Get a life

Every year 100,000 Britons seek the services of a life coach. Do you need one, too? Viv Groskop doub

"Don't jump on the bandwagon." This is the advice that life-coach guru Fiona Harrold has been giving to the hundreds of former counsellors and psychotherapists who have come knocking on her door, hoping to rebrand themselves as life coaches. "I refuse them," she declares. "I say, 'You're a psychologist and that's a great thing.' I see so many book jackets now where five years ago the authors called themselves a psychologist and now they are a coach. It makes me laugh."

Life coaching is the biggest growth area in the self-help world. As dysfunctional coaching- convert Warren crowed recently in This Life Plus Ten, the industry is worth an estimated £50m a year and rising. Life coaching is "where it's at".

The concept is largely accredited to Thomas J Leonard, who founded a training centre called Coach U in Arizona in 1992. Two years later he set up the International Coach Federation and the idea went global. The London-based Coaching Academy, the UK's biggest coaching school, has trained 10,000 new coaches over the past seven years, and the Association for Coaching, also based in London, aims to pull in 2,000 members by the end of the year.

Becoming a coach or, as some prefer to be known an "agent of change" is, in fact, a doddle. The industry is unregulated and no genuine qualification is needed, so anyone can decide to become a life coach, quite literally, overnight. And the incentive to do so is there. "Agents" can charge anything from £30 an hour to thousands of pounds a day. "Of course, some people will come to it thinking that it is an easy way to make money," says Harrold, whose own book on the subject, Be Your Own Life Coach, has sold millions of copies.

One estimate puts the number of life coaches currently practising in the UK at between 80,000 and 100,000. Oddly enough, another figure is bandied about, too: that 100,000 Britons used a life coach in 2005. This works out as one life coach per client, which sounds about right. Many online testimonials reveal that many only decide to become coaches after having been coached themselves. But none of these statistics are official. Because there is no official life coaching body, the numbers are impossible to verify.

January is life coaching's busiest time of the year, with thousands of recruits signing up for help with their New Year resolutions. But the executive and corporate sector is still the most lucrative. Specialised coaches offering mentoring services to top-level execs can earn as much as £10,000 a day. Last year, it was reported that Patricia Hewitt and other cabinet ministers use £250-an-hour life coaches to "cope with the pressures of government". No 10, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Transport and the Treasury have all used coaches, or "critical friends" as they preferred to be known in this particular case.

"What you realise talking to senior business people and executives is that everybody has them but no one wants to talk about it," says one high-profile London-based businesswoman, who keeps in touch with her American coach by phone. "I've had a number of lunches where I've mentioned it. People lower their voice and admit they have one, too."

A small group of charismatic life-coach gurus including Harrold, now practically a household name thanks to her book and appearances on Channel 4's Faking It, are skilled at inspiring others. She started out as a "self-esteem consultant" more than 20 years ago. This group would do what they do whatever it was called and regardless of whether it was trendy and there was money to be made from it. But then there are all the rest. "Coaching is unregulated so you are at the mercy of whether it's crap or not," says the businesswoman. "A lot of it relies on you using y0ur own skills and judgement."

Why do they do it?

Which begs the question: why do people need to visit a life coach? According to the "experts", people who need coaches are those who are not satisfied with the status quo or who want to feel differently about their future. They might be seeking clarity and resolution, evaluating their career options or facing difficult choices. Almost all will have some sort of anxieties or relationship concerns. Most will want to gain deeper self-understanding and acceptance. So, that's pretty much everyone, in one way or another.

Getting a helping hand with public speaking to boost your chances of climbing the next rung on the corporate ladder is one thing. But experts in psychology are concerned that vulnerable people are not receiving the treatment they need. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes that coaching can never be effective unless coaches train in some form of therapy. "Life coaching uses a model that is contradictory to most established psychotherapies. It is goal-focused not client-centred. It addresses symptoms rather than causes." This creates not only a risk for the patient but a public risk as well. "After all," he argues, "there is the issue of personality disorder. How on earth are you going to recognise one if you don't know what it is?" Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, has also spoken out against life coaching as intrusive and a waste of money, observing that: "There's a growing idea that human beings lack the competence and resources to cope with everyday life."

All this won't stop it from growing, however, says Hodson. "As a society we are now ready to address the question of our alienation but we don't really want the answers to hurt. It's like wanting to do your bit for climate change but keeping the 4 x 4." He adds the killer blow: "If the power of positive thinking could solve all our problems we wouldn't have any."

Harrold dismisses this out of hand. "People want results and why shouldn't they be given the tools to get them?" she says. "People don't want navel-gazing. They want to be able to walk into the office tomorrow and get a promotion."

Life coaching explained

So what is it?

"A collaborative solution-focused, results-orientated and systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of work performance, life experience, self-directed learning and personal growth of the coachee." Anthony Grant, University of Sydney, 2000.

How is this different from traditional therapy?

Life coaching looks to find solutions to the problems rather than to solve the causes. Coaches encourage their clients to use "cognitive techniques" - aka, thinking - to unlock the key to success.

What qualifications do life coaches have to have?

None. Anyone can become a life coach. But many reassuringly cite their years of experience in "human potential".

Who needs a life coach?

According to the experts themselves, just about anyone who is cheesed off with any part of their life.

With no professional body to regulate, how do you know which coach to choose?

London-based life coach Sally Ann Law, one of the first coaches listed on Google, has sound advice. "Absorb all the information available to you," she says on her website, "then listen to your heart and your head about whether you think this person appears credible and empathetic." So as long as decision-making isn't your problem, you should be OK.

How can I find out more about life coaching?

Another pearl from Law. Try an internet search, she suggests. "Enter 'life coach' and you'll be inundated with options."

How much does it cost to become a life coach myself?

Anywhere between £700 and £3,000

How much does a life coach earn?

Well, logic suggests success. Top earnings are thought to be £10k a day.

Sohani Crockett

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
Show Hide image

What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496