Friday, May 27, 2005

Going to the dogs

It is kind of inevitable that "the older generation" will have a whine about the shape taken by "the younger generation". There were several articles in today's "Independent" which made me want to put pen to paper - or finger to keyboard, if you prefer.

The trigger was the report that the health service in Ghana is being stripped of many of its workers because the doctors and nurses are being offered more lucrative work in the UK. The population of Ghana is a third that of the UK, but it has a sixtieth the number of doctors. Despite this, there is a steady drain of doctors from there to here. Similarly with nurses. We have experience of this in our church as well - nurses are coming from the Philippines to work in the UK. But the health service in the UK is already vastly more effective in terms of health care than in either of these countries - as can be seen by comparing infant mortality, life expectancy and so on.

So what? If there is a skills shortage in the UK, isn't it reasonable to import skills from elsewhere? Surely that is just the free market at work?

Well, the next question is: why is there a skills shortage in the UK? We supposedly have an increasingly well-educated workforce - the government is aiming for 50% of people to have degrees. The problem is that these degrees are basically rubbish. To what extent is there a need for degrees in travel and tourism? The travel and tourism industry works very well, thank you very much - are thousands of graduates really going to make a difference to it, or are they just going to push up costs because of higher expected salaries? What about media studies? Again, there is plenty of talent which is already running a vast media industry - but what the industry is really lacking is people with the critical skills to analyse and comment thoughtfully and insightfully on what is happening in the world, not people who understand media for its own sake. What about sports management? Is it really necessary? Even given the explosion of health clubs, do we need a group of people who have specialist, supposedly degree-level qualifications, in how to run a sports business?

But where is the shortage? In nursing and medicine. In dentistry. In the trades like carpentry, electrics, plumbing, general construction - have you tried getting hold of a plumber recently?

There are two processes at work here. The first is the fact that young people aren't being brought up to work. They are being brought up being told to "be what they want to be". In many cases, the aspirations of young people are pathetic. They have no desire to change the world. They just want to do something that would be fun. So I talked to somebody the other day: one of her children wanted to do something in "fashion journalism" (!!!), and the other was doing a degree in sports management. Somebody else I know had two children - one was a model, and one wanted to be a golf professional. Now these were professional, middle class families. What a waste of the undoubtedly good quality education that the parents had secured their children! For older age groups, TV programmes about making millions from property sales, selling stuff in the attic, owning houses abroad and books about making money on eBay are increasingly popular. Nobody wants to do any work!! Everybody wants to make millions from doing nothing at all. It's understandable. Who wants to be a nurse? It's physical, unpleasant, and you have to work shifts, so can't go out every Friday and Saturday night. There are huge swathes of the population whose idea of doing something with their life means being associated with the fashion industry, the travel industry or running a sports club. That's all well and good - but these are very much tertiary industries. The number of people who are actually producing anything that people use, rather than moving money around a large financial system, is increasingly small. So because so few British people can actually be bothered to do any work, we ship in people who are prepared to work for a living.

The second process is the fact that, since nobody is actually producing anything, all this is being funded by borrowing. The level of national indebtedness now runs to over a trillion pounds (that's a 1 followed by twelve 0's - around £20,000 per man, woman and child). Householders borrow to buy houses. Students borrow against the future to pay for degrees. People borrow against credit cards to afford the lifestyle they want. But I really don't see how all this borrowing can be paid off - because nobody is actually doing anything that makes money.

All this leads to a nation of "B-Ark" people, to use an illustration from Douglas Adams (that, incidentally, didn't make it into the film of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). A planet managed to get rid of an entire useless third of its population by convincing them that the planet was doomed, and that the entire population would be shipped off to colonise another planet. In the "A-Ark" were the leaders, geniuses, great artists and so on. In the "C-Ark" were the people who did all the useful, necessary things - one can imagine, in this context, the nurses, teachers, farmers, people working in manufacturing. In the "B-Ark" were all the middlemen - the hairdressers, travel agents, telephone sanitisers, health club managers. They were sent off first, convinced of the importance of this through a variety of excuses, and the rest of the population simply stayed where they were. Ironically, the rest of the population was wiped out from a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

What are the prospects for the UK? Is it too much to see comparisons with the Roman empire before it fell apart? A nation obsessed with its own decadent and self-indulgent pursuits, ripe to fall before other nations who still realise that people have to work to live.

The seeds are already there. I have serious problems with what is happening to human rights in China, but have a look at how much of the stuff you own is made there. If you are a parent, can you find any toys in your house that aren't made there? Or India - how many jobs have travelled to the sub-continent in the last 20 years? Their GDP is increasing by a large single digit percentage every year (6% rings a bell - can you imagine that in a country with a population of a billion?!); we are increasing by around 2%.

Traditionally, the UK would have looked at this as an opportunity - well, if their income is increasing by that amount, then it is a market for our products. But in fact, we don't have any products - we have nothing to sell them, except sports clubs, fashion magazines and crap TV channels. And by the time they are rich enough to want them, they will be more than able to produce their own, and sell them back to us.