Am I living in a box…without a compass?


Picking up points raised in Jon Worth’s Bored blogpost

I read Jon’s blogpost, Bored, with interest. A strange-sounding sentence but it picked up on a number of things that I mentioned just over a year ago on the curses of loneliness and isolation.

The three big issues Jon identified were: His work no longer being enjoyable as it once was, lack of a greater (political) purpose and moving to a new country with an unfamiliar language. There is also one other thing that he could also have added too. The world around has changed – significantly.

I guess relate to Jon in that back in early 2007 I had that strong sense of purpose and direction – and that my potential was being fulfilled. I was now working in London, in a relationship and on one of the most sought-after graduate programmes in the country. I also had the sense that what I was doing was going to make a positive impact on local communities. I was one of the high fliers so to speak. What made it all the more stark for me was the difference between Cambridge and London – both as cities and in terms of workplaces in the same sector.

Fast forward to late 2010 and the impact of the cuts and the recession hit home – along with my non-existent social life and failing health. Back in 2007 I had some sort of vision of where I was going to go and what I was going to achieve. It didn’t last that long, but at least it was there at the time. In late 2010 I could not see myself with a future in the civil service – yet I also did not have ‘a vision’ of what I wanted to become, let alone having any  idea of how to achieve it. Reach for the stars and you might just reach the tops of the trees…but what if you cannot see the stars in the first place?

The positive vision isn’t going to come from politicians

You just have to look at the bleak outlook from the autumn statement. That we don’t have senior politicians who have the presence, persona, calibre and credibility to inspire large numbers of people, set out a positive vision for the future and provide a realistic plan on how to get there is depressing but perhaps not surprising. I would love to be part of a wider movement to make the world a better place, but at the same time I don’t want to be dictated to by it. This is perhaps the problem Jon faced with Labour – the selection processes are as such that anyone with independent streaks in them is seen as a possible trouble-maker. Far better to have either those who are part of a faction within the party who will tow the line as lobby fodder or who have connections to those at the top as being groomed for top office/senior policy making roles later on. Jon would have made an excellent Euro candidate for Labour. It’s the latter’s loss. A number of Puffles’ Tory followers have said similar things about independently-minded activists in the Conservative Party too. Wanting creatures that have the independence of a cat but the obedience of a dog. You can’t have both. Or am I being too harsh?

The wider world has changed 

This was one of the points I made at the Cambridge and South Cambs VCS AGM – where I made the point that some of the conversations people were having were the same as those I observed back in 2004 during my early civil service days. Perhaps it’s an understandable reaction to that cloud of uncertainty outside: stick to what’s safe and what you know. Similar to political parties sticking with the same organisational structures, soundbites and lines to take now obsolete in social media world?

Yet I, like many others are trying to find our place in this new world – a world where new pressures are sweeping away a whole host of institutional certainties that we used to take for granted. The pressure for the fight for equal marriage for me is a positive pressure, while the decimation of public services while the international super-rich and multinational corporations get to pick and choose which taxes they do and don’t pay is a negative pressure. As Josie Long said at her gig in Cambridge,

“Free education, free healthcare, good pensions – you can’t get more ‘Big Society’ than that!”

Future workplaces of the world – and working patterns

…for those fortunate enough to find work that is. One of the things the head teacher of the school I’m now a governor at said that fixed term contracts have an impact on our school. (I say ‘our’ both because of my role as a governor and also because it was my old primary school. This week on a guided tour, I got to see what had and had not changed over the 20 years or so since I left). If the main earner of a young family is on say, a four year contract with the university or with a research institute and it is not renewed, the family has to move – uprooting the children. Aside from the impact on the children, this has an impact on the funding schools get, as well as on their ability to forward plan. Once you start factoring in those sorts of costs into your ‘flexible labour markets’ models, then the zero-cost-to-economy-and-society-of-mobile-labour assumptions start to look more than just a little unrealistic.

The decline of large employers – and the social lives that revolve around them

With the move away from larger employers with stable workforces to this freelancing/self-employed model of working, it’s not surprising that people report feelings of loneliness and isolation. Yes, it’s great not to be crushed by micro-managing line managers and pointless processes. But at the same time I miss not having a group of people that I see during the day every day, or being able to go out for drinks after work – or even organising work socials. The biggest one I organised in my civil service days was a bowling event – where nearly 100 people came along. It had 2 parts to it: An ‘all against all’ and a ‘team challenge’ where each lane competed against each other. Today? I don’t think I even know 100 people in the city to be able to organise something like that. Human connections at a local level matter. Social media friendships can complement, but not replace them. It’s one of the reasons why I encourage my social media friends to meet up with each other in real life. They re-enforce the friendships built up online and help create a stronger feeling of community.

Purpose and direction

Both are still elusive for me. Jon seems to be feeling the same at present. As others have commented on Jon’s blogpost, finding something hyperlocal to where he is now is one way forward – it’s what I’m doing here. That’s not to say hunting at a hyperlocal level will come up with the goods quickly. When you’re used to the hive of activity that is central London, everything is likely to feel smaller, slower and less vibrant in comparison. Half the challenge is ‘listening’ and getting a feel for a new place too. It’s slightly different for me in that I’ve returned ‘home’ – but to one where most of the people I grew up with have moved on, and those that remain know me through/by family only.

House, car, 2.4 children and an office job where you have to wear a suit

I can’t afford the first two – and am working on the assumption that I may never will. Mental-health-wise I don’t think I’d ever be able to be the sort of parent I’d want to be – that and I’m single anyway. Given the impact of my breakdown in terms of not being able to work full time and having had to move back in with my parents, I’ve not really gone out looking either. Even in these more enlightened times as far as mental health is concerned, this quotation puts it perfectly:

“I suffer from mental illnesses it’s hardly a chat up line or something you can slip into conversation yet it is something that affects my everyday life.” 

There’s further reading on the Time to change blog here. On the final point about working in an office, the bit I enjoy about not being tied to the desk is having the freedom to go out and about. The problem is that few other people around me are in a similar situation. I guess I want the sociability of being in a workplace with other people but without the negativity of being tied to the desk. For example poottling in with Puffles every so often, helping out where I can but otherwise getting on with my own thing. At the same time, I’m still digging away slowly but surely on my Cambridge L!VE project – the one where we use social media to help bring people and the community together. We had a useful small gathering at the final Teacambs of the year with one of the County Council officers behind – an essential part of achieving that vision.  Because if there is one vision I do have, it’s that Cambridge can be far greater than the sum of its parts. We’re nowhere near achieving that.

The problems?

Or barriers – of which there are many – include not having strong enough local working relationships in place to make the whole thing work. I also don’t have the institutional backing to make this work – something I hope to change in 2013. But hey, if it was that easy, wouldn’t someone have done this before?


One thought on “Am I living in a box…without a compass?

  1. Re. “I don’t think I’d ever be able to be the sort of parent I’d want to be”, please don’t write yourself off. Circumstances aside, you’re clearly both capable – which is about much more than working full time – and mindful. That you question your ability in this regard probably qualifies rather than disqualifies you.

    Knowing nothing about your experience, I can only speak to mine. Learning that I was to become a father was actually what made me start to seriously tackle what (years later) was diagnosed as a bipolar condition. Whatever else I was, I knew I wanted to be a good dad.

    It’s been tough from time to time and it’s certainly not what I’d imagined, growing up. But I have two amazing sons, both of who – quite naturally, despite all my quirks and disadvantages – love me as much as I love them. And though I might be classed as ‘mentally ill’ by some, both qualified and ignorant, I seem to have been able to make a wider contribution to the world nonetheless.

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