Sugaring the pill

“It is with heavy heart that we have to tell you your jobs are under review” – and so the process begins…

For people with families to look after and mortgages to pay as well as those who enjoy eating food and living in rented accommodation, those are words you do not want to hear. There’s a lingering sense of insecurity around them – do you stick or twist?

The ideal situation is for a review to look at everyone and come to the conclusion that there is nowhere within the department that can be cut; efficiency levels are at a maximum; and the Free World would collapse if just one admin assistant was lost.

But in the environs of public sector communications departments that is never going to be the case. So when you are told that your job is under review you know there is a fairly high chance of it being reviewed out of existence. It has been impossible to avoid the hints from Government that the public sector would be hit hard under the austerity plans from the Coalition Government.

Reducing public spending has a two-fold effect – both positives for the Government.

1. It helps cut the deficit

2. It creates widespread worklessness a ready band of willing and skilled volunteers to help put the Big Society into place.

But before this new volunteer workforce can be created there needs to be some streamlining. Volunteers are no good to anyone if they have to hold down a 9-5 job to help pay the bills.

Telling someone they may soon be looking for work can’t be easy for anyone – which is probably why the issue was handed over to the HR team. A specialist crew who have been highly trained to avoid any emotion in such matters.

Having politely declined to do the dirty deed themselves, senior mangers were keen to be seen to be doing something. Missives were sent out and promises were made that they would be there for us and would do all they could to help us through it.

And behind the scenes, the powers-that-be  had been putting together an event that would be a helping hand for anyone who was facing an uncertain future – or to put it another way, everyone who wasn’t in the Department Head’s clique.

It’s easy to sneer about this type of event before you actually attend one and see what has been laid on in terms of practical advice and help for people facing the grim prospect of losing their job. And after having been to one it was even easier to sneer.

As a bare minimum I would have expected advice on how to spruce up my skills and knock my CV into shape. What would have been really useful is a bunch of representatives from employment agencies looking to cash in on a potential goldmine of 100s of trained workers who would soon be desperate for work. What we got was advice on how to make a fruit smoothie, the citizens advice bureau, a stall encouraging people to get active to avoid depression and heart disease; and a few leaflets on pensions and financial planning.

If I hadn’t been told otherwise I would have guessed that this event was the long-planned employee well-being fair with a few leaflets  on pensions and financial planning thrown in. But no, this was the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

The feeling that it had been hastily re-branded to fit the current climate was hard to avoid, but I did get something out of it. I signed up for a pedometer hoping that a bit of walking would keep me active and stave off depression – plus it’s cheaper than the bus and I have a feeling that every penny is going to count soon.

Freshly Squeezed Middle Englander

When new(ish) Labour Party leader Ed Miliband first dreamt up the idea of The Squeezed Middle I imagine he was pretty pleased with himself – or at least pleased with the advisers who came up with the idea.

It’s a catch all, The Squeezed Middle, you see. Much like James Randi debunked horoscopes with this experiment http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Dp2Zqk8vHw, Ed Miliband had tapped into the middle class’s shared fears and experiences of Austerity Britain.  Namely that they would be worse off.

It didn’t matter whether that meant the price of bread going up or the cost of motoring increasing through petrol rises. If it had a negative impact on the middle classes, then it could be used to provide evidence of this new breed of Middle Englander – the Squeezed variety.

Randi’s experiment shows that human nature will pick up on the things that affect us directly and ignore the ones that don’t. So his horoscope contained a few generalisations that could be true of anyone. People read the horoscopes, picked up on the “facts” that fit and ignored the other 90 per cent of the reading and came out of it thinking they had got a perfect match.

Ed Miliband and co are hoping that Middle Englanders will be doing much the same in Austerity Britain. Every time they notice some new price rise or a perceived drop in their standard of living – that’s another tick against The Squeezed Middle check list. It’s easy to ignore the fact that mortgages are as low as they have been in living memory or that the actual cost of motoring is cheaper than it was ten years ago.(http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~ijackson/2008/real-cost-of-motoring/)

So The Squeezed Middle is a great political confidence trick by the Labour Party. Impossible to define and yet so easy to relate to.

Even Ed himself struggles – this from the Today programme last November; Mr Miliband told Today presenter John Humphrys: ‘I define them as people around the average income, both below and above, not people on six-figure salaries. I’m talking about about the broad middle classes in this country who find themselves actually hard-pressed.’

Asked if he meant the median income of £26,000, he said: ‘Well, I’m a bit confused now. I’m saying it’s above £26,000 and below and you’re talking about the poor.’ – as the Times pointed out, Ed’s definition of The Squeezed Middle includes everyone who earns less than £26,000 and everyone who earns more than £26,000 – up to £99,999.

Well I certainly fit into that definition, as do the majority of adults in the UK, but I never considered myself to be part of The Squeezed Middle. If I’m honest my (joint) income meant I actually felt pretty comfortable.

However just a few months after Mr Miliband invented the term, I fear I may now fit the bill perfectly. George Osborne’s Austerity budget piled on the pressure for local authority budgets, which meant local authority workers found themselves in the firing line – literally.

The managers and middle managers at my London Borough who were in charge of hiring were also in charge of the firing, so it was no surprise when a restructure left my team with surplus of managers with not a lot to manage. A team of 40 odd was cut down to nearer 20, and well over half of the remaining team was made up of managers.

Unfortunately for me, I was not one of the chosen few. And so I went from comfortable middle class media-type to a slightly uncomfortable middle class media-type – A Freshly Squeezed Middle Englander, if you will?