{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt


Contentment is found in the most unexpected of places.

At 4am, or at least that was the time my body thought it was, I found myself helping a tribe of noisy enthusiastic children construct a Hogwarts Express steam train out of gingerbread, icing, and confectionery. It was a magnificent creation, worthy of a Great British Bake Off showpiece, if for no other reason than the inevitable spectacular collapse moments from completion.

The kids had made a compelling argument that we only needed the red and brown coloured M&Ms to decorate the train, so they could eat all the other colours. An argument of dubious merit, and almost certainly a parenting fail that I would live to regret, but I was too jetlagged to care.

31 hours spent enduring the delights of long-haul economy air travel had conditioned me to acceptance and amiability. There is little point worrying about what we can’t control. The path of least resistance involves surrendering to fate and going with the flow. In this post-covid world, few airlines still serviced my desired destination. Bankruptcies and abandoned routes constrained capacity and allowed the survivors to charge extortionate fares for a substandard experience involving multiple connections. Lengthy delays. Industrial disputes. Lost luggage.

In spite of it all, I was happy.

Happy to be off the plane.

Happy to have survived the experience, mostly intact, and covid free.

Happy to have temporarily escaped the pressures and stress of real life.

But most of all, happy to be home.

A few days earlier London had been cold, wet, and miserable. Schools were closed because of frozen pipes and staff shortages. Public transport crippled by less than an inch of snow. Short days. Long nights. Manufactured corporate bonhomie and feigned Christmas cheer.

Today, normal service had been resumed. Summertime in December. Board shorts and barbecues rather than Christmas jumpers and undercooked turkey. Cricket on the television instead of the monarch’s Christmas message and a Dr Who special. Childhood favourite snacks in the cupboard and fridge, shared amongst childhood friends and family.

It had been years since my last visit. More than a decade since my last hot Christmas.

I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. But missed it I did!

We rarely get the opportunity for a glimpse of how things might have been. Where did the road not travelled lead? How did the journey end for those who chose an alternative path?

Today just such an opportunity presented itself. Sat amongst the culinary creative kids were a collection of adults. Comparable ages. Comparable starting points. Mostly comparable educations and initial opportunities.

On my left sat a C-suite exec, who was married to a senior executive. Two big jobs. Paying two big incomes. Their family owned a 3,000-square-meter home worth £1,000,000+. Drove new cars. Attended private schools.

Cash rich. Time poor. Slowly learning the lessons of buying back time by outsourcing household tasks, to make time for the important things rather than squandering it on trivialities and excuses.

They had done well for themselves, some of the few who had stayed in town after university when the rest of us had scattered to the wind. They recognised they were topped out. Career terminal. Having reached the limits of their competency and networks. Hoping their current roles would see them through to retirement, a distant 15-20 years in the future.

Grateful for what they had, but quietly confessing to being bored and somewhat frustrated in their comfortable suburban lives. Aghast that they had evolved into the very middle-aged, middle-class parents that we had once privately mocked and ridiculed as teenagers long ago. Promising ourselves we would never succumb or settle for the mediocrity and routine of the everyday.

To my right, sat a partner of a multinational management consultancy. Married to a spendy spouse. Raising a couple of entitled private school kids, who demanded the latest toys and the best of everything.

They rented the worst house on a busy main road in an exclusive suburb of a very expensive city. To purchase the 3,500 square foot house would cost more than £1,200,000. Inheritances squandered on keeping up appearances and living beyond their means.

He described his life as entailing an endless Groundhog Day repeat of rolling out of bed at 5 in the morning, staggering to his windowless home office in the garage, and spending the next 15 hours playing conductor and referee via video conference for teams of consultants around the world.

Mainlining caffeine to keep him going throughout the day, then self-medicating with strong liquor in the evenings so that he could get a few moments sleep before it all started again with the 5am alarm.

Back in the day he had been fit, active, and the picture of health. Now he was balding, overweight, with a fluorescent light tan, and a nasty case of eczema. Two heart attacks and heading for an early grave, his family’s financial plan consisted of a future life insurance payout when their breadwinner and meal ticket finally gave out.

Across the table sat a recently returned former ex-pat. A high-powered overachiever who had served tours in all the major financial centres around the globe. Childless, because there had never been time. Alone, after her husband conceded he preferred the attention of young boys to middle-aged women, and ran off with all their money to start a new life in Panama.

Her response to her world crashing down had been to retreat to the familiar surroundings of home. Finance traded for fitness. Corporate mortal combat replaced by small-scale entrepreneurship. She now ran a one-woman personal training business, driving her clients towards achieving their goals with the same ruthless zeal she once applied to closing corporate deals worth megabucks.

Physically she resembled a super fit and supremely confident twenty-something. Mentally, she confessed to being terrified of not having enough. Of no longer possessing the drive and determination to conquer the world once more. Of growing old alone.

At one end of the table sat one of life’s followers. Back in high school, he had been a mediocre student. Unimpressive and forgettable in almost every way. A veritable ghost. While most of us had gone to university, he had joined the army, possessing enough self-awareness to recognise he needed to be told what to do.

Throughout his adult life, his employer had met all his basic needs. Clothing. Food. Housing. Allowing him to save a large portion of his wages. After 20 years of service, he retired with a full pension and an investment portfolio of diversified index trackers that had been quietly compounding for decades.

Now he worked as a part-time greenkeeper on a golf course. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He was dating a divorcée with a couple of primary school-aged kids, a ready-made family, who lived with him in a £400,000 townhouse backing onto the seventh hole fairway.

Of all the adults present, he seemed the most content.

Up the other end of the table was a former sporting prodigy. Throughout school, she had been destined for greatness. Never really trying academically, because she wouldn’t need an education. She was going to become a household name. Fame. Glory. Endorsements. Sponsorships. Followed by a career as a commentator once she eventually retired.

A car accident had changed all that. Surgeries and rehabilitation restored function and movement, but scar tissue and recovery time meant she lost her place in the production line of future sporting stars.

Twenty-something years on, she lived in a modest rented home in a struggle town near the beach. Beautiful. Scenic. Limited opportunities. Fewer prospects. Working as a house cleaner. Married to a truck driver. Raising a small tribe of children, hoping that life would deal them a better hand.

We spent a fascinating couple of hours comparing notes and reminiscing.

Our parents were all elderly or dead. Most had experienced cancer in their sixties or early seventies.

Our elder children were soon to leave the familial nest. Tertiary education, or increasingly, degree apprenticeships. Some heading directly into the workforce. Only one was considering a gap year, her life plan consisted of trading good looks for a rich husband and a life of luxury.

Those of us with careers had peaked in our late 30s or early 40s. Plateauing much earlier than expected. Several were already on the decline, as advancing technology and changing fashion rendered skills obsolete at an ever faster rate.

We were all grateful to have grown up in an era before smartphones and social media. Cyberbullying had invaded the traditional safe haven of home. Teenage peer pressure, stupidity, and sexting combined to have the potential to land friends and acquaintances alike on the sex offender register. Some of the stories about what had been found on their teenagers’ phones were jaw dropping.

We were also grateful to be closer to the end of our careers than the beginning. Wondering what the future would hold for our offspring, as traditional career paths and historically proven routes to financial riches became less effective and far less certain.

Later that evening as I collapsed into bed, I was pleased to reflect that life had worked out ok for all those present at the gathering. Regardless of our life paths chosen, most of us appeared comfortable and seemed to have enough. The ride hadn’t always been a smooth one, but we were still standing.

Those of us who headed overseas after university had enjoyed an early career arbitrage. Climbing faster and earning more than our peers who had remained closer to home. By our early 30s, things had evened out, living location becoming more of a lifestyle choice than a financial one.

The happiest amongst us had consciously sought out a lifestyle balance tilted towards making time for family and fun.

The least happy had crafted gilded cages for themselves, leading a life of self-inflicted indentured servitude, as their incomes were more than offset by high housing costs, private school fees, and lifestyles exceeding affordability.

Those who had purchased homes and stayed in them had done quite well financially. When their mortgage was eventually paid off, their cash flow situation improved in spectacular fashion.

By contrast, those who had rented over the long term ended up with comparably sized investment portfolios and pensions, but their holdings had a house-sized hole in the middle. The high price of opportunity cost.

Those who had moved often, buying and selling houses to live in every five to seven years, were financially the worst off. The high costs and financial friction associated with real estate transactions white-anted the capital gains tax free financial benefits of home ownership, while each time they refinanced they had chosen to reset the mortgage clock for another 25-year term.

Comparing and contrasting the fortunes of my friends and family left me feeling pretty good about my lot in life. It also raised some questions about my life choices. In recent years, the financial advantages of high-earning London were more than offset by high living costs and lifestyle compromises. One of the benefits of visiting home was a reminder of alternative ways of living, and an insight into what else was possible.

It was good to be home.

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  1. Chris 22 December 2022

    For the quality of life reason, this is why my wife and I seriously consider relocating to New Zealand. She worked here for a year as a registrar and now, as a consultant, we’ll be guaranteed entry. The negative, as you eloquently highlight, being the journey (that and with parents still living it seems a less than ideal time!)

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 22 December 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Chris. Good luck with the decision making.

      Truth is there will never be an ideal time. It comes down to choices and priorities. Simple, but not easy.

      The distance isn’t such an issue, in an emergency we’re only ~24 hours from anywhere. It is the foregone quality time with loved ones that has the real opportunity cost. That is time we can never get back, but we need to ask ourselves honestly what we make of the opportunity currently?

      If it is weekly dinners or constantly hanging out that is a big loss. On the other hand if it is the occasional visit and the odd phone call, then adding distance and time zones to the mix don’t materially change anything.

      A couple of real life examples, I lived in one city for a year while my brother lived in another just a 90 minute flight away, but collectively we only made the effort twice. Another time we both lived in the UK for two years, a shorter distance apart than many people endure as part of their daily commute. We saw each other in person once, and spoke less on the phone than we had on opposite sides of the globe. Every family is different of course, but if the only certain face to face contact happens to be the obligatory Christmas gathering, then the scales heavily favour life in the antipodes.

      • Chris 23 December 2022

        This is pretty much it, originally we’re both from Essex but now in Staffordshire with family split in Essex and Norfolk. Part of the emergency point had not relevance 2020-2021 after my dad had a traumatic brain injury and never left hospital from admission to passing away in ITU 9 months later, being able to drive to Cambridge to visit was only a 4 hour round drive so I could do it as often as COVID allowed. However, it does feel like this is a sinking country…

  2. Liz 22 December 2022

    Are you thinking of moving back to where you grew up? I always contemplate the possibility . . .

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 22 December 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Liz.

      No, have tried that once a long time ago, and it proved impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. It was more an opportunity to compare and contrast the different lifestyle balances my peers had been able to achieve off broadly comparable financial bases.

      That said, the property market in some parts of my home country have fallen up to 15% this year, so I won’t pretend the notion of an opportunistic purchase somewhere sunny and warm with an eye to the future didn’t cross my mind.

  3. The Rhino 22 December 2022

    Whenever I hear about quality of life in the former British colonies, I re-watch this:


  4. Gentleman's Family Finances 27 December 2022

    Nice Post and have a Merry Christmas!

    It’s funny how often doing nothing (buy and don’t sell) can be a better life strategy than cutting and thrusting, moving and shaking, dressing to impress and keeping up with the joneses.

    When faced with similar conversations (albeit without a such successful cohort) their problems are different room mine as I’ve been studious to avoid all.of the above and reach (passed) my peak with still the leg work to do to have a carefree second half to my life.

    One contrast is that your friends largely benefitted from the good times (collapsing interest rates and rising job prospects chief among them), while my friends paid the price for the boom.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 27 December 2022 — Post author

      Thanks GFF. I hope you and the family enjoyed a fun silly season.

      Your successful cohort observation gave me pause. Growing up with the group, we were nothing special (apart from the future sporting star, she was amazing). Average students for the most part, consistent As and Bs at exam time. The boards of directors and C-suite execs I often encounter in the workplace are similar, mostly average folks with average abilities, the only consistent standout features are flexible ethics and ruthlessness. Rarely somebody special.

      There is a lot more luck and circumstance in the career ladder than we like to admit, though where and when we start plays a big part in the opportunities we are exposed to early on.

  5. FIRE v London 28 December 2022

    Nice post.
    You hint at something which is on my mind at the moment, which is the contrast between UK and Oz (assuming ‘home’ is Oz!).

    Oz provides a fascinating counterpoint to the UK over the last 20 years, roughly as long as I think you have been based in London. The Oz economy has overtaken the UK (in GDP/head) significantly in that timeframe, and the AUD has almost doubled vs the GBP. Australian incomes are now far higher than UK ones (for like-for-like roles), though living costs are somewhat higher too (aside from property, but even that is not cheap). Part of me thinks this makes AUD uncompetitive, other than the extractive industries. Part of me is hopeful for the UK – thinking it will revert to the mean once we have some sensible economy-orientated people in charge.

    In any case the comparison of relatively randomly sampled school friends provides you with some very interesting counterfactuals. Thanks for the post and enjoy the rest of your trip!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 28 December 2022 — Post author

      Thanks FvL.

      I think every country has a different trajectory, including migratory patterns. Take New Zealand for an example, 20+ years ago every Kiwi I’d meet in London described in some form an exodus of graduates to either Australia or the UK as there were felt to be comparatively limited opportunities for them at home. Seemingly almost everybody with a degree aged between 18 and 40 had left. At some stage 10-15 years ago, that trend was thrown in reverse, and the diaspora returned home. Now New Zealand is a migration magnet for folks from the UK, starting well before Brexit and accelerating since.

      Most, but not all, my peer group from Australia headed overseas for a year or two. Most of those subsequently returned home. Some early on, as working holiday visa holders working as Canadian ski lift operators, French au pairs, English teachers in Japan, or UK based freelancing gigs. Others went later, pursing opportunities for overseas work transfers, to Silicon Valley or Wall Street or corporate headquarters of organisations with a small sales office presence in Oz.

      The next group of returnees were those whose careers had topped out, their wanderlust had been curtailed by the arrival of children, and they sought the quality of life an outdoor lifestyle based around a four bedroom suburban house on a quarter acre block provides, rather than the challenges of apartment living with young families. This is little different than the migratory patterns out of London to commuter towns scattered throughout the South East of England, though in the early days it offered a one-off geographic arbitrage advantage back when the pound was strong relative to the dollar.

      Having spent a few weeks catching up with those friends and family, it has provided an interesting compare and contrast. Some random observations:
      * they work longer and probably harder than we do in London
      * base white collar salaries are higher, non-recurring discretionary performance bonuses are lower
      * taxes are lower
      * getting into good schools is less competitive, the surprisingly well funded religious system appears to cater for all, not just the religious
      * pensions are more flexible (can purchase property or use leverage within a pension wrapper), the financial services industry is (slightly) more predatory
      * being overweight, with the associated health problems, has become so common it is normalised. The exception being those who are fitness/diet conscious.
      * there seems to be more money allocated for discretionary spending, even though mortgage interest rates tend to run 2-3% higher than in the UK
      * living near the beach is great, but those who do seldom avail themselves of what is on their doorsteps. Commutes and long working hours leave little time for it
      * fear of the UV factor keeps a surprising number of people indoors throughout the summer days, when English people would be turning themselves into lobster people given the same weather opportunities. Skin cancer awareness couldn’t be more different between the two locations
      * much like in the US, people drive everywhere, public transport is limited even in the big cities

  6. Hague 6 January 2023

    Nice post as always. Thanks.

    Just checking….’To purchase the 3,500 square meter house would cost more than £1,200,000. ‘

    Did you mean square feet?

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