Indebted and Ungrateful: How the elderly stole the future (again)

Anyone unlucky enough to read my tweets will know that I have one or two issues with the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.  People giving thanks to ‘Dishy Rishi’ really get my hackles up: it is not his money, it is ours.  And visiting local restaurants and pubs in Surrey over recent weeks and finding them full (only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays) of affluent pensioners on fat final salary pensions really does get my goat.  Every single one of them could afford to be there unsubsidised, and therefore not adding to the debt their grandchildren will be repaying in many decades’ time.  But yet there they are, enjoying a jolly good feed and chortling contentedly when they get twenty quid off the bill.

My point is not that we shouldn’t support the hospitality sector.  We absolutely should, and the intentions of the Eat Out scheme are good (although giving consistent advice about how to avoid infection would surely have built up confidence amongst customers just as effectively as bunging them a tenner).  What I object to is people who don’t need to do so taking handouts from the Government.  Because those handouts are effectively subsidies from younger people to older folk, from grandchildren to grandparents.  And that is simply unfair.

Earlier on in the year there was a contretemps about the end of free television licences for everyone aged over 75.  Even now some “furious pensioners” are saying they would rather go to jail than pay up.  But for pensioners who are well-off – which is an awful lot of them – £157.50 is a drop in the bucket, and there is simply no logical reason why they shouldn’t pay if they can.  After all, free TV licences are yet another direct financial support from young to old – which is particularly outrageous when it is the elderly who really like to watch ‘Auntie’ while youngsters consume Netflix and YouTube.

More broadly, the Economist recently published an article noting that the reliance of the Conservative Party on older voters means that choices are made that hold back economic growth and harm the prospects of future generations.  Taken as a whole (of course there are individual exceptions), people over 60 are likely to oppose house building in areas that need houses, immigration in sectors that need brains and brawn, globalisation and trade, deregulation, new infrastructure projects and a host of other things that drive growth.  They favour spending on the NHS over spending on schools.  They don’t much like social change.  As the Economist puts it: “increasingly, Britain is governed in the interests of voters with an insatiable demand for healthcare and pensions, while a sluggish economy struggles to fund them”.

The article features quotes from a focus group of older ‘affluent eurosceptics’ who seem particularly sour about the attitudes of younger generations.  Kathleen observes that “the generation under me just seems to expect everything to be given to them… Everything I’ve got I earned”.  Really, Kathleen?  It is a bit of a stretch to claim that anyone really ‘earned’ the greatest part of the wealth of most middle-class people, namely the gargantuan rise in the value of houses over several decades.  And it’s not really fair to be sniffy about younger people when you are happily cushioned by a final salary pension puffed up by years of strong performance by bonds and stocks; I’m sure your children, let alone your grandchildren, would love to have the chance to ‘earn’ one of those.  But they can’t.

Obviously not all pensioners are the same.  Many would reject Kathleen’s perspective, and of course there are plenty who do not live comfortable lives in retirement.  But those who can afford it should think hard about accepting a subsidised meal or a free TV licence.  They should perhaps reflect too on whether voting for their own short-term interests, for hospitals over schools, for the Green Belt over development, and for Brexit over Remain, is fair on the generations that will come after them.  I’ve speculated before (tongue in cheek) about whether pensioners should be allowed to vote if they persist in doing so selfishly: they definitely shouldn’t accept a national-debt-funded reduction in their bill when they’re in their favourite restaurant.

Be bold but be cautious, simultaneously: How the PR industry can recover fast from the pandemic

Covid-19 has shaken the PR industry much like the rest of the economy.  In some ways we got off lightly; for large parts of the industry pivoting to working from home has been relatively easy, and some service areas, such as public affairs and employee engagement, have been busier than ever before.  But there has been real pain too, for example for anyone focused on hospitality or travel, or for businesses dependent on events or marketing spend. It has been a difficult period.

And the medium-term looks gloomy: as economies struggle to recover from the hammering they have taken in 2020 it is inevitable that communications budgets will come under pressure.  Expect the usual pressure from procurement and questioning of agency spend that always comes during a downturn.  But upheaval like this always brings opportunities as well as challenges.  Bold players can definitely take advantage of the coming months.

One obvious area for PR companies to focus is on consolidation and non-organic growth.  Inevitably some weaker companies will become available for purchase.  Likewise, experienced and high-quality people will be available for hire as they are laid off by agencies and from in-house roles alike.  If they are able to pick out the diamonds from the dross, ambitious businesses with sound finances could find ways to grow rapidly and add new skillsets, putting themselves in a much stronger position in a year to 18 months’ time.

Another opportunity may come as in-house teams are slimmed down and, in some cases, more senior and expensive communications leaders are let go.  This could mean that clients lean ever more heavily on their agencies – but only if they give the best and most trusted advice that makes a real difference to commercial operations, not just to comms.  Bold companies will find ways to be indispensable and add real value in the next few months.

But I think there are real risks if companies think they can be bold in other areas of their businesses, particularly when it comes to staff and office space. What might look like smart, decisive, steps taken now could prove to be anything but when the dust eventually settles.

Most obviously, dispensing with staff in order to make short-term cost savings could cause huge distortions in the future. For a few years after the last financial crisis the whole industry faced a dearth of good mid-level staff because so many companies had decided to pause recruitment in 2008 and afterwards. Some companies did better than others if they managed to hold onto their teams. It would be smart to proceed with caution when it comes to this, every agency’s most precious asset.

This time around we face a unique pressure to reduce the size of offices and change their configuration to allow for social distancing and/or a better work-life balance for those people able to base themselves at home. All of this makes sense, on the face of it, but smart companies will recognise that it comes with trade-offs, particularly when it comes to building affinity between staff and company and providing ways in which people can learn from one another. There are actually reasons that humans, and perhaps particularly those in the knowledge economy like PR folk, crowd together in offices within cities. We shouldn’t get rid of those advantages lightly.

The best companies will move slowly and understand that they will have to invest in maintaining links between their staff and in allowing colleagues to learn from one another. New forms of training and better means of communication will be needed. And firms should also realise that in six to 12 months we may have discovered ways to live with Covid, or even have a vaccine, and returning to office work even just for three days a week might look to be a very good idea. The new normal is not the new normal just yet, and making decisions that can be changed later has to be a good idea.

In short, to emerge quickly from the pandemic PR firms must be bold and cautious all at the same time. Moving rapidly and decisively in everything outward-facing is smart; being thoughtful and more deliberate when it comes to internal matters is smarter still.  We all need to hold our nerve, and fight the good fight with the slash and burn bean counters.  This too shall pass.