“WHAT IS IT THAT YOU DO ANYWAY, KEN?”
This was the question posed (or more accurately shouted) to my dad, by my legendary Auntie Nancy, sometime in the 1990s. His aunt had known him ever since he was born, in 1947, always living around the corner, always around. But until then she’d apparently never wondered what his job was.
“I project manage hospital construction, Nancy,” was his reply. “I work with doctors and nurses to work out what’s needed to look after patients, and then organise to get that built.”
“WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO THAT FOR?” she replied (still shouting).
“SOUNDS A BIT HARD.”
My brother Neil and I rolled around laughing on the floor. Nancy had a way of cutting through all attempts at being serious.
I always carry this exchange with me when I approach work. Because it’s very easy to take work too seriously. To think our place is somehow important, in the grand scheme of things. And while the sense of importance that work plays has increased for many, it’s become harder and harder to get. If Nancy and the rest of my grandparents’ generation had known how complicated it would be to get work in the futuristic society of 2016, to follow their dreams, or just pay their bills, I think they’d be shocked. And if they knew how much pressure future workers would be under, to make everything cheaper, faster, and do it with less security, less stability, I think they’d be really surprised.
Describing 2016, from 1985
In, say, the mid 1980s (I turned 14 in January 1985), I’d have told them that in 2016 I’d work in “computers”. And that by 2016, almost everyone now has a tiny little computer they hold in their hand, that only cost a few hundred pounds. “You heard of that computer company called Apple? Well lots of them are made by them. And you know your microwave oven? The new Samsung one yes? Well they make lots of the rest of these little computers.” I’d say these computers are just touch panels and everything passes through the air to them. If I told them that everyone would use these computers to take pictures and then all their friends could see those pictures right away, if I said that they could book a flight standing in the street, or read or listen to something published right at that moment by a friend of theirs in India (or America). Or read any newspaper in the world, right now. And check the weather forecast. And the bus and train times. And listen to any LP ever published, immediately. Or watch a movie. Or phone people for free and chat for hours (but nobody does that). That if they sat on a train or a bus, they’d see everyone around them tapping into these little computers, all the way to work and back.
And remember, this would all be said in 1985, five years after John Lennon died.
But what if I then said that everyone was pretty miserable. That there’s a total lunatic – a truly offensive little man – campaigning to become US President. That everyone shares jokes about him on these little computers, or rallies behind him. That Britain is about to (maybe) vote to leave the European Union, because people have lost faith in the post-war ethos to come together, and are tired of foreigners migrating here to take their jobs. That brilliant writers and musicians find it almost impossible to make money doing what they’re capable of doing. What if I said that our youngest adult generation – those born between 1980 and 1995 – are now poorer than pensioners, and face dismal prospects in finding work and a nice home they can afford to live in. And the Middle East has a strange mix of slick-rich mega cities and serious poverty, threatened by a really nasty group of people who refuse to live alongside anyone else who is not a religious fanatic – people who could feel pride in watching a friend or family member strap explosives to themselves and then walk into a busy market and blow them, and everyone around them, to pieces.
Maybe in return they’d talk about how they’d learned to adapt during the second world war, their memories of the 1930s depression, their experience of 1950s and 1960s social and technological change. And how all those things along their journey fitted together, made sense, now they look back at it. That it seemed scary at the time, but now it’s just what happened in their lifetime, the 20th century. That in the end they all just played their tiny part, in a picture that was created by everyone in the world.
Back on that day in the 1990s we asked “What did you used to do, Nancy?”.
“IN THE WAR I USED TO CLIMB UP A LADDER. AND PUT NUMBERS ONTO THE TOPS OF THE TAILS OF BOMBERS, IN THE DUNLOP FACTORY IN SPEKE. AND THE FELLAS USED TO WHISTLE UP AT ME, FROM BELOW.”
And then she’d show me a picture from 1970, of her and her husband Alf, holding a stuffed donkey. Waving from the steps of a BAC One Eleven jet at Alicante airport, heading home after two weeks in Benidorm.
Photo: My Auntie Nancy, Nancy Stephens. Front left. Photographer and the rest of the group unknown. This was presumably taken in the late 1920s or 1930s, in Liverpool, England, where she lived throughout her life.