June 2009


The coming storm

By John Birmingham
The coming storm

Officially in recession: Oxford Street, London, January 2009. © Oli Scarff - Getty Images.

Out of work in a land of plenty

One man's recession began in February, on Friday the 13th. Another's world came apart in March. The Ides of March were also cruel to a woman we'll call Dusty. We'll call her that because like most of the people in this story, she'd prefer to remain anonymous.

The small, wiry and intense man who discovered his luck had run out on Black Friday is happy to be known by his internet handle, Havock21. Hundreds of people know him by that name, on Twitter, Xbox Live and the numerous blogs he visits, including mine. On his own blog, too, of course. There he has written about what happens when the life of an average bloke gets caught up in the machinery of an infernal engine.

That engine, built by criminally incompetent bankers and fuelled by a bonfire of junk bonds and toxic mortgages, is known by the even more infernal name of the Global Financial Crisis, but let's agree to call it simply the Great Recession.

Havock finally came to understand that he was being fed into the machine towards the end of that evil heatwave that helped set Victoria ablaze earlier this year. To understand Havock, however, and what recession means to him and millions of others, we must first place him in context, lest all of this blogging and Twittering and online gaming create the impression of some weird digital-age man-child, which he most assuredly is not.

Havock is Mr Australia. He is 40 years old. He lives in a brick house, in a small town about 45 minutes' drive from Melbourne along the Avenue of Honour, a road lined with aged elms, planted in memory of fallen diggers from the Great War. The township was founded on an old river bed, the source of over 20 metres of rich, fertile topsoil in places, and the explanation for there being so many market gardeners and small farms in the district. In this bucolic scene, near the tail end of the Great Dividing Range, he keeps a wife he adores, but whom he calls ‘the boss', or sometimes ‘the cook' - possibly when she is out of earshot. Our man Havock has two boys, whom he dotes upon. He drives a ute he rebuilt himself, once served proudly in the 5th/6th Battalion of the Royal Victoria Regiment, loves his sport, his mates, Australia and a beer.

He is unemployed.

When last he had work, not so long ago, he was a facilities manager overseeing two large industrial sites for a well-known multinational company. In the modern way of these things, he wasn't actually employed by the multinat, but rather by a second company, which had been contracted to provide a suite of fixed and ‘reactive' services.

The former included site security, grounds maintenance, cleaning and catering, while the latter could run from repairing storm damage to filling potholes and managing asbestos in some of the older, heritage-listed buildings on site. It was challenging work. The main site was extensive, and the grounds were old and massively contaminated by the sins of industries past. The discovery of ancient, unexploded ordnance was just one of many excitements with which a diligent facilities manager might have to contend on any given day.

On this given day, however, bright and scorching as it was, he had a mid-morning conference with his supervisor, who had just come from his own meeting with the local managers of The Giant Multinational. His boss, a good man, seemed very tense and uncomfortable, but that was not necessarily significant. As the state burned around them, and hundreds of lives were lost just over the horizon, the two companies were involved in negotiating a new contract; some tension was inevitable, especially given the death-spiral into which the world economy had recently plunged.

After a few moments of strained conversation, the senior man finally said, "Look, I'm not going to beat around the bush or blow wind up your arse. They have another person they want to start on Monday."

Havock's stomach turned inside out. His pulse raced away. But he did his best to keep a poker face. There had been intimations that the client might decide to try and cut costs by taking facilities management back in-house. They talked options, including whether their company might have somewhere else they could place him in the short term. But Havock himself had already had to lay off another employee, a young woman, as they sought to slash costs, and he knew where this was headed.

"I did the calculations," he said. "Six weeks' sick leave owing, seven weeks' annual leave and my contract gave me four weeks for every year of service from four years onwards, plus two weeks for the first four years."

He had five years on the job. Nineteen weeks' pay, they owed him, if the axe fell. There is an impishness about Havock21 when he is at play, but that can turn into a stern, thin-lipped severity when he is displeased. And he quickly had good reason to be displeased, as his employers made it clear they would prefer it if he resigned and saved them the dreadful inconvenience of funding those entitlements.

"Not fucking likely," he said. "I cracked the shits, telephoned a solicitor and got some legal advice. I knew my ground. So I rang the boss, told him I wasn't going to resign, told him what was owing me, what my performance reviews had been like."

They had been excellent. More importantly, he also knew where the bodies were buried on the huge and problematic site, and pronounced himself more than happy to dig them up for public viewing if he did not have satisfaction. The company soon admitted that perhaps it had been a touch presumptuous in expecting him to quietly take it in the neck and a compromise was forthcoming. More acceptable arrangements were offered. A leaving date settled upon. He drafted a resignation letter, nominating 20 March as his last day.

On that day, a grey drizzling morning as he recalls, he surfaced as normal around six o'clock and pottered about the house, watched the kids go off to school, made himself some breakfast. "I remember thinking that I really couldn't give a fuck about going to work," he said. "But there were some last-minute items I needed to finish off. I guess it was around 9.30 before I walked out the front door. It was a pleasant trip, driving in, quiet."

Those marked for death carry the weight of it with them. It hovers like a gothic shade, scaring others off lest they be cut down by the sickle too. Havock found that in his final hours he had become an unperson, avoided by all who had known him for five years, except a single mate who joined him for lunch, after which he handed in his keys and strolled over to the new site manager's office.

"I told him I was going home. I really couldn't be fucked staying any longer." He exchanged a few meaningless pleasantries with the man who had replaced him, climbed into his ute and drove off through a fine mist of cold rain.

"I guess it wasn't until I got up the driveway and hit the beer fridge in the garage that I started to think about it all, you know, being at an end. It's one of them things, I suspect, depending on how busy you are, just what the final death throes of the job are like. I won't say I was all fired up, but I wouldn't have pissed on any of them had they been on fire in my front yard."

Castle Havock was quiet that night. His wife was watchful, but she kept her distance. He spent some time online, catching up with friends, letting them know what had happened. He had a few more beers and went to bed.

He was not alone. Nearly 54,000 workers had also left their offices, mines, factories or shops for the last time in the previous month. Up to a million are expected to join the dole queue before the economy begins growing enough new jobs to start employing them again.

Havock was lucky, in a way. He had sensed the hammer might fall as early as January, when his boss quietly suggested he might want to start looking for other work, "just in case". For others, the end came as a shock. In Sydney, a graphic designer working in-house with a large, well-known firm in the health industry suddenly found his open-ended contract squeezed off. The company restructured, divesting itself of the little design studio that had run up its brochures and posters and marketing bumf. The designer, in his late twenties - we'll call him Jack - who had been living large after clearing $1200 a week, suddenly found himself making do with welfare payments of $236.50. Or not making do. His rent and other living expenses ran to just under $700 a week.

I found him on Twitter, the neighbourhood bar of Generation Y, and he agreed to talk, anonymously, about the shock of the new.

"I'm still living in the same place, with the same expenses," he said. "And at the moment, my girlfriend's job appears safe, so apart from rent, she is supporting me.

"But, obviously, any sort of entertainment and so on has totally gone out the window. Anything I need to spend money on now, it comes straight out of my savings, and my savings are down to about $1000."

He looks at a job market in which he could recently name his own price and sees nothing. "Marketing budgets are always the first to be cut," he says, "which means there will be more graphic designers out of work competing for less jobs. And for the jobs that are there, companies are offering less money and expecting people to be jacks-of-all-trades - print designer, web developer, whatever. I specialise in print design, and there aren't many companies out there looking for people who just do print. Needless to say, I'm shitting myself. I'm going to have to find any work I can."

The shock, the fear, the abject disbelief that things can go so bad, so quickly is not the exclusive preserve of pseudonymous designers or facilities managers. There's plenty o' good times to be shared around. They're shared by surviving co-workers, who feel their own financial mortality all the more keenly. By friends, who find the hungry ghost of their newly destitute companion an unwanted apparition. But most of all by family. By people like ‘Dusty'. She liked the idea of being called Dusty, or maybe ‘Candy', because they sound like cool names, way cooler than the reality of her sudden impoverishment.

So this woman we will call Dusty - and if you need a mental image, you can imagine her flitting about Balmain, a happy raven-haired woman but one whose good humour has lately been tested to breaking point. I found her on Facebook, which was once upon a time what Twitter is now, the hottest social-networking site in the world - or ‘notworking', to steal an increasingly prescient neologism from urbandictionary.com.

I posted a query on my Facebook page that read: "Ghoulish I know, but does anyone have any personal tales of the Great Recession they care to share for a cover story?"

Dusty wrote back privately, unable and unwilling to share her grief with those of my "oh-so-employed" Facebook friends - a technical term Facebook uses instead of the more traditional ‘strangers' - who were busy questioning whether there even was a recession, because it hadn't yet come for them. Dusty's husband had been laid off in March, a forced redundancy she described as "shocking and unexpected, handled with no sensitivity and very badly timed". The company involved she would describe only as "the fuckers".

"We went from earning 200k+ between us to noppes, nothing, nada coming in," she wrote. Their rapid descent from AAA to busted-arse status was hastened by her decision in early 2008 to leave her job to stay home with their daughter. In giving up her very well-paid position as an executive PA, Dusty was not alone; she joined the many others who made pre-crash decisions to change or drop jobs, to renovate the family home, to buy a beach pad or investment property, to pick up some shares, or blow a wad on an overseas trip back when such indulgences were not indulgences at all, but entirely justified rewards for anyone smart enough to be drawing breath in our lost lamented Belle Époque.

"I've always worked pretty much full-time," she wrote in a second note, late one night. "So I thought it would just be nice to be home with her. We could afford to, see? The old man was on a packet - we'd struggle through ... I am now undertaking postgraduate study to qualify as a teacher next year. Found out today how much beginning teachers earn ..." The note ended with a short blast of profanity.

Recessions, like everything measured by economists, are calibrated, weighed and judged to be mild, deep, Great or otherwise by numbers, but not the numbers mere punters use. Those numbers - not so much favoured by normal people, as thrust rudely upon them - are more prosaic. They are the sort of numbers that once bedevilled the under-classes, not mainstream Australia. Not the aspirationals.

Numbers like $30. The amount of working capital Dusty can no longer afford to invest in having her eyebrows waxed, leaving her to contemplate the intimate effects of a global downturn in the lines of her own face. "Since I'm too gutless to do it myself, when I look in the mirror I see a cross between Robert Menzies and Mrs Grunty."

Or $13.50. The new average weekly grocery spend for Jack, our unemployed and now quite hungry graphic designer.

Or $79.99. The asking price at Rebel Sport for the cheapest, most embarrassing running shoes in stock, a figure for Havock21 to contemplate when his youngest son mentioned that his toes were starting to hurt, because his runners were too small. "It's not a real big deal," the boy said. "I think they could last another month or more yet."

"That's what just about breaks your heart," said Havock. "I avoid using the phrase ‘We can't afford that'. I try to explain to them that we need to be careful and when I'm back at work, we'll have a look then."

The former facilities manager, who had enjoyed his life on a six-figure salary, and still had a small amount of savings left, told his youngest that it would be all right. They'd get him some shoes.

"He was prepared to debate it, would you believe! But with some gentle pushing and reassurance, he accepted we could afford it and it wasn't a burden."

Not yet.

There are no metrics to measure the pain and fear that ride in on the heels of bloodless numbers, but anyone with rent to pay or debts hanging over them, especially if they have children, will know the hollow, shaky feeling of wondering if and when their turn will come. Should it come, a whole new emotional universe opens up to them; the fear of ruin ceases to be an abstract concept and morphs with frightening speed into something more concrete.

"The inability to make plans," wrote Dusty, "the godawful FEAR is fairly gruesome. The strain it places on your family, these are all bad, but I reckon the very WORST thing about being sacked is when you were used to being amply remunerated and for the first time in your life you need to make do. I realise worse things happen at sea, but actually ‘shopping around for bargains at the supermarket' makes me want to cry bitter tears of self-pity, or when my daughter tells me she's sick of only eating apples and asks why she doesn't get raspberries in her lunchbox anymore. We had NO idea."

The CAPITALS are hers, and I leave them in lest editing dilute her anguish.

It might seem odd that a small box of raspberries should distress an adult woman so, but it is their very insignificance that loads the inability to have them with so much meaning. Seven dollars will get you a small plastic punnet of raspberries at my local grocery. Less change than I lose out of my pockets every time I sit down. And yet there have been times in my life when a few coins were all that stood between me and hunger. The real hunger of not having eaten in a day or two. But I was lucky then. Time was on my side. As a young writer, having chosen the life of the garret, there was at least some romance and existential cred to be had in going without. But for a successful, professional, grown-up individual, there is no upside to the raspberry question. If you cannot afford for your child to eat them, you cannot but ask yourself where you have gone wrong.

Possibly nowhere. Dusty did not invent the diabolically complicated financial products known as collateralised debt obligations which detonated like a small, dirty nuclear device in the world's banking system last year. Havock21 did not cynically put the federal budget into structural deficit during the height of the mining boom, leaving Canberra with nothing to spare for a rainy day, which turned into a howling, apocalyptic shitstorm. Jack the graphic artist was hardly responsible for the failure of the international credit-ratings agencies to factor in risk properly when assessing the worth of opaque assets such as derivatives. But Jack, Havock and Dusty are now living with the consequences of those things, as well as the failure of regulators to address the problems and contradictions in the financial markets well before they reached critical mass.

They would also be galled, although perhaps not surprised, to know that Australia has not yet been struck by the full force of the storm that is raging throughout the rest of the world. The British economy has all but imploded. The US shrank by an annualised 6.2% in the fourth quarter of last year. It is a massive contraction in a super-massive entity like America. At the other end of the scale, poor little Iceland has suffered the world's most spectacular meltdown of its banking sector, with the bad debts of its three largest lenders amounting to nearly six times the country's gross domestic product. A comparable collapse here would wipe out a shade over $6 trillion.

Perhaps that explains why the catastrophe, which has emptied shopping malls and destroyed governments elsewhere, has yet to genuinely sink its fangs into our imagination. As questionable a policy measure as the government's cash handouts might be, there's no questioning their popularity among those thus stimulated, and there is something to be said for keeping up morale, even if it costs nearly $13 billion to do so for only a short amount of time. (Although whose morale is being kept up is a legitimate question. The newly impoverished Dusty didn't get a Rudd cheque, because her previous taxable income made her ineligible; likewise her husband. And that $13 billion would have come in mighty useful when this year's grotesquely bloated welfare bill comes due.)

Despite the prime minister's stirring defence of deficit spending as a return to traditional Labor values - Graham Richardson's personal motto of ‘Whatever it takes' comes to mind - the debt does add up. Twelve point seven billion here. Forty-two billion there. Before long you're talking about real money. Money that didn't come from under the mattress at the Lodge, but rather from the generous and helpful mandarins of the Chinese Communist Party - because despite 17 years of uninterrupted economic growth, we find ourselves at the start of the Great Recession in an awkward fiscal position best described as ‘skint'. It's not entirely the fault of Wayne Swan dancing through the thoroughfares and shopping malls of suburban Australia tossing $900 cheques high into the air. His predecessors had something to do with it, writing plenty of their own that they knew future governments could not possibly honour.

Under Howard, during the boom, company tax as a percentage of GDP grew from 4% to 5%. That doesn't sound like much, but it inflated the government's tax-take by $20 billion a year. Capital-gains tax, meanwhile, grew from 0.5% of GDP to 1.5%, or from $4 billion to $20 billion a year. Over the life of the boom this accounted for a windfall of tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in extra revenue.

The growth in revenue was like a balloon, however, because it was entirely dependent on the boom to keep blowing in the hot air. There were only two ways for it to end. When the boom was at its height, the balloon might pop as the economy overheated catastrophically, a fear that drove the Reserve Bank to begin jacking up interest rates way back in 2002. Or, when the boom was over, the balloon might deflate in a slightly less dangerous fashion, but still rapidly, with an offensive farting noise.

Either way, the river of money gushing into Treasury was always going to dry up one day. Costello knew it. Howard knew it. Rudd and Swan, too. But the commitments Howard made to lower personal tax rates, to family tax benefits and to increased services were permanent. Under his direction, the budget was structured so that it did enjoy a healthy cash surplus while the boom rolled on; but as soon as that extra income disappeared, the underlying shortfall was exposed. Howard created what is known as a ‘structural deficit'. Kevin Rudd decided to chance his luck with it, and lost.

Had Australia enjoyed something like Norway's commodities-based sovereign-wealth fund, the treasures of the mining boom would have been stored away as savings with the aim of distributing national wealth "in an equitable manner across generations", to quote the former deputy governor of Norway's central bank, Jarle Bergo. A hundred billion dollars or more would have been available to pump into the economy. (The Future Fund, announced in the 2005-06 budget, could have provided a model, but was established at least five years too late and did not specifically siphon commodities income out of current government expenditure.)

And so we face the storm that is upon us with our sails shredded and the waves already crashing over the gunwale. Perhaps she'll be right. Perhaps the Chinese will save us. Perhaps by the time you read this, Havock's relentless job-search schedule will have delivered him into full-time work again. After all, there are a few green shoots about, to borrow a favoured, if slightly desperate metaphor.

At a Brisbane advertising firm, BCM, 16 new staffers have taken up jobs, as the quick-witted and nimble company adjusted to the apocalyptic fortunes of the ad industry by retooling some of its business to focus on new media and social networking. One of those new hires, Anthony Dever, is the pop-culture guru behind the much-loved Fugly Awards. Well, much loved except by those wretched TV shows and personalities gonged with a Fugly for outstanding achievement in the field of wretchedness. Dever, until recently the digital freelancers' digital freelancer, recently decided to sign on with BCM, a mid-sized firm, in a second-tier city, in an industry at the rapidly crumbling edge of the global recession. Why?

Because they got it.

BCM saw what was coming, at least as far as the lingering death of old-media business models were concerned, if not the econopocalypse which would hasten their demise. When they advertised for a Social Media Manager (yes, it's all about the Twittering and Facebooking) he was intrigued. Here was a company that wasn't going to be smashed flat by the tsunami of destructive change. They were going to ride it.

That is the one upside of all this down. Recessions do clear away the old and rusty, the inefficient and incapable, clearing space for newer, better-adapted companies to thrive. But they do so at enormous cost. In lost wealth, and broken lives. Havock, Jack and Dusty do not deserve this. They were none of them slackers. Of the 50,000 who joined them out in the cold in March this year, perhaps a small percentage were. It is no secret that many companies are using the current crisis to rid themselves of less than ideal staff whom they hired in desperation at the height of the boom. But our new ghosts of the fiscal dead are largely innocent bystanders. The 3000 employees of BHP marked for termination in January, the 1800 clothing workers at Bonds and King Gee who joined them in February, they were not dead wood. Until this year their labour generated the extraordinary profits that fattened the wallets of those men and women who would eventually cut them loose, often while voting themselves extortionate pay rises.

What will become of them? If the recession swells their ranks to a mere 10% of the workforce, they can probably look forward to being pitied for a while, then scorned, and even used as whipping boys and girls for the inevitable jihad, somewhere down the track, over mollycoddling the work-shy and incentivating the lazy before they drag us all down. If the recession becomes a truly Great Recession, however, and hundreds of thousands of jobless become millions, then their experience and our handling of it will define a generation and mould our future in ways that Australians will still talk of when we are all long gone.

Jack, Havock and Dusty, welcome to a changed world. You have become our future history.

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


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