By Jane Simmonds
The children still have pony lessons, she's kept on the cleaner, but, financially AND emotionally, her gilded world is falling apart. One woman's story of how fragile our middle-class lives can be. . .
At supper one day, our eight-year-old daughter Emily announces that she has an idea. ‘It’s about a new job for Daddy,’ she says, ‘I saw it on the back of a bus. Daddy, you could train as a bus driver and earn £125 a day.’
My husband, Andy, winces. My eyes fill with tears. He’s got a History degree from Cambridge, a Masters degree in Business, and years of senior experience in strategic management. Bus driving wasn’t exactly the future he’d planned.
We were once a typical middle-class family, comfortable, not super-rich, children in good state schools but with private lessons for tennis and riding (posed by models)
He makes a joke of it, gives Emily a hug — but yet again his self-esteem takes a knock, an all-too-regular event these days. By the time Emily spotted the advert on the bus, he’d been jobless for two years. She could hardly remember a time when Daddy went to an office.
We were once a typical middle-class family — comfortable, not super-rich, children in good state schools but with private lessons for tennis and riding. Skiing in February, a nice hotel in Italy or Spain in the summer.
Andy’s corporate career meant that I could work freelance as a writer when it suited me. We enjoyed our lives, and — without even realising it — felt secure and optimistic. That’s not the case any more. Since Andy was made redundant four years ago now, our income has plummeted. Sometimes he picks up a day or two of work; twice he’s had contracts which last a few months.
I’m working, too, and we have savings and his redundancy money. By cutting back on luxuries, we’re still afloat financially. But emotionally, that’s something else. And our belief in the future has completely dwindled away.
The middle-class unemployed are pretty invisible. We don’t riot, we don’t draw attention to ourselves, and we often don’t show up in official unemployment figures. We don’t qualify for benefits, free school meals or tax credits — we have to use up our savings first, and sell our home.
At some point, Andy will probably sign on for the Jobseekers’ Allowance — £67 a week for six months. But it’s unlikely that he’ll find any jobs for his level of seniority advertised at the local Jobcentre, although he’s overflowing with qualifications and experience and couldn’t be keener to find work.
We know quite a few people in a similar position, but few admit to it.
They’re ‘freelance consultants’ or ‘building a portfolio career’. We know not to ask too closely about how much consultancy work they get (Andy thinks himself lucky to get a couple of days a month) or what goes in the portfolio. In return, they don’t ask us how we’re surviving.
Some friends of ours were terrified of traumatising their children if they admitted that Daddy didn’t have a job any more. So each morning he’d dress in a suit and head for the station, take a train to London and spend the day in a library.
They lived this charade for six months, until he set up his own business.
‘We felt the kids didn’t need the insecurity of worrying about money,’ his wife told me. We took a different view. Emily was six when Andy lost his job; twins Jack and Lucy were 12. We felt they were robust enough to know that life had ups and downs, and that money would be tighter until their father found a new job.
Besides, Andy had a redundancy package from his last job that would cover us for six months at least. How long could it take to find a job? We never expected that four years later, Andy would still be out of work.
The kids have learned to do without expensive clothes and electronic gadgets; the paint is peeling from our windowsills. There’s a long list of things we don’t buy any more: books, clothes, magazines, handbags. Lucy proudly boasts of the money she’s saved when she goes shopping with her friends.
We’ve managed to keep up Jack’s tennis lessons and Emily’s riding, with help from my parents. I know they’d do anything to help us — but it still felt humiliating when I paid their cheque into our account.
Even worse was applying for a bursary so that Jack could go abroad with his cricket team. I knew it was the only way we could afford it; I knew he’d be upset if he couldn’t go. But the thought of people in the cricket club — our peers, our equals — judging our need, made me feel physically sick.
I wrote the application three times — and three times I threw it away, before forcing myself to send it off. The bursary was granted, and Jack went on his tour. I haven’t set foot in the cricket club since. Emily was hardly the first one to come up with the idea that Andy should ditch his former career and strike out on a new path. ‘Has he thought about re-training?’ people ask me again and again.
‘What as?’ I ask, as politely as possible. Again and again, the same answer comes back. ‘As a teacher!’
Unfortunately for their Dead Poets Society fantasy, Andy has no interest in teaching — in fact he’s convinced he’d be a disaster in the classroom. And we know young, energetic and keen teachers who can’t get jobs. Plus re-training as anything — teacher, plumber, lawyer, counsellor (all suggested by well-meaning friends) — involves time, money and starting out again at the bottom, with a salary to match.
And why re-train when head-hunters are still calling with job opportunities? Sometimes they call a lot — three or four in one week. Sometimes there’s nothing at all. Each call is a possible way out of Andy’s predicament. Each possiblity is researched in obsessive detail, prepared for like an Olympic marathon.
Last month, a job came up at a telecoms company in Oslo. The head-hunter thought that Andy would be perfect for it. Andy started ringing contacts in telecoms, printing out pages of information about the company. ‘I’m not getting excited, it’s really early days,’ he assures me, but there’s a gleam in his eye when he talks about fjords and skiing.
Meanwhile I started panicking about packing up the house, googling international schools in Oslo and trying not to burst into tears of happiness too often. Two weeks later, he’d heard nothing. He phoned the head-hunter, trying to sound casual. ‘Oh yeah,’ he’s told. ‘That job. They decided against it. They’re going to manage without a Head of Strategy for the time being.’
Often though, the initial interest turns into a job interview. And then another, a panel, a day of psychometric testing. Andy goes off to these tests like a boy on his first day at a new school: smart, nervous, hopeful. Generally he comes back feeling things went well. ‘They liked you,’ says the head-hunter. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
And then it all goes quiet. Andy jumps every time his phone rings — but it’s never the head-hunter. Three, four weeks go by. In the end he cracks and calls. ‘Sorry,’ he’s told. ‘A new candidate popped up. They really liked you, but they felt she had something different to offer.’
Either way, the possibilities consume Andy for weeks on end. He needs to talk through every aspect of every possible job, and he talks to me. It’s exhausting, it’s necessary, and it sometimes makes me want to scream. But I know it’s the most important thing I can do for him — so I go on listening, sharing the pain with him as chances crumble into nothing.
The mental stress on my husband is enormous. It’s as though he’s trapped in a recurring nightmare in which he’s for ever on trial, never escaping.
After six months without work, he started having panic attacks. He focused on Emily, losing confidence about his ability to drive her safely in the car or even be alone with her. He was haunted by the idea that she’d come to harm in his care. He cried — Andy never cries — as he begged me not to leave the two of them alone.
He talked to our GP, signed up for meditation classes, bought some relaxation tapes.
He confided in old, trusted friends, started exercising more. Slowly the panic attacks eased. I cope by refusing to think about the future. I won’t go down that road of what-ifs, because otherwise I’d start panicking, too. I try to block out the past as well, otherwise I get bitter and angry, re-running decisions we botched, things we should have done differently.
It’s not easy. I used to cheer myself up with a lipstick or a pair of shoes — but I can’t do that now. I loved buying pretty clothes for my girls. And they’re still pretty — but they dress at Primark now. It’s not that I think materialistic things matter, it’s just that life feels dreary and miserable without them.
We were too spoiled, maybe, to cut out all the extras. We still have a cleaner once a week, we buy Christmas presents for the kids (but not each other), we treat ourselves to a night out at the cinema every week.
I worry about the money, but I also feel it’s important to enjoy family life. And I don’t want there to be too much of a gulf between my children and their affluent friends, the ones who still go skiing, have real Ugg boots and PlayStation 3.
The one unemployed executive I know who went the full austerity route was a working mum, sacked from a top job in corporate finance. On her first morning at home, she sacked her cleaner and cut up her credit cards. It was as though she wanted to punish herself.
‘I feel so bad that I’ve let my family down,’ she told me. ‘The least I can do now is clean my own toilet.’
Strangely enough, some good things have come from our situation. Like many couples, we’d become unequal partners. Andy earned the money; I did everything else.
Now that’s all changed. I take on bigger projects and longer contracts, and love building my career again. A friend asked me how unemployment affected the way I perceived Andy — and how he saw himself. Did he feel less of a man without a job to define him?
Well, contrary to her expectations, this has never been an issue. I love and admire his courage in overcoming the stress and stigma of his situation — even more than I did when he was the conventional breadwinner. We’re closer than we were because our roles are less separate. We always had a good marriage, but now it’s better than ever.
Sometimes Andy can’t face social events where he knows he’s going to be quizzed about what is happening in his life. But he’s ambivalent about his old workaholic life. He certainly doesn’t envy men who work long hours and never see their families.
‘I’d love to win the Lottery,’ he says, ‘because then I could do things that would define me better than any job could do.’
In the meantime, Andy’s become a real hands-on dad. He used to be a voice on the phone — the Daddy who goes away on business trips and comes back with airport presents. During the working week, he’d leave home before they woke and come back well after their bedtime. Now, he plays table tennis with Jack, helps Lucy with her coursework, reads bedtime stories to Emily. He’s learning to get self-esteem from his relationship with his kids, his tenacity and his determination to keep going with the job-hunting.
He’s thinking about taking some Open University courses. He remains quietly sure that, one day, things will change. I’m proud of his flexibility, his survival instinct. I rage at the world which can’t find a use for his talent and experience.
A friend told me recently about a middle-class family who’d told no one their finances had reached breaking point. The marriage broke up, the husband moved out. Eventually their 13-year-old daughter told a teacher that she needed help because her mum was ill.
When friends went around to the house, they found the mother lying in bed, her face to the wall. She wouldn’t speak to them, she was engulfed in despair. There was no food in the house. They’d quietly run out of money altogether, and were too ashamed to ask for help.
I’m confident we’ll never get into that situation. We are lucky to have equity in our house — thank goodness that we never traded up and saddled ourselves with a massive mortgage. Sometimes we fantasise about selling up and moving to the Highlands. We could do it, liberate cash, and live off my earnings — just about. But the question remains, what would Andy do? He’s just 47, too young to retire, too young to write off what was — until four years ago — a successful career.
Another day, another head-hunter. Andy’s smart in his suit, steeling himself for a tough interview. I’ve got three freelance projects on the go, I’m gulping down coffee, trying to meet deadlines. Like many, many families in our position, all over the UK, all over the world, we’re surviving. But when will things get better?