Frances O’Grady: “Our goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings”

The General secretary of the TUC takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The Pill – one small step for a woman to take control of her own life but a giant step for womankind. And at least as important as the invention that put men on the moon.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?
That global warming is real, and a direct result of our use and abuse of the planet.

What is the most important sporting event of the past hundred years?
The 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, when the medal-winning athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with Peter Norman’s support, raised black-gloved salutes to protest against racial segregation in the US and South Africa, and racism in sport. Their subsequent vilification by some governments and the Olympic establishment belies the myth that sport can be a politics-free zone.

Which book has had the greatest impact on you?
Socialism Made Easy by James Connolly, a gift from my grandad. The film: Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán (2010).

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?
Clement Attlee, for his recognition that the greater the economic difficulties, the greater the need for social justice.

Who is the most significant author or playwright?
Roy Williams, author of the play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, who can transform the audience as well as the stage.

And which artist has had the greatest impact on you?
Francis Bacon, whose brilliance offended the taste of the narrow-minded.

How about anyone in business? With the centenary year of the Dublin Lockout, I will interpret this broadly and give the honour to “Big Jim” Larkin. His promise that new unionism could lead to new hope and inspiration still holds true.

And sportsperson?
The former Arsenal Ladies captain Faye White, who also won 90 caps for England. For the record, she retired because her knees were dodgy – not because she had a baby.

Who is the most influential philanthropist of the past hundred years?
I am struck by research which shows that, as a proportion of income, the more money people have, the less they give. A pinstriped philanthropist is hard to find. But the lifelong dedication to people’s well-being and rights shown by the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson offers a good example of the original meaning of the term.

What is your favourite quotation?
From the poem “London” by William Blake – which explains why we need the power of imagination to free ourselves:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

What is your favourite speech?
The Clydeside trade union activist Jimmy Reid’s speech to Glasgow University in 1972, because it serves as a reminder to trade unionists that our ultimate goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?
The development of artificial intelligence. As with any new technology, how it will shape our lives depends on whose interests it is used to serve.

What is your greatest concern about the future?
That unpopular governments will resort to conventional methods of digging themselves out of an economic hole: war.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
There will be a movement for economic democracy in the 21st century akin to the Chartist movement for universal suffrage in the 19th century. The global concentration of power, wealth and capital is unsustainable.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
Greater equality and democracy. As the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated so profoundly, it is our best chance of liberating the human spirit.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”