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{ in·deed·a·bly }

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

Frozen

My kids sat with heads together on the stairs, eyes intent on a phone screen. Coats and shoes forgotten, they watched some YouTuber perform a mashup of all the hit songs from 2020.

The artist was undoubtedly talented, serving up a catchy three-minute dose of auto-tuned happiness.

By video’s end, I experienced a dawning realisation. I hadn’t recognised the hit songs. Not a single one.

While I waited impatiently for my kids to get ready, I thought about that. Long ago I had been into music.

Radio providing constant background noise in the car, while studying, or working in the shop.

Attending concerts every week at the university bar. One of those iconic venues that domestic acts went out of their way to play while touring the country. Sneaking in while underage. Later, paying at the door.

Piling into a car with a handful of mates. Driving three hours each way to the nearest big city, where we could watch the international acts play. On school nights we would race the dawn to get back in time for class or work. Weekends would often see us dossing on the floor of random group houses after a concert.

Years later I had moved to London.

Dive bars in Camden. Watching up-and-coming acts trial new music and take audience requests.

Shepherds Bush Empire, where I would watch bands play their first or last gig of a tour. The former would usually be an amazing performance, artists bursting with enthusiasm for the adventure ahead. The latter were rarely much good, the show representing the final thing standing between the touring band and Heathrow airport.

Brixton Academy. Earls Court Arena. Hammersmith Apollo. Royal Albert Hall. Wembley. Once storied names on the back of concert tour t-shirts, associated with legendary performances of world-famous acts. Later becoming places I frequented, watching those performances live in person.

Surprising my lady wife with a trip to a small venue in a nowhere town, located halfway around the world, where her all-time favourite band had reformed for a one-off charity gig. Their first performance in a decade.

At some point, life happened and my interest in music fell by the wayside.

The radio replaced by an iTunes library full of existing favourites and known quantities.

Life as a professional meeting attendee brought to an end listening to music at work. Surviving interminable conference calls every day meant the last thing I wanted to do was wear headphones away from the office.

The cacophony of computer games, noisy toys, and television at home was not worth competing with.

Live music became a distant memory as the price of babysitters and concert tickets, or the higher toll of obtaining a leave pass, meant the cost-benefit equation no longer added up.

Over the years a few new additions had made it onto my playlist. But not many.

Somehow I had turned into the modern incarnation of my own father. Childhood memories of him tinkering in his shed, massacring lyrics as he tunelessly sang along to a “golden oldies” AM radio station.

Left behind as times changed and fashions moved on. Not noticing, or more likely simply not caring.

I glanced up at the wall of family photos. An eclectic assortment of awkwardly staged group shots and more natural candid pictures. Births. Graduations. Weddings. Milestones mixed with family holidays.

Some ancient history, featuring faces long gone but for the most part not yet forgotten. Others more recent, happier times of socialising and fun in the sun during those halcyon pre-COVID days.

It occurred to me that the style of clothing and haircuts favoured by my grandparents remained constant throughout. Young and fashionable just after the war. Greying and weathered by the time I got to know them. Aged and wrinkled in the last photos they featured in.

Looking closer, I noticed my now elderly mother had worn her hair the same way for 40+ years. The long flowing locks of her youth a casualty of parenthood, abandoned in favour of a low maintenance bob. Never looking back.

My father had experienced a similar transition. Mutton chops and flares giving way to the sensible haircuts and business suits of an ambitious man on the rise. For the rest of his days, polo shirts and dress trousers were his casual uniform of choice.

I was startled out of my reverie when one of my lady wife’s champagne bottles jumped off the top of a bookcase. Fortunately for her, it hit me before the floor. Less fortunate for me.

The lockdown kitten looked down smugly from its perch behind the bottles. Blue eyes gloating as he contentedly chewed on something black and vaguely familiar.

I grabbed the closest throwable object, my favourite work boot, to hurl at my feline foe. Then thought better of it, surrounded as he was by glass bottles containing liquid escape.

It was only then that I noticed the innersole from my boot was missing. High out of reach, the thieving lockdown kitten grinned as he happily gnawed a hole in it. Bastard!

I looked from the boot to an almost-forgotten photo taken some twenty years ago. Younger me smirked back. Lean. Fit. Confident. Still believing anything was possible. No signs yet of grey hairs or wearing his beer.

That was where the differences stopped. Younger me wore boots identical to the ones that the lockdown kitten was destroying. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I observed the jeans and top I wore in the photo were similar in style to the outfit I currently had on.

It appeared that along with musical tastes, my fashion preferences had also frozen during my early twenties.

After I reassembled my boot, we dawdled along the river for our daily escape from lockdown. The boys bickering about some computer game they had been playing. I tuned out, my mind wandering back to those snapshot perspectives.

Frozen in time

I wondered if our approach to managing money followed a similar pattern? How much of our outlook is framed by the way the world looked in our early twenties, then unconsciously frozen in time?

My grandparent’s generation, experiencing the great depression as children followed by half a decade of war, were conservative and risk-averse. A subsidised mortgage for returned services personnel was the only debt they ever took on. Jobs were for life. Few people attended university.

Investing was perceived as risky. The preserve of the rich and the foolish. Barriers to entry were high. Fees were even higher. The most exotic financial product a mere mortal might have entertained were a simple annuity sold by a life insurance broker, or a term deposit held at their local bank.

Retirement was what happened to people no longer physically able to work, shortly before they died. Funded via savings, a means-tested state pension, and the generosity of family.

My parent’s generation, experiencing interest rates in the mid-teens and inflation nearly as high, had a different perspective on debt. Owner-occupier mortgages were offered on a 2.5x earnings multiple, but the value of money was perceived as halving roughly every seven years. Better to be an investor than a saver. Credit cards were used, but paid off in full to take advantage of the 55 day interest-free period between billing cycles.

Jobs were for life, though that was about to change. University was free. Graduate numbers soared. As did the pay gap between thinkers and doers.

Actively managed investment trusts and managed funds charging high fees were commonplace. Later, the general public would gain exposure to individual stocks via the 1980s privatisation trend. Becoming a landlord was perceived as a proven route to wealth. “Safe as houses”, and all the expenses were tax-deductible.

Only a third of workers had access to a defined contribution occupational pension, the rest still relied upon a combination of savings, the state pension, and family. Pension holders had little say in how their funds were invested. A few defined benefits pension schemes did exist, but even back then they were perceived as operating an unsustainable investment model.

Retirement was something looked forward to. House paid off. Kids raised and gone. Time to live the good life, free from responsibility and obligation. Never imagining their offspring may fail to launch, or that retirement might actually consist of working full-time as the unpaid carer of their grandchildren.   

My generation experienced comparatively low unemployment and interest rate levels. The beginnings of the internet, with the dotcom boom and subsequent bust. House prices surged, busted, surged again. Mortgages at 4x multiples of the primary household income earner, and insane loan to value ratios. Landlording remained a viable route to wealth, still incentivised via the tax system.

Consumer credit was everywhere, with many succumbing to the siren song of “buy now pay later”. University graduates often started their careers financially underwater, as tuition fees were reintroduced to reduce the volume of graduates entering the workforce.

Stock market investing was affordable. Active funds were managed by rockstars. “Beating the street” via stock picking and timing the market was the order of the day. Low-cost passive index tracker funds existed, but were not yet widely available. Pension contributions were mandatory in some parts of the world, encouraged in others. Fees remained high and choices limited. Out of sight, out of mind.

The policy focus for state pensions shifted away from the narrative of a well-earned reward after a lifetime of paying taxes, towards providing a social security safety net for those who had failed to adequately provide for their own financial future.

How might my sons’ perspective be framed today, if viewed through a similar lens?

Living through a major economic dislocation, as Brexit and COVID tag team to create uncertainty and disruption. Merely a decade after the last “worst economic downturn since the great depression”. Observing vast wealth created in between, during the largest bull market in history.

Mortgages at 4-6x household earnings. Property prices at 10x or more that amount, requiring a deposit beyond the reach of many without some major help from the bank of Mum and Dad. A level of debt that would prove ruinous to service at the interest rates experienced by any of the previous generations.

Tax and social policy have brought to an end (for now) the domestic residential landlord gravy train. In many parts of the country, the numbers simply no longer work. Investors now need to seek opportunities in other asset classes, or overseas.

Tuition fees drop graduates into an ever more globally competitive job market, with debt levels more commonly associated with mortgages in days gone by. True, those debts are low interest and on generous terms, but debts they remain. Once a rare achievement, today degrees are table stakes for a comfortable white-collar life working indoors without the need for heavy lifting.

Investing in stocks has become both free and ubiquitous. Self-managed pension funds are popular, allowing pension holders to invest for their financial futures however they desire. Passive index trackers have become essentially free, as on many different fronts the investor has become the product. Many occupational pension providers continue to restrict choice to expensive and underperforming actively managed funds.

The state pension remains. For now. Whether that will still hold true in 50+ years time, when my kids are approaching what we today consider pension age, is anyone’s guess!

Defrost

By the time we arrived back home, I had concluded that my kids would be just fine despite all the uncertainty. Certainty only exists in hindsight.

They would figure things out, just as their ancestors before them had done.

If the photos on the wall were anything to go by, then despite our dated fashion sense and dubious musical preferences, we had all successfully lead lives that were often happy and content.

Now conscious that I too had been frozen in time, I decided I should review my preconceived ideas. If my perceptions of Avicii, George Ezra, and Imagine Dragons being “new” acts no longer holds true, will I discover similarly dated beliefs embedded within my financial approach?


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22 Comments

  1. Gnòtul 17 February 2021

    Beautiful piece of writing / perspective taking.. Hats off!

  2. steveark 18 February 2021

    My parents were depression kids, the greatest generation, but college was common then in the US because it was free for soldiers returning from WW2. Both my poor farm girl mom and poor city cop’s kid dad went to a pretty high brow private college and rather than be risk adverse my dad became a very astute investor becoming the poster child millionaire next door on middle class wages. I very much adopted his style although I chose a much more lucrative career only available to a small percentage of people due to the advanced math and science required. My kids all have completely different paths, one middle class, one upper middle class and one a one percenter. My dad had lucrative pensions that allowed him to pass his wealth to my brother and myself. I had no pension but maxed out all the retirement plans available on top of lots of taxable investments and will pass considerable wealth to our kids someday too. But there is no way I’m wearing what I wore in my younger days, bell bottom jeans? No chance.

  3. Q-FI 18 February 2021

    Fuck yeah – I love it when the lockdown kitten makes an appearance! Hahaha… each time it makes me grin. I have a 2-year old terrier that attacks me as if on cue whenever I’m on a video call.

    It’s interesting that I’m exactly the same as you with music. I have my MP3s and couldn’t even tell you who the popular music is right now – I’d have to ask my wife because she’s always on Instagram – and I’m a musician.

    Superb job of summing up all those different generations. Great writing and witty humor as usual. I loved your “origin” post but this might be just as good if not even better.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 18 February 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Q-FI. There has got to be a funny viral YouTube video of man versus dog there somewhere, like that one with the bloke being interviewed live on the tv news when his kid ran in and upstaged it all!

      I think part of my music interest waning was the evolution of what was considered popular music. Without the high school/university peer pressure socialisation and conditioning, there was no longer the exposure to what was currently “cool”.

  4. Bob 19 February 2021

    You are probably right about school or college music encounters and peer group influence. I recall the 1970s hits at school discos . Yes Sir I Can Boogie!

    Also the desire to have “discovered” a band and written it on your schoolbag before anyone else (Of course you had to scrawl it out once the act became popular “.)

    As regards being in musical suspended hibernation. Probably it is lack of opportunity. It wasn’t until 2000s that I was forced to a Neil Diamond concert. Never having knowingly heard one of his songs. It was sensational.

    I was once given six months Spotify free. Never used it.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 February 2021 — Post author

      Thanks Bob.

      Years ago I tried the free Spotify, but there were as many adverts as songs so I soon returned to my mp3s.

      My elder son once observed that the bands on my playlists were all either dead, disbanded, or had become “Dad band” parodies of their once cool selves. Which I took to mean making a fortune trading on past glories like the Rolling Stones do.

      I did have to chuckle however, when walking past the Royal Albert Hall shortly before COVID, at least half the acts scheduled to play had been on the local equivalent of “Top Of The Pops” when I had been a kid. Few of them had done anything noteworthy since, apart from getting old and therefore respectable!

      Thinking about it, that is probably equally true of many well known Personal Finance bloggers too!

  5. ceratonia 20 February 2021

    Not sure I’d class a 5.6% interest rate as “low interest and generous terms”, particularly as the government is able to retrospectively change the terms of the contract on student loans. Unlike other forms of debt it’s collected via taxation and can’t be escaped by bankruptcy, so it’s not like the lender is taking much of a risk.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 February 2021 — Post author

      Consider it from the lender’s perspective. Taking on the risk of a broke student with few marketable skills and an unproven track record at honouring debts. Given the alternatives would be credit cards or unsecured personal loans, those terms are comparatively generous.

      Personally, I think university should be free, but failing that then gradually recovering the debt via the tax system as earnings grow is probably one of the least worst ways to do it.

  6. tarsolutions 20 February 2021

    I actually really feel for the young – they have it really tough. The govt has hung them out to dry re. Covid; as well as sacrificing a year+ of their “best years”, they’ll be paying for that probably for the rest of their lives.

    Then they have to pay a lot of money for university, and at the end of it most will graduate on money that enables them to only survive. Forget about saving for most graduates. On top of that, they are some how expected to save to buy a house at some point. I doubt many will have much left to save after taxes, student loans, rent and day to day living costs are factored in.

    Perhaps I’m being too bearish, but I’m not that young so won’t feel this personally.

    At some point soon, probably very soon, I expect significant social unrest. The media will blame it on racism (Black Lives Matter for example) or something else. But really it’s about economics. If people feel they have a stake in society and happy about their opportunities, they won’t be out protesting. However, we have a generation or 2 who see little hope for themselves; their barriers to purchasing shelter, a basic human necessity, appears too high for many.

    Those born into the South East property boom will be ok (until there’s a tax grab on that – govt/BOE policy gave the boom, I expect govt to demand it back at some point). For those not born into wealth, it is very tough and getting tougher.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 20 February 2021 — Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts tarsolutions.

      I think some of the discord you anticipate has been underway for some time, the strings that populist leaders play are tied to that feeling of anger and perception of an absence of hope. Scottish independence, Brexit, Trump, etc. However, it isn’t the disaffected youth so much as the middle aged (and older) folks who have realised that their lot in life is unlikely to improve on its own.

      • tarsolutions 21 February 2021

        I just wonder if that reducing hope ties into when the global money printing presses were switched on – 2008 if I remember correctly – with a year or 2 later to start really moving asset prices. I think, within the anglosphere at least (although perhaps not the US, I’m not so close to that), that salaried workers are locked out of their local property markets. Taking away one of Maslow’s needs from a large chunk of society is unlikely to end well.

        I agree the middle+ aged and folks are unlikely to see their life improve much. A (probable) future labour govt are likely to tax some of those inflated asset gains away, hurting the current “haves”; but I doubt that will lead to much improvement for the current middle aged “have nots”.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 21 February 2021 — Post author

          Look further back. The dissatisfaction isn’t (directly) tied to housing prices, but rather the absence future job opportunities near where they live.

          Once commodity skills could be readily moved to locations with lower input costs, they were.

          As consumers we benefited greatly from lower prices for many product and service classes, but those who once worked to produce those things locally now find themselves priced out of the market by their comparatively higher living costs.

          Which sucks if you were a coal miner, call centre worker, or computer programmer. Those games no longer exist where you live.

          These folks faced a stark choice. Reskill, relocate, or see their standards of living substantially decline for both themselves and their children.

          It creates a lot of anger, partly because it isn’t fair, but also because it was (and remains) an inevitable outcome.

          It is why populist causes are so popular, but also often so futile. Promising to hold back the tide, yet unable to deliver once elected.

  7. John Charity Spring 20 February 2021

    Great post, thank you.

    I think I’m a similar age/background and your astute comments, honesty and reflection really hit home.

  8. GentlemansFamilyFinances 21 February 2021

    As usual your perceptions have a universality.

  9. AndyfromAus 22 February 2021

    Can only echo the other commenters but felt pressed to add my agreement. This is truly one of the best pieces of writing. Is it perhaps because it doesn’t talk about specifics but rather about ourselves ?

    Bravo, and thank you

  10. weenie 22 February 2021

    Great piece of writing, cheers Indeedably.

    I used to religiously follow the Top 40 charts – not sure when I stopped caring who was at number 1 but I continue to listen to mainstream radio stations because there are still quite a few gems (ie new artists) to be discovered and I love a good tune. Although there are some types of new music which I really can’t get into, I’m just glad there’s a big choice available to choose from, for all tastes. If Radio 1 starts annoying me, I switch to one of the Absolute Radio stations, usually 80s or 90s. There might be something for you there too – Absolute Radio Classic Rock?

    Whilst I own a huge collection of MP3s, I don’t want to be restricted to those, so it’s nice to hear something new and also, I’ve learned from the numerous Zoom quizzes I’ve been on that it’s handy to know about newer stuff as the music questions aren’t always just on the 80s and 90s!

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 22 February 2021 — Post author

      Thanks weenie, that’s a great suggestion.

      That not caring point is well made. I grew up on guitar bands, but once the fashions shifted from guitar solos to rap interludes I mostly lost interest. Today’s artists are no doubt every bit as talented as those from a generation ago, I just haven’t made the effort to rejuvenate my playlists. That’s my failing, but not one that greatly troubles me.

What say you?

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