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Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong
In this episode of the Ruffian: the mental health crisis that isn't, what managers can learn from rockers, the future of everything...and more.
THE UK IS NOT THE US
I've been struck recently by how much of the UK's political and social debate is distorted by the influence of America. Our relatively recent and intense preoccupation with inequality, for instance, is only partly justified by the facts. In the US, everything people say about it is pretty much true - the poor and the middle class have seen their incomes stagnate or fall, while the top 1% has swollen. In the UK, inequality has been fairly stable for the past 25 years, and our median wage has grown twice as fast as the OECD average. A big reason for this difference is that, at least since 1997, we've had much more redistributive government policies than the US. Another is that the UK is better at getting people into jobs (plus, since 2010, education spending has been tilted towards the poor - maybe Gove wasn't so bad after all, huh?). We're closer to a European social democracy than a 51st state. That doesn't mean inequality isn't a problem for the UK, or that it's not too high, or that wage growth hasn't been too slow. But a lot of commentary seems to be based on reports from another country. See also the talk of a "mental health crisis". In the US, that seems apt: the suicide rate has been increasing sharply, and of course, there's the awful opioid epidemic. But in the UK, the suicide rate has been stable or in decline over the last 25 years. Given what we know about suicide contagion, the frequently lurid framing of suicide stats is grossly irresponsible (note out the actual numbers on which that headline is based, and dig deeper here). Child mental health problems are rising in the US and declining in Europe; in the UK, the prevalence of problems among children doesn't seem to have changed (and there's no boy-girl differential). What has changed is that mental health conditions are slightly more likely to be reported on and diagnosed. That's a good thing - it's progress. Again, none of this means that mental health provision isn't inadequate or that it doesn't need tackling. But beware the narrative.
WE CAN WORK IT OUT
What can the Beatles teach us about office politics? I'm delighted to see this piece go live. It was, as you can imagine, great fun to research and write.
I've been interested in the work of Lucy Suchman for a while now, and in this week's New Statesman column I finally got to write about her. She's an underrated influence on the evolution of modern consumer technology.
I really like BBC Radio 3's Private Passions, which isn't, as you might imagine, a guide to Victorian erotica, but a kind of Desert Island Discs format with a focus on classical music. It's presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. I often listen to the podcast version, and I savour, every time, his wonderfully fruity pronunciation of "download". Anyway, if you're not much of a classical music fan but you are interested in it, I think it's a great way to get introduced to stuff. This episode, from a few weeks back, is particularly good. Berkeley's guest is John Bird, founder of the Big Issue. What a life he's lived! And what a storyteller. Bird is a working class guy who got into classical music and decided to educate himself on it, which makes him a great guide to it. He says he believes in "elitism for everyone". Now that is a principle to live by.
Benedict Evans is my favourite guide to the business of technology. Though based in Silicon Valley, he's (very) English. In contrast to some of the better known hype merchants (cough, Mary Meeker) he's reliably evidence-based and thoughtful. His latest presentation (on video here) is a fascinating tour d'horizon of the global economy. It covers the future of retail, cars, and an industry I know something about, advertising. On the latter, Benedict points out that people think of Facebook ads as, well, ads, and talk as if the money spent on them substitutes for TV spend, when in fact it's more of a substitute for direct mail or telemarketing. Similarly if clients buy placement on Amazon we call it advertising; if they buy shelf-space at Walmart we call it promotion or marketing. They're both ways getting yourself in front of customers at or near the point of purchase, which isn't usually what an ad does. Personally I'd have thought a much better categorisation would be between brand-building (get to know me) and conversion (buy me now!). Anyway, there's a huge amount of juicy stuff packed into twenty minutes or so here. I can't believe how fast he talks.
BUT THEN AGAIN YES
As Elton John goes on his farewell tour, and parents across Britain feel bad for not getting their child a piano this Christmas, I suggest you read this wonderful profile of the man, by Bill Wyman (no, not that Bill Wyman). It will make you think differently about a figure who is in some ways underrated, because we can't see past the specs, tiaras and duck outfits. Its most interesting revelation, to me, is that nobody saw Your Song coming. Now, it's one of the most played and best loved songs of all time, but before it was popular, nobody thought much of it. It was released as B-side to a song that few remember now. It was only after a few DJs started playing it that Your Song gained traction. Label bosses, marketers and journalists just didn't "hear" it first time round. Sometimes, a cultural hit, musical or otherwise, is obviously radical or ahead of its time. Other times,, things which seem so obviously likeable and accessible, at least in retrospect, completely blindside the experts and gatekeepers (see also Harry Potter). Maybe this happens when the work is just an inch or so to the left or right of convention. As Wyman says, although Your Song is a traditional pop ballad in some ways, it has some elements that would have sounded odd, somehow off, to trained ears back then. Audiences don't have as many preconceptions as experts, however, and, given the chance, they sometimes decide they like it that way.
FACT OF THE DAY
I didn't even mention the endless "lessons to learn for the UK" articles on US politics, which generally tell us nothing. One trend we do have in common, however: the growing education divide between left and right. In 1992, Republicans held half of the House districts with the highest level of educational attainment. Now they hold 2 out of 30.
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