The Gender Pay Gap – A Brief Analysis

This chart shows what most of us would regard as a generally positive trend – the decline in the gender pay gap – which is down to 9% for full-time workers, and even lower for part-time workers.

Gender Pay Gap 1 2014

However, there’s a lot more going on than this….

For starters, there is considerable variation by age – with women in their 20s and 30s actually earning more than men in the same age categories, with  a significant pay gap then emerging between older workers.

Gender Pay Gap by Age

The ONS notes that the gender pay gap between workers 40+ is probably down to women taking time off to become primary child carers, which to my mind is pretty bleak – Given the ‘negative’ gender pay gap between younger workers, this suggests women are getting into jobs which will give them the same (or better) wages than men (reflecting their higher educational achievement) but that this is then abruptly reversed when childcare responsibilities fall on the mother rather than the father.

It also seems that women in higher paid jobs lose out more compared to men in lower paid jobs – with the gender pay gap for the highest 10% of earners being near 20%, while it’s nearer 5% for the lowest 10% of earners (so rich women are less equal to rich men than poor women are to poor men, at least if we look purely at income). Of course this will also reflects the gendered age differences in the chart above.

Employment - gender pay gap

However to complicate matters there’s not a straightforward correlation between occupational class and the gender pay gap – it’s actually the traditionally masculine jobs which have the highest gender pay gap, not the highest income ‘professional and managerial’ jobs.

 gender pay gap occupation

There’s various explanations for this larger gender pay gap in traditionally male occupations – It could simply be the later entry of women into such occupations compared to women going into the professions – thus there are fewer older women than older men, so women on average earn less compared to men because older workers earn more than younger. An alternative explanation would be that women who go into these professions are less likely to return them after taking time out to raise children, in which case the question of whether this lack of return is due to gender-barriers, or genuine free-choice would arise. Of course, it’s probably a mixture of all three of these reasons.

Finally, it might be worth exploring what’s going in in Northern Ireland that’s led to such a significant reduction in the gender pay gap….. Whether this is down to social policy or just societal changes I don’t know, drop me a line if you do!

Employment - gender pay gap 1997 to 2014


Consuming Life, Zygmunt Bauman – A Summary of Chapter 3

Chapter Three: Consumerist Culture

A brief summary of chapter three, mostly just paraphrased, and basically just my own notes, comments and links to follow!

An influential, widely read and respected fashion handbook, edited by a highly prestigious journal for the autumn–winter 2005 season, offered ‘half a dozen key looks’ ‘for the coming months’ ‘that will put you ahead of the style pack’. This promise was aptly, skilfully calculated to catch the attention: and very skilfully indeed, since in a brief, crisp sentence it managed to address all or almost all anxious concerns and urges bred by the society of consumers and born of consuming life.

In order to belong You have to metonymically identify with the pack, it is not simply enough to follow its rules/ procedures (belonging is not a given!)

The only way to guarantee security is to stay ahead of the pack!
The reference to ‘staying ahead’ is a precaution against the danger of overlooking the moment when the current emblems of ‘belonging’ go out of circulation.
Fashion items come with a use by date – however great your gain from promptly following the call, the gain won’t last forever. In the liquid modern world, slowness means social death. This chimes with pointillist time.
Thirdly you have to make a choice, but you have only a limited range of products to choose from and you have no control over the range of choices!

The major difference which sets consumerist society apart from its productivist predecessor seems to be the reversal of the values attached respectively to duration and transience – consumer society rests on the denial of the values of procrastination and deferred gratification.

The ‘consumerist syndrome’ is all about speed, excess and waste – not only do we rush to acquire things, but we rush to get rid of them too, and because there are so many choices and insecurities, it is rational to hedge your bets (buy three outfits, and only ever where two of them for example).

A consumer society cannot but be a society of excess and profligacy

There are two basic ideas about why society is necessary:

Firstly the Dukheimian/ Hobbesian idea that it is necessary to prevent war

Secondly the Levinas/ Logstrop – that it is necessary in order to make the unconditional conditional (through establishing laws).

The classic scholars worried that if society disappeared we would descend into a war of all against all or become overwhelmed with a sense of moral responsibility but this has not happened because we are taught that now we only need have responsibility for ourselves, not for others.

However, the concerns of previous sociologists assumed that there would be some sense of the social in people’s minds – there isn’t any more…the advent of consumerism has sapped the credibility of both cases – each in a different way, though for the same reason – the expanding process of the dismantling the once comprehensive system of normative regulation. Ever larger chunks of human conduct have been released from explicitly social patterning, supervision and policing, relegating an ever larger set of previously socialized responsibilities back to the responsibility of individual men and women.

As Pierre Bourdieu signalled as long as two decades ago, coercion has by and large been replaced by stimulation, the once obligatory patterns of conduct (duty) by seduction, the policing of behaviour by PR and advertising, and normative regulation by the arousal of new needs and desires.

An intensely and extensively cultivated sentiment of urgency provides individuals and institutions alike with illusionary, though nevertheless quite effective, relief in their struggles to alleviate the potentially devastating consequences of the agonies of choice endemic in the condition of consumer freedom.

Following Aubert….Permanent busyness, with one urgency following another, gives the security of a ‘full life’ or a ‘successful career’, sole proofs of self-assertion in a world from which all references to the ‘beyond’ are absent…. When people take action, they think short-term – of things to be done immediately or in the very near future . . . all too often, action is only an escape from the self, a remedy for the anguish… and the deeper one sinks into the urgency of an immediate task, the further away the anguish stays.

An additional benefit of declaring a constant state if emergency is that  it makes people easier to manage – where work is concerned asset stripping and downsizing keep people in a constant state of needing to be updating their skills sets to look for work.

In a society of consumers and in an era when ‘life politics’ is replacing the Politics that once boasted a capital ‘P’, the true ‘economic cycle’, the one that truly keeps the economy going, is the ‘buy it, enjoy it, chuck it out’ cycle.

The life of a consumer, the consuming life, is not about acquiring and possessing. It is not even about getting rid of what was acquired the day before yesterday and proudly paraded a day later. It is instead, first and foremost, about being on the move.

If the ethical principle of the producing life was the delay of gratification, then the ethical guideline of the consuming life has to be to avoid staying satisfied. For a kind of society which proclaims customer satisfaction to be its sole motive and paramount purpose, a satisfied consumer is neither motive nor purpose – but the most terrifying menace.

Not being satisfied with what one has is crucial for the society of consumers – profit depends on it – and stigma is attached to those who settle for fixed needs or those who sit still, or are happy with who they are – such people are stigmatised as ‘flawed consumers’.

Consumers should be constantly striving to be someone better, or to be someone else altogether, they should always be on the move – and afraid of boredom and stagnation; and to be a good consumer, forgetting is as important as moving on.

Despite consumerism being dressed up as freedom… what is not allowed is the freedom to not change.

Pointillist time is uniquely suited to separating us from the past and helping us forget the future – part of the experience is thus life lived as ‘serial births’ – of life as an unending string of ‘new beginnings’

Lesław Hostyn ski, an insightful analyst of the values of consumer culture, has listed and described a long series of stratagems deployed in the marketing of consumer goods in order to discourage the young (and ever younger) adepts of consumerism from developing a long-term attachment to anything they buy and enjoy.

One such strategy is the replace the old barbie doll scheme through which Mattel promised young consumers they would sell them the next Barbie at a discount if they brought their currently used specimen back to the shop once it was ‘used up’…. Exchanging one Barbie doll for a ‘new and improved’ one leads to a life of liaisons and partnerships shaped and lived after a pattern of rent-purchase.

As Pascal Lardellier suggests, the ‘senti- mental logic’ tends to become ever more saliently consumerist: it is aimed at the reduction of all sorts of risks, the categorization of the items searched for, an effort to define precisely the features of the sought-after partner that can be deemed adequate to the aspirations of the searcher. The underlying conviction is that it is possible to compose the object of love from a number of clearly specified and measurable physical and social qualities and character traits.

Following Erikson…. pointillism  may well be the most salient feature of our times – the desire to forget the past, not be constrained by it, and experience everything in a lifetime – in a carpe diem way, but of course there is not enough time to experience everything and hence…we live in a tyrannical situation.
The individual consequences of extreme hurriedness are overwhelming: both the past and the future as mental categories are threatened by the tyranny of the moment . . . Even the ‘here and now’ is threatened since the next moment comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present.

A further consequence, examined ny Elzbieta Tarkowska, a prominent chronosociologist, has developed the concept of ‘synchronic humans’, who ‘live solely in the present’ and who ‘pay no attention to past experience or future consequences of their actions’, they live in a presentist culture – a culture which breeds humans who lack commitment to each other.

(As outlined in ‘Liquid Love’) Human bonds nowadays tend to be viewed – with a mixture of rejoicing and anxiety – as frail, easily falling apart and as easy to be broken as they are to tie.

Freedom from commitment is the most valued attribute of the typical relationship in consumer society, freedom to be able to eject a stale relationship is more important than committing.

Allowing another individual into your sphere of intimacy has always been anxiety inducing because others are inherently unpredictable – however modern relationships are different because the principle source of anxiety today pertaining to relationships is the fear of missing out on other relationships – the better highs one might be experiencing with new partners compared to the drudgery of committing to one person forever.

Anxieties no longer arise because of the other they arise because of the possibility of not having to be committed, which means relationships today are constantly judged against what other joys they are preventing us from experiencing (experienced automatically as a kind of opportunity cost).
The internet is the perfect medium for the intimate relationship in consumer society – because it takes little effort to forge relationships and even less to cut them off, the later being achievable at the click of a button.

Electronic (non face to face) relationships allow for a quick cutting off ’emotional ties’ – this ability to cut off ties quickly is what people value the most – and it is this that is the perfect training for life in a market-mediated consumer society – where the disposability of things is valued more highly than their acquisition.

Numerous members of the knowledge classes (who spend a lot of time online) have suggested that the internet offers a viable alternative to the traditional institutions of democracy, which people seem to be decreasingly interested in.

However, political communication online tends to take the form of shouting about one’s virtues – stating that you are for or against something rather than doing anything about it and forming a movement for change – Political Communication online has become fetishised – It enables people to feel as if they are doing something when in fact they are not.

In reality, the internet is an unlimited space which soaks up dissent into a stagnant pool, where dissent is recycled in the knowledge economy of forgetting, recycled as soundbites, while real liquid modern politics is able to go on largely unchallenged.

Bush and Blair were still able to go to war despite significant amounts of virtual protest. The internet sets up a chasm between real politics and citizens (if you can still call them that!)

In the liquid modern society of consumers no identities are gifts at birth, none is ‘given’, let alone given once and for all and in a secure fashion. Identities are projects: tasks yet to be undertaken, diligently performed and seen through to infinitely remote completion.
Even in the case of those identities that pretend and/or are supposed to be ‘given’ and non-negotiable (such as class/ sex/ ethnicity), the obligation to undertake an individual effort to appropriate them and then struggle daily to hold on to them is presented and perceived as the principal requirement and indispensable condition of their ‘givenness’.

Identity is a sentence to  lifelong hard labour. Remember that consumers are driven by the need to ‘commoditize’ themselves – remake themselves into attractive commodities

Two things alleviate the constant stress of having to continually remake oneself… Cloakroom Communities – which are phantom communities where one subjectively feels like one belongs just by being amongst others and Fixed Term communities – where some kind of collective activity takes place but one is free to leave with no consequence.

Both types of community have two things in common – firstly, the primary means whereby you indicate your belonging is through shopping – for products which display that you are part of the group, and secondly there is the absolute right to exit without penalty. In both of these communities the idea of the integrated self is a myth.

It seems as if the only types of identity community are temporary and based on buying in and then discarding, identities are short lived and experiential – you adorn yourself with that which is necessary and invest short term into the moment – then you move on.

The problem with all of the above is that (A) you’ll wake up with the same old self after every session, only older and poorer after every such session, and (B) this means of constructing and expressing the self denies everyone else recognition – because you can always exit at the drop of a hat.

It is as if we have constructed a social world where the only means of belonging comes with an in-price (through consumption) and will only ever last for the short-term – so you have to continually put a lot of effort into getting ready to take part in these short-term (fictitious communities) (NB – He doesn’t actually give any examples of these communities!). Identities constructed online are carnival identities – to be taken up temporarily and discarded whenever one is bored with them….

The ‘community’ of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition. In the internet-mediated identification game, the Other is, so to speak, disarmed and detoxified. The Other is reduced by the internaut to what really counts: to the status of the instrument of one’s own self-endorsement.

All of this comes from being brought up in Pointillist Time —

Daniel Miller’s Stuff – A Summary

Stuff Daniel MillerA summary of Stuff by the anthropologist Daniel Miller

The premise of this book is that things make people as much as people make things. Following Bordieu, Miller argues that individuals learn to become members of society, not through formal education, but because they are inculcated into the general habits and dispositions of that society through the way they interact in their everyday practices, which is already pre-structured in the objects they find around them.

For example, in modern society, we grow up to think of cars as being a normal part of life not just because of the fact of cars themselves, because so much of our environment is shaped around cars (the layout of cities and houses for example), and thus few of us ever seriously question the place of the car in our society.

Miller is also at paints to point out that it is not just in more materialist cultures where stuff is important in framing people’s life experiences – things are just as important in those cultures which have many fewer material items – even in Aboriginal cultures stuff is intricately bound up with the the processes of human communication and the construction of self and society. (He is an Anthropologist after all!)

For Miller, the primary process in society is social interaction, or communication – and things are part of this process, not separate from it (things don’t precede and shape culture like crude Marxism suggests and things are not just made to perform functions that have been predetermined by previous generations) – hence the concept of ‘material culture’, things are intimately bound up with the processes of identity construction and boundary maintenance, in all cultures.

Following Hegel and to a lesser extent Marx, material culture develops (I think for Miller ‘evolve would be the wrong word) through a dialectical process that is contradictory, paradoxical ambiguous and full of doubt. The agentic process of ‘doing material culture’ is a means whereby some people empower themselves, but the process of making and using things can disempower others, and things themselves become objectified and (almost?) take on an agency of their own, developing a kind of power over us. In this later aspect of his theory of material culture Miller draws on Gofmann to argue that the real power of things lie in their ability to frame our view of the world – certain objects come to have power over us because we are so used to them – something which Miller refers to as the ‘humility of things’

So what you see in any material culture (which is all culture) is people using stuff to facilitate communication, and as a result some people become empowered, but at the same time, this stuff becomes objectified and constrains people in unanticipated ways – leading to a range of responses (people always have agency).

Miller gives the classic example of the Kula Ring (a classic example in anthropology which I won’t repeat here) -his point is that the goods in this trading ring don’t have to be traded, they are traded as a means to facilitate social communication – and some people get wealthy through participating – however, the fact that the trading rings exists means that anyone who doesn’t participate (and some people choose not to) risks being branded a witch.

Elsewhere he analyses the ‘normal’ clothing strategies in London as a blasé response to a material culture in which there is too much choice – London is one of the shopping capitals of the world for fashion, and yet look around the streets and so many people choose very similar looking clothes – (blues, blacks and greys!). Millers theory seems to be that fashion is used by some people to empower themselves (women in particular, although personally I don’t buy this, excuse the pun) – but the majority of us fashion appears as bewildering and so we revert to choosing not to choose by wearing very similar clothes to everyone else.

Elsewhere he focuses on housing – In modernist council housing, which was very much imposed on the poor, people feel a sense of alienation because it was built for them and has since become associated with a sense of drugs and crime – however, people try to undo this sense of alienation by decorating them – but mainly couples – because of a combination of woman providing the aesthetics and men providing the DIY – where singles live together, hardly any changes have been made.

He also says that he feels inferior to his own early 1900s house – because it is a period property which he feels he can never decorate appropriately – objects have agency in some way, power over the individual. Simply having a nice house doesn’t lead you to a utopic state he says.

In Conclusion – what I like about the book…

  1. Well, if you want depth you can’t really fault anthropological methods – the on the ground research, using Pobs and interviews over several months in each case does reveal the complex ways people use material objects in a variety of ways. These methods are useful in understanding how people use stuff!

  2. I also buy the whole material culture existing everywhere argument too – I think he’s correct to remind us that less material cultures are still material

  3. And, yes he’s right in that stuff can empower us – it is employed socially – part of the fabric of social life, and yes it does create opportunities for some and constrain others.

In conclusion – what I don’t like about the book…

I guess I’m uncomfortable about the fact that all of the above is where it stops – the point is to elucidate on a theory of material culture rooted in in-depth observations – there’s no real critical analysis – despite the fact Miller says he’s left-leaning at one point.

I’m especially uncomfortable with the chapter on housing – where he seems to be suggesting that couples in council housing have more material freedom in relation to their house than he does in his period property, and I don’t buy the idea that shopping is a means for people who are traditionally marginalised to empower themselves.

I think the whole study needs relating more to the amount of money people have – shopping for sure, is probably liberating for the wealthy, but is unlikely to be so for people who cannot afford to shop.

Also, I think we need more of an objective position on what liberation viz stuff actually means – if you can empower yourself with less stuff – such as a monk who has expert knowledge and perceived rights to access and interpret and manipulate scarce religious symbols, I think it’s fair to say you’re a lot more liberated than an uneducated 40 year old house wife who needs to spend £1500 a month on clothes to feel empowered, and is about to regret that pre-nup she signed because her high-income earning husband’s on the verge of upgrading to a younger model.

Is any one who thinks this  woman is liberated an idiot?
Is any one who thinks this woman is liberated an idiot?

Sociological Perspectives on Modern Apprenticeships in the UK

The material below is relevant to the Vocationalism topic within the Sociology of Education and  should help students to answer essay questions such as ”Evaluate Sociological Perspectives on the role of Vocational Education”, or various questions on contemporary education policies, as well as hopefully just being of general interest.

What are Modern Apprenticeships?

An apprenticeship is a job with training which allows an individual to earn while they learn, whilst gaining a nationally recognised qualification. Apprentices aged 19 and over are entitled to the National Minimum Wage at the same level as regular employees, but 16-18 year olds can be paid less – £3.30 an hour (from October 2015) compared to £3.87 an hour for regular employees. Of course an apprentice aged 19 or over would probably be paid less than a qualified person the same age, given that they are less experienced.

Apprenticeships are available for anyone aged 16 or over, but the most common ages for people starting them is 16-24. Apprenticeships must last for a minimum of one year, but can take up to five years to complete.

There are three main levels of Apprenticeship:

– Intermediate apprenticeship (level 2)

– Advanced apprenticeship (level 3)

– Higher and degree apprenticeships (level 4 or above).

Apprenticeships are tied into more traditional vocational qualifications – anyone undertaking a level two apprenticeship will work towards a related city or guilds or BTEC qualification, while anyone doing a higher level apprenticeship will work towards a degree.

Apprenticeships are available in over 170 industries the most popular apprenticeships in 2014 by sector being:

  • Health and social care
  • Business administration
  • Management
  • Hospitality and catering
  • Customer service
  • Children’s care learning and development
  • Retail
  • Construction skills
  • Engineering
  • Hairdressing

So in short apprenticeships are basically on the job training leading to a qualification, and besides saying this, it’s impossible to give a representative account of what a ‘typical’ apprenticeship looks like given the huge variation.

How many people are doing apprenticeships?

  • Since 2010 there have been over 2 million apprenticeship starts – so more than 2 million people in the country (unless they’ve emigrated since) have either done them or are doing them.

  • In 2013-14 there were 500 000 apprenticeship starts

  • In 2013-14 850 000 people were earning and learning while doing an apprenticeship

  • There are typically over 25000 apprenticeships being advertised online at any one time.

Why have apprenticeships grown so quickly?

I put it down to three things –

  • Underlying historical demand for vocational training courses as opposed to academic learning – The UK has had a large NEET population (16-24 year olds not in employment, education or training) for over a decade now, which suggests there has been a significant demand for alternative pathways to employment other than courses offered in colleges.

  • The recent government ‘pincer movement’ on young people – 18 year olds are now (since 2015) required to be in some kind of training or employment, and combined with the government clamp down on benefits for young people, this means they have fewer options.

  • Government support for employers – The government invested £1.5 billion in apprenticeships in 2014-15 and from 2016 will exempt employers from paying National Insurance Contributions for under 25 year olds. Basically government support makes it cheaper to hire apprentices.

What are the benefits of apprenticeships?

Firstly, looked at statistically, they seem to offer economic benefits to most apprentices, employers and the economy more generally – Mainly taken from the ONS web site….

  • 90% of apprentices stay in employment after the apprenticeship has finished.

  • 70% stay on with the same employer.

  • 19% of level three apprentices advance on to Higher Education.

  • Businesses report an increase in productivity of £214/ week when they hire apprentices (which effectively means they cost the average company nothing given the low wages!).

  • Small businesses get a £1500 grant towards the start up costs of New Apprenticeships if they employ 16-24 year olds. (Any training costs for 16-19 year olds are, possibly obviously, covered by the government.)

  • For every pound of government investment in apprenticeships, the economy gets £18 – £28 back (estimates vary).

  • Apprenticeships were estimated to contribute £34 billion to the UK economy in 2014

Secondly, they diversify the education system – offering a much greater choice of training opportunities by a much wider range of providers than Further and Higher education providers could ever hope to provide.

Thirdly (but I would need to look into this further to verify it) they seem to be offering a very real alternative for young people who would otherwise be NEET because there is a distinct correlation between the increase in apprenticeships (mostly taken up by 16-24 year olds) and the recent decrease in the number of NEETs. (Of course correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but in this case I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that it does!)

What are the downsides of Apprenticeships?

You wouldn’t think there were any judging by the ONS site, but if you dif around there are those who voice some legitimate criticisms of Modern Apprenticeships

Firstly: Apprenticeships might really about firms getting cheap labour:

Kathy Glover from The New Left Project points out that it’s cheaper for an employer to hire an apprentice than someone qualified – Glover cites one case study of an estate agent who sacked most of their staff in order to replace them with cheaper apprentices. Not only is this bad for the experienced, sacked staff, it’s difficult to see how a cohort of apprentices can learn anything without any more experienced people to.

There is also some evidence that the Engineering sector in the UK is preferring cheaper apprentices over already qualified people.

Also, the number of in-work training programmes have reduced by about 250 000 in recent years, which suggests that work places are simply shifting their training onto apprenticeships – meaning the government pays for it rather than them paying for it, in which case apprenticeships aren’t about more training, there just about the tax payer paying for it, not the employer.

Secondly: Apprenticeships don’t necessarily lead on to real jobs:

Firms are not obliged to take apprentices on full time after their training period and it’s cheaper for an employer to hire a string of apprentices for one-two years at a time rather than to take someone on.

The rapid expansion of more apprenticeships might even harm the wider job market in certain sectors – Glover cites UK manufacturing, which despite declining employment in recent years, has greatly increased the number of apprenticeships – BAE systems, for example, has expanded its apprenticeships programme by 25%. This must mean decreased demand for already qualified people.

Thirdly: Apprenticeships are really about saving the government money

Kathy Glover points out that Apprenticeships allow the government to cut costs because it is much cheaper for them to pay a couple of thousand pounds or so to an employer for a year rather than to have a young person on unemployment benefit.

The problem with this is that it might mean that some people on apprenticeships are worse off than when they were on benefits. She uses the case study of Michael, 16, from Liverpool, employed at a large charity shop through the retail apprenticeship scheme to illustrate this:

“I work 37.5 hours a week for £100 a week with around 20 other staff, most of who are on some sort of work placement or volunteers. My auntie, who I live with, has lost around £70 a week in benefits due to me going on this apprenticeship because I’m now classed as being in full-time employment. The council has done things like deduct £3 per week from her housing benefit which I’ve been told I must now pay. I don’t get any separate travel expenses so I’ve also got to pay for the two hours travel per day out of my wages. By me going on this apprenticeship we’re worse off than when I was in college so I’m considering leaving the scheme and going back into education.”

Fourthly, Modern Apprenticeships remain heavily gender stereotyped

For example, females take up 94% of positions in early years childcare but only 1 and 2% respectively in construction and plumbing. All other sectors also conform to gender stereotypes.

Average wages for apprenticeships also vary between males and females – for males the average is £186 compared to females who earn on average £147 per week (2007 figures). This is because the sectors where females dominate are the lowest paid (such as early years childcare), and have little scope for career progression, so are mainly level 2 and 3 apprenticeships. The sectors where men dominate tend to offer apprenticeships which are higher paid and offer greater career progression, onto level 4 apprenticeships for example – in sectors such as engineering and IT.

Fifthly, in some sectors the training you receive may be of a very low standard

Only 22% of apprenticeships in customer service and 13% in hospitality and catering are offered at level 3, and a retail or customer service needs to only complete a minimum of two hours training a week.

Tess Lanning of the IPPR suggests that this is because Government targets to increase the number of apprenticeships, combined with a lack of interest from many employers, have led to a watering down of what constitutes an apprenticeship. New Labour widened apprenticeships to include level 2 qualifications, which evidence suggests have little to no value in the labour market, and opened them up to adults, meaning they have lost their purpose as a tool to prepare young people for entry into the labour market.

Apprenticeships: Should you do one?

I guess this depends on what sector you’re looking at – If you’re interested in Engineering then it’s probably worth spending a bit more time researching your options than if you were interested in going into retail or hospitality…

The Apprenticeships Self-Development Pack for young people is designed by the government for you to work through to see if an Apprenticeship is for you – Warning – This links pretty much exclusively to the government’s own propaganda videos about how great apprenticeships are and oozes ‘careers advisory document’ out of every pore, and yes there is the dreaded skills assessment exercise at one point too.

Ultimately it’s down to you whether you do an apprenticeship or not, but whether or not you do one, keep the following question in mind – Assuming university isn’t for you, and assuming you want/ need a job, then do you actually have the choice not to do some kind of apprenticeship, or have you been steered into it by social forces?

Further Reading/ Sources used

Apprenticeships: Fact Sheet for Parents (the best introductory summary sheet I’ve found on the topic but warning – complete lack of critical content!)

Facts, Figures and Statistics about Apprenticeships – Does what is says – The main source I’ve used for any statistical information above.

The Youtube Apprenticeship Channel – featuring apprentices and employers talking about the advantages of apprentiships (warning – complete lack of critical content!)#

Further Education and Skills: Learner Participation and Outcomes

Also see links in the document above.

Marketisation – bringing out the worst in the middle classes

This documentary (The School Scandal: Playing the System, BBC1 August 2015) shows the lengths parents will go to in order to get their children into the top performing state schools in London.

Some of the schools shown have 10 applications for every place, and catchment areas of just a few hundred meters, meaning competition for these places is fierce to say the least.

It seems that middle class parents are basically prepared to commit fraud in order to make applications to the best schools, demonstrated by the following two strategies:

  1. Renting accommodation temporarily in the school catchment area while still having a main residence outside of the catchment area (this is fraudulent btw!)
  2. ‘Pew jumping’ (a term I’d never heard before) – where parents attend church for a year or two just to get their kids into a church school – here a vicar with a spread sheet demonstrates that at one point 11 out of his 23 church attendants basically stopped attending straight after school offers day – clearly they weren’t there to worship a god!

The show follows two case studies of parents trying to get their kids into their local schools – depressingly we see the screamingly middle class parents (dad’s a doctor, mum teaches in a private school) breaking out the champers as they get their child into their first choice local school, while the not so well-off (but by no means poor!) parents fail to get their child into their local church school, despite the fact that the mother had attended the church for 23 years.

The documentary ends up lamenting the fact that the system is clearly unfair – and it’s likely to carry on that way because to date there have been no prosecutions for middle class parents defrauding the system.

NB – This isn’t the only way middle class parents try to reproduce class inequality…. See here for an overview of how this works in the grander scheme of things…

Sociological Theories of Consumerism and Consumption

consumerism and consumptionMany of us spend a lot of time thinking about the things we might consume, and how we might consume them, and we do this not only as individuals, but as friends, partners, and families, and so intensely do we think about our consumption practices that the things we buy and the experiences we engage which are linked to them become invested with emotional significance and central (crutches) to our very identities.

The consumption of goods and services is so thoroughly embedded into our ordinary, everyday lives that many aspects of its practice go largely unquestioned – not only the environmental and social consequences have got lost on the way, but also they very notion that consumption itself is a choice, and that, once our basic needs are met, consumption in its symbolic sense is not necessary and thus is itself a choice.

In sociological terms one might say that contemporary reflexivity is bounded by consumption – that is to say that most of the things most of us think about in life – be they pertaining to self-construction, relationship maintenance, or instrumental goal-attainment, involve us making choices about (the strictly unnecessary) things we might consume.

Even though I think that any attempt to achieve happiness through consumption will ultimately result in misery, I would hardly call anyone who tries to do so stupid – because all they are going is conforming to a number of recent social changes which have led to our society being based around historically high levels of consumption.

There are numerous explanations for the growth of a diverse consumer culture and thus the intense levels of unnecessary symbolic consumption engaged in by most people today – the overview taken below is primarily from Joel Stillerman (2015) who seems to identify five major changes which underpin recent changes in consumption since WW2.

The first explanation looks to the 1960s counter culture which despite having a reputation for being anti-consumerist, was really more about non-conformity, a rejection of standardised mass-consumption and promoting individual self expression. Ironically, the rejection of standardised consumption became a model for the niche-marketing of today, much of which is targeted towards people who wish to express themselves in any manor of ways – through clothing, music, foodism, craft beers, or experiences. Some members of the counter culture in fact found profit in establishing their own niche-consumer outlets, with even some Punks (surely the Zenith of anti-consumerism?!) going on to develop their own clothing brands.

A second discussion surrounding the normalisation of consumerism centres around changes in the class structure, following the work Bourdieu and Featherstone (2000). Basically these theorists see the intensification of consumption as being related to the emergence of the ‘new middle classes’ as a result of technological innovations and social changes leading to an increase in the number of people working in jobs such as the media and fashion.

Mike Featherstone focuses on what he calls the importance of ‘cultural intermediaries’ (who mainly work in the entertainment and personal care industries) who have adopted an ‘ethic of self-expression through consumption’ – in which they engage in self-care in order to improve their bodies and skills in order to gain social and economic capital.

The values of these early adopters has gradually filtered down to the rest of the population and this has resulted in the ‘aestheticisation of daily life’ – in which more and more people are now engaged in consumption in order to improve themselves and their social standing – as evidenced in various fitness classes, plastic surgery, and a whole load of ‘skills based’ pursuits such as cookery classes (yer signature bake if you like).

A third perspective focuses on individualisation – as advanced by the likes of Zygmunt Bauman and Ulrich Beck.


In their view, after World War II, universal access to higher education and social welfare benefits in Europe led to the erosion of traditional sources of identity provided by family, traditional authority, and work. Today, individuals are ‘free’ from the chains of external sources of identity, but this freedom comes at a price. Individuals are now compelled to give meaning to their lives without the certainty that they are making the right choice that in the past had come from tradition. Individuals are forced to be reflexive, to examine their own lives and to determine their own identities. In this context, consumption may be a useful vehicle for constructing a life narrative that gives focus and meaning to individuals.

As I’ve outlined in numerous blog posts before, Bauman especially sees this is a lot of work for individuals – a never ending task, and a task over which they have no choice but to engage in (actually I disagree here, individuals do have a choice, it’s just not that easy to see it, or carry it through!).

Fourthly, Post-modern analyses of consumption focus on the increasing importance of individuals to consumption. Building on the work of Lytoard etc. Firat and Venkatesh (1995) argue that changes to Western cultures have led to the erosion of modernist ideas of progress, overly simplified binary distinctions like production and consumption and the notion of the individual as a unified actor. They suggest that in contemporary societies production and consumption exist in a repeating cycle and retail cites and advertiser have increasingly focussed on producing symbols which individuals consume in order to construct identities.

These changes have led to increasing specialising of products and more visually compelling shopping environments, and F and V argue that these changes are liberating for individuals and they seek meaning and identity through consumption, which they can increasingly do outside of markets.

Fifthly – other researches have looked at the role of subcultures in contemporary society, where individuals consume in order to signify their identity as part of a group, and doing so can involve quite high levels of consumption, even if these groups appear quite deviant (McAlexander’s 1995 study of Harley Davidson riders looks interesting here, also Kozinet’s study of Star Trek fans).

Something which draws on numbers 3,4 and 5 above is the concept of consumer tribes (developed by Cova et al 2007) which are constantly in flux, made up by different individuals whose identities are multiple, diverse and playful – individuals in fact may be part of many tribes and enter and exit them as they choose.

Finally, Stillerman points out that underlying all of the above are two important background trends

  • Firstly, there are the technological changes which made all of the above possible – the transport links and the communications technologies.
  • Secondly there is the (often discussed) links to the global south as a source of cheap production.

Very finally I’m going to add in one more thing to the above – underlying the increase in and diversification of consumption is the fact that time has sped up – in the sense that fashions change faster than ever and products become obsolete faster than ever – hence putting increasing demands on people to spend more time and money year on year to keep up on the consumer treadmill….

So there you have it – there are numerous social trends which lie behind the increase in and diversification of consumption, so the next time you think you’re acting as an individual when you’re getting your latest tattoo, maybe think again matey!

Related Posts 

Consuming Life (Bauman, 2007) – A Summary of Chapter One


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On giving up screens, meditating, and the importance of ‘not doing’

Because of my slight obsession with Forest Gardens and compost heated showers (and LOTS more on those later) I’ve been using the Internet more than usual recently and it’s definitely having a negative impact on my state of mind – I’ve been feeling less in control of my life and distracted. It’s not just the lame personal advertising (and if I’ve just bought something, no I probably don’t want a duplicate immediately afterwards!) but also the distraction to other places, the Pointillism to coin a phrase used by Zygmunt Bauman – I start somewhere and end up somewhere else…. Fine if I’m allowing myself time to do this, but not if I have a purpose in mind first.

The last descreen/ meditation period I did was back in January of this year, and when I contrast my state of mind now to how I was back then when I was meditating 4 times a day, I was so much more centred : my basic rules were no screens in the morning or evening, except a quick email check, or if writing something specific. No idle surfing, no watching TV over dinner, and then basically an evening routine which went something like:

  • Eat dinner
  • Tidy
  • Meditate
  • Read if you must, preferably about Buddhism
  • Yoga
  • Meditate

Obviously I’m not against the use of the internet or screens, I am well aware that connectivity is necessary and even advantageous in my line of work, and the net’s great for new ideas, speed of access to info and the dreaded self-promotion. However I defo need to restrict it because it encourages all of the following negative traits:

  1. It leaves no real time for actual people (not that I’m that into people anyway)

  2. It encourages me to take a superficial approach to knowledge rather than a deep approach

  3. It scatters my mind, it pulverizes my attention into tiny moments, leaving me adrift in an anomic sea of montage.

  4. It exposes me to the great evil empire of advertising.

(Actually reading that lot perhaps I should just disconnect altogether?!?)

Because of the extreme negative traits uncontrolled net use encourages in me, I’ve developed the following guidelines to restrict my usage of it, and in order to promote mindful living! By screens below I really mean ‘net use’ – (I’m currently writing this off line, so this wouldn’t count for example).

  1. Remember the ideal of the concentrated Buddha – Remember that I don’t need this internet shit!

  2. Limit the amount of time online – Structure my day so it begins and ends without screens, and live the majority of time off-screen. This actually easier said than done given that my job involves a lot of screen use, so all I’ve got left is to make sure that the vast majority of time not at work is spent off-screen. To this end I’m endeavoring to check personal emails no more than twice a day (and respond to them) and try and have 30 mins of screen time in the evenings and at wknds max. In the holidays I’m going to try for 3/4 days totally offline.

  3. Before going online I must have a clear purpose, a list of specific tasks I want to fulfill. I’m also going to time my usage to keep it down.

  4. When online only have one window open at a time, unless I’m specifically cutting and pasting/ adapting.

  5. Switch off PC and iPad at the end of the day and keep in the office, not the bedroom or living room.

Having written this, I feel more mindful already, and if yer reading this online, then see you not so soon in the future…

Making Compost

While I’m quite pleased with the productivity of my allotment so far this year, I’m putting way to much effort into maintaining the beds – what with watering, weeding and feeding.

What I should be doing is spending much more time on prepping the beds by building compost/ sowing green manures and mulching, and when I say ‘much more time’ I’ve realised (through doing a lot digging excuse the pun) that I need to spend hours, if not days, procuring the raw materials to make said compost and mulch.

In short, rather than spending a 20% of my time prepping soil and then 80% maintaining, I need to invert this ratio – I need to put 80% of my time into compost/ soil prep/ mulching which should then mean much less time maintaining, and this should also mean less effort overall, and thus greater productivity.

I’m getting into it – Here’s my latest compost pile, consisting of about 20 barrow loads of woodchip and then a similar amount of manure, grass clippings and just weeds – and loadsa water…..

woodchip compost

It reached 48 degrees within no time (It actually went up to 54 but I didn’t have my camera on me.)


Inspiration for all of this has primarily come from the wonderful Back to Eden Documentary which features the amazing garden of Paul Gautschi whose main source of compost is wood chips, pure and simple – He put down a 15″ layer on his orchards decades ago, has topped it up every year (most years?), and now he can dig down to his elbow and still find a moist loam more than a foot down.

For his regular beds he uses compost derived from chucking a range of kitchen wastes and weeds to his chickens – He basically just chucks everything into the chicken pen and they just eat it all and scratch it all up – and the end result is a rich compost which you can plant straight into.

Another good example of wood chip gardening is in this video.

Here it’s recommended that you use rock dust and mushroom spores to compost the wood chips quicker, and it seems you get an OK compost after just one year, otherwise with just pure wood chips you’re looking at three years for the stuff at the bottom to start turning into something resembling compost (obviously the finer the grade of woodchip, the faster the whole process).

What I see as a more ‘classic’ way of building compost is demonstrated by Geoff Lawton in this video – basically straw and manure plus a few other bits. This involves a bit more effort than woodchip, but it is super quick as the product is finished in a matter of weeks. (NB the video below isn’t the actual video I wanted (I couldn’t find it again!) but it’s of a very sound guy explaining a similar method…)

For me, a much more accessible way of composting is provided in this TED talk, the simple message of which is ‘shred your leaves and save them’, that’s all you need.

Finally, something else which also appeals to me is using bioochar – Although the biochar burner I’ve built is total rubbish in that it doesn’t work. Back to the drawing board with that I guess.

NB – One final thing I need to mention is the Jean Pain compost method – this guy constructs a compost heap from wood chippings so enormous that he’s able to generate sufficient heat for his house and water for 18 months from one pile, and enough gas (generated by putting a sealed vat of cow manure in the middle) to cook with and power his truck, although I’m sure the Health and Safety police would have something to say about the later if you tried it in the UK today.

Obviously I’m not really in a position to build such an enormous heap, but I’m working on composting on a smaller scale…

Ongoing compost experiments on my allotment.

I only have easy access to certain materials on my allotment, and not having a van doesn’t help acquisition of industrial amounts of material. However, I am actually quite fortunate in that I do have easy access to all of the following, and so have piles of these ‘raw materials’ on my plot.

  • LEAVES – There are lots of nearby trees, so if I can get over the slight self-conscious feeling of scrapping the nearby cycling path in autumn I can get barrow loads of leaves.

  • WOODCHIP – A local tree-surgery company has very recently taken to dumping woodchip on the allotment. I think they may be doing this on the sly but whoever they are, THANKS!

  • HORSE MANURE – We also get horse manure delivered.

  • GRASS CLIPPINGS – somewhat obviously



  • WOOD for BIOCHAR (*although this needs burning in advance!).

Piles of these materials will all rot down of their own accord, but what I’ve learnt from the above videos is that the whole process can be sped up a lot by combining the above ingredients in a variety of ways. I’m guessing one of the combinations below will give me an ideal blend in terms of both quality and speed of finished product.

Present compost blends –

  1. Woodchip (sieved), horse manure, grass clippings, existing compost/ dirt

Planned future experiments

  1. Shredded* leaves, horse manure, food waste, grass clippings, existing compost/ dirt

  2. Biochar, horse manure, grass clippings, existing compost/ dirt

As I see it there are two majorly major advantages of having a healthy obsession with dirt –

Firstly, in the long term this is the most efficient way of gardening – OK it is a lot of effort sourcing and and compiling the materials, and you need some patience while it all rots down, but after a few years you’ll end up with the most amazingly rich soil, and maintenance in terms of weeding and watering should be much reduced because soil will be less compacted because of continual layering/ mulching.

Secondly, from a land-ethics point of view regenerating the earth after years of depletion seems like a pretty good life-purpose to me.

And talking about life, or rather the end of it – There is something very comforting about working with dirt, in that becoming one with it (i.e. Rotting) will be, after all, my final destination. Yours too!

(* I’m going to try shredding using a few bits of wire attached to a long drill bit, if not I’ll fall back on using a petrol strimmer I part own.)

On Permaculture as a Low-Cost Lifestyle

I’ve just spent half an hour perusing the Annual Monitoring Report for Tir y Gafel Ecovillage (aka Lammas).

I don’t imagine this would float a lot of boats, but as I expected it’s striking just how low their outgoings are. Here’s the annual figures for what I’m assuming must be the two single person households on site (given that they’re a lot lower than the other households).

Plot C Plot F
Cost of need Met from land Cost of need Met from land
domestic wood use £650.00 £650.00 £300.00 £245.00
domstic gas use £108.00 £0.00 £90.00 £0.00
domestic electricity use £1,291.00 £1,291.00 £1,168.00 £1,110.00
Water £506.00 £506.00 £385.00 £385.00
Food £3,466.00 £700.00 £1,800.00 £642.00
Phone £156.00 £0.00 £350.00 £0.00
clothes £0.00 £0.00 £40.00 £0.00
maintenance £0.00 £0.00 £35.00 £0.00
council tax £0.00 £0.00 £0.00 £0.00
transport £1,000.00 £0.00 £1,000.00 £0.00
Expenditure met from land* £3,147.00 £2,382.00
£ from land based enterprises £1,700.00 £1,740.00
Totals £7,177.00 £4,847.00 £5,168.00 £4,122.00
Further monies required to break even £2,330.00 £1,406.00

*before income from land based enterprises is taken into account 

After housing costs (which are not included above) we have two annual expenditure figures of £7K and £5K, with THE single largest expenditure item being on food, which here includes alcohol and munchies (which is odd given that food growing is one of the key things Lammas seems to do.)

Expenditure is clearly kept incredibly low by virtue of electricity being generated on site through burning wood and use of other renewable sources and transport being minimal due to mainly working on site, as well as the fact that above two people must live in caravans given the zero figure for council tax.

There are items which are not included in the above table, but no matter, what this data strongly suggests is that once you’ve got your mortgage paid off you can get by on £5-7K in a year as a base income, and this comes down to £2-3 K a year if you can get your own electricity generated on site.

A final advantage shown by this example is that it is clearly possible to generate some (albeit limited) money from rural enterprise.

I’m actually staggered by the above figures. I mean, I always knew low-impact living significantly reduced dependence on money, but this has surprised me… £2-3K a year is really a startling figure, actually £5-7K a year is pretty good.

At some point I’ll add in how this compares to my own expenditure and insane (consumerism as usual expenditure).

The question in the meantime is simply one of how can I get a piece of this action and how soon, just without the community bit, in which case apparently it’s not really Permaculture, but then again I’m sure the definition’s open for debate (at least as long as you don’t want to formally use it to engage in the Permaculture Pyramid selling scheme.)

Early Retirement Extreme June Update Analysis II

Or on how getting into early-retirement makes you dislike the curiously ordinary life of the worker-consumer even more intensely, and how it makes you hate yourself for any remaining traces of normality.

When I started out nearly 12 months ago I originally planned to work for another 7-8 years before ‘moving on’. However at some point over the last year I’ve become desperate to escape work, to the extent that I was, a couple of weeks back, looking to get out in 18 months. The interesting thing is that, on reflection, this urgency doesn’t have that much to do with work, which (although subjecting me to severe psychological abuse 200 days of the year) hasn’t got that much worse in the last 6 months. Thus my increased desire to escape it has probably got more to do with getting the ERE bug. I think the effect goes something like this –

  1. You set yourself an early retirement goal – In my case originally 52.

  1. You start recording in religious detail your expenditure and savings and getting a bit obsessive over the maths of early retirement.

  1. You realise that if you can shave 10% of your expenditure here and there then it means you can retire another year earlier, or 20% another 2 years early, and retiring at 48 sounds a whole lot better than retiring at 50, and 8 years sounds much better than 10.

  1. Saving everything you can means you have much less of a life than previously – there are less vents for the frustrations of work.

  1. (When you have little extra time after work) trying to generate second income streams proves largely fruitless in the grand scheme of things, this creates more stress.

  1. A stressful life means you want to get out!

  1. You start comparing yourself to other early retirement aspirees and get competitive, wanting to bring the key date down.

  1. Very importantly you realise the extent to which you’re being shafted by the system. These points are kind of in chronological order, but this is the most important one I think. This annoys you – a lot – my particular bug bears are interest on the mortgage and service charge on my flat.

  1. You start to look around for alternatives to get the above charges down and land-squatting comes up as the favorable option to be put into effect immediately – so this means you may as well jack in work and become a postmodern peasant asap. This doesn’t sound very appealing at the moment, which creates yet more stress.

In fairness, the original drive to retire early was brought on by the fact that my job is doing me severe psychological damage, and has also turned me into an agent which inflicts harm on others, and I will need to escape from in the medium term, but the job does come with good holidays and is well below my intellectual capacity to manage, and so I do have the mental capacity to cope with this abuse for another 5 years, especially when the income’s good and my original retirement model based on a 7-8 year projection (OK I have shortened it a little!) results in such a comfortable retirement, so I’m led to conclude that my recent desire to get out and retire even earlier is simply because of getting caught up in the goal of ERE, rather than accepting that my current situation is OK, and that a medium term plan is manageable. In short, I probably don’t need to ‘move on’ in 18 months.

Here’s a modified 5 year plan to address the above:

  1. I still want out in five (academic) years. I’ve calculated this means another 925 days at work from September next year. This is realistic, then I’ll downsize, move out of the area and go part time at age 47.

  1. Realise that I have no money to do anything and get into ‘doing nothing’ in the evenings – cleaning the flat, meditating,working the allotment, the odd Sociology blog, that’s it for the next five years.

  1. Abandon for now the second income streams most of them are too much like work(do these later) and instead focus on developing resilience (ie land squatting) skills. Work out a five year plan to develop these skills – this should be fun.

  1. Give up screens – Searching for alternatives means I’ve spent way too long on YouTube looking at compost showers and so on…. It’s doing my head in.

  1. Just chilax.

A hyperreflexive blog focussing on critical sociology, infographics, Buddhism and extreme early retirement

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