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From bakelite to broadband – technology, change and the pursuit of happiness

My grandparents married in the 1930s.  This must have suited them very well, as they stayed living in the 1930s for the rest of their lives, spending over 50 happy years together amidst heavy brown furniture, cabinet wirelesses, open fires and over-boiled vegetables.

My grandfather was born just too late to participate in the Great War, but was just too old to be called up to the front line in WW2; he was a bank clerk at Lloyds, conscripted into the Pay Corps and stationed in Aldershot.  He spent his entire career at Lloyds, happily unambitious, retiring with a bank pension on his 60th birthday, with 20 years of gardening, cricket and churchwardenship to look forward to.

My grandmother was a schoolteacher – and of course, in line with the requirements of the time, she resigned when she married.  She was a mother, a housewife; a stalwart of the Mothers Union, and amateur history student.  She may have wished she could have done more with her life, but she wasn’t an activist.

There was always enough to live on; they retired from Metroland to an eccentric house with a large garden, and a view across the fields towards Buckingham church.  Money was saved, not wasted, and most of their possessions – crockery, furniture, kitchen equipment, hats – seemed to endure for ever.

Staying put in the 1930s, post-Hitler, was comfortable and warm.  No television, and therefore little exposure to popular culture – when Elvis Presley’s death was reported in the Daily Telegraph, my grandfather had to find who he was.  No refrigerator, so meals tended to be nutritious, if a little unexciting.  No pretensions about fashion, design, technology or trends – clothes and consumer goods were bought when needed, and used until they wore out.  My grandparents never travelled abroad (I’m not sure they even got as far as Scotland), but were content to putter off to the seaside in a succession of Hillmans.

All of this was possible because of a background of certainty and unchanging values.  The job at Lloyds was a job for life; guaranteed income, discounted mortgage, guaranteed pension.  And, although supermarkets progressively took over from counter-service shopping, the process of administering one’s life – filling in forms, paying cheques, signing documents, making sparing use of the telephone – didn’t change noticeably between the 1930s and the start of the 1980s.

By modern, aspirational standards, my grandparents weren’t well-off, but they were comfortable (and indeed better off than most); and – as far as I could tell – they were perfectly happy with their station in life.  Despite their insular existence (to modern eyes), there was plenty to keep them engaged in the rhythm of the seasons in the garden, at the greengrocer, on the cricket pitch and at the church.

When I think about what a happy life looks like, I don’t think of lottery winners and seven star hotels in Dubai, of winning Britain’s Got Talent or achieving a million hits on YouTube.  Contentment isn’t a new generation iPad, a thousand friends on Facebook or a new high score on Call of Duty.  With the caveat that they were remarkably fortunate through both world wars, a happy life looks like the life my grandparents led.

Well, Philip, thank you for sharing those memories with us.  Most enlightening.  Isn’t this supposed to be a blog about retailing, or bookselling, or digitisation, stuff like that?  What’s with the rose-tinted specs?  

My theme for today is one that recognises that a life like my grandparents’ – essentially predictable, essentially unchanging – is wholly impossible today.  Whatever your age, nationality or role, your life will consist of changes and switchback turns.  Change and uncertainty will be thrust upon you.

I remember attending a lecture by Tom Peters, mega-guru of the 80s business world.  Gleefully he pounded back and forth across the stage, shouting his mantra of change, disturbance and cost-reduction.  Like teenage revolutionaries, we absorbed all this stuff with wide-eyed excitement.  We knew the world was shifting beneath our feet, economically with the rise of the Far East (I suspect we were still concerned about Japan), technologically (the PC had arrived) and politically (Reagan, Thatcher and the collapse of the Berlin Wall).  The world of the future was going to be one of constant change.  Only the strong would survive.  If you couldn’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen.  No time for losers.

This mindset positioned us nicely for the upheavals that were to come.  Technology and globalisation rolled across banks, manufacturing, technology, the service sector, education, healthcare – and of course, retail.  There was little, it seemed, that could not be achieved by corporations on a supranational basis.  An individual’s 45 year career, which perhaps at worst might have suffered a single upheaval historically, was now subject to constant redefinition.

Because the bedrock of modern life is so uncertain, we take refuge in amusing gadgets, fleeting entertainments, and specious substitutes for a real, connected life.  Where once novelty was strictly for the young – toys, singers, fashion – now it is for everybody.  Life is more interesting, but I’m not sure that it’s any more satisfying.

However, you can’t opt out of the modern world.  My grandfather could choose to ignore change, because the life he led enabled him to.  The downside for many – particularly women – was that an unchanging life was the only option open to them.

Today, however, it would be impossible to manage money, work or the future with the same tools, or the same certainties, that existed in 1980, when I was 20.  And – although I am now at mid-century myself – I know that the rest of my working life (15-20 years) and the retirement that follows, will be subject to more change, more upheaval.  I can plan, but I can’t predict.

One thing about which I am certain, though, is that I do want to be happy, in the simplest and most straightforward sense.  I think this can be achieved without the adulation of crowds or a constant commitment to cutting-edge technology – provided I can keep up, participate, contribute and perhaps prosper, and look after the people and things that I care about along the way, that will do just fine.

Image: hpitdesign.co.uk

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One Comment on “From bakelite to broadband – technology, change and the pursuit of happiness”

  1. Andy Adamson says:

    Philip,
    I know we think alike on this as we’ve discussed it a few times. I’m wondering have we suddenly gained a level of karma at last in our midlife? I suspect so, but I think that also, you’ve latched onto broader changes in society. Just as your grandparents were stuck in the 30’s, I think many of our generation were stuck in the 80’s. While that decade marked the end of a stable economic existence for a large part of the population, for many more it seemed to open up opportunities that knew no bounds. It took 25 years to realise it was literally a mortgage and had to be paid back, and to push the property metaphor further, it was a lease not a freehold. We could still lose everything.
    So many people have had a shock course in leaving the 80’s (as in the consumer credit, rising income, house value 80’s) that the willingness of a large part of the population to continue to play ball is in question.
    Perhaps we have turned into our parents: like you I don’t really need much more “stuff”
    Watching the Apprentice on Wednesday where the task was to design a Phone App was deeply depressing. Even taking aside the borderline psychosis displayed by most of the aspirants, the point that really hit home was when the CEO of Carphone Warehouse admitted that Apps were essentially about wasting time. Fine, but it’s not just for kids. Are we all to become latterday Yossarian’s where the only escape from insanity is madness?
    Hopefully not, but I think where it does leave us is understanding the pact we make when we engage in the commercial world. Someday it comes round to eat us all. I think where this leaves us is to say: engage in it, but keep enough of yourself and your relationships intact, because that’s all you have at the end.
    Great piece and feel free to meditate on broader issues anytime.