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{ in·deed·a·bly }

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

Left behind

Earlier this week I watched the movie “Brexit: An Uncivil War”. As a professional data geek, I was intrigued by how they would bring to life the manipulation of voter behaviour via the usage of highly personalised political messages.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes. Made for television movies are usually pretty ordinary, and the Hollywood portrayal of anything involving computers is laughably bad.

To give credit where credit is due, the movie was pretty good! The script was well written, Benedict Cumberbatch will deservedly be nominated for some awards, and it did a good job examining the ethics of some of the approaches used during a very divisive political campaign.

One particular scene from the film has stuck with me, I’ve caught myself thinking about it several times.

Heather Coombs superbly portrayed a middle-aged woman, from struggle town somewhere in middle-England, who felt resentful and overwhelmed. She gave a powerful performance of the anger felt by many of the “silent majority”:

Brexit - The Uncivil War. Image credit: IMDB.

Brexit – The Uncivil War. Image credit: IMDB.

At being ignored.

At losing their voice.

At being left behind.

By the government.

By the economy.

By society.

It was compelling.

It was confronting.

Surprisingly, it struck a chord with me.

When your ship is sinking

My grandparents settled in a country town after the war. My grandfather worked for the same employer for ~25 years, until one day he was made redundant.

There typically aren’t a lot of jobs in a country town, and my grandparents couldn’t afford to retire.

They relocated to the big city, trading a town where they knew everyone for the anonymity that is part of city living.

For the next ~30 years they lived in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. Their neighbours were teachers, bank clerks, and small business owners. People like them.

Big cities are transient by nature. An endless of procession of folks arriving in search of work, then departing in pursuit of more affordable accommodation or a less busy lifestyle.

Over the years the neighbourhood evolved. While the socioeconomic status of the neighbourhood remained unchanged, the demographics reflected the migratory tides into the country.

Initially from Greece and Italy. Then Vietnam and Cambodia. Next came Lebanon and Syria. Finally China and India.

Local libraries and newsagents began stocking publications in different languages.

The cuisine offered by the local restaurants became more interesting and exotic.

The diversity of accents and languages heard being spoken in the local shopping centre increased.

Products there had never been a market for were suddenly prominently featured in shop windows. Hair relaxants. Hijabs. Skin lightening creams.

As a child visiting my grandparents, I found these changes exciting. Particularly the huge array of foods that simply weren’t available where I grew up.

My grandparents found the changes frightening. Intimidating. Even threatening.

Belonging

Over time they felt less and less like they belonged in their neighbourhood.

The local priest, dentist and doctor used to have names like Smith, Jones and Murphy. Now they were more likely to answer to Singh, Mohammed, and Nguyen.

Their local supermarket ceased stocking some of the staple products their very bland and simple diets were based upon, as there simply wasn’t the demand for them in the changing community.

My grandmother used to attend the local shire council meetings to keep informed of what was going on in the neighbourhood.

When they first arrived in the city, the majority of the issues discussed directly impacted their lives.

As they aged, and the neighbourhood became more diverse, an ever smaller number of issues were relevant to her:

  • Community festivals promoting multiculturalism
  • Provision of translation services in hospitals
  • Funding to provide “English as a Second Language” support in local schools
  • Discussions about adding multilingual translations to street signs, bus timetables, and so on

Their social circle diminished as old friends and neighbours died or moved away.

They gradually withdrew inwards.

Their bubble shrank.

Conversations with real people in the neighbourhood were replaced with listening to “people like them” on talkback radio.

They pined for days long gone.

A return to a rose-coloured past that never was.

A life far better in reminiscence than it had ever been in reality.

They had become dinosaurs. Somehow the world had moved on. They had been left behind.

All things come to an end

My father grew up on a farm near the regional market town. For a time it was infamous for having the greatest number of pubs per head of population in the country, which was logical because it also boasted the world’s highest beer consumption per capita.

Over time farming became a much more commercial endeavour.

The days of independent farmers viably being able to make a living from a small farm came to an uncomfortable end. They simply could not compete with the economies of scale the larger corporate operators enjoyed.

Farmers sold up and left the region. The population steadily declined.

Trains stopped servicing the town.

Bank branches closed.

The post office shut down.

The primary school went from having multiple classes per year group, to a single class spanning an ever larger range of year groups.

Pub numbers dwindled to a mere handful.

In short, the town was dying.

Abandoned town. Image credit: cpmacdonald.

Best days are behind it. Image credit: cpmacdonald.

While sad for those directly impacted, it was a natural conclusion to a population centre that had lost its reason for being. Any efforts to prop the town up by putting it on life support via grants and subsidies would have been misguided and wasteful.   

Spare a thought for those “townies” who didn’t have land to sell to the commercial operators. These were the region’s retirees, the small business owners, the school teachers and police.

Many of them owned houses in the town. Houses they couldn’t sell, as there were no buyers wanting to move to the region. The last remaining local real estate agent was lucky to complete a single sale per year.

They had mortgages to repay, but limited (or non-existent) livelihoods with which to fund those payments.

They couldn’t sell because there was no demand.

They couldn’t rent their houses out, because prospective tenants were rarer than winning lottery tickets.

They couldn’t move somewhere there was work, as they couldn’t afford both the mortgage payments on their house in the dying town and the rent for wherever their new home was located.

These homeowners were trapped. The world had moved on. They were left behind.

Fortunately this story ends on a happier note. Some 20+ years later the nearby highway was upgraded. This brought the town within an hour’s drive of the nearest city. Cashed up city workers dreaming of geographic arbitrage, and seeking to live “the good life”, began moving to the region.

Long empty shops and bank branches were restored and turned into antique shops, art galleries, and hipster cafes serving organic coffee and avocado toast. Some of the former pubs were converted into microbreweries. Old dilapidated houses were demolished and replaced with a “Grand Design” dream house.

Left behind

There were many commonalities between my grandparents, and how the residents of my father’s former home town felt about the circumstances they found themselves in.

The scene from the Brexit movie I have found myself reflecting on portrayed them well.

Some folks blamed “the other” for their misfortunes. They wanted to raise the drawbridge, turn away people who weren’t “like them”, in the belief that this would preserve their way of life.

Others sought to turn back the clock. Recapture past glories. Return to a time when they were successful, respected and admired. When they were taken seriously. Listened to. Everyone knew their place.

Did such a time ever really exist, except in rose coloured hindsight? I have my doubts.

Finally there were those who, apart from their age, would be poster children for the “entitlement generation”. They had fallen for many of the lies we tell:

  • Real wages must always grow.
  • Property and share prices can only go up.
  • Children will enjoy a better quality of life than their parents.
  • There will always be “enough”, as social security and middle-class welfare will plug any gap.

Life hasn’t followed the script they had been led to believe it should.

They have been left behind.

Gone but not forgotten

What I find fascinating is the way those who feel left behind naïvely embrace the messages of those who articulate the inner thoughts they have, but for a variety of reasons feel unable to give voice to.

Anger. Ageism. Change resistance. Classism. Fear. Hurt. Racism. Resentment. Sexism. Xenophobia.

A dislike of the thought police.

A hatred of political correctness.

Radio shock jocks, populist politicians, alternative thinkers, or those courting a cult of personality. They establish reputations and build followings by telling the audience they want to hear.

Their messages are often out of step with what is deemed to be acceptable in polite society, when viewed through a contemporary lens. However many of these views and opinions were tolerated, accepted, and often widely held not that long ago.

Just because people no longer publicly articulate them does not mean those views have gone away!

People like us

The views expressed don’t need to be true.

The speaker does not need to believe them.

It is enough to hear them given voice. To learn there are others out there who appear to share similar beliefs. It alters how the audience feels.

Rather than harbouring simmering resentment at having been shamed into silence, they suddenly have a leader, and a tribe of people “like them”.

These tribes are easily manipulated by emotive slogans, empty promises, and catchy soundbites like “take back control” and “make American great again”.

If their beliefs are exposed as fallacies, or mocked by those who made them feel left behind, then their resolve strengthens and they resolutely dig in.

When their tribe comes under attack, individuals feel even more threatened.

Guilt and ridicule are experienced by association.

The instinct to stick together kicks in, to defend the tribe. “They may be dickheads, but they are our dickheads.

Timur Kuran once wrote a book about all this, labelling the phenomenon “preference falsification”.

It isn’t just the “silent majority” of ageing white folks who act this way.

A good example is the message of the FIRE movement: “if you live below your means and invest wisely, then you may be able to exit the workforce at a much younger age than most”.

The message is simple, yet alluring.

It is true as far as it goes, but (as ever) the devil is in the detail. Not everyone should do it. Not everyone could do it, even if they wanted to.

Once the concept is embraced, it gets jealously guarded and defended by those who believe.

Witness how the tribe responded to recent attacks by talking heads and the mainstream media!

How revolutions begin

This feeling of being left behind is increasingly common.

I’ve written in the past about the challenges faced by those falling prey to late career redundancies or dislocation, like my grandfather experienced.

I’ve also written about the fear of becoming a dinosaur that slowly eats away at the more self-aware ageing technologists.

A worry that they will one day be shown up by the bright young things with their shiny new toys.

A concern that the skills and knowledge they have invested a career gaining will be rendered obsolete or technically redundant by the constantly changing whims of the technology game.

A deep-seated knowledge that this is a virtual certainty. Not a question of if, but of when.

These wounds run deep, and the scars last a long time.

Perhaps ideas go some way towards articulating why inequality and change can make those adversely impacted feel like they have been pissed upon from a great height.

In a democracy, for good or ill, virtually everyone gets a vote.

The more resentful and threatened folks there are, who feel left behind, the greater the likelihood there will continue to be disruptive and chaotic protest votes against the establishment whom they blame for their current woes.

Unfortunately people cannot be saved from their own stupidity.

However prosperous people feel less compelled to make protest votes!

Therefore addressing the underlying cause(s) of that left behind feeling would be a significant positive step, benefitting those individuals while also making the country more governable.

“prosperous people don’t protest”


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17 Comments

  1. broadbandylegs 19 January 2019

    Great post! I understand why people feel left behind, but I don’t get why the EU was blamed. OK it was a protest vote. But, blimey, the consequences of using that particular opportunity to register a protest vote are almost unfathomable. History will judge Brexit harshly I fear.
    And speaking as a retired ICT-type, I can confirm the almost inevitable slide into irrelevance of your knowledge and skills. It’s the way of the world though. I accept it. Just like your wider points about how the world around you changes – it has always happened. And it will always happen. Pandering to populists harking back to a non-existent golden era doesn’t help anyone.
    Your blog is excellent – I always look forward to reading it.
    All the best for 2019
    🙂

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 January 2019

      Wow, high praise indeed broadbandylegs! Thank you kindly.

      With a bit of luck that fear of change will prevail in Brexit’s case. If the prevailing lack of agreement means each of the bad options gets voted down in turn, then eventually the only remaining option would be to change nothing and remain part the EU as a consequence. I wouldn’t be my house on that outcome, but it may just happen!

      • broadbandylegs 19 January 2019

        I can’t help wondering if the split across the country (well England/Wales at least) is so severe that, whichever way Brexit works out, it will not be healed for a long time. Politicians and others talking about ‘uniting the country’ are whistling in the wind! It’s not going to happen. It seems ridiculous that, as soon as the referendum was over, the narrative changed to one in which nothing but the hardest, most extreme exit would do. The likes of ERG and our right wing dominated press has a lot to answer for.
        But hey, folk are supposed to be able to make up their own minds, I just wish some would think twice before they act.
        If you haven’t seen them, the ‘3 Blokes in a Pub‘ Youtube videos are worth watching. Especially the early ones.
        What a situation. And Dave says he doesn’t regret calling the referendum. Ha – methinks he lies 🙂
        I can only hope that some form of sense prevails…

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 January 2019

          One thing the Brexit movie highlighted was the way that data was used to determine which buttons to press for specific interest groups, and from that they were able to extrapolate what those groups needed to be told in order to secure their vote.

          Conceptually this was no different to the traditional political campaign techniques of surveying, polling and focus group testing. It just provided the ability to be more specific, with a much faster feedback cycle for whether messages were being well received.

          It is just a tool. What a campaign, or brand, or special interest group does with that information is then largely up to their own ethics and values.

          When used for good it could result in governments actually focussing their efforts on issues and outcomes that people genuinely care about, or want to see resolved.

          However they also allow people to be more effectively manipulated. Some good examples are Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, or the recent manufactured controversy over the Gillette marketing campaign. Both were hugely successful at generating controversy and capturing attention.

          The Brexit referendum, as well as the recent US and Italian elections showed how effective this can be. Voters do have their own minds however, as the results in France, the Netherlands, and Austria showed, where despite similar techniques and technologies being deployed the voters (for the most part) kept the populists out of office.

          What I find interesting is how conventional wisdom now accepts that both sides (with varying degrees of success) of the referendum attempted to manipulate the outcome. However few people are thinking about how they are still being manipulated. Consider the timing and narrative of events like the the Tory leadership challenge, the no confidence motion(s), the “meaningful” vote, and in the months to come a likely extension to the Article 50 deadline and possibly a “people’s vote“/second referendum.

          Do people really think that those techniques that proved so successful during the campaign would be simply set aside once polling day arrived? Or is it possible that those same effective techniques are now be deployed to drum up support for further courses of action, like a second referendum, or a cancelling of Brexit altogether?

          I don’t have the answers, but I doubt the tools were downed while they were so demonstrably effective.

          • broadbandylegs 19 January 2019

            I agree. As you said, the differences now are to do with volume, accuracy. speed and effectiveness. I guess it’s also the case the case that, to some extent, people ‘expect’ to be manipulated when engaging in activities relating to elections etc. However, the use of social media for this purpose means that this influencing can happen at any time – continuously and almost subliminally. It’s quite worrying really – everyone thinks they’re immune to this sort of thing…

    • GentlemansFamilyFinances 19 January 2019

      Very thought provoking.
      And over multi generations adds an extra level of relvance

      • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 January 2019

        Thanks GFF. I think it shows that one day we all become that grumpy old timer writing letters to the editor complaining that “back in my day” things were better!

  2. GentlemansFamilyFinances 19 January 2019

    Best thing I’ve read this year!

  3. FullTimeFinance 19 January 2019

    I don’t normally respond to political posts, especially outside my country. But I do need
    to respond here with a thought experiment. Just because the social norms today promote things like pcism and internationalism doesn’t mean that the generation after us will. Ie remember every generation has felt their social norms shift as the next takes power. The same will happen to us when we’re old. Think about how you might feel in such a situation because it will happen to you in unpredictable ways. Then perhaps try to understand those in that older persons groups position. It’s rarely as simple as racism, agism, or sexism as it’s often portrayed.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 January 2019

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts FullTimeFinance.

      I think you have just articulated my argument very succinctly!

      Our views and attitudes towards things, including what we view as normal or acceptable, tend to form as we’re growing up. They are influenced by our parents, teachers, and those whom we respect in our community.

      In some cases we believe what we believe because it is what they believed. In other cases it is in spite of what they believed.

      What society considers normal acceptable tends to change and evolve over time. However our own attitudes tend not to change nearly as quickly.

      This gives rise in part to that left behind feeling I discuss. What the younger generation views as discrimination, the older generation views as normal or the natural order of things.

      Conversely issues the younger generation may view as important, perhaps gender fluidity or gender neutrality for example, may sound like self-indulgent nonsense to the older generation.

      Neither is right or wrong necessarily, just holding different perspectives formed in different times, about the same issue.

      The one certainty is that today’s tolerant and accepting younger generation will become tomorrow’s older inflexible generation who has been left behind. Has ever been thus!

  4. Fretful Finance 19 January 2019

    Very interesting read. I think that xenophobia and the desire to be around people “like them” is something we attribute to older generations whilst those of us in a younger generation smugly consider ourselves too enlightened for such narrow-mindedness. We bang on (especially in a city like London) about how wonderful it is to be in such a diverse place, when in reality diversity in itself is neither a good nor bad thing, it depends on the impact it has on the community.

    Yet I think my generation (the so-called “millenials”) can be hypocritical. And I include myself in that. I have recently been trying to buy a flat in London and when it comes to where I want to live, all the places I really want to live are out of my price range. Why do I want to live there? Well, because they have all of those things you mention as being in your father’s home town – the microbreweries, the hipster cafes – all things that are, let’s be honest, associated with being white and middle class. So in the end I looked to areas that are “up and coming” (i.e. they are anticipated to gentrify and attract all those things we associate with being white middle class). My generation may be happier to live around people different to themselves, but let’s not pretend that we don’t also seek a certain amount of comfort in the familiar too.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 19 January 2019

      Thanks Fretful Finance. You demonstrate good self-awareness in understanding why it is you were seeking out one locale over another. As you observe, that it isn’t good or bad necessarily, but it is reality some would like to pretend does not exist.

  5. PendleWitch 25 January 2019

    Hi Indeedably,

    Oof! Too many ideas in this one post to think and respond to rationally!
    All very thought-provoking. Basically, it all boils down to being human? 🙂

    In many situations, change seems very unlikely, until it happens. During the 80s and the nuclear war scare stories, it was barely envisaged that the Soviet empire would fall. But it did, which still amazes me even now!

    Many decades ago, you didn’t really know how poor you were, since your neighbours were in the same boat. Multi-channel TV and social media have now made the ‘left behind’ very aware. They can also now see the contempt in which they are sometimes held by the ‘moving ahead’ brigade. It’s not pretty.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 25 January 2019

      you didn’t really know how poor you were … Multi-channel TV and social media have now made the ‘left behind’ very aware… see the contempt in which they are sometimes held

      Thanks for that very astute observation PendleWitch. You nailed it in a tweet!

      That is a sound observation about change being inevitable, no matter how unlikely it appears at the time.

      Rome fell. So too did the Mongols and Britain.

      China once ruled the world, and will again.

      You only need only compare a world map from 1900 to today in order to see how quickly and regularly unthinkable change and disruption occur.

  6. theFIREstarter 28 January 2019

    A riveting and thought provoking read as ever!

    One extra thing about Brexit which I find hard to explain is how there are people I know the same age as myself, same generation, same type of upbringing, living in the same town, who hold completely different views on it all compared to me. I don’t feel left behind at all so why should they? The algorithms have worked out that they do, but I wonder if they actually know why.

    Cheers

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