I’LL be 60 years this month. Age wearies me and the years condemn but there is always the bus pass as a consolation. It is one of the few benefits of a lifetime paying into the system. I was able to check my tax and National Insurance record after a third attempt at negotiating a labyrinthine government website. It revealed I have been paying into Treasury coffers since Harold Wilson was puffing a briar in 10 Downing Street.
This entitles me to a full old age pension of £164 a week, if I make it to 2025. The value of the state pension has been steadily eroded during my lifetime and nobody of my generation will be able to live upon it. They will need extra state support or an additional income. It seems we are heading back toward 1909 when a means-tested old age pension as first introduced by David Lloyd-George. You had to be 70 before you could claim the five shillings a week and those guilty of drunkenness or a ‘habitual failure to work’ got nothing. For men the pension age dropped to 65 in 1925 and for women it dropped to 60 in 1948 but by 1995 it was raised to 65 for both and in 2007 it was raised to 68.
I recall my pride at receiving a National Insurance number and reporting for my first summer job at the Courtaulds factory in Newtownabbey. The huge machines producing man-made fibres were deafening and dangerous. I pointed out there was no cotton wool in the dispenser which doled-out ear protection. A foreman with earphones said he couldn’t hear me and handed over an eight-foot stepladder which was tied together with rags. I was instructed to replace fluorescent light bulbs high above the factory floor. These were six-feet long and had to be speared into place as I teetered above the speeding machinery. If my mother had known she’d have marched me back home by the ear and given the foreman a piece of her mind. I was laid-off after six weeks and the factory shut down soon afterwards as the man-made fibre industry made a rapid exit from the UK in search of pastures more profitable.
The following summer I worked on a building site. The lavatories were primitive, the tea was always stewed and the boorish banter relentless. I marvelled at the skills of bricklayers, plumbers and carpenters who could construct a house in a matter of days with little more than a trowel, a spirit level and a rusty handsaw. I learned a great deal from these skilled men including advanced swearing. Hard hats and safety boots hadn’t been invented so I also learned to be careful with a sledgehammer. My role was chiefly demolition and rubble management.
After leaving school I took a job in the kitchen of a busy hotel. I was regularly scalded by a dishwashing machine that was possessed by an imp of Satan and learned how to deal effectively with a fast fleeing cockroach. I painted the place from top to bottom and picked up the rudiments of soup making from an eccentric commis chef who could hit a pot of broth with a chicken from 20 paces. I was sad when he got the boot. An eagle-eyed health inspector found the ash from chef’s Park Drive in a Yorkshire pudding.
For an artless schoolboy these brown-envelope jobs were a valuable introduction to the ruthless nature of the labour market.
I returned to education after I received a modest grant to train for a job as a radio officer in the merchant navy. This pleased my father who was turfed out of school at 14 with little in the way of qualifications and apprenticed to an electrician in an ailing textile factory. He was determined that I would be the first of the Neills to go to university. He had no wish to see his son join the ranks of what a former headmaster called the ‘hewers of wood and carriers of water.’ Inexplicably the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran had other plans for me and the Gulf War put the kibosh on my dream of travelling the globe in a crisp naval officer’s uniform visiting interesting places and meeting fascinating people.
I drifted into newspaper journalism with the help of a relative, the Coleraine Chronicle’s famous columnist Speedy Moore, and apart from a spell when I taught the trade, have been here quite happily ever since. This career has allowed me to travel to interesting places and meet fascinating people. It has been a lifelong learning experience, helped pay a small mortgage and raise a happy family.
One of the many things I have had to learn for myself is prudent financial planning. I look forward to a comfortable retirement when I choose to hang up the spiral notebook.
However I fear things are much worse for those who enter today’s ruthless labour market. I shudder to think what future generations will be expected to live on after a lifetime toiling in Britain’s so-called ‘gig economy’. Leaving the European Union and its employment standards behind can only make matters worse for factory workers, bricklayers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, chefs, sailors and journalists.
The UK’s state pension in 2060 will probably make Lloyd-George’s sober five bob a week look rather generous. The bus pass is unlikely to survive the journey.
© Maurice Neill 2019
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