the rocks, presumably into a watery grave because she mistakes enthusiasm for ability. After all, Angela Merkel is child-free and appears to be a competent head of state, though perhaps not a competent head of the EU finance department… more »

    20 Jun 2016, 3:00pm


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  • Imperial College sends me an indirect message from Oswald Spengler

    Half a lifetime ago I went to Imperial College to study Physics. I then took some of this knowledge and used it in the world of work, I got to use stuff like Laplace transforms etc in filter design, and generally applied a bit of it. However, perhaps the biggest win was learning how to learn. Imperial reflected to me just how much the world has changed in a shade under 40 years, with an offer of free drinks too!

    Imperial in the City: Networking event for alumni working in finance
    29 June • 18:30 – 21:30 • Corney and Barrow, Canary Wharf E14 4EB

    This networking event is a great chance to connect with other Imperial alumni working in finance. Your first two drinks will be complimentary, courtesy of Imperial College London, if you register in advance of the event. Please also bring your business card for the chance to win a bottle of champagne in our prize draw. Spread the word among fellow alumni in the finance industry.

    Peter Thiel, Donald Trump 2016 supporter and personal grudge holder extraordinary 1, summed up the reasons why the West’s economies are faltering and returning less on investment. Now while Thiel is a pretty odious character IMO, he is a brilliant guy and a sharp thinker. There’s no law that says character has to go with smarts.  I share his view on why the West has lost its mojo.

    We used to think the future was going to be better that today, and we used to have a damn good idea of how to go about it. We were often wrong, but we rolled up our sleeves and wrangled the world to make it more like how we wanted. It brought us decent sanitation, heated homes, longer lifespans. It also brought us reality TV, fast food and corporations too big to fail, but there has to be collateral damage in any enterprise. Thiel called this definite optimism – you’re optimistic and you know how to go get it. The young Ermine went to school in that world, all that jazz about people on the moon, much of the advances following the world wars made science and technology an interesting place to be, and I went to Imperial College to go learn Physics. Then I took some of this into the world of industry to go and make a few things happen, some of which were actually new.

    Something changed, I would say in the 1980s though it had nothing particularly to do with Thatcher. Somehow we lost our nerve, , and also some of our vision for the future. It’s understandable in Britain – ever since the 1920s Britain’s influence in the world fell away, particularly after the Second World War, and the US wanted the top dog slot anyway. But I didn’t expect it, and the problem affected the US too. I suspect the seeds were sown in the 1973 oil crisis.

    We became indefinite optimists – we thought the world was going to be a better place but we didn’t know the hell how. The answer to that is to corral financial resources – and let’s face it, everyone aiming for financial independence is an indefinite optimist. If you know what would work to make the world a better place you’d do it or buy it. But if you don’t, then in Thiel’s taxonomy you become an indefinite optimist – you accumulate general purpose capital because you then keep maximum optionality in taking advantage of whatever things will make the future a better place than today. You become a good passive investor, because you’re damned if you know what will work, but that something will if you diversify enough, because you are indefinitely optimistic about the future.

    Finance is indefinite optimism

    Indefinite optimism, writ large – in some ways finance is indefinite optimism encapsulated.There’s nothing wrong in working in finance – but thirty years ago Imperial’s graduates tended to go into industry.

    Money is a claim on future human work, and you have to be optimistic that there will be future humans and they will be prepared to put in the work for your symbolic tokens when you get round to cashing them in at an exchange rate that is acceptable to you. And good luck to y’all in your networking event.

    Someone got there before Peter Thiel, however, the German historical philosopher Oswald Spengler, whose magnum opus The Decline of the West paints the picture. All cultures experience

    “its childhood, youth, manhood, and old age”. “Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression, which arise, ripen, decay and never return”

    Spengler contrasted the earlier vital stages of a culture (Kultur) and the later stages when all that remains is a Zivilisation of people preoccupied with preserving the memories of past glories. Part of the essential myth of the West in continuous growth, it is a bedrock assumption and in contrast to some of the cyclical principles of Eastern thought – cyclical reincarnation had no place in the religious ideas of the West for instance.

    Declinism is, of course, an eternal draw to those in the second half of life – they project the micro onto the macro. And yet I see similarities in Spengler’s narrative, and in the Economist’s thoughtful Bagehot overview of the tribal debate otherwise known as the EU referendum, which hopefully we will be shot of in a week’s time. Perhaps it is all part of the bigger picture – the Gramsci quote cited by Bagehot

    “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

    was quoted three years ago in the New York Times riffing on the same sort of thing. We are living through remarkable change on many fronts, and many aspects of the old order, assumptions that held throughout my childhood and most of my working life, are changing .The balance between labour and capital has shifted dramatically in Western societies. The assumptions of capitalism are also weakening in the presence of very large corporations who can dominate important sectors globally. Facebook and social media has largely reduced the open Internet and Web of the 1995 to 2005-ish to a lowly transmission mechanism. The British press is owned by press barons with a very similar outlook to each other so a monopoly of sorts – once we had regulations to control how much of the fourth estate was in one individual’s hands but of course deregulation meant the end of such dirigiste thinking. The nation-state itself is too small to tackle some of the global issues of our times. None of these problems are insoluble, but Gramsci’s observation is apposite, because the old is dying faster than the new is being born. This is inherent in the passage of history, because otherwise the old will try and strangle the new at birth, but it does mean there will be an transitional period. Transitional periods tend to be interesting times, and not always in a good way.

    I will grow old in the gathering interregnum, you dear reader, may have some chance of seeing the distant shoreline of the New. We do not know how long it will last, or if the sleep of reason will end before the morbid symptoms overtake the light. I made the mistake of following a link after the dreadful killing of a politician which led to Twitter. I don’t know what social media does to our brains, but the boorish lack of civility doesn’t give me hope. Intelligent discourse and civilised disagreement is necessary to feel our way to a new order. It’s been in terribly short supply over the last few weeks, in the vacuum the monsters seem to be multiplying.

    Goya's darwing from 1799

    Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

    We could use some definite optimism, but maybe Spengler and Gramsci are right – the West has had a good run but it is time to pass the baton on to other civilisations, perhaps yet to be born. We have some attempts in the direction of definite optimism.


    1969 Apollo mission 47 years ago

    Perhaps the cynical me has not thought as a child for too long and I do admire the motivation behind Tim Peake’s work, but I recall what watching the Apollo moon landing in July 1969 was like. I was at primary school and less than half the households had a TV, but the school rigged a black and white TV in the assembly hall to watch this at lunchtime. There was none of the vox pop of schoolkids asking cheesy questions – we kids were amazed at adults doing really amazing stuff that captured the imagination. There was a much greater distance between the adult world and children’s world then, and I’m not so sure it was all a bad thing, it gave something clear to aspire to. I learned electronics as a child from books written for adults, not the facile handholding and visual props of the kid-oriented maker space 2 now.


    2016 Tim Peake addressing some schoolkids

    I haven’t yet worked out if in the intervening 47 years we have gone in the direction of bread and circuses or advancement, but good luck to them all on getting more people into science. Definite optimism or bust I say…


    1. Gawker shouldn’t have outed him, but that’s pressing his case with extreme prejudice and outside the rule of law
    2. only some of the maker space is child-targeted, but descriptions are much more process-orientated  rather than teaching the principles of operation and designing from them. It’s a ‘here’s this picture, now go lay out these exact parts in this exact way’ rather than ‘here’s the schematic, go make this happen somehow’
    15 Apr 2016, 1:01pm
    living intentionally personal finance reflections


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  • Journey’s End

    Another day, another tax year, and an Ermine finishes a long, slow glide path running off my cash savings, the ancient sunlight of the fossil wealth accumulated over my 30-year working life. I now return to the regular pay of the salaryman I was but now without selling my time or skills for money – using Osborne’s pension freedoms to front run my works pension that I will draw in five year’s time at its normal retirement age.

    In that respect the financial problem is solved for me at the moment. Of course it’s always possible to imagine scenarios of desperate governments taxing everything, war, pestilence and social disorder. But the end of the world has occupied people past midlife since Roman times. So I will park worrying about the things I can’t change and do the Money Mustache Shuffle. I built up a six-figure ISA since 2009/10, but in the end it was Osborne’s pension freedoms that saved my ass. That ISA will, of course, give me options and some tax-free income, which is nice. But I never learned properly how to live off capital without converting it into some sort of income statement, so that I had an answer to the Micawber question. In that respect I am Poor Dad out of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I learned Rich Dad’s vocabulary, but never learned to speak the language fluently; I cannot determine if I am overspending or underspending until I can measure it against an income. I found it possible to improve as an investor, largely through learning to sit on my hands on the selling side, and learning to acknowledge that luck does not equal skill.

    The evidence is probably that I was underspending, you don’t fearfully husband an ISA stash across three years and then go WTF do I do with this now at the end if you have the cojones of Rich Dad. The job of that ISA now lies both near and far. Far as in 10 years out or so, where my pension may start to be overtaken by real inflation (as opposed to the official measure RPI) and/or a rise in general earnings relative to inflation, although this is hard to imagine at the moment. Near because I may use the dividend income thrown off to augment running down my SIPP at the personal allowance less any earnings, I really must get out of this working malarkey, since I’m not working for the government any more, which limits my pension + income to the personal allowance. The reason I’m not dropping working isn’t the money, it is that I don’t want to drop people I care about in the shit. 30 years of paying tax is enough, that’s a mug’s game when you have wealth, eh, Dave? At least I earned mine 1 rather than getting it from Daddykins…

    Like RIT I made mistakes along the journey, but like him fortunate enough that none of them was terminal. Unlike RIT, most of the heavy lifting for me was not Saving Hard 2, but Investing Luckily. I was standing next to an open goal of the stock market in March 2009 and that Monevator fellow gave me a kick up the backside that seemed to make sense. Maybe I had a guardian angel who got him to write then and me to look at the right time, when the student is ready the teacher will appear.

    The big tragedy of personal finance and FI/RE is that for most people it is a marathon, not a sprint, it is an accretion of a small amount, but steadily. All the projections you see, like the ones in MMM’s the shockingly simple maths behind early retirement

    show this marathon running steadily, either in their underlying assumptions or in the narrative. Now some people seem to swing that – take a look at RIT’s path to FI and while you can’t draw it with a ruler it’s not far off. Beats the hell out of me how he did that. I could never have saved £100,000 a year because I never earned that much, perhaps a higher savings rate makes spending disappear into the noise. I saved bugger all at the start – indeed by screwing up buying a house I anti-saved with negative equity for 1o years after 1989. Real lives have much more drama in them than the steady as she goes narrative. You can probably still do it with the marathon approach, but it won’t be a linear process and anybody in their twenties or thirties predicating FI on a stable savings rate for the next 20 years may rub up against some challenges to that assumption in the vicissitudes of Real Life™. Obvious challenges are Children, Divorce, Redundancy. And these are the external hits, although I guess children can be sort of planned, not so much the others.

    My biggest error was assuming I was a steady-state system. I wasn’t. You, dear reader, aren’t either. It is easy to make that assumption because once you enter your 30s you have passed the Turning Outward then the next transition you can see is your children coming of age or retirement. However, you may find along the journey what you want out of life and work may change. In particular you may favour more Life and less Work. Not necessarily the nuclear option on Work, but you might want to ease back. I am surprised at how few of the projections of FI/RE account for the life stages. Some written by DINKYs  don’t seem to account for the total devastation that having children wreaks on a DINKY couple’s finances. I don’t know that from personal experience but I saw enough of it at work, you have the double whammy of the extra costs of baby, and the suckout of losing one partner’s earnings, together with the concomitant damage that does permanently to their earning prospects if it’s a professional career. On the upside I guess the Government does sponsor the lifestyle a bit through the benefits system.

    A colleague at The Firm sometime in the mid 2000s was talking in the tea room about the opportunities presented by saving via salary sacrifice into pension AVCs, I guess I was 46 at the time. I was turned off the concept of pensions because they had just shifted the earliest age you could draw a pension from 50 to 55 and it all seemed way off then. However, one of his phrases did strike me “with these opportunities, you’re daft if you’re still working here after 45”. Obviously that’s going to stick in the craw, I was at the grand old age of 46.

    Funnily enough this fellow is still working at The Firm, so he clearly missed the boat too. There was nothing wrong in his reasoning, but one of the assumptions behind it is that you can take the axe to your consumer spending. The fly in the ointment for him was that his wife and kids quite liked the middle class lifestyle. You can’t spend more and save more at the same time without upping the Work monster, so I guess this fellow lacked the cojones to walk the talk, and turned into a walking wallet. The best laid plans of mice and men, eh? I could drive my pay down to a whisker of the national minimum wage using salary sacrifice because I had paid down my mortgage. OTOH presumably he and his wife and kids have some 5 bedroom executive house in a bijou village whereas I live in a crappy 3-bed semi in the better-off districts of Ipswich 3. But the walking wallet has to go to work whereas I get to listen to the birds and ruminate, you pays your money and you takes your choice 😉

    The non-financial error

    I failed to identify that I needed to stop working because work held no meaning for me any more, and I didn’t need the money if I stopped spending it on vacuous crap and empty experiences to compensate me for flushing my life away eight hours every day. The answer for me wasn’t to buy even more crap. It was to stop flushing my life away. I admit a sneaking admiration for several young people (well, in their thirties) I know who electively choose to work part-time because they value their free time. This was not my path – part-timers were despised at The Firm for being, well, part-timers, but it seems tolerated more nowadays despite being very hard to manage from the company’s point of view. Since I didn’t do that, effectively I saved all those days off these young ‘uns take during their working lives and get to take that all off at the end of my working life. Their pattern seems to be three days on two off (then weekends which I also had) so I guess I got the short end of the stick. If a normal working life is 35 years then a 2/7 taken off would imply a 25 year long full-time working life. Epic fail on my part. On the upside I have a lot more Stuff and capital assets, there ought to be something to show for all those hours indentured to The Man.

    It was easy for me to psychologically project much generic crap on The Firm. Modern performance management is a dreadful and stupid way to herd cats, all stick, no carrot and all tied up in barefaced lies for no good reason. You know the pack drill. And so the first three quarters of this blog is about how that sucks. Yeah, it did. Deeply. But in the end it wasn’t the fundamental reason I left, though I believed it was at the time. I had only one really bad half-year, and that was when the project I was on was canned due to a reverse takeover, and anyone who didn’t have enough billable hours was shot with a performance improvement plan. The poor sod instructed by HR a year or so after to try and patch the twisted wreckage up when The Firm needed my skills for the London 2012 Olympics work even said that they were rotating the piss-awful reviews round, because they had to reduce the marks profile.

    But something snapped within. Although others weren’t happy with being targeted I was unduly susceptible at that time and place. Once the mainspring is broken the dream can never be repaired because it has become a nightmare. I will never work for an organisation with a modern performance management system, and I focused all effort on making sure that I will never be in that weak position again. That meant three very lean years and seven lean years in all to to eliminate The Man from my life. The cloud had a sweet silver lining though – I paid my dues of angst about retirement upfront while I was working. I don’t miss the meaning and life structure The Man gives many people, it was weak in me from the off and got incinerated in 2009. But it took me three and a half years of running before I slowed enough to stop, look back and realise the footsteps I heard chasing me were the echoes of my own.

    a human being is never what he is but the self he seeks
    Octavio Paz

    I had to switch off so much of myself to fit in with work, and in the end the unused parts of my psyche needed the freedom. Initially the freedom from, and then the freedom to.

    I get the upside now. Kate Bush was right all those years ago.

    All the colours look brighter now. Everything they say seems to sound new

    I hear the robins and their territories spread across the land, a patchwork with the other birds interleaved. I hear the shifting dynamic tension between the calling males and the 3d spatial pattern of the territories, it is a thing of beauty to observe, as the others interleave their song. I pay attention more, and see and hear and smell things better. You aren’t supposed to gain any sensory acuity as you grow older, but by unrepressing parts of myself the grey matter does a better job of interpreting what is there. I was lucky enough to grow up when personal audio devices were uncommon, but most of the win is being present in the moment. You can do that actively most of the time, not just in bursts with the much-vaunted mindfulness. All you need is time…

    I did some tech stuff for the RSPB a little while back, and for the bizarre way they fund projects (this was not paid work as I was interested in the results) they wanted a guesstimate for the time spent. I was dumbstruck – I had no idea. The whole point of being retired is you don’t have time sheets and project codes and shit like that. I get up, think what moves me to do right there and then get on and do it, after some undefined time I go do something else or waste time on the Web 4 or go for a walk. Although Philip Greenspun made a decent case that the average person has zero drive and it is the strictures of school and employment that get them focused enough to make anything useful happen, I haven’t found that my days disappear into

    Suppose that the guy cashes in his investments and does retire. What do we find? He is waking up at 9:30 am, surfing the Web, sorting out the cable TV bill, watching DVDs, talking about going to the gym, eating Doritos, and maybe accomplishing one of his stated goals.

    I told the project leader to make it up. I’ll back up whatever he says. Nobody is going to sack me for it 🙂

    Along with not going to the gym, not eating Doritos etc I have done a fair amount of introspection, and came to the conclusion that Work and I grew apart. Retirement seems to be different for me than many others because of this. I’ve really struggled to get this across, and I think I now understand why. Work used to matter more to me, the status of earning decently more than my parents, and, okay, I may as well accept my heart of darkness, most other Brits, the sense of changing things. The sonofabitch work turned me into in my late 30s and 40s used to get a rush from saying jump and have people do stuff just because I said so 5. It’s hardly as if this was a big part of my life but after a certain level you have to lead teams and projects even though I cleaved closely to the technical axis. So I never got the rush that the big swinging dicks of finance  have. But a small dose of the poison coursed through my veins, and I became a worse person because of it.

    A Cock of the Rock. Basically wants everybody to do as he says

    A Cock of the Rock. Basically he wants everybody to do as he says. Primates are even worse, which is why you can never have too big a yacht

    If this is one of the reasons lesser BSDs carry on working until they are 80 fair enough, well, as long as they don’t ruin too many people’s lives playing Cock of the Rock. I started to outgrow this phase with the start of the Turning Inward at 45. Work, particularly the management structures, seem to increasingly demand and express the psychopathology of the extrovert writ large as you go up the greasy pole, so in the end I had to switch off so much of my nature to do that and it wasn’t sustainable.

    Since retiring the armour of bitterness and unkindness accreted over many years of competing and expectations of dog-eat-dog behaviour slowly begins to ease and fall away. I was not born for Work, and while I discharged myself acceptably I have now transcended Work 6. Rabindranath Tagore speaks of a similar transition, he’s more articulate than me

    “I travelled the old road every day, I took my fruits to the market, my cattle to the meadows, I ferried my boat across the stream and all the ways were well known to me.

    One morning my basket was heavy with wares. Men were busy in the fields, the pastures crowded with cattle; the breast of earth heaved with the mirth of ripening rice. Suddenly there was a tremor in the air, and the sky seemed to kiss me on my forehead. My mind started up like the morning out of mist.

    I forgot to follow the track. I stepped a few paces from the path, and my familiar world appeared strange to me, like a flower I had only known in bud. My everyday wisdom was ashamed. I went astray in the fairyland of things. It was the best luck of my life that I lost my path that morning, and found my eternal childhood.”

    Hermann Hesse and others have been similar places, indeed art and literature seem to be more in touch with the meaning of the changes of life than the dry narrative we have of  A Successful Career.

    I drew from Carl Jung in the last narrative, but in chasing some of the other references I came across several citations from to Gail Sheehy’s Passages, which is a good read. It is a more accurate read for my life than probably for Generation Y, who will probably be better off with the revised edition New Passages, though the original reads much less New-Agey.  Some of the stages of life are due to the natural life cycle of the human animal, and its physical development, but a lot of the transitions are across the stages society and world of work set, and these have changed dramatically since 1969 when she wrote the first book. The blurb of the revised edition explains some things that have changed –

    Seven years ago she set out to write a sequel, but instead she discovered a historic revolution in the adult life cycle. . .
    People are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die. A fifty-year-old woman–who remains free of cancer and heart disease– can expect to see her ninety-second birthday. Men, too, can expect a dramatically lengthened life span. The old demarcations and descriptions of adulthood–beginning at twenty-one and ending at sixty-five–are hopelessly out of date. In New Passages, Gail Sheehy discovers and maps out a completely new frontier–a Second Adulthood in middle life.
    “Stop and recalculate,” Sheehy writes. “Imagine the day you turn forty-five as the infancy of another life.” Instead of declining, men and women who embrace a Second Adulthood are progressing through entirely new passages into lives of deeper meaning, renewed playfulness, and creativity–beyond both male and female menopause.

    I’m not sure I am ready for the concept of a male menopause, presumably this is decadent metrosexual London/New York sort of thing 😉 Her narrative is very different from the Jungian descriptions I am more used to, but they are derived from observations of hundreds of people 7, though of course edited by their conscious selves in telling them to the author. The conclusions have great similarities despite the varying methodology, Jung gives more of a hypothesis why, Sheehy’s work is more observational Big Data before its time sort of thing.

    Sheehy’s book is a tough read at times if you’re over 45, any life worth living has error in it, and she distills some of the errors of people refusing to grow, it’s a harsh spotlight of some of mine. The increasing competitiveness of working life over my career due to globalisation and improved communications did not foster that sort of thing, I favoured the outer world over the inner, playing against my introverted type and failing to grow.

    The surrender of those career goals on the Turning Inwards and the overflowing of the Shadow and the unlived elements that are incompatible with careerism are also recorded in other narratives -I am not such a special snowflake after all 😉 Sheehy covers a decent range of adult passages, I see friends and colleagues in some of the others. Of course the details vary and some are dated, but the big pictures match. As Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces described, the stupendous variation of individual life stories is woven from a surprisingly small number of different archetypal threads.

    But I feel have probably won most of the fight to turn that particular decade of life experience into wisdom, to clear out the baggage, and to disembark from the old vehicle and be ready look to the new beginning. That is the point of journey’s end for the Work phase, to change mode and start travelling the journey of Life in a new way at a new stage. Hopefully be a long and happy retirement full of people and things many of which I have no inkling of now. Of course there are no guarantees, a hundred and one ways it might all go titsup, but I will do the MMM thing on that.

    The financial errors

    Some readers may one day need to float ISA savings ahead of their pension savings simply because of the arbitrary age as of which you can draw a pension. It is very hard to do that right, because your money is in silos, and you can easily flatten one silo and find yourself short, even if others are flush. My solution to that was being prepared to borrow money but it is very, very tough  for the debt-free to make that mental adjustment, it caused me to underspend since retiring in 2012. It’s probably also hard for me to borrow money other than on a credit card offer by now because my credit scoring probably stinks, not from a litany of missed payments but from an absence of ‘normal’ credit 8. MBNA let me money a few days ago because it was just before the end of the tax year, I need to put all my earnings into a SIPP, fill up the last few thousand in my ISA and front-load £2880 into the SIPP just after the tax year, so I can maximise my tax-free SIPP PCLS. Since I was at  journey’s end I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to do all that, and I couldn’t sell unwrapped holdings because else I’d fall into capital gains tax. So I borrowed the money in the old tax year and just now I have sold some unwrapped shares without tripping the CGT limit  to pay them back when I get my T+2 settlement. Thank you, MBNA for your kind loan of 5.6% APR and no fee – for about two weeks I figure  that will be less than £100. There’s nothing wrong with debt if you invest it in productive assets which return more than the interest. I don’t need to do that any more, now I have access to the SIPP silo.

    It’s not easy qualifying a withdrawal rate

    Nominally the safe withdrawal rate is 4%. It’s easy to know that, but I was just not able to bring myself to do spend at that rate. I am fortunate that most of my pension is expressed as an income – effectively an annuity. It’s that Rich Dad Poor Dad thing. I have no mental model of personal finance that works with Capital, rather than income when it comes to spending. I never built that mental model in 30 years of being paid a monthly salary, so while I did okay on the investing front I was horrendously conservative in my use of that saved cash – in 2012 I thought it would last one or two years. For each of those three years I saved the max into my ISA, which made bridging the gap much harder. Now as it was, that was a lucky sort of error, because after a while that Osborne fellow came along and totally turned my retirement plan around. I was going to have to draw my pension early about now and eat a 25% actuarial reduction due to it being paid five years early. Then Osborne comes along and tells me I can burn up my AVC savings before the main pension. I saved those AVCs in the last three years of working, and because this was a combination of 40% taxed earnings and salary sacrifice I only gave up net income of about 40% of the amount saved. Thank you Osborne, and goodbye to actuarial reductions. The Firm can bloody well pay me what it contracted to for the amount of time I was there and my final salary. And I can leave my ISA be, and indeed add to it over a few years.

    networth from that fateful appraisaement in 2009 (it doesn't include house or main pension)

    networth from that fateful appraisement in 2009 (it doesn’t include house or main pension) The ISA is less than half

    Most of the variation post 2012 is stock-market variation on the ISA, my spending is in the noise at this scale, indeed I failed to spend more in total than the stock market gained (in reality I should deflate this by the rate of inflation, though that hasn’t been terribly high over this period, the aggregate fall since 2012 is about 10%). Now that I have a basic income that is fine for my needs the 100% equity invested ISA looks more reasonable although it would be considered madcap aggressive in an IFA attitude to risk assessment.

    If I invest my PCLS  in the ISA then perhaps I should draw the natural yield of the ISA and spend more. I have never drawn money from my ISA, but it will probably be better if I increase the capital and draw the return rather than leaving the ISA static and running down the cash across five years. The annual cash income from the SIPP is enough to keep the wolf from the door and a few treats, which is just as well, at current valuations a stock market crash is pretty much guaranteed some time in the next five years. Shame the mini-crash earlier this year didn’t really get its boots on now I have a load of cash.

    I don’t know what to do with cash, it is the asset class I most loathe, though inflation hasn’t been as high as I once feared. You seem to have loads of itty bitty aggravation to make it work. Yes, there’s P2P but after the kicking Osborne doled out to the scalpers of the young otherwise known as Britain’s army of leveraged BTL landlords there’s one thing I know from experience, and that is that negative equity is a bear, and faced with keeping the overpriced house or paying back the P2P loan which one are people gonna do? I have some P2P, but no more than I can afford to lose. Matched betting, I didn’t stop work to try and grind out a living trying to arbitrage the fine difference between lots of big numbers on a screen. And I’m always scared by wizard wheezes where I can’t see what value is being rendered to the world by introducing myself as the middleman, P2P falls squarely into that category too. Too many methods of making cash turn a return these days have a whiff of financialisation and arbitrage rather than value-add. We’re fighting central banks if we want a return on cash, and let’s face it, the punters are the small guys in that fight. Gimme a stock market crash, and pronto, guys, the same forces are inflating equity prices.

    The move from a definitely optimistic to an indefinitely optimistic outlook

    I read Peter Thiel (one of Paypal’s  founders) ‘s book Zero to One today – had to read it in the morning because the library wants it back. He had an interesting taxonomy of views of the future, he was applying this to civilisations, not individuals, but it holds true in the micro as well as macro scale. His taxonomy had four quadrants

    Definitely optimistic

    This was the western world I grew up in, Thiel classes this as the US up to 1982. If you are definitely optimistic you expect the future to be better than today and you have some idea of what that will look like. So it makes sense to understand it in advance and apply yourself to making it happen. You spit on your hands, roll up your sleeves and get to work – moon landings, railway electrification, Arpanet, satellite communications.

    Indefinitely optimistic

    Thiel classes this as the US post ’82. You expect the world to be better tomorrow, but you’re buggered if you know how. Thiel says

    indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional about our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options […]

    A definite view favours firm convictions, instead of pursuing many-sides mediocrity a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it

    You can be definitely pessimistic (China – you then take what worked for others and do more of it, but don’t innovate) and indefinitely pessimistic (Europe since 1970 – you know tomorrow will be worse than today but not how quickly, so you party while you still can and kick cans like Greece down the road.)

    On the micro scale of my career, I used to know one definite way of adding value – engineering. The young Ermine switched my career in this direction, against the backdrop of the definitely optimistic time when science and engineering were sorting a lot of problems 9. I have surrendered that – I have moved to being indefinitely optimistic, and that means

    they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options

    which we otherwise know as index investing, indeed the name passive investing already kind of flags Thiel’s point. I am slightly definitely optimistic in that in my HYP I use individual stocks, but there’s still a lot of the indefinite optimism that lies at the heart of diversification. Peter Thiel sticks the knife into the Efficient Market Hypothesis with verve and doesn’t take prisoners –

    “The efficient market hypothesis is the idea, that people can’t have ideas.”

    it is a poster child for for the wider way the West has lost it’s mojo and the way productivity is flatlining as more and more human effort is going into finance and lawyering. Maybe he has a point. If you look at what Physics graduates of Imperial College do after graduation 10, IT, banking and accountancy take over 25%. You don’t particularly need a Physics degree to do any of those.

    I now have time for reflection – no longer the desperate trying to build an ISA which throws off an income I can believe in, to compensate for an actuarially reduced pension. My plan didn’t survive contact with the enemy, but in a good way. In financial terms, I have reached journey’s end. I crossed the three and a half years without an income and without destroying my liquid capital, because I had enough cash savings, inflation was low, the markets were kind to me, and I learned to be less of a damn fool in them than the first time round. I got roughly a 50% uplift in the unitised value as of 2010, rabid indexers will tell me I could have got roughly that with VWRL and they’re right – I have a big hole in my asset allocation of the US, because it’s been too dear throughout my investing time. So I’ll give that point. OTOH I will load up on the US when they take the sucker punch at some point. And the VWRL dividend yield at 2.8% is too low for me 11, I get about 4.8%, though it’s a moot point as I don’t draw from it yet.

    I have work to do now. To know myself, to roll back the years of activity without thinking, unpick the characteristics amplified in my Shadow by the increasingly competitive nature of work 12. To deepen, and grow, to experience things that transform me. That is for me. It’s not for everyone, vive la difference and all that. For sure, I am poorer in money than if I were still working. I will never be worth a million pounds in today’s money. But I am richer in Life, and accreting these riches of experience faster as I return to shape after the straitjacket of three decades of working life. Although I am far more comfortable with Jung’s concept of individuation, Sheehy’s description of the midlife gateway is more generally understandable

    dangerous years when we confront the loss of youth, the fading purpose of old roles, career changes, spiritual dilemmas, but also find the greatest opportunity for self-discovery and renewal

    It’s not a bad description of the point of retirement. Getting the money sorted is necessary. But it isn’t sufficient. You have to roll with the change of that stage of life too, and grow, otherwise freedom to will turn into dissipation, decadence and decline.



    1. There is an argument to be made that the investing gain wasn’t earned, I guess, but it’s still not risk-free unearned ancestral wealth of the sort that exercises the Torygraph’s old buffers
    2. discharging my mortgage before I started saving to get out had been a topsy-turvy form of saving, you can of course save a lot more if you don’t have a mortgage to pay
    3. the rules of real-estate still apply – a bad house on the right side of the tracks beats a good house on the wrong side, because all the others residents are carrying the cost
    4. I am slowly cutting that down, but there is a fine line between intellectual curiosity and rabbit-holing for the sake of vacuous novelty
    5. Mrs Ermine tells me this is a guy thing, but look at the caricature of this writ large that is the CEO and officer class – think Robert Fuld, Fred Goodwin and anybody with a yacht in the harbour that is driven by ‘staff’ rather than skippered by themselves
    6. I am still young enough that much may change within and without. One should never say never. But it’s my current state
    7. Carl Jung’s observations were derived from his patients, by his hyptheses merged these, Sheehy cites individual lifestreams, and they are closer to our times than Jung’s
    8. I have no mobile phone subscription, I pay most things cash upfront or on a credit card cleared each month, I have not had a car loan for 25 years, I have no mortgage, compared to normal Brits I am a debt cleanskin
    9. later in Thiel’s narrative he says that the Baby Boomers experienced the world getting better for the first 18 years of their life though it had nothing to do with them , and extrapolated this to be just the way things were, whereupon the mainspring of innovation in the West ran down because they switched it from definite optimism to indefinite optimism
    10. Why Physics? Because I did Physics at Imperial. I would have been classified in technical consultancy/R&D, after a period in manufacturing and Others
    11. yes I know, in theory there’s now’t wrong with running down your capital. You try doing that and feeling good about it though, once you aren’t accumulating
    12. It all seems a terribly long time ago, but once upon a time it was possible to progress at work by simply becoming a better engineer, learning from others and sharpening the saw which showed as skill in action, showing up in better, faster or cheaper work. Skill in action takes time to accrue and show, years not months. The change to performance management meant you have to tell a story each quarter that is better than the last, and to pump up minor successes into major triumphs, and shout louder than everyone else – a microcosm of the short-termism of quarterly reporting by companies. That sort of thing emphasises form over function. Real Life doesn’t show monotonic progress on a quarterly basis.
    14 Jan 2016, 3:49pm
    living intentionally personal finance reflections


  • October 2016
    M T W T F S S
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  • Archives

  • I want to learn to spend a little more, with grace, with gratitude and with a new map

    Everyone is on the New Year’s resolutions track, and most PF folk want to save more. I am going to take a different line this year, because I am in a new territory. That needs a new map. It’s been a long time coming, over six months between when I started the process of transferring my DC savings to Hargreaves Lansdown and actually seeing the numbers tick up. It has happened now.

    That'll be a nice Lamborghini, and to hell with the money

    That’ll be a nice Lamborghini, and to hell with the money. Secondhand, in my case, as I am using five years worth of pension, not a lifetime’s worth.

    So the long period of coasting between my last pay packet in June 2012 and the first appearance of a regular income in the new tax year worked. I will enter the new tax year with some working cash to spare, and all the earnings from this year to toss into the SIPP on March 31. It has been a very different perspective, living on the fossil wealth of my erstwhile career to living on an income. That period felt like a limbo – yes I had retired but there were hazards that meant I might have had to work. Now it is very likely that I will never work again, at any rate at the level of most of my working life. Sticklers for accuracy will, of course point out that a pension is also fossil wealth, but living with it expressed as an income is different to living off saved capital. The amount in the SIPP is such that I could rush out and purchase a Lamborghini – I’m quite taken by this red one  – I am not rich enough to buy the quarter-million jobs but I am good to follow through on Steve Webb’s recommendations for the lower end of the secondhand market.

    Passing through the turning point is difficult – there is a big  difference between living off capital and using income

    I was always a salaryman, not an entrepreneur, and so as I left the workforce and the income tap turned off, I lost my main financial navigational instrument, the first law of Wilkins Micawber – spend less than you earn. This has guided me across thirty years of working life, but once the annual income falls to zero, this waypointer spins in a pathless land and knows no North. And at the same time the source of accumulation ceased. That I was able to still accumulate is tribute to an ageing bull run that seems to have finally reached senescence. I am not complaining, as someone who now has too much asset allocation to cash 😉 I am disappointed in RBS’s definition of cataclysmic year. WTF is the use of a fall of 20%? 50% is what I want 🙂 OTOH this fellow has he S&P at 800, 1200 will do me.

    For three years the answer on how much can I spend always came back ‘as little as possible’. I struggled initially because I couldn’t serve two masters, and eventually accepted the slow fall in working capital.

    Decline and fall

    The turning point

    Some of that struggle was simply not acknowledging that I had passed the accumulation phase, had reached the apogee of my earning power and accumulated wealth. It felt wrong because for thirty years previously it would have been wrong. The switch to living off capital may be doubly hard for people in the PF community who have focused on accumulation for many years. I am lucky and perhaps privileged – my main pension is expressed in terms of income not capital and I am burning up a Lamborghini’s worth of DC savings ahead of it to avoid the penalty of drawing it early.

    Everybody else’s New Year’s resolutions are how to save more or earn more. Mine are about learning to spend more 😉

    Over at Quietly Saving Weenie is sensibly looking to push her savings rate up. FFB40 has set himself a plethora of goals broadly aiming to earn 100k this year and presumably save a fair chunk of it. ERG is doing forex trading and matched betting.

    I now have the answer to Micawber. For the next five years I can spend up to £14k a year and not fall behind 1, which roughly matches Mr Z’s Goldilocks spender‘s disposable income. If I drew an income from the ISA I could push that to 18k. That’s the equivalent to earning 20k gross p.a. which is apparently the white collar minimum in London according to FvL. God knows how people do it – I left London 28 years ago earning more than that in real terms because I was pissed off with being skint all the time and living in shared accommodation. I must have been a terrible spendthrift, because nothing indicates to me that London living has got cheaper in real terms over those three decades. But I obeyed Micawber’s rule, so while none of it stuck to the sides I was debt-free.

    I have not been spending anything like 18k p.a. across the last few years. I don’t aim to take it with me into a next life, so I need to become a curious combination of Mr Zombie’s Jones’ and frugalistas. I need to keep his chart on the level, not go for the networth increase and accumulation that has been the watchword until now, otherwise I will be rich in the graveyard but poor in life. That is a big change in perspective.

    We went to Orford to celebrate the milestone where Mrs Ermine bought me lunch at the Pump St Bakery  and I finally managed to crack open the wallet and blow £20 on some fine products from Pinney’s smokehouse, after observing this fine piece of cold war brutalism across the river in the January breeze.

    Orfordness radio station, erstwhile site of the failed Cobra Mist Cold War over the horizon radar

    Orfordness radio station, mothballed in 2012, erstwhile site of the failed Cobra Mist Cold War over the horizon radar.

    The village seemed totally quiet, I guess this second weekend of the new year isn’t a time most people are on the razz. Unlike Steve Webb’s exhortation, I’m not going to go mad, but it is a significant change to my situation. I need to reflect upon the upside of spending, without being suckered into the stupid consumerism that promises but doesn’t deliver. I spent so much effort over the years to shoot needless spending, and I find I don’t know what to do here.

    Then last night we went out to the Fox at Newbourne to celebrate some more, and in returning we passed the Firm and I recalled the first time I had come there twenty-seven years ago, also in the night, and it felt as if the circle had turned now fully, when I change from being a retiree to being a pensioner 😉 The pub has positive memories from the Firm – many project topping out celebrations as well as a fair few summer lunchtimes dreaming up project ideas or setting the world to rights in the distant early years before the dotcom bust. It was a different world of work then, much more creative and less micromanaged routine paint by numbers…

    I froze all my SIPP savings in cash as of March 2012 because I believed I was leaving then and would have needed to liquidate that AVC fund as a pension commencement lump sum. It happened to be a local high for  the FTSE100 around the 5900 mark. I occasionally cursed myself in the intervening period for not leaving it invested, but I lived by the old rule of thumb – don’t have capital you expect to call on in less than five years in the markets. If the period is longer it’s worth taking the volatility of the markets because inflation will also be eating at the value. And as it turned out the FTSE100 is within spitting distance of March 2012. Had I kept it in the 50:50 FTSE/global fund I would be notably better off now. But what the hell. At the moment the stock market can’t hurt 2 my SIPP or main pension, and I’m okay with giving up the upside. I will take market risk all in the ISA and soem unwrapped equity holdings.

    I am now an oddity in the PF universe

    because I have crossed to the other side of the accumulation/decumulation divide. Most writers are in the accumulation phase. Indeed the only other exception I can think in the PF blogs I read is Jim. As such my aims and risk profile have changed in a big way. There are many standard FI/RE things on my old map that I will not need to do –

    no need for pension saving (beyond the £3600 to get £720 p.a free money for a few years). Having earnings has buggered this tax opportunity up somewhat anyway.

    While on zero income I carried an emergency fund of several tens of thousands in cash across the three years, because I needed to be my own lender of last resort in an emergency. Nobody lends money to someone without an income 3, but I have an income now. I was lucky – no emergency happened. Some of this erstwhile cash reserve needs to get invested and start working for me now that I have an income and could borrow against the future income stream again, in the same rationale as Jacob ERE. Of course I will still need an emergency fund of sorts, but much less. I will retain my NS&I ILSCs and shift the rest into a new S&S ISA. I don’t need the three-years expenses cash buffer to smooth investment income, because I won’t be living off investment income.

    I am nominally working in this tax year, it will be my 35th and final year of National Insurance to pay. I will electively pay that NI, to become fully paid up.  I asked for a State Pension forecast which is about £7100 p.a. It’s not quite clear to me where I got this good fortune, as I have been contracted out for 20 years, and the last time I asked for a statement in 2009 the amount was £5700 p.a. I am not sure I can rely on the existence of a State pension – it’s still another 12 years before I’d get it which is 12 years for some government to decide to means test it. If I were to get that then I personally would have an income of the typical UK household. That is more than enough for me.

    I have an ISA originally designed to compensate for the actuarial reduction to my pension from drawing it early, which is no longer required because I won’t draw early. A source of tax-free income is always nice, and I will continue to build this up, though the market crash will no doubt make this smaller in the near future. In the long run (10 to 20 years) it will compensate for the erosion of my pension relative to workers due to earnings inflation outstripping RPI, and gives me some buffer against modest strings of bad times. If peak oil happens, zombie apocalypse or other shocks to the system I am still stuffed of course. Otherwise I am like this Telegraph pensioner, I will never be rich, but I will never be poor. Thirty years is a long time – for perspective thirty years ago I was still working in London… Things will change.

    That ISA may begin to compound. I am not a great believer in compound interest in helping you get to financial independence. But once you reach FI, and in particular if you don’t need the income from a lump of capital, it starts to snowball. In its short life of about six years of contributions and no withdrawals, the accumulated dividend income has put in about a year’s worth of ISA allowance into the pot on top of my contributions, which is being reinvested. The ISA needs splitting and part transferring to other platforms, because it is now way over the FSCS guarantee 4.

    I don’t really know where I’m going with the ISA because the original aims has been overtaken by events and Osborne’s changes. But I will have a lot of cash looking for a home from that large emergency fund and the PCLS, and Fortune seems to be smiling on me by beating up the stock market for me in advance for 2016. I bought a lot of gold ETFs in stages in 2015 to try and get more defensive in the face of a frothy market, and up to RIT’s 5% asset allocation. This is the first and only of my 2015 purchases to turn a profit now. The less said about HRUB, oil, mining and emerging markets the better for now, though I confess to a temptation to double down on some of those. Every dog has its day 😉 OTOH if the market continues to take even more stick then that is a time to build the HYP too – you can’t build a HYP cheaply  in the heady heft of a bull market.

    What can go wrong

    There is always lots that can go wrong. Let’s face it, in the 1960s of my early life we had Kennedy and Khrushchev glowering across the Cuban Missile crisis and B52 bombers on 24/7 watch over the North Pole with nuclear bombs. Somehow, despite frequent accidents we survived. The 1970s had the oil crises and the Winter of Discontent as the unions manipulated the government like puppets on a string, and 26% annual inflation in 1979. The 1980s had two harsh recessions, a lot more Cold War sabre rattling, Thatcher’s goons in running battles with Arthur Scargill’s goons. The 1990s had the implosion of Russia and all the hazards that entailed, the slaughtering of UK housing as a can’t fail asset class and the Asian financial crisis which was the birth pangs of capitalism trying to adapt to a tripling of the world workforce as the Iron Curtain and other barriers to trade began to fall. The 2000s had the dotcom bust and some of that increasing world workforce weakening the power of labour versus capital in the West; we are still trying to work out where all the rubble is ongoing to fall. The 2010s seem to be about more geopolitical risk, and ugly confluence of mediaeval religious tenets with 21st century technology, along with a lot of chickens freed by the neocons coming home to roost. On the subject of religion, in one generation the West lost all the moral and intellectual principles that were lauded by Niall Ferguson for making it such an effective economic machine with its shared values from the Enlightenment – we are all consumers now. Those shared values had their problems too – they ossified the class system and justified a lot of actions we would now disapprove of, but they were a common myth of perhaps a different nature from our current one of continuous growth. We seem to be still working on a replacement story for how/why to be better at being human, which is probably not purely a materialistic enterprise. That’s a drag given our economic creed knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    So far we have survived. There will be change across the next thirty years, some of it welcome, some of it unwelcome. I think I have made a reasonable fist of hedging what I can. I do not have enough to hedge wars of all against all, zombie apocalypse or even the sort of aggravation Moneyweek has been trying to scare its readers shitless about to sell more magazines.

    There are far too many people in the world for us all to live the American Dream of the 1950s never mind like the Wolf of Wall Street, although I hazard that we could all live like kings of old materially.  But I have come to see the wisdom of accepting the uncertainty without dwelling on it – coffee for the things I can do something about, red wine for those that I can’t change. The bearish argument always sounds smarter. But as a way of living life to the full it sucks – it raises your blood pressure and makes you miserable. So I am going to park that. Yes, I may one day regret not having a bug out bag and guns and ammo. But hopefully I will also have missed living ten or twenty years thinking about the bug out bag and the ammo. Humans need to be careful gazing long into the abyss, because else the bastard will blink and look back into you.

    What I know will go wrong

    There are some things we do know. Brexit or not will scare the horses, and it’s an intricate mess from which it’s hard to see which way is up. Taxes will rise, because they have to, we’ve lived beyond our means for a long time and are still at it. For all the bellyaching income taxes are in fact at low levels in living history, which is part of the problem. The young Ermine at the start of his career paid a much bigger proportion of his pay in tax and national insurance 5 than the old Ermine in the last three years of his career. The solution to paying high taxes is be no tall poppy – live a reasonably economical life, because then you have the push-back of lots of people on your side. If you are going to live more than  a third up Fire V London’s scale you are going to pay a shitload of tax until you get into the upper reaches (whereupon you will pay clever people to avoid tax for you in creative and highly inventive ways). Likewise if you want to live in London and decide your children are special flowers who need private education, then this decision creates a fierce money burning furnace that you need to continually feed. You will find it difficult to minimise taxation and need to focus on increasing income to feed the fire. You takes your lifestyle choices and you pays your money.

    There may, however, be trouble in raising taxation. I can imagine the integration of NI and income tax, which would hit me with a tax hike on pension income. Reducing tax exemptions are another way. Pundits are screaming blue murder about tax relief above the basic rate on pension contributions. In the UK 15% of people pay over half the income tax take. Monevator is talking about going Galt with dark mutterings about  “supporting other people’s lifestyle choices, rather than the essentials of State and a worthwhile safety net”. This was a large part of my hitting pension savings hard too.

    On the other hand I find it hard to view people spending less time at the office as a bad thing. They really should spend more time with their children and see them grow up – my working class parents saw more of me growing up in the employment environment of 40 years ago than typical middle class parents both working to pay for their consumption do now. The latter of course have far more and better Stuff and numerous fast and furious fancy foreign holidays, but time isn’t a renewable resource. The days are long but the years are short. If the robots really are going to come for our jobs then more free time is an upside, not something going wrong 😉 The trouble is a lot of people won’t have that choice, the power structure is such that extra productivity will likely increase the return on capital rather than increasing overall human happiness. The solutions Asimov’s Solarians took to arranging their society so the humans had a high standard of living in a work-free world always cause palpitations in right-thinking people, so I don’t know how that will pan out.

    ambitions in things other than finance too

    There seems to be a big thing about goals and metrics in the PF community. Personally I think goals and metrics suck the joy out of life and work, so I don’t do that. But a total amorphous mess isn’t effective either, so I have some ambitions. January is a terrible time of year to try and start anything – we really should be starting our year somewhere between February and May so you get a bit of a leg-up in cheer and hope from Nature. Although if we are all going to sit behind screens in a virtual world like those Solarians perhaps that will become irrelevant in the years to come. We will become Spacers all watched over by machines of loving grace with “All other contact accomplished by sophisticated telepresence viewing systems”  – with the smartphone as the fore-runner of the technology.

    So rather than goals I am going to go for ambitions, and I will change my mind frequently and give some of them up ere the month is out in the time-honoured tradition 🙂

    No thanks. Unlike the rest of the country, I am lighter and richer in January ;)

    No thanks. Unlike the rest of the country, I am lighter and richer in January 2016  than in December 2015 😉

    I don’t need tosh like this – the joy of owning my own time is that life is more chilled, and as a result I eat better and less. It also helps that a lot of what I eat comes from the ground, not from the industrial food system, for that I have Mrs Ermine and the Oak Tree farm to thank.

    Chris with the squash harvest. There are no Clubcard points on this lot...

    Chris with the squash harvest. There are no Clubcard points on this lot…

    Unlike it appears the rest of the UK, I managed to lose weight in December, and have been for some time since retiring. It is within the realms of possibility that I may one day see the same weight as when I was 21, before I draw my main pension. This is an aspect of health that I persistently and continuously screwed up while working – retire and I discover the forces of natural equilibrium slowly shift to the right target. I have still never seen the inside of a stinky gym and I’m not going to. But I have the time to walk and bike to places within the town, I don’t usually drive unless I am going to leave the city limits or shift heavy stuff. It should be noted that average people like me 6 are way, way too lazy to lose weight through exercise. You can’t outrun a bad diet.

    I want to do some hillwalking, to see prehistoric stones, to travel more slowly, to cycle in interesting places 7 in the UK.

    Living frugally simplifies some decisions. I want to still live well and intentionally even if this simplification is lifted.

    I’m not drinking homebrew again.

    I want to learn morse code.

    One thing I want to do in 2016 is to bust some of the media junk out of my life and to read less crap. Before the millennium people wrote books because they had a story to tell, and publishers were valuable gatekeepers because they had to take a financial risk to publish. Increasingly it seems people write ebooks because it’s seen as a way of making money, rather than telling a story, they trade websites because they want to buy the clicks and SEO without adding value. Movie companies trot out sequels and prequels because they’re safe. All in all the media and information space is trending towards arbitrage and extractive rentierism, and the quality of material online and the signal to noise ratio of search results is falling. I spent perhaps too much of the last three years, looking at the world through screens. It was cheap and I learned a lot, but I noticed an increase in clickbait and content farming and a material decline in quality.

    I want to originate, and to co-operate with creative people. I want to tell stories because I think they are worth telling, and to create and shape things because I think they are interesting. And I am privileged enough to be rich enough that I don’t need to try and make a buck, I want to pursue the intellectual freedom to craft and leave my work to speak for itself.

    man-with-savingsI want to leave the world of grubbing for money behind, it is coarsening a lot of discourse as it becomes always-on. In the gig economy work spreads like velveeta into all waking hours. I occasionally talk to people and see the hungriness in their eyes as they are trying to compute whether I am a networking opportunity. I can save them the trouble. I am an introvert, a retiree and of independent means. My networking value to the gig economy is bugger all, I’m not swimming in the same ocean.

    I will engage if something interests me, but people find it hard to understand that it is difficult to incentivize an Ermine with money, despite it being the universal currency of making people do what you want. There are surprisingly few people of independent means in the modern world, despite that fact that Britain is a far richer country than we used to be. The ever-hungry money furnace of consumerism is making most of us poorer faster than human ingenuity and the accumulated capital and knowledge of generations is making us richer.

    I want to preserve the sweetness of this freedom from the rat race, expressed well in this 1960s ad. For thirty years I was motivated by earning more, before I was challenged by events to ask myself why. The learning and the wisdom gained in the crucible was hard won, to change the ‘just because it’s what everybody else does’ to ‘I need enough, and enough more than enough to match my risk perception and view of the world, and then stop and get off this hamster wheel’. Work is overrated – even a frugal Ermine could live like a king of old.

    On the flipside, I don’t do some of the things retirees do to fill their days. I don’t volunteer, because if you want a commitment from me you have to pay, to express some appreciation for the commitment. Otherwise you may get assistance from me, but on my own terms and with no strings. That’s just me, it’s not a criticism of other people living by different values.

    I can pursue some interests I mothballed because they were expensive, travel, birdwatching, recording and photography 8. I may buy the oscilloscope I considered a while ago.  In general it’s yes to experiences and tools and to things I use to make and do things with other people, no to the beach and no to ‘this XYZ (mobile phone, gizmo, whatever) will transform your life’ – it never does.

    I want focus. I want to do one thing at a time and pursue flow. I want to listen to music again as I did years ago – in the dark and on my hifi once it’s been repaired. I want to get off the modern trend towards doing three-and-a-half things badly rather than one thing well at any given time. I have trialled some of this with books – when I read books I read exclusively. And if the book bores me enough that I feel I want to do something else then after about five minutes I stop reading and decide this is not for me. I don’t listen to music or audiobooks when I am on my bike. I listen to the birds and try and be aware of the traffic around me, not immerse myself in a e-bubble. Consumerism being what it is, it is trying to turn this into the modern self-help religion of mindfulness. Two generations ago, parents and schoolteachers knew all about mindfulness with the two simple words – “pay attention” 🙂

    I want to keep regular use of smartphones out of my life. They have their uses, but they should not become a vade mecum, despite everybody else feeling that way. If Steve Hilton can run a tech startup without a phone a retired Ermine can resist becoming a gormless zombie illuminated by the blue glow of the latest iPhandroid whatever. It is very very hard to originate anything on a smartphone, but it is a fabulous tool for passive consumption and tethering to the Hive Mind. If I want to take pictures I’ll use a camera. If I am recording I will use an audio recorder. I don’t want to tote a device that does sixty-seven things all at half cock. Jennifer Lawrence was absolutely right. You can’t live your whole life behind your phone, bro

    That’ll do for ambitions for now. Across the lean years I learned how to bridge the gap with not enough, and now I want to learn to live well with enough, and live intentionally, and with grace and kindness. I am a different me from the mindless consumer, and I will handle the change slowly and carefully, because the world has become even more talented at invoking mindless consumerism, and presumably some of my inherent flaws are still latent. The challenge now is to spend wisely under my control, rather than being constrained by resources.

    So yes, I want to spend more this year than last. But I want to claim the gift of the seven lean years, and spend it to enhance the quality of my life and that of those I care about, rather than to fill my house with consumer trash and my time with empty manufactured experiences. And I’d like to learn to do it with gratitude. Because for all the challenges and the doomsday razamatazz on the news, I live in a special time and place, where humanity has solved a lot of tough problems and it’s working on more. I want to tip my hat to the giants on whose shoulders we all stand, and not waste that gift in the time I have left.


    1. this is conveniently and by design roughly the maximum rate I can draw keeping below the tax threshold, plus 25% from the PCLS
    2. obviously an unending economic crash would take me out like everyone else
    3. this is not strictly true, there are all sorts of bottom-feeding lowlife scum that lend money to people who don’t have incomes. I’m just not prepared to swim in that foetid pool
    4. note this is £50,000 on S&S ISAs not the higher £75,000 level for cash deposits. This is protection against your platform going bust, not against you making bad investment decisions
    5. the single person’s personal allowance was appallingly low in 1982, less than a quarter of a modest pay level, then tax on the rest at 30% plus NI at 9% means the youthful Ermine paying 39% was closer to a modern HRT taxpayer at 42% marginal than a BRT taxpayer at  32%, and paid that high tax on much more of his modest salary than the old Ermine, although that was distorted by pension contributions of the latter
    6. I deeply detest all sports and have done ever since school, and yet it is quite remarkable that a sport-loathing Ermine is in fact a lot less inactive than much of the adult population of the UK. Just nowhere near active enough to shift the needle on the dial regarding weight
    7. taking the bike most of the way there in my camper van 😉
    8. I actually turned a profit on the latter two over the last three years. But I was using fossil wealth in terms of gear bought while working, and was limited in opportunity by limitations in finance
    30 Dec 2015, 7:39pm
    living intentionally reflections


  • October 2016
    M T W T F S S
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  • Archives

  • a look back at 2015 and how does an Ermine return to the middle class?

    It surprised me as a retiree to find a load of bored and squally children and far too many excitable hounds in a nearby rec on Monday, I wondered why at least some of these blighters aren’t back at work. Until UK Bank Holidays set me right, apparently they still had the day off. So it was time to ignore the great outdoors because there were too many people and mutts with cabin fever, and time to look at charts and find out this is the year the old internet died…

    I have passed the point of no return and the soft surrender to gravity has begun

    Decline and fall

    Decline and fall of my networth (excludes housing NW and pension savings)

    The rot is starting to show, bearing in mind I started in the heady days of 2009. I have not had a good 2015 in the markets – the effect of that on my networth is softened massively because there is over half of cash in this, and I have been lucky that inflation has been low in recent years, because only some of this cash is protected by ILSCs. That is because I have been coasting, and slowly my operating cash is dropping.  As a pensioner rather than retiree I will have a more predictable income than when working, although it is still subject to the vagaries of hyperinflation, financial destruction/repression and the usual force majeure of zombie apocalypse. It’s the loss of income from involuntary redundancy that is no longer a hazard for me, rather than there are no hazards.

    The point of no return

    The accumulated capital represented by this chart is not enough for me to live on, that much is clear. Many journeys reach a point of no return – originally an aviation term from where a departing aircraft has burned through too much fuel to return to the starting point. Networth is like fuel, it is a stock, not a flow, and interestingly enough the first metaphorical use of the term was in a novel about someone’s career.

    There is a psychological symbolism in seeing that, a visceral change very much like the change in note that tells the traveller that the final approach has begun. Were this in fact my entire pension savings I don’t know how that would feel. It’s perfectly rational to expect switchbacks in networth on an equity-exposed pension fund, let’s face it, we are well into a long bull run, indeed soon into next tax year we will be into the second longest bull run in history and already pundits are lining up to tell us that it’s all different this time. If that isn’t a sign that there’s a mahoosive bear market limbering up in the wings then I don’t know what is. One of the things I have learned in 1999 is don’t buy in the endgame of bull markets, and I paid handsomely for that tuition. One of the other useful things I learned since is do buy in bear markets, building a HYP, originally to buffer me across this gap and repair my actuarially reduced pension. What I didn’t realise is that you can only really add to a HYP in bear markets. In bull markets like now people simply charge you too much for earnings. The gains from compounding are paltry enough at the long-run 4-5% average of the market. You won’t live long enough to see the wins if you start paying 33 times the future income stream or more.

    The original premise behind the HYP held true

    I have added a column in Excel to identify my original HYP shares and it is still yielding over 4%, the variation in numerical dividend year on year is low. Now some pundits are saying that dividends are on the hit list next year. So maybe this time next year is the time for a wobble in the HYP return.

    I’ve taken a pasting because you have to look in strange places for bearishness these days – I’ve been bazookad in  Brazil, routed in Russia, mashed in mining, obliterated in oil, modestly eviscerated in emerging markets and gently gutted in gold. Indeed the one thing I seem to be learning in 2015 is that I am a really, really, rotten index investor – with a lot of this I accepted  the limits of my knowledge and went for indexing, but an indexing investor is still not passive investor, as Robert Kirby of the Coffee Can Portfolio told us in 1984. I should stick to HYP stockpicking 😉 But hey, that’s the nature of the markets eh, you gotta buy what’s hated, and boy are these sectors really hated at the moment. They were hated early ths year, they’re hated now. they’ll probably still be hated in a year’s time. People will probably have got over it in 5-10 years’ time. They’ll hate something else instead.

    I’m sure there will be some generalised bearishness coming along. Because whatever people say it isn’t all different now. The markets were kind to me when I needed them to be, from when I first started charting a way out of work since 2009, because the steaming bull market acting on my investments stiffened the spine and fought the decline until now, but the decline is there, and it is all down to that Micawber fellow – fundamentally the Ermine lived beyond his means in 2015, and we all know you shouldn’t do that. Of course there is much debate about how long the integration time should be before you decide you are living dangerously. But when the annual lift of an ageing bull run is not enough to end the year better off than at the start then it’s safe to say the red lamp on the dashboard has at least come on.

    I can be chilled about the beginning of the end because although it’s taken me six months to get absolutely nowhere with the enterprise, next tax year I can start the engines of a new income stream – first my DC savings to burn up and cast off before my main DB pension, taken at its normal retirement age in five years time. Neither of these depend on the stock market. Of course at the moment these are latent energy – you never really know that the engine opposing the pull towards the earth will fire up until you hear the whump and feel the fall begin to arrest. The way Hargreaves Lansdown and The Firm are dragging it out doesn’t give me a great feeling this will be an instant start, although I only want it to begin next tax year. Whether they will get their act together in three months is unknown. Certainly the takeaway is if you want to move AVCs to a SIPP, start at least 12 months ahead of when you want it to happen!

    It’s harder to get a multistage journey to becoming a pensioner right, because it would be perfectly possible to run out of money in one part of the journey though overall you’d be good. My exile from the middle class was twice as long as it needed to be because until Osborne introduced a way for me to turn it into a three-stage plan, burning up my DC cash in front of my main pension drawn at NRA, it was a two stage plan, and the first stage would be cresting now. I would have had to switch my ISA into decumulation mode or drawn the pension early, thus losing some of it.

    This dilemma will hold in some form for all early retirees, where early is defined as retiring before the age they can draw pension savings. They will have to balance ISA capital against pension capital. I have been lucky that I did not need to decumulate my ISA – I have never drawn a penny from it.

    But while I know that I have reserves before I have to consider the dreaded Work word again, the feeling in the stomach as I watch the aggregate of working cash plus stock crest and the long slow fall has begun is not easy. I can know a thing but not feel it 😉

    The symbolism of the turning point

    So much written about personal finance is about the how of the finance, but it is also about the why, In this quiet period, I have also had time to think, and perhaps to hark back to the philosophy of M Scott Peck in The Road not Travelled. Although incidental to his main topic, he introduced the concept that living life well inevitably involves coming to terms with loss. We must surrender old forms in order to embrace the opportunities of change. I left the middle class and their consumer ways in 2009 because I had to. It turned out in principle I could earn enough capital to cross the gap from 52 to 55, and as the networth chart shows, this was the case. I had a lot of luck, it sure didn’t look like it was going to pan out that way at the start. Equities looked shot to bits in 2009, and there’s another dog that hasn’t barked yet, which is high levels of inflation. That absence let me stay in so much cash for so long and not be slaughtered. Unlike many, I am happy enough with cash if I find most of it still there when I come back for it. Turning an income on it is a bonus, not an assumed right. I am familiar with the difference between saving and investing, and don’t expect a return on savings. When I have a steady income again, I will run some of that cash down into the ISA.

    I made it to the other side. I can entertain restoring some of  those consumer ways, but just like with TV, the seven lean years showed me a truth I hadn’t known, which is that much of the consumption consumed but delivered no value to me. That sort of consumption needs to remain junked. I saw a lot of new forms of it yesterday – zombies watching tiny screens blinking against the sun trying to stay in another world, while their bored kids and hounds yelled and yapped to try and gain some attention from the virtual world into the real world.

    Another turning point – consumerism doesn’t always mean handing over money. There are new forms of consumption now, it can also mean handing over headspace.

    Consumption is changing as a result of the smartphone – indeed the smartphone itself is in a class of its own as a consumer product, changed every two years as the world changes.

    The smartphone itself is close to a universal product for humanity – the first 1 the tech industry has ever had. 

    the smartphone is the new sun – Benedict Evans

    The battle of advertising is not so much for money as also for attention. I confess that while I had observed the changes I have also been suckered by them too, until I read a couple of seminal pieces. Both are long-form, which is unusual in itself now. They read better in an armchair by the fire on a Kindle using something like Send To Reader (now that the useful part of it is free again 🙂 ) than in glowing letters on a laptop with the screen set the wrong way for reading, or on a sucky smartphone display.

    The first one is 2015 is the year the old internet finally died, which is of course a clickbaity sort of title. I’ve never been good at writing decent headlines – pretty much each and every one of mine on here sucks. 2

    The article has the usual examples, the slightly off-the-wall thesis, but it also has truth and analysis, and it sold the concept to me. It also gelled with a few experiences I’ve had – I have been on the web in various forms since 1994, and webmaster and forum operator of a few online communities. Much of this fell away in the new millennium, initially with the rise of blogging, oddly enough, to which I came late 😉 Todd did me a big favour when he wrote

    The internet has made it clear that the kinds of things that people want to read are sort of an endless collection of what’s cool.

    because I realised what started to really piss me off about Facebook as a reader, to the extent that I don’t use it in any big way now other than to receive messages from a few people who only use that medium. I could live with the cat pictures. I can live with the listicles, because I have finally gotten it through my fat head that is a headlines starts with “The 5,10, 7, however many things you need to know about” then I don’t need to know. Ever. Either my general education is that much better than the sort of people/machines that generate listicles or I am just an arrogant sonofabitch and think this is the case. I have saved a lot of three-minute slices of life that I will never live again by getting that straight.

    Although I’d vented in Facebook becomes Evil, the rant was about the ways it was evil – the symptoms and the cause, but not the mechanism.  Todd’s sentence sums up the fundamental problem. And while it isn’t as bad in me as in many people, the evil lies within, and the search for novelty and distraction rings in resonance to the tinkling siren song from without.

    Todd hat-tipped a deeper article by Hossein Derakhshan, a dude who apparently has done time for what he’s blogged about in an earlier life. One of the things about consumerism is its insidious nature – we don’t often get an opportunity to step outside the stream for a while. As The Atlantic put it

    The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness.

    There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more. 

    And you know what? I was shit-for-brains and people had to spell it out for me, because this all happened slowly. Boiling of frogs and all that. The evidence lies all around us in the twisted wreckage of the erstwhile forums and communities that once existed, but are no longer, replaced by Facebook groups and the like of people beating their chests and going Look at Me. No community around a forum that I have been a part of has ever improved by moving to Facebook, because Facebook brings out the narcissist in us all by making all about us. It does so cleverly. After all, you may decide this blog is all about the narcissist in me, let’s face it the first person singular is everywhere, that’s what a blog is, FFS. But if I bore you then you stop reading. I won’t come after you and jam my prognostications in your face in a timeline of “New In –  Read This” In forums and on Usenet you used to be able to killfile/block people whose inanities sucked, and while you’d still see the background radiation of other people’s replies it worked okay. But Facebook is all about you, and each and every you, and it just seems to trash the level of discourse in any topic to become trivia and drivel. Maybe it’s the company I keep 😉 None of my ex-college pals are on Facebook, so the dumb finger of dumbness does sort of point at me. Why do I know so may people who only use Facebook messaging for communication – this is why I still have Facebook, though I use email to receive and send messages.

    I guess if you do time in a Tehran jail you get to step outside the Stream for a while, six years until the bird of luck sat on Derakshan’s shoulder and he was freed. Sparked up his laptop, brave fellow, and started to write, and posted to Facebook, and then went WTF – what is this black hole – because in the six years he had been out of the loop an army of social media companies had zombified the hyperlink – what Derakshan  called the currency of the web.

    But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage — and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

    More or less, all theorists have thought of gaze in relation to power, and mostly in a negative sense: the gazer strips the gazed and turns her into a powerless object, devoid of intelligence or agency. But in the world of webpages, gaze functions differently: It is more empowering. […]

    On the other hand, the most powerful web pages are those that have many eyes upon them. Just like celebrities who draw a kind of power from the millions of human eyes gazing at them any given time, web pages can capture and distribute their power through hyperlinks.

    But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.

    Now I do appreciate the irony of perhaps being part of the problem, although at least I don’t knowingly force myself into the ticker-tape of the window to your world that is Facebook (or twitter or whatever your virtual poison is). I’m not berating you, anyway. I am berating myself, because 2015 was not just the year the old internet died, but a year where I read too much shit and failed to stop myself. Well, other than stopping Facebook, which was beginning to make me despair of the pedestrian nature of the human condition. We will know when Artificial Intelligence has finally prevailed if Facebook can ever understand the simple instruction

    Don’t ever show me another baby picture. While you’re at it, never show me a picture with a mutt in it. And go easy on the cats, particularly if there’s a caption.

    A half-decent butler could do that without breaking a sweat. WTF is this so hard for computers – after all they can thrash us at chess and people keep telling us how smart they are getting? Until there’s a great big button on Facebook NO MORE BABY PICTURES, GEDDIT! 3 we will know that AI is remains a technology in the still working on it class.

    Now it’s entirely possible that this post is simply the bitter and twisted rantings of a misanthropic git after too much post-Christmas cheer. The world has always had change – in former times agitprop, fanzines and underground knowledge were done by mimeographs and spirit duplicators, then we had economical photocopying, then somebody invented the word processor with the glacial and screaming progress of a dot-matrix printer, then somebody invented the laser printer, and in 1992 Berners Lee came up with a practical implementation of hypertext at the same time as modems got faster than the speed you can read, and we have been through all these changes but the nature of human storytelling hasn’t changed much since prehistory. The problem we are generating, however, is that we used to tell stories to, well, tell a story – the message trumped the medium.

    The medium and the message are becoming one, at the cost of the message

    The noise to signal ratio is rising, and Google is losing the fight. Actually Google may not be losing the fight from their POV but because I block ads I don’t see their success 😉

    The Internet has been awesome for all sorts of engineering. In the early part of my career every lab had to have a massive set of integrated circuit databooks that took up half a bench just so you could get to wire the darn things up the right way and know what they could and could not do. Now you just Google the part number and PDF and you’re all set. I have only ever formally learned two computer languages (both as a postgraduate) – Modula-2 and Pascal. Some I learned from books, but nearly all the internetty ones, Perl, PHP, C, C++, Java, Javascript, Visual Basic, c#, various forms of SQL were learned off the internet through search engines and other people’s websites. Sometimes these were confirmed in formal training afterwards.

    And yet this is now breaking down, because of the dramatic increase in misinformation. I feel this greatest in electronics – not only do patient folks have to try and do the class assignments of half of Asia’s EE students, where the questions are never couched in the form of “how do I go about this”.

    It getting increasingly hard to find authoritative secondary sources on things technical on the net, what with the ranks of eager but uneducated makers 4 I had a board which had a common maker chip, an Arduino chip on it along with a radio modem. I wanted to know an easy way to reset the blighter 5 It took a long time to become reasonably convinced that a safe way to do that is ground reset through a capacitor, and I ran into a wall of misinformation about whether the capacitor was necessary, optional or unnecessary. And that’s because the X Files tagline may well be right. The truth is out there. But the indexing function that lets you find it is beginning to fail, because the essential currency of the hyperlink is being subsumed into the currency of the ever flowing stream. As an example, there are links enough from here to Monevator, because in general he is a reliable source and explains stuff clearly. While he is generous with his links, I would imagine there are fewer the other way, which is entirely correct, because not only is he more reliable, he is more focused and more consistent. In that way Google can know the relative worth. At times I might post three times as many articles as Monevator, and the Stream will push them higher. But the Stream will not be right. Google will be, in general, once they have graded out the lowlife trying to game the system.

    The Stream did not wane.

    I have the advantage of two years of hindsight on The Atlantic, so I know they were wrong when they said.

    Because I think it might be why 2013 is seen as the year the stream started to wane.

    It became a torrential flood, because it matched the limitations of the smartphone web and fed a new wave of consumerism, vapid electronic gizmos like Fitbit that give people the feeling of control as they are tracked. Don’t get me wrong – I am not inherently against this, indeed one of the things I may do with my new found affluence is camp in some of the more attractive parts of the UK and yomp up some of the more modest hills and go track myself and others on the radio because I can and it is a slight challenge.

    But to be tracked everywhere, and heck to be in sold to everywhere? That’s nuts to me, though everyone else seems to think it a great thing. I like the interstitial times, though my perspective is atypical because pretty much all my travelling is elective rather than the commuter grind now.

    Ending a sabbatical from the middle class

    I am glad I came across this concept of the changes in the Internet in the dog days of 2015, where reflection and observation are easy. Yes, as a retiree I am not bound by the daily grind, but pace of the collective consciousness slows for a little while, it is easier to take on new ideas. In the months to come I will have largely solved the problem of personal finance, and my seven-year sabbatical from the middle class will draw to an end. I could, though don’t have to, rejoin the melee. Hopefully wiser, and less exposed to the temptations. But in a much fainter echo of Derakshan’s exile, I am like the Christians of his story.

    Seven years of exile is a long time – a tenth of my lifetime if it is typical, so the unwritten assumptions many people make I will not share because the continuum has been broken. I will also not share many of the values, and in some areas there will be what looks like asceticism, because I have seen that while everybody spends on some things they don’t deliver value for me. I may be in that world I will not be of it. Seven years of living differently changes a fellow. There are some things that people do easily and trivially without thinking that I would find it really hard to do. These range from watching TV to darkening the threshold of a high street chain coffee shop on my own. I made the exception for my mother, but on my own I would struggle to open my wallet at the till. Not because there wouldn’t be enough money in it, but because of the voice in the back of my head hollering “You don’t even like extra milky coffee FFS. Don’t spend money on shit that won’t deliver value for you, even if the sum is trivial”. I struggled to find anything fit to eat in Westfield, Stratford – because it was all overpriced junk, not because I had insufficient cash in my wallet.

    Even in everyday areas I am different, I still wash dirty crockery by hand, for instance, which is considered hair-shirt nowadays. In 2009 most people but not everyone I knew had dishwashers. My ex-second-line manager took a double-take that there were such primitive poverty-stricken heathens among his employees. David Cain from Raptitude who live a mindful and ascetic life considered it a rad experiment. This is a fellow who can live on powdered MREs otherwise known as Soylent, FFS. A young couple we know who go everywhere on push-bikes, don’t possess a car for ethical reasons and even use trains to go places in Britain needed a dishwasher enough to tolerate the plumbing as a major trip-hazard on the way to the bog. I like their style, and they got it secondhand for £25.

    There are many “essential” accoutrements for gracious affluent living that I just don’t have. I may adopt some of them again. I will get my hi-fi power amplifier repaired, because I have missed that, but not enough to rustle up the hundreds of pounds to get the shorted transformer fixed. At least the magic smoke didn’t escape through the speakers. I will experiment with some different ways of travel, though I will probably still eschew flying unless I can use flexibility to fill return legs on private charter. It is low-cost flying, or more the sort of flyers low cost flying attracts that I want to avoid, and while I could afford business class for the amount of flying I would do, it doesn’t get you far enough from some sorts of botheration. I will also investigate if this is a feature of British low-cost airlines and airports – when I used to travel extensively for business I observed the general standard of behaviour in other European airports was much better than in the UK. But air travel was much dearer than then it is now – a shorthaul flight cost about £400 in today’s terms. I would rather pay £400 each way and not have to share with some of the fellow-travellers on airlines now 😉

    I will return to no peer-group, no Joneses to keep up with. Slightly to my shame in my working life I did spend some money on things to keep up appearances where they weren’t things I particularly cared about. I will try to avoid that sort of thing.

    Like Derakshan I also return to a different electronic world. The one I left in 2009 was one which hadn’t been balkanised by platforms – you could reach most people by either phone/text or email. Now some people never do email, just Facebook messaging. Some only use whatsapp. Some are SMS mavens. Some use all sorts. I don’t really know what to do with this sort of patchwork. Perhaps I am being overtaken by change, and will always be a stranger in a strange land from now on.

    Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: a loss of intellectual power and diversity.


    We fought so hard to free ourselves from the chains of walled gardens like AOL in the 1990s, then 20 years later we embrace the social media walled garden and surrender the open web.

    Derakshan writes intelligently about the how and why of what is happening from both a technical standpoint and the softer political balance-of-power standpoint. I guess six years bird gives you time to think things through.

    In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some – Instagram, for instance – serious enough to block.


    While he may feel the decline and fall harder – after all it was a big part of his life and the world is full of actors mourning the closing of the final curtain, he has a point – we are drifting towards the bread and circuses end of the spectrum.

    The Stream is a hazard to me, because I don’t understand it, didn’t grow up with it, it is rammed to the gills with advertising payload and manipulative shit to get me to spend money on worthless shit, to create FOMO in me. How do I take on this new world of the Stream? At the moment, having recognised the problem, I am mindful to not take it on at all. It looks one-sided to me – a mechanism to pump more and more incentives to spend on ephemeral consumption, and also to find more and more about how I work. Ad-block plus (and some other plugin) blocks ads on social media – it was a genuine surprise to me when I saw how ad-infested Facebook was. But with apps there is nowhere to hide from ads, though I may be able to block the sources with an access control list on the wifi at home. My motives are increasingly at variance with the values of the Stream.

    I write this blog because I find the discourse with and among commenters interesting and it is good to play with ideas with interesting people. I do have ads, but I would hope you are bright enough to use ad-block plus if you find it bothersome. I don’t get hung up on reach or clicks or whatever – interesting discourse is what I get out of it. I don’t know how people find this – I presume by the old currency of the hyperlink. Hopefully I am of some service to you as readers by occasionally making you think, or laugh, or come across something different. It all sounds so terribly old-fashioned compared to the Stream. I don’t have any social media buttons on here. One of the reasons is because it once got me canned for being a CPU resource hog, but when that was resolved I asked myself what’s the point? I am not a social media maven, I don’t give a toss, and I can afford not to give a toss. If the world gets bored with me then so be it, I will have ceased to add value, time to move on.

    Some things I can do in 2016:

    I can try and live intentionally when it comes to getting and consuming information. I have reached an uneasy truce with facebook (messaging only). I have mastered the termination of the listicle, and I was never that drawn to video or podcasts as information sources because they are linear and the data rate is execrably slow. I want to read and see diagrams to learn how something works, don’t tell me or show me. The world is, however, drifting much more to a video presentation form of that. There is only one thing in the world I have come across that needed video to educate me, and that was the studio over-under method of coiling cables so they don’t end up a tangled mess next time

    Everything else is writing done with the wrong medium IMO 😉

    I need to work the heck out what the Stream is advertising to me and reduce my exposure, because I am pretty damn sure I am not interested. At the moment ad-block plus blocks a lot of this crap, but there is an arms race beginning between the admen and the blocking. At the moment if a site does say we won’t play unless you turn your ad blocker off I simply go “f*ck you” and am off. I’m not playing that game.

    I don’t pay for what I can’t touch.

    I am, of course, part of the trouble. The Internet taught me a simple maxim, which I have applied when it comes to information. Don’t pay for something you can’t touch. I don’t buy ebooks, I don’t buy virtual digital media. When I look at my CDs I see I used to buy a lot of media, particularly books and CDs. I used to buy the paper every so often, I never pay for the electronic version. So while I have bitched at length about how vapid the ephemeral Web is now, I was part of the execution squad, and now I look at the mess and wonder if I really got what I wanted. I got the price down, but I seem to have destroyed the value. At least I can say it wasn’t just me, I wasn’t there most of the time and I certainly wasn’t the only one.

    Maybe I should favour print again – I include Kindle books in that and library ebooks. I read a few books over the last couple of weeks, shite fiction, but at least there was the beginning, the narrative and the end. It’s now much easier to borrow ebooks from the library. Once I have repaired the amplifier, then perhaps I will buy music again – secondhand CDs  are ridiculously cheap nowadays, and I can download a oddball selection of material as mp3s from the library.

    The not paying for what I can’t touch rule saves me from a lot of consumerism. A lot is presented in terms of subscriptions, which I absolutely do not touch at all, with a single exception for the RSPB, so that’s a whole class of consumer fail eliminated. Netflix, Sky TV, Spotify, mobile phone subscriptions, the TV licence.

    So I really don’t know what I will do on returning to the disposable income of the middle class. Perhaps the wilderness changed me, and I can never go back. Maybe that is my message for fellow FI seekers. The road is long, and narrow with a bottomless chasm on either side. Once you have spent time in a place like that, you will never be the same when it meets the wide road of consumerism and dissipation again, because you were forced on your own resources and to ask yourself ‘what do you stand for, where are you going, whom do you serve, who do you trust and what do you want’. The soft blandishments of unthinking consumerism just don’t appeal after you have sought the answer to some of those.

    But enough of that negativity – what will I be prepared to pay for? Well, decent restaurant meals, though not too often due to hedonic adaptation, perhaps better red wine and eternal security from the ravages of homebrew in all its forms. Decent tools, things I can make stuff with. Replacement walking boots. Parts to experiment with. Time in the outdoors in places interesting creatures may occupy. Sojourns at Congham Hall. Slow travel. Maybe bike rides and tea rooms – chain coffee sucks but afternoon tea in a non-chain is okay. I can get my bike in my camper van – I am not as hard as Mr Z’s 200 miles a month 😉

    While some of it is middle class consumerism, I will get better value, because I took that narrow road. I learned that I didn’t miss chain coffee shops, movies, and loads of frippery. That can stay put.

    And above all, I’m not going to move an inch until H&L has sorted their crap out. I want to feel the rumble of that second stage finance booster up and running before I open any of this consumerism out. Because nobody, but nobody, got anywhere good in personal  finance ignoring that Micawber fellow.


    1. Funny, I thought it was fire, but what the hell.
    2. The art of writing a headline is the art of an editor, and because I am not a professional writer inasmuch as while I have earned thousands of pounds writing I have never lived off it exclusively. It’s particularly bad with blogging I have to make the headline first; the post too easily ends up drifting into something different. I did try reading a few articles on how to get better at this, but either I inherently have no talent for it or I just can’t get enough distance from the post in a day or so.
    3. I don’t have anything against babies, I was one myself I hear. But in a true wonder of evolutionary development while they are stupendously fascinating to anybody genetically related to them, they get a bit samey in a Facebook feed after a while particularly if you don’t even know the happy parents. What is said/can be said about a baby is very limited in scope, and the supply of  piss-poor smartphone baby pictures is fecund. Whole Facebook galleries of them, sitting in server farms in the frozen wastes of the North with trucks backing up changing out the RAID hard disks that fail under the load of keeping this ready for when the world runs dangerously low on baby pictures. Thank God we invented digital photography when we did, because we would be living in a world devoid of silver if this nascent demand had been addressed with film. As for bodily functions, the Bard probably took it as far as necessary in All the World’s a Stage with mewling and puking. It gets into TMI after that…
    4. I’m not saying ‘makers’ are dumb – the vast majority of them are sharp enough. The tragedy is that  they are too busy making stuff to write about it, although one who does write cogently and where you can never go wrong with is ladyada
    5. Every microprocessor since Intel’s 4004 in 1971 has a reset pin. Atmel tell you the reset is pin 1 in the ATmega328 datasheet. However, the Arduino has a bootloader so you can program it using itself. Sometimes things like that mean that you could bugger it up royally if you do something funky with the regular reset pin
    4 Dec 2015, 8:32pm
    personal finance reflections:


  • October 2016
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  • Archives

  • The future of work looks like becoming a relentless rat race

    The Grauniad has some good articles on the future of work out today, and it looks like going to seven degrees of hell unless we can seriously reduce the number of people who want/need work. The latter is quite possible, but it is a social and political problem. I guess I can take some solace from being part of the solution, leaving the workforce eight years early. The issues were foreseen in the depths of the 1930s Depression by John Maynard Keynes with his piece on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes extrapolated some of the trends from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the 1930s, and increasing productivity, and figured we’d all be working less. These trends are being amplified by automation and to a smaller extent globalisation. As one of their commenters observed about automation

    “Automation is fundamentally the substitution of capital for labour. The problem is that the people who already have the capital are the ones who will benefit most, because they’re the ones who will invest in the new automation.”

    That, fundamentally, is why some of you are pitching for FI as soon as you can get there. Because you want to be on the side of Capital…, you want to be on the winning side of the fight 😉

    Let’s take a look at some of the other issues

    Workplace Structures/Delayering

    If we ignore summer jobs as a kitchen porter, an Ermine travelled from Technician -> team technician -> (interruption of MSc) -> design Engineer -> research engineer -> international team leader -> strategic engineering consultant-> then some period of wilderness as coder, pseudo ‘intrapreneur’ 1 then running into the flack and financial crisis that made me want to get out-> engineering consultant on prestige project -> right outta there

    That’s roughly seven layers up the greasy pole, and it got harder as time got by, because of this delayering as well as the natural narrowing of the pyramid. I had to switch across four companies and three cities to get there. The Guardian tells me

    Rather than moving up in one direction, ambitious employees will be able to move sideways, tapping into new networks

    Am I the only cynical bastard who reads this and thinks, well that’s fine and dandy for the company, but WTF is in it for the ambitious employee? Sideways moves come with sideways pay. I heard a load of this bullshit at The Firm in the latter years where they were thinning out the management structure, the aim of one prize prick was only six levels ‘twixt the lowliest employee and the CEO. As a result we had line managers trying to manage over two hundred people at some point. Be that as it may, the ambitious employee does get to broaden their experience, true, and in places like London where you can find enough other places to work this may be showing up as a positive force because you take this and sell it to another firm for the pay rise you didn’t get in the sideways move. Look at the career progression the ONS shows for younger cohorts (I am roughly the middle track)

    career progression is much faster now

    career progression is much faster now

    It seems to indicate career progression is much faster now. So maybe it all works out all right in the end, although it doesn’t really square with Merryn Somerset-Webb’s commentary on the extent of the welfare state or indeed nearly five million households on working tax credits 2. If the ONS chart is really adjusted for inflation as it claims then all I can say is that inflation adjusted real money doesn’t seem to stretch anywhere near as far as it used to 😉 It’s the old saw –  luxuries are much cheaper now while essentials like housing and childcare have gone up like a bastard…

    Intrapreneurship? WTF?

    “Large organisations have a huge challenge in attracting the millennial generation to come and work for them. Those people expect much more entrepreneurial environments – more freedom to operate, less control,” says Philippe De Ridder, co-founder of the Board of Innovation, a consultancy firm

    Philippe, me old mucker, I don’t know what you’re smoking at the Board of Innovation but it must be good and I bet it isn’t legal. Out there in the real world some of those poor bastards from the millennial generation are working on London for bugger all, otherwise known as interning, because presumably these large organisations are struggling to attract talent so they have to pay….boom..tish….nothing? The Guardian offers internships here and some, though not all are even paid these days 😉

    Another piece of the interning pie is this sort of thinking:

    Van der Mersch argues that there are career development opportunities for cloud workers, with many startups using the site as a way of testing out freelancers to see if they’re a good cultural fit before offering them a permanent job – and vice versa.

    There’s already the interesting concept of a permanent job at a startup – over half of startups fail within the first five years making the permanence a moot point. I learned some things with that Web design stuff, in particular that people who want you to work for free will never pay you properly. True character will out…

    Not all of us want to be startup entrepreneurs

    There’s a much larger social perspective here, which is what do most of us want to do with our lives? Do we really want to give so much headspace to working, or do some of us want to  turn up, do a reasonable day’s work and then go home and do something with the rest of our lives, you know, all the way from having children to maybe doing something other than work? How the hell have we come to this ugly pass where earning a living takes up so much nervous energy and angst, in what is a rich First World country? Now some of it is due to globalisation and the fact that two thirds of the world (the Communist countries and what used to be known as the Third World) were largely outside the capitalist system, and now this has changed the water is finding its own level. Living standards in the First World will have to fall until they meet rising living standards elsewhere. That’s not enough, IMO, to explain all of what’s happening to labour. Some of the problem is increased mobility and communications. A hundred years ago if you were the carpenter in your town you didn’t have to be the best for 200 miles around, just the best for 20 miles around and you’d have a lifetime of work. Whereas now if you want to grok code for Google, you’d best be among the upper reaches of the bell curve compared with people in a radius of five thousand miles. There are no middle-level regional search engines.

    The gig economy is all right for some and not for others

    I’m with Lucy Kellaway on this FT article – one of the biggest issues about freelancing is that a lot of it isn’t about the work, it’s about getting the work.

    You are forced to become a one-woman sales team, endlessly having to flog yourself — which means networking and being nice to people you don’t like much. You also have to do all your own tiresome admin and then, when your computer crashes, you have to be your own IT help desk, too.

    FWIW I have some experience of running a separate company, I ran a modestly successful web design operation on the side for a few years. But what I above all else hated about the job was selling and finding new business, and in the end I wound it up when a large customer moved their work in house. Some of us just don’t want this endless fight. Being a startup entrepreneur is a fantastic story and it’s great for some people – but I’d put that number of people at a lot less than half of us.

    For a contrary view on the precariat Money Week tells us that yer average self-employed geezer is on £50k p.a. It’s a classic example of lies, damned lies and statistics, since this assertion comes from Boox who presumably have the same supplier of marching powder as Philippe, since they are making this rosy conclusion on a sample of 1000 of the self-employed and when you ask the ONS then you find that the median income from self-employment has declined to £207 p.w or £10764 p.a. Nice creative use of sample bias, Boox. Presumably the self-employed army of Avon and Betterware and Kleeneze reps who infest my letterbox with their worthless tracts to get enough self-employment income to claim tax credits rather than be mentally tortured for being unemployed under the DWP sanctions system don’t need Boox accounting services 😉 Roll on the universal income if only so that I will be able to find the odd real letter among the blizzard of multilevel marketing material one day.

    This is what many Britons mean by self-employment. You can easily get your 16 hours a week hawking crap like this. £50,000 p.a.? I guess it's possible in theory, unlikely in practice

    Avon catalogue I think. I don’t read dross like this though I could wish people didn’t get uptight if I throw it away. This is what many Britons mean by self-employment. You can easily get your 16 hours a week hawking crap like this. £50,000 p.a? I guess it’s possible in theory, unlikely in practice

    That’s the trouble with working from home opportunities. If you need someone to design the business for you, you’re always going to be on the bottom rung at best. Part of the reason is encapsulated in the Google strapline for that link

    Working from home is a great option if you want to spend more time with your children. 

    Trying to process self-employed statistics is always going to be the devil’s own job because of the wider range of forms of self-employment. Presumably the Government will move an Ermine from the ranks of the economically inactive – a slightly offensive term for a beast with investment income of a significant part of the NMW, to the ranks of the self-employed though I will still be virtually catatonic in terms of hours a week worked. The only information HMRC collect is the total earned in the tax year – it’s irrelevant if I earned that in five minutes of frenzy or 220 days of getting  a pittance for twelve-hour days.

    History is written by the winners

    Part of the trouble is the narrative is being written by the winners in this fight. From Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar

    She says: “My father had one job in his lifetime, I will have six jobs in my lifetime, and my children will have six jobs at the same time.” Does she think that is that a positive thing? “Well,” she says, “it seems strange to me that we would always recommend to companies that their revenue streams are diverse, yet for individuals, the smallest and most fragile economic unit, we say: you must only do one thing all your life. What a crazy way to live; 87% of people in full-time employment are not passionate about what they do. When I look at this new way of work, I think of it as opt-in. It gives people economic agency, it puts them in charge. And it gives them flexibility. People love those things.”

    Well, she would say it’s all great – because it’s great for her. There’s something to be said for diversification in income streams, and for those with the temperament, go for it. I can say from personal experience working a job and a bit is a lot harder than working one…

    The narrative sounds great from Robin’s lips. Maybe not so great from the huddled masses working minimum wage jobs on zero hours contracts. Now we should ask ourselves why we encourage many people into higher cost lifestyles such as having more children than can be paid for with the wages their talents can command , and then mentally torture them using the DWP sanctions system when they fail to find the jobs that aren’t there for their abilities/time commitments. The Quiet Man IDS thinks this is a failure of process and 14 day warnings are the answer. There’s something to be said for George Osborne’s more direct approach of limiting benefits to families with up to two children; it may be unpopular but it is at least honestly straight between the eyes and aims to fight the fire before it starts. Either way these are not concerns for the likes of Robin – after all people have agency, they’re in charge and have flexibility, so that’s all right then. Me, I’d want to be on the side of Capital in this fight rather than Labour. The battle between the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object ain’t gonna be pretty.

    Work is increasingly always-on in a random way

    The 1990s dream of being able to work at home with phones and remote access and what-have you happened – in a big way, from the Blackberry email appliance to the smartphone. But it was a gun that fired on both ends, it seems, because it corrupted the meaning of the working day too. Once again, that’s great for the startup, and the entrepreneur – that technology lets you look a lot bigger than you really are. It also facilitates the zero-hours contract and a pernicious leakage of work into time that once upon a time was clearly off the clock.

    There’s a secondary problem in that a lot of work nowadays is terribly hard to qualify whether it is done well, and many of the political issues that ERE described in his post about careerism start to raise their ugly heads.

    The difficulty of qualifying a job then runs up with bullshit metrics that focus on process rather than intent. This delightful piece of management theory gives us DWP setting targets for the number of the unemployed sanctioned, because presumably some pipsqueak has prior knowledge handed down on tablets of stone that x% of claimants are taking the piss. I’ve no doubt that many well be, but nevertheless the point of the DWP isn’t to turn down the claims of x% of applicants, it is to evaluate the claims and pay up if they meet requirements. If we are spending too much on unemployment benefit than that is the job of Parliament to fix – by paying less, by paying under fewer circumstances or whatever. The setting of job performance targets to process statistics by incompetent gits who don’t understand statistics, the inherent variability on small sample sizes and who are fetishisers of tickboxery is making a lot of jobs needlessly crap with a misery of micromanaged metrics.

    Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.

    H Thomas Johnson, Lean Dilemma, 2006

    That’s all very well, but in the case of the DWP as so often the managers set the targets on an internal marker. Even the Harvard Business Review concedes the problem as applied to CEOs

    Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.

    We pay the blighters more and get less for it. As the guy said

    if we measure just what’s easy, we’ll maximize just what’s easy.

    The Ermine is introverted, it was already picked up at school that I was not a team player – I never have been, and never want to be. I believe that the finest engineering work is had in a duel with the laws of physics and the constraint of engineering without the incessant background flapping of lips, although like all things balance is needed, I won’t go as far as to say every man is an island. And I was able to work with and lead teams, but it probably is true to say I did my best work alone or with fewer than two other people. Success was identifiable in innovation, in faint signals pulled out of the noise and the success of projects and their teams.

    It’s absolutely at right-angles to the current correct business thinking, which is all about the hive-mind and networking and collaboration – the group is the hero and individual talent and expertise is zero. The hive-mind is normative, it stamps out dissent and difference. Not in the old way of prejudice and stereotyped -isms, but in new ways. As Lucy Kellway observed, this conformity takes new forms – people in the new East London cavernous creative spaces have no space for the ugly. What really worried me, however, was that when she was making a radio programme, even the sound engineers were pretty boys. Engineers aren’t meant to be pretty. When I worked for the BBC, this wasn’t the case, you could immediately tell Production from Studio Engineering in the Television Centre bar – as soon as you got in the door and looked round 😉

    I’m glad to be out of it

    To some extent as you get older you get less adaptable, and while I can use some of these methods I don’t want to live life that way, and I am lucky enough to have the choice. In one of the other good articles on this topic in the Graun Jeremy Rifkin (author of The End Of Work) opines

    A lot of the change, he suggests, has to do with a transformed idea of freedom. When the older generation thinks of freedom it imagines it as autonomy, self-sufficiency, personal choice. “Freedom is exclusivity.” When the younger generation thinks of freedom, he suggests, it is no longer about exclusivity, it is about inclusivity. “For them the more networks they are in, the more social capital they establish, the more free they feel,” he says. “It is about expanding the network. This is the sharing economy.”

    Partly, though, I say, isn’t it also that grim economic necessity has become the mother of all that invention, all those millions of apps? The fact is that in developed countries, that generational gap about ideas of freedom is also a glaring generational inequality in assets and opportunities.

    Rifkin likens the gig economy to the establishment of common land in feudal times. “This sharing economy is reestablishing the commons,” he says, “in a hi-tech landscape. Commons came about when people formed communities by taking the meagre resources they had and sharing then to create more value. The method of regulation of these systems is also comparable,” he suggests. “If people are trusted and vouched for they are accepted as part of the sharing economy group. If they behave badly they are excluded. Your social capital means everything in this new economy.”

    I read that a couple of times, and I still can’t work out whether it is the most arrant load of claptrap or there is a kernel of truth and I’m just on the wrong side of the divide. I recognise some of what he says about the sharing economy. I also recognise squarely that my view of freedom is exclusivity – the freedom to choose what I do with my time, and largely with my resources. I don’t understand the part about networks, but then I am not a cloud person, and I always ask who gains from munging my data ‘for free’. And yet I see the symptoms of this networked utopia at least – in every railway station the soft glow of smartphones reflecting off other people’s eyes. People used to think you were a nutter if you talked to yourself in the street, and I still have the urge to cross the road when I hear someone talking to nobody in particular before realising that they are on the phone yelling out details of their love life or business transactions to all and sundry.

    Perhaps what looks to me like a dreadful, overweening and controlling aspect of work for employees, or a revoltingly competitive bear-pit favouring the loudest wide boys selling their wares on the freelance/entrepreneur side is simply a new generation defining new ways of being human. If it’s the latter, then it should all come out in the wash and good luck to them, I will try and stay on the side of Capital and sit back and enjoy the ride. I do wish that people would seem to be happier with the result, however. It looks like hell on earth to me, but maybe I just don’t understand the digital commons. I confess that one of the first thoughts I had when I read Paul Mason’s stuff about the end of capitalism and the sharing economy was ‘yes, but what will people eat and where will they live’ which a fellow reader took up with greater vim.

    man-with-savingsA lot of the things that are offensive about the way work is going cease to be offensive once you are financially independent. What is going wrong is the power balance between capital and labour. If you don’t need the money then the power balance swings back, you can afford brinkmanship or indeed to walk away. As my favourite 1950s ad says, the financially independent can walk tall, because they can walk away. However, it does take over 10 years of decent and continuous earnings at a pretty high level become financially independent, or several decades of still a decent level for the rest of us. It’s the dirty little secret of the retire early scene – you need to earn well to get to retire early, as well as not screwin up. Most of the narrative out there is about not screwing up, which is necessary, but not sufficient nowadays.

    If you are entrepreneurial you can do that well in the gig economy, because more of the fruits of your labour accrue to you – as the old saw goes you never get rich working for someone else. It is presumably the successes who are skewing those ONS figures up for cohort earnings for those aged 21 in 1995, but at the same time the ONS figures show the reality of self employment is an average wage of less than the National Minimum Wage. If you work in finance or IT you can do it in less time too, indeed you will need to do it, because if you work in an office where fewer than a third of your colleagues have grey streaks in their hair 3 then statistically you want to be FI or have alternative employment planned by the time you are twenty years from State Retirement age.

    Perhaps all the non-entrepreneurs will be kept as pets by the entrepreneur winners, via universal income so they don’t all gang up against them, while the go-getters charge around like flash Harrys with bigger and bigger yachts. Else there could be trouble in Paradise.


    1. thank you, Guardian, for that piece of jargon/insight
    2. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/423621/ChildandWorkingTaxCreditsStatistics-April_2015.pdf
    3. based on a working life from 21 to 67, and assuming their hair goes grey around 50)
    2 Nov 2015, 1:20pm
    reflections simple living Suffolk


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  • the afternoon fog makes everything look luminous and lovely

    The fog is getting some stick for the inconvenience, but as I wandered in the Suffolk countryside it struck me that it created a really fantastic quality to the late afternoon light. It made everything look really luminous and dreamy. Britain really is a beautiful place at times.




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