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.