Cash in the attic: the City of London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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UK businesses have plenty of cash to spare, and they're spending it on the young

Companies are starting to use their cash balances in at least one useful way, to provide training programmes for able young people as an alternative to university.

Companies are awash with cash. They’ve been hoarding a war chest since the financial crisis hit in 2008. It has achieved ridiculous proportions; in the US and UK corporate bank balances have doubled in size, Japan has recently seen a spike while Europe has also built a buffer, if not to the extent of other regions. However the signs are that companies are beginning to deploy this money – especially in the UK.

There are the obvious things like share buy-backs, and mergers and acquisitions, that you can do with excess corporate money, but more encouragingly companies are beginning to think in a new way about the next generation of people working in their businesses. Increasingly, a new form of sponsorship is emerging. In moves not seen for a generation, companies such as the accountants Deloittes are hiring young people into their businesses as an alternative to going to university. Business is beginning to invest in young people, filling the gap left by universities that offer courses of doubtful relevance at prices that are just too high.

The general public is smart enough to detect the whiff of corporate insincerity in any charm offensive – tokenistic community-based projects will be seen through as box ticking Corporate Responsibility initiatives that offer little lasting relevance. Businesses will only truly “put something back” if given the right incentive to do so and there is nothing like the profit and cost motive to do that especially in the new era of shareholder activism. The Labour Party’s newly announced policy to “tax the bankers” to provide youth training schemes in that respect, once more, misses the mark. It misses the mood of the day, that there is a new dynamic at work that will see companies investing in young people because it makes business sense.

Sadly, the negativity towards business identified in The Trust Deficit: After the Crash by the research group Populus for the legal firm DLA Piper, is reinforced by mainstream economists like David Blanchflower and politicians like Ed Miliband. Writing in The Independent this week Blanchflower indulges himself in yet another populist diatribe which offers little except the tired observation that some people have more money than others and because of the way unemployment in this downturn has hit the non-graduate pay grades, the income gap between them and graduates has increased in the past five years.

What Miliband and Blanchflower both miss is that if pay structures in certain parts of the economy aren’t sustainable or aren’t valued then they won’t last – they will wither and die of their own accord. It does not need a tax – it does not need a law for that to happen. Besides, with the economy picking up, they are starting to sound somewhat behind the evidence. We don’t have an incomes policy and we don’t, thank goodness, have a limit on what any individual can earn in our country and long may that last. Treating the lawful activity of whoever it is in society who earns super-normal money (which in turn feeds the Exchequer) whether that is a footballer, pop star, entertainer, private company director, public company director or, yes I’m going to say it, a “banker” as immoral is an otiose argument which only has currency at the trough of the economic cycle. That moment has passed.

In a capitalist system, like ours, you will always have cycles. Capitalism is, in that sense, inherently unstable and liable to peaks and troughs – Karl Marx appreciated that. This requires the existence of a safety net to catch people when they fall. That is the implicit social contract we are involved in. But in this downswing a new part of the safety net has emerged – one which protects talented young people from the penalty of government education policies. It is one which will see companies deploying their cash reserves, taking on a positive role in shaping the next generation of workers by helping them over barriers to entry into higher earnings via education no matter their background. Getting the administration – and opposition – of the day to cooperate with and praise that idea is much more useful than replaying tired class war ideas that send the wrong messages to our young people about the possibilities of work and what business contributes to society.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage