Same generation: Girls cast members at a panel discussion in Pasadena this January
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Privilege and post-feminism: Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger

Like the US TV series Girls – but for people who went to Cambridge.

Eat My Heart Out
Zoe Pilger
Serpent's Tail, 304pp, £11.99

Ann-Marie is in a state. Not only has the 23-year-old protagonist of Zoe Pilger's fearsome debut novel, Eat My Heart Out, had her heart broken by her first love, but she has dropped out of university, having failed her exams, and is now living in a fetid Clapham flatshare with an in-the-closet public-school-boy-turned-artist called Freddie. And she is completely skint. The situation is a mess, and being adopted (or, perhaps more accurately, kidnapped) by the legendary feminist Stephanie Haight fails to help matters. Haight is convinced that if she can teach Ann-Marie, a post-feminist, the true nature of female oppression, she can transform her into the voice of her generation; but all Ann-Marie seems to want to do is eat offal, read Nietzsche and fall in love.

Indeed, in this perfectly pitched satire of intergenerational conflict, Ann-Marie’s belief that romantic love is the answer to all her problems seems to be the biggest disconnect, both in terms of the era of feminists that came before her and her own sex life (in one scene, she lets an old man she met at the restaurant where she works as the “door bitch” go down on her in a hotel room, then is sick in a bin outside).

I did not enjoy this book at first, despite belonging to the same, post-feminist, “f**k it” age group. The blurb describes Pilger (the daughter of the film-maker and NS contributor John) as being “like a foul-mouthed Nancy Mitford for the Gawker generation”; I would describe it as being more like the cult American TV series Girls, but for people who went to Cambridge. I didn’t go to Cambridge and I don’t roll with the privileged crowd this novel satirises, so I struggled at times to work out what Pilger was getting at.

There are lines that made me howl with laughter and recognition, though. “Freddie says you love Beyoncé because you went to a black school and that is sick,” the odious public-school runaway Samuel says to Ann-Marie at one point. As the novel progresses, we learn that Ann-Marie is more of an outsider than she lets on. Later, another character describes the all-female college she attended at Cambridge as “a shocking place, full of sexless pain. Full of the impotence of eunuchs.” Such disgust is palpable throughout.

Some reviews of Eat My Heart Out have pointed out how the book lacks likeable characters, and again in this sense it resembles Girls. Depictions of post-adolescent, warts-and-all, drunken femininity seem to be in vogue; the forthcoming novel
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth has been described by Caitlin Moran as “like Withnail and I but with girls”. Yet Eat My Heart Out differs from other works of the moment in that there is no real engagement with the dynamics of female friendship. (“Where are her girls?” I kept wondering about Ann-Marie.) Nearly all the women in this book are cruel and unstable, and the only one who could have been described as a friend smears Ann-Marie’s bedroom walls with human excrement.

In the end, I read Eat My Heart Out as a tongue-in-cheek dystopian vision of what happens when you become so overly engaged with pop-cultural visions of mass femininity – so obsessed with what men want and how to give it to them – that you forget there are living, breathing women out there who might have your best interests at heart. They might even be willing to take you out for a drink, if only you would let them.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/