Monday morning. 8:45am. Streams of excited parents and reluctant kids head towards the first day of school in almost six months. In a triumph of public health theatre, schools had been declared COVID free “safe” spaces, where masks were unnecessary and year group “bubbles” would contain any infection.
Safe spaces are like the notions of meritocracy and “independent” regulators: there is no such thing!
As we walked towards the school gate, my seven-year-old son was firing off questions that were impossible to answer:
“How do the bubbles work, when most kids have brothers and sisters in other year groups?”
“Why do we have to wear masks on the bus to school, but not allowed to wear masks at school?”
“How can we catch coronavirus at swimming lessons or the supermarket, but not catch it in class?”
“Why can children play with other year groups at before and after school care, but not at lunchtime?”
“Why can teachers from all the different bubbles play together in the staff room during break times?”
“When a class teacher gets sick, where will supply teachers come from? They aren’t in our bubble!”
I gave him my best Gaelic shrug, and told him the rules were designed to protect the hardworking teachers from all the horrible noisy sticky children. He giggled, as we walked past a bawling five-year-old little girl surreptitiously wiping tears and snot on her mother’s shirt sleeve.
The first day of “big school” was off to a rocky start. She didn’t know it yet, but the school’s social distancing rules would prevent her new reception class teachers from holding her hand or hugging her to make it better.
If they followed them.
We abruptly halted when we saw the vast crowd of parents and kids milling together outside the school gate. The school buildings may have been made “COVID safe” inside, but the mostly maskless parents were ably demonstrating that the general public has poorer self-preservation instincts and survival skills that the average Lemming.
We opted to sit out the scrum from across the road, watching parents jostle and shout like a mosh pit full of teenagers on ecstasy. Given how many of them had noticeably gained weight during lockdown, it appears the government’s newfound fear of obesity was well-founded.
Eventually, the gates creaked open. The new caretaker appeared, his long-serving predecessor having been felled by COVID the week before lockdown commenced. A voice worthy of an army drill sergeant boomed from behind his mask: “Children step forward. Parents stand back!”
Those adults closest to the gates physically flinched.
Several young children burst into tears.
The older children tentatively shuffled forward.
A boy racer in a hotted up old blue Mazda screeched to a halt in front of the school gates, scattering parents and children alike. A small tribe of kids erupted out the passenger side of the double-parked sports car. The doof-doof beat of dance music with a heavy baseline thundered out the open car door, disrupting pace-makers and setting off car alarms up and down the street.
As the last of his children clambered onto the footpath, the driver gunned the engine and fishtailed back out into traffic. The song on his stereo changed to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy”.
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
From our vantage point across the street, we watched the parents start to drift away from the school gates after dropping off their progeny.
The single father of a boy with allergies had a spring in his step as he headed for the coffee shop. Ordered to “shelter at home” throughout lockdown, man and boy had spent virtually every waking moment confined together in a tiny one-bedroom flat with an air mattress on the floor and no outside space.
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
The young mother, who endured an arranged marriage to an older cousin and now had two special needs kids, openly wept as she looked to the sky and gave praise to her deity of choice. She had aged a decade since I last saw her back in March. Grey. Drawn. Haggard.
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
The old Ghanian guy was literally dancing down the street. His daughter was one of the happiest people on the planet. A ray of sunshine who genuinely brightened up the day of everyone she meets. She was also exhausting. Like the Energiser bunny, her boundless energy keeps going and going!
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
Happy parents indeed! For many, this would be the first time in months they had time to themselves.
My younger son gave my hand an anxious squeeze and teared up. “I don’t want to go back! Why can’t we keep working from home together, forever?”
I gave him a big hug, and told him to focus on how great it would be to play with all his friends again. If the pandemic had taught us anything, it was that life is unpredictable and we shouldn’t take anything for granted because we don’t know how long it will last.
We crossed the road together. He joined the stream of children filing past the glowering caretaker.
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high to bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down, I said
I skirted around the assembled gaggle of relieved parents. There were more than a few celebratory grins. High fives. Victory dances. They had survived homeschooling and the initial lockdown.
Finally, they could palm their kids off to the professionals and return themselves to work. Leisure. Or in a great many cases now that the furlough scheme was winding down, job seeking.
Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!
The sentiment my son had expressed, of not wishing to return to his pre-COVID “normal” was a recurring thought for much of that week.
Much to my lady wife’s chagrin, I too have little desire to go back, to select a client site for my annual winter working hibernation. The idea of working hard to deliver yet another lucrative but uninspiring “enterprise” software solution to a disinterested audience at an ungrateful megacorp leaves me cold.
This reluctance to return to the old normal is a sentiment that I suspect many share, though few will openly admit to. Understandably concerned about appearing to be tone-deaf or ungrateful, when plenty of unemployed and underemployed folks would gladly trade places in a heartbeat.
Railing against corporate life is a staple within the FIRE community. Challenging the premise that selling life by the day in return for a pay packet, social interaction, and (for a fortunate few) intellectual stimulation represents a good trade.
Some FIRE blogs even maintain a timer. Counting down the days or dollars until they can cry “Freedom!” and avail themselves of the whole world of options that their newfound financial independence affords them.
But here is the thing. Anyone who has watched the FIRE movement for a reasonable length of time will have observed an intriguing pattern.
The vast majority of FIRE bloggers quit long before they achieve financial independence. Blogging can be a thankless game. Shouting into the void, while pursuing a lengthy but uneventful dream. Get the basics right, then set and forget, there isn’t a whole lot else to write about.
Inevitably, most get bored. “Life happens” events occur. Priorities change. Few stay the course.
Amongst those FIRE bloggers who do achieve independence, most quit blogging shortly afterwards. Their race is run. Their focus naturally moves on to whatever comes next. Of great interest to the individual, much less relatable to the audience who had vicariously joined them on their journey.
Of those precious few who do continue blogging after reaching financial independence, many eventually return to some form of work. Often within months. Others never end up pulling the trigger at all, just having the option proves to be enough to remove the pressure of the financial imperative.
Maybe not to their old profession.
Possibly not in a full-time capacity.
But most invest some of their time in forms of recurring organised activity. Doing something they value, in between those holiday activities that FIRE seekers devote so much time to fantasising about.
Starting, buying, or running a business.
Writing a book.
That latent desire to escape the workforce isn’t about no longer working, it is about no longer having to work. Being free to decide how and where to invest their time.
They still wish to contribute. Add value. Feel a sense of accomplishment. Make a difference.
Ask the audience
Here is a quick thought experiment for you.
What hobbies, interests, or side hustles do you currently enjoy outside of your day job?
If you decided not to go back to your current job for whatever reason, but were not yet financially independent, which of those activities might you look to scale out into an income-generating pursuit?
For those of you who already earn income from activities outside your day job, perform a quick calculation to determine what the financial reward for your time investment currently is:
Gross income from activity / Total hours invested = Approximate hourly revenue
Once you’re financially independent or traditionally retired, what activities will occupy your days at home, in between those amazing globe-trotting adventures you have long dreamt about?
Use your imagination and have some fun with it.
It will be fascinating to see what readers come up with. Leave a comment below with a one-sentence summary of your activities, and the results of your calculations. Anonymous comments are fine if you’re shy.
To get you started, here were a few responses from colleagues when we recently had a similar discussion.
|Activity||Currency||Hourly Revenue||GBP equivalent|
|Children’s guitar instructor||HKD||$650.00||£65.22|
|Children’s swimming instructor||GBP||£5.00|
|Handmade timber furniture maker||BRL||$48.00||£7.08|
|Residential retreat host||GBP||£80.00|
|Successful non-fiction author||GBP||£1.50|
|Unsuccessful niche technical author||AUD||$4.66||£2.64|
Back to square one
One week later, my younger son woke up with a sore throat.
In pre-COVID times, I would have dosed him with the magic elixir of Calpol and sent him to school.
According to the school’s “COVID safe” rules, any form of cold or flu symptom results in an automatic one week ban. Self-isolation for the whole family. Until negative COVID tests have been returned.
Except the government’s COVID test processing capacity is overloaded.
As was the case back at the start of the pandemic, testing is currently reserved for symptomatic patients only. In some parts of the country, those without access to a car can’t get tested at all.
Test processing is now being offshored to labs in Germany and Italy, after under-resourced and overwhelmed domestic labs faced a backlog of 185,000 outstanding tests.
This is just week two of school. Commuter life for the majority of the hotdesk jockeys has not yet resumed!
My elder son’s high school class have already figured out how to game the system. Students who hadn’t kept up with their homeschooling before the summer break were now phoning in suspected COVID cases to get out of exams and public speaking assessments. Class sizes are down by a third, with no home school offering for those out “sick“, quarantined, or self-isolating pending a COVID test result.
The school chooses not to ask too many questions. Under their “COVID safe” rules, two positive tests within a year group bubble would see the doors closed and a resumption of distance education.
They are already short-staffed, after several teachers took ill-advised late summer vacations abroad, only to be caught out by the government’s ever-changing quarantine guidelines upon their return.
If these experiences are any indication of the new normal, then the old normal is a long way away from viable resumption.
Any client work I consider taking one would need to be of the remote working and super flexible variety.
Perhaps it is time to seriously explore those alternative options? To create a portfolio of income-generating activities that keep me entertained, without being tied to a strict schedule that random school closures will inevitably disrupt?
- Adams, R. and Stewart, H. (2020), ‘UK schools to be closed indefinitely and exams cancelled’, The Guardian
- Lawrie, E. (2020), ‘Coronavirus: Will the furlough scheme be extended?’, BBC News
- Pogrund, G., Calver, T., and Wheeler, C. (2020), ‘Leaked figures reveal scale of coronavirus test shortage’, The Times
- Schraer, R. (2020), ‘Coronavirus testing system “falling over”‘, BBC News
- The Accumulator (2020), ‘I hit my FI number’, Monevator
- Williams, P. (2013), ‘Happy’, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC