About two years ago, the term “coping classes” came into vogue to describe a set of people who were ostensibly middle class, yet felt squeezed by the prevailing economic circumstances. The term has since fallen out of use; such is the fate of many media inspired catch-phrases. I myself wondered what precisely was meant by “coping classes” at the time: when the articles were penned, I was in a well-paid job, my finances seemed reasonably secure, credit was more-or-less available. Yes, the economy was in trouble and I was worried about it; that said, it seemed churlish to complain too much given my relative good fortune. However, given the dawn of our new, more austere era, I wonder if it is time for the term to be resuscitated.
Late in 2008, I had to change employment: this was partially due to the recession and partially due to choice. I accepted a 20% pay cut in order to work in academia. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy my new life and what I do. However, I am aware of others who have had to accept cuts that were as big or deeper and under less providential circumstances. Meanwhile, the mortgages and loan payments, though done in prudence rather than haste, still remain. Council tax has gone up. Inflation continues to rise, particularly in fuel and energy costs. I have an overdraft and have to visit it every month in order to keep the precarious balance: yes, I have been and am paying down debt, and eventually, the worst will be behind me. However, for the moment, there will hopefully be no further disruptions or changes: things need to remain as they are just so I don’t get really squeezed.
It’s an easy matter to say, “just cut back”. It’s much more difficult to see how it can be done: I am cautious in how I shop. It’s always Tesco own-brand shredded wheat rather than the market leader, for example. Visits to the cinema have become rare, visits to the theatre have been eliminated entirely. Weekend trips have also been shelved: entertainment seems to reside exclusively on the internet and Freeview. There were no extravagant foreign vacations to cut, no retail therapy to push to one side: I’ve even reduced the amount of books I purchase which to a PhD is a form of intellectual amputation. Yet, the upward pressure on the basic bills remains: my eyes water when I fill up the car, public transport is too expensive to be a viable alternative, my heart sinks when I look at my bank balance.
I describe my personal situation in this painful detail for a simple reason: I’m fully conscious of the fact that there are millions experiencing the same pain or worse. As we look into the yawning abyss of terrible cuts, there are many who are even more precariously placed. Those who work at quangos like SEEDA spring particularly to mind: how many employees there are just as finely balanced? What provision can they make to adjust? What will they have to do in order to continue walking along the tightrope? Will they have to “downsize”, as I intend to do, and what will be the knock on effect on the wider economy? Will that bring still more cuts, more austerity, even more lives put under strain? At what point do we stop, turn around, face the bond markets and say “This far, no further”?
More depressing is the fate of the “other” coping classes: i.e., the people who require the help of public services on regular basis. Last night, as I drove home, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 which described some of the cuts which could be made to mental health services. One woman who was interviewed mentioned that she was sufficiently articulate to ask for what she wanted; she had a means to protest changes to her care. Others aren’t so lucky; another patient who was susceptible to incoherent tantrums was also described. Soon, there will be group of people who are more neglected than they used to be; what happens to them? If Cameron states that the “Big Society” is the answer, then who is going to contribute to it, given that so many are trying to just stay afloat?
The Labour Party didn’t get much right in the last election, but one part of their spin that was absolutely correct was their assertion that the present situation is “fragile”. This was used to describe the state of the overall economy, however, there is a pervasive brittleness, a subtle fibre of spun glass woven through the present order which threatens to snap. The Coalition Government will probably proceed undaunted: it is likely they will try to avoid hurting any media-friendly constituencies, but this does not represent the vast bulk of those who feel the noose tightening. Some groups’ plight is too large to be encapsulated in convenient sound-bites and slogans.
There are a large number of people to blame for this state of affairs. The previous Government was swept up by hubris, and now we face nemesis. The financiers who believed they could magic up money out of fancy acronyms and dodgy debts are also at fault, and maddeningly, they still refuse to pay their due to the society which just rescued them. Each of us contains a certain kernel of responsibility, because to a greater or lesser extent we were gullible enough to believe the promise made by both politicians and businessmen that the upward arc of our prosperity would continue unabated. However, we are left with the iron law which states that everything has to be paid for: it is always a question of who, and how much, and when. Hopefully we’ve learned to pay up front, because that generally means paying less. Hopefully we are learning that who should pay are those who are most responsible, not coincidentally those who have gained the most from our economy and society, and thus have a duty to support the country as a whole. Sadly, however, few politicial parties are stating this clearly, and the coping classes, such as they are, and such as I am, will continue to pray, to work, to grit our teeth, and one day, with a bit of luck, emerge.