A few predictions

My six-year-old son is very fond of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. He’s not yet able to read them himself, but will demand a chapter or so from one every night at bedtime, and knows enough about using the kitchen Mac to be able to stick an audiobook version on whenever he wants to listen to some more.

I didn’t read any Famous Five as a kid, so it’s been just as much of a new discovery for me as it has been for him. I’ve been drawn into this curious 1950s era when policemen came running, blowing their whistles. When children could go cycling, or on holiday in a caravan, with no adult supervision and just a loyal mongrel to protect them from danger. When every 12-year-old carried a torch and a compass and a penknife.

There is no welfare state in the Famous Five stories. The poor work very hard and live in discomfort, at best. The middle-class get by and are grateful for it. The wealthy have nothing at all to worry about.

Doctors must be paid for. There’s no unemployment benefit. There’s no pension for the elderly. Owning property is very expensive, so only the wealthy bother. Everyone else rents property. Travel and entertainment are expensive, too, so people stay local and dream up their own entertainment.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that this is the sort of society we shall be returning to in the UK during the coming decades.

John Lanchester’s article for The London Review of Books, It’s Finished spells out exactly how deep this nation’s troubles have become. We are in more debt than most people can easily imagine, and paying it off will consume our national output for years and years to come.

The results will be devastating for so many things that my generation holds dear. The NHS, free education for all, a guaranteed state pension: all of these, I fear, and many more, will have disappeared within my lifetime.

Some remnant services may linger, but for most of us the realities of life will be similar to the simple, direct realities of the 1950s.

Consulting a doctor will cost money, so people won’t do it quite as readily as they do today. Simple colds and fevers will be treated at home, the old-fashioned way.

Similarly, education will be cut back. Perhaps a basic school education will be provided by the state, but for everything else you’ll have to pay.

There will be no benefits as we know them today. No regular payouts for the unemployed, and no pensions for anyone at all. Your future will be your problem: if you save enough, and live frugally enough in old age, you’ll be able to get by.

Services we take for granted will disappear or be slashed to the minimum: local authority housing, public libraries, public parks, road maintenance, waste collection, public sector care of children, emergency services. Private alternatives will spring up in their place, and they will thrive. But most ordinary people will have to be much more careful with their money. It will be necessary, not just desirable to have a savings account to fall back on when things go wrong.

Public-spirited individuals might voluntarily step forward to maintain a patch of parkland, or loan out books, or cobble together a repair to a dangerous pothole in a busy road. But on the whole, Britain will be a tatty, threadbare place.

We’ll manage, most of us. We’ll get by. We won’t have anything like the same standard of living that we have today, we won’t have the luxuries and the carefree consumerism, and many people might say that’s a good thing. But we’ll look back on the period from 1960 to 2010 and we’ll be astonished at how cheap everything was, especially food, petrol, and energy.

OK, so it might not happen exactly this way. It might not be as extreme as this. But I’m convinced that times ahead will be hard, much harder than most of us imagine. I will be amazed if there’s any kind of pension for me when I reach retirement age. The whole concept of “retirement” will change, perhaps disappear. You’ll work and you’ll keep working, because if you stop working, there’ll be nothing else for you. I will be surprised if I’m still getting free NHS healthcare by then. I don’t expect there to be any sort of state benefits.

Gloomy? Yes. Pessimistic? Yes, uncharacteristically for me. But it’s the future I’m expecting, and the one that I keep thinking that I really ought to start planning for.

Filed under: life
(9th June 2009)