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How safe is your job?

This has been a year of financial panic, but 2009 will be dominated by unemployment. In a flexible l

The poster that won the 1979 general election was a fake. The "Labour isn't working" dole queue was ac tually composed of 20 fully employed Hendon Conservatives, photo graphed by Saatchi & Saatchi. But there was nothing synthetic about the impact that the poster had on the Labour government of James Callaghan. Never again, Labour resolved, could the party afford to go to the country when the country was out of work. Yet that is what Gordon Brown risks doing, if you believe the spin about him delaying the next general election until 2010.

This was a year of financial panic as oil prices spiked, banks collapsed and stock markets tumbled. But it is likely that 2009 will be the year of the dole. Unemployment, already higher than at any time since Labour came to office in 1997, is expected to climb to almost three million by 2010, according to the Confederation of British Industry. The turnaround in the UK employment market has been astonishing. The pace of job losses, led by the shake-out in the banking sector, has astounded analysts: the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) has forecast that 300,000 private-sector jobs will have been lost in the six months to the end of this year alone. The CBI's forecast, made only a few days ago, is almost certainly an underestimate, because it is based on Britain's GDP declining by 1.7 per cent in 2009. The Bank of England is now talking about the economy shrinking by 2 per cent next year, as Britain enters the worst recession since the 1980s. Capital Economics has forecast that unemployment will peak at 3.3 million in 2010.

The situation is already worse than the formal statistics suggest. Stephen King, of HSBC, argues that the official International Labour Organisation unemployment figures exclude two million people who are economically inactive but would like a job.

What is undeniable is that British firms are taking advantage of the "flexible" labour market to fire first and think later. Unusually, the region hardest hit is likely to be the one most able to cope: the south-east. The London area alone could lose 650,000 jobs, according to the Local Government Association. This is one of the wealthiest areas on the planet thanks to the financial services sector based in the City. Redundant middle-class professionals might find life a little different on £60-a-week Jobseeker's Allowance, but most can probably look after themselves. The people who will have their lives destroyed first are the legion of temporary and casual workers, many of whom do not figure in the unemployment statistics because of their age or country of origin.

Many of the new redundancies are unavoidable, but there are signs, too, that some firms are reducing their workforce as a message to shareholders, hoping to bolster their equity prices. When BT announced 10,000 redundancies on 13 November it made no attempt to play down the human cost and, according to some analysts, even exaggerated the job losses for effect.

After three decades of losing industries, the UK desperately needs to protect the skills it has left, not allow them to dissipate in the lengthening dole queues

Firms such as Virgin Media, Rolls-Royce, Yell, Wolseley and Citigroup have all announced thousand-plus job cuts in the past few weeks alone. The flexible labour market, inspired by the Tories and realised by new Labour, has allowed contraction to be a first, rather than a last, resort. It is the quickest way for a management in trouble to show that it is doing something.

The problem is that these job losses, rather like the banks' refusal to lend to small business, are enormously destructive to the broader economy. After nearly three decades of losing productive in dustries, the UK desperately needs to protect those skills it has, not allow them to dissipate in the dole queues. But with trade unions weak, employment law liberal and the government compliant, firms are being allowed to throw out the seedcorn of the future.

Only the state would be able to counter the effects of this attrition. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor's measures on benefits, pensions and VAT were intended to boost pre-Christmas demand in the high streets. However, the government is severely limited in its ability directly to fill the jobs gap. Yes, the public sector is still hiring, and will have put on 50,000 jobs in the six months to the end of the year, according to the CEBR. But, with public borrowing likely to reach at least £118bn next year, there will have to be a retrenchment in the labour-intensive public sector to get the public finances into some kind of order in the medium term. Make no mistake - the price of this year's fiscal stimulus is likely to be public-sector job losses, even with the Chancellor's heroic, and unrealistic, assumptions about an economic recovery in 2010.

In this instance, the weakness of the pound is unlikely to boost employment in export industries. This is a global recession, perhaps a global depression, and Britain cannot rely on international markets to replace lost domestic demand. There is also likely to be a wave of protectionism, starting in the US, as countries seek to save their own core industries with state subsidies and other anti-competitive tools. The world market may be a tougher place in which to sell in future. Anyway, Britain has lost most of its manufacturing base - down to 14 per cent of GDP.

In recent years, most of our "exports" have been in financial services - "invisibles", the demand for which will be slight for the duration of the credit crunch.

We can be thankful at least that the right man is in the White House at the right time. Alistair Darling has moved some way towards matching Barack Obama’s plan to create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years through public work projects and alternative energy investment. Yet this will not happen quickly and will do little to alter job losses already in train. And, in America, which is 12 to 18 months further advanced into the recession than Britain, life is already desperate for people on the margin.

The US department of agriculture reported on 17 November that the number of children who went hungry in 2007 - the first year of the credit crunch - jumped by 50 per cent to almost 700,000. It said that, overall, 12.2 per cent of Americans, 36.2 million people, "do not have the money or assistance to get enough food to maintain active, healthy lives". It could happen here.

At the very least Britain faces a return to a period of sustained joblessness, and to the destructive psychology that accompanied it. There will be dole queues, of course, but the social composition of the new jobless - led by financial services, property, retail - will be very different from what we saw in the early 1980s. As a recent report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development argued, those at most risk in the coming "redundancy torrent" will be managers, professionals and skilled non-manual workers.

Tens of thousands of jobs are about to eva porate from British banks. Multiply that by all the professional jobs which depended on those middle-class incomes, such as estate agents and lawyers. Certainly, the first to be hit will be those at the bottom. But they are likely to be joined by large numbers of articulate, middle-class individuals shaken out of the financial, media and peripheral service occupations - from aroma therapy to management consultancy - which have grown up during the long boom.

Middle-class workers are not ready for this and it will be a shock to their self-confidence and self-esteem – a social and cultural transformation that could have profound political implications.

In the 1980s, the middle classes were still relatively secure in their career structures in management and the professions. They had homes, occupational pensions, clear employment paths. Certainly, they were a world away from the trade unionists fighting for their jobs in the old industrial heartlands of Britain. Margaret Thatcher relied on the middle classes to support her war on the militants with their braziers - and to blame them for the recession of the 1980s. The braziers are gone and the industrial working class has largely been dismantled. So, too, have the secure middle-class career structures.

Those who will suffer are the children of the baby boomers, who graduate with high debts and higher expectations

In the 1980s, professional and other white- collar jobs were, by and large, jobs for life, with annual pay increments, annual promotion, pension rights and a predictable future. Not any longer. The modern media, for example, are a shifting sea of freelance and contract workers for subcontractors to the large institutions. Even at the BBC, where I started out, there may be a crust of well-paid performers and anonymous executives who earn more than the Prime Minister, but below that is a huge army of irregulars, often on low salaries, coming in and out of the corporation's revolving doors. The commercial sector has been relying on large numbers of underpaid or unpaid "interns" desperate for work. This is the flexible labour market at its most pernicious. Such practices are widespread throughout the British economy.

Deregulation and leveraged buyouts by private equity over the past two decades have left many firms with flattened management structures, often relying on outside consultants to get them through busy periods. Occupational pensions have become a rarity. Promotion has become intensely meritocratic. Companies increasingly "offshore" white-collar functions to countries such as India, where an educated middle class is willing to work for much lower wages. Most of the job losses at BT are among self-employed contract workers in the UK; the firm has not cut any of the jobs it has outsourced to India.

The group hit hardest is the under-35s, sons and daughters of the postwar baby boomers, who have emerged from university with high debts and even higher expectations. These are the young people who have little experience of recession and none of mass unemployment. Neither have many of their parents, who lived through the 1970s and 1980s largely untouched by unemployment or debt. If there is to be a political response to the new depression, it is likely to emerge from this group of déclassé graduates, many of whom face a future without the security they have been brought up to expect. They will not be able to afford houses or establish careers. Indeed, the under-35s have so much personal debt that their net wealth is actually negative. Three-quarters of the under-35s are in the red, according to the Skipton Building Society, owing more than £9,000 on average. They will look to the state for security, but the state will not be able to deliver.

This time there is no trade union menace to blame for economic distress

A Ministry of Defence think tank has made a remarkable forecast about political militancy. The Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre published a report in April 2007 in which it speculated that in coming years “the world’s middle classes might unite, using access to knowledge, resources and skills to shape transnational processes in their own class interest”. “The middle classes could become a revolutionary class taking the role envisaged for the proletariat by Marx . . . the growing gap between themselves and a small number of highly visible super-rich might fuel disillusion,” the report said.

The idea of a revolution sweeping suburbia is faintly risible, though it was a subject of a recent J G Ballard novel, Kingdom Come. But the MoD may have grasped an important truth about the nature of politics in the new global economy. It is beginning to erode class differentiation and has left many middle-income earners exposed to the kind of insecurities that formerly afflicted only lower-class workers. Clearly, the economic circumstances of management consultants cannot be compared directly with those of retail workers. But when they lose their jobs, they face very similar challenges: mortgage and credit-card debt, catastrophic loss of earnings and the need for retraining.

Part of the difficulty experienced by the Conservative leader, David Cameron, in developing a coherent political response to Gordon Brown's neo-Keynesianism, is that the party of capital has lost its "class enemy": the industrial working class. There is no trade union menace to blame for economic distress and the Conservatives have had to fall back on "fiscal conservatism" - or reduced public spending. This is simply not a priority for an electorate that is looking to the state to protect it from the predations of the market. Equally, new Labour under Brown has been forced almost against its will to become more critical of the plutocracy running the banks, to accept nationalisation and greatly increased government spending. Brown's government has even had to abandon one of the founding principles of new Labour by proposing higher taxes on the rich.

The Conservatives, who have not entirely lost their Thatcherite reflexes, are looking to the middle classes to react against the new profligacy - but they will find it difficult to do so. As un employment mounts among the middle classes, especially among the under-35s, there is going to be a much stronger demand for policies which promote jobs and growth even at the cost of public borrowing. The Tories cannot afford to be on the wrong side in this battle.

As Martin Hutchinson, author of Great Conservatives, has expressed it: "A world in which few if any have security in their livelihood is not conservative, it is anarchist. It is also deeply repugnant to the average voter."

If Labour isn't working, neither are the Conservatives.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster