An email from Sue, our bookkeeper. Would I write a cheque for the petty cash I took to pay the taxi from the station? Also my £8 Lottery money is due. Ah, the Lottery. It seems like one of those things-glass milk bottles, telegrams at weddings, Game Boys-that have quietly faded from our lives. But it’s still out there, and I’m a member of the farm syndicate. Not that I believe the 20 members faithfully forking out their £1 a week will someday be in front of the barn toasting with Moët et Chandon as we celebrate our life-changing win. We’re more likely to strike oil on this farm than win, and whoever first said that the Lottery was a tax paid by the stupid got it right. But here’s my dilemma.
If by some numerical miracle, the Wyken syndicate had a gargantuan win (the noticeboard in the farm office has the faded clipping about the 20 winners in September 2007 sharing a roll-down Euromillions jackpot of €180 million), I could have 19 members of staff deciding that life in a hammock in New Zealand, or Tuscany looks better than a job in this corner of Suffolk. My twentieth would provide meagre but some-consolation.
Of course, I would try to persuade them to stay. I grew up in a time and a place where work was considered redemptive. From the time I was 12, I baby-sat for 50 cents an hour. At 15, I was working on the local newspaper, learning the craft of ‘who, what, when, where and why’. My ‘beat’ was ‘Retirement’ and it meant waiting at the train station at 6am to photograph and interview conductors on their last journey on the Chicago-New Orleans route on the Illinois Central Railroad. Most of them had spent 50 years on the job so I tried to bring solemnity to the occasion and make sure I got the facts right.
In college, I honed new skills, working my way up from clearing tables in the cafeteria to waitressing in the faculty dining room, where I served Aaron Copland cauliflower cheese. By my senior year, I was working in a restaurant called Max’s Kansas City on Park Avenue South and 21st Street and commuting to Princeton with my history professor Martin Duberman, a brave passenger who predicted a future waitressing, not driving.
When my memory begins to fade, I hope that I will be able to regain my balance by tracing the long and winding road of my brilliant careers. Although I had plenty of jobs that were mind-numbing and a few that were foot- and back-breaking, I learned that having a job-any job-is crucial to happiness.
Which makes me worried about the nearly one million young people between the ages of 16 and 21 who are unemployed in Britain today, a number that will increase as cuts to the armed forces bite.
It’s condemning a generation to unhappy lives, because if they’re jobless long enough, they’ll become, terrible word, ‘unemployable’.Instead of coming down on parents who network on behalf of their children, I’d like the Government to come up with a programme that puts these young people to work. If this Parliament came up with legislation so that, for every unemployed young person hired, the Government would cover two-thirds of their wage for 18 months, it would transform lives that are on the way to becoming a lost generation.
A few employers might exploit their young workers and use them as cheap labour, but far more would take time to teach them the skills that begin with getting up in the morning, getting to work on time and not having your mother call in to say you aren’t well when you’re in bed with a hangover. I know all of this because I hire 16 year olds. I watch their transformation from sleepy, aimless, disorganised children to competent, cheerful and hard-working members of staff. Life might be a lottery, but jobs are the real thing.