x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

We are all civil servants now

"Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man," said Nick Carraway.

If only F Scott Fitzgerald had joined the French civil service with its 35-hour working week, he might have enjoyed greater longevity.
If only F Scott Fitzgerald had joined the French civil service with its 35-hour working week, he might have enjoyed greater longevity.

"Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man," said Nick Carraway, the narrator of Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. You can't blame him. He found a job quite easily and for a while, during which the markets were good in the 1920s, made an easy living. But like most things that are unsustainable it was too good to be true and came to an abrupt end. History does not relate what happened to Mr Carraway when the dream turned sour and the bootlegging millionaire Gatsby was found dead in his swimming pool; all we are told is that he left New York and headed west.

For Fitzgerald, going west was a metaphor for where you went if things did not work out; he looked to the east and to Europe for inspiration. This is probably where today's generation of bond traders will be looking, too. Not for jobs of course; there are no jobs in Europe unless you already have one. In France, for example, you settle in to a 35-hour week (president Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to repeal this privilege, although it is unclear to what extent he has succeeded) and treat your employer like the enemy. While young Americans were reading Alan Greenspan's biography or Warren Buffet's latest book hoping to glean the slightest trading advantage, French youths were curling up with Corinne Maier's Bonjour Paresse, or Hello Laziness. It is a sardonic instruction manual on how to do as little as possible at work without getting sacked. In fact, the book's publication proves that it is almost impossible to get sacked in France. Her employer, Electricite de France, tried to get rid of her when they read her book which detailed how she spent most of her time pretending to work. A trade union sprang to her defence, and with the ensuing publicity, her book became a best seller. And she kept her job.

Millions of French school children do not dream of becoming bond traders; they aspire to be bureaucrats. In a poll published last year, some 60 per cent of graduates expressed the desire of becoming 'fonctionnaires', or civil servants. When I left university 25 years ago nobody considered becoming a bureaucrat. I don't even know any politicians, although at a wedding in Italy a few years ago I met a pleasant fellow who told me he was culture secretary in the Labour government. His dirty secret was that he was educated in France, which is probably where he got the idea of entering government. He has since been promoted to Minister of Jobs. His job at least is safe - until the next election.

One of the reasons I have been thinking of careers is not just the sight of many people being made redundant, but because my 16-year-old son has just been on a visit to Abu Dhabi. Like many of his generation, just like Nick Carraway's generation, he had been planning a career in finance. Obviously I would have preferred him to ply a more reputable trade - cat burglary perhaps, or running a small nightclub - but three months ago it was hard to argue with his logic. We should all have been investment bankers. With the possible exception of those unlucky few whose savings and pensions went down with their ships, most bankers over the age of 40 have enjoyed 20 good years. Not just good, but mega, corpulent, unparalleled, absurd. I had rejected a career in banking, partly on the grounds that I am more or less innumerate. I thought this would be a handicap. Little was I to know that just about everyone in the business was also unable to add up, except when it came to bonus time.

When English writer Hillaire Belloc was asked why he wrote so much, he replied: "Because my children are always howling for pearls and caviar". The children of investment bankers have been more likely to call for a change in diet, some sliced white bread maybe, or ginger nuts; there is only so much beluga you can bear in your lunch box. The bankers have bought the best houses, married the prettiest girls, and are educating their offspring at the best schools. Many of them are parents to my son's friends. When one friend goes on holiday to Cornwall, for example, he often travels in a private jet. The father runs his own investment bank. However, because banking will no longer be an obvious career to ensure such a lifestyle, what now one wonders?

Few sectors of the economy will escape the slowdown. People are already getting sacked in London and New York, while a UN agency has estimated that a massive 20 million jobs will go in the next year. Manufacturing is for mugs, as is farming. There are fewer jobs in the media, advertising is no longer as much fun as it used to be, and even the greatest growth area of the last couple of years - protecting the environment - is under threat. The billions that were earmarked for repelling fluffy white clouds or trying to keep Bangladesh above water have now been spent on propping up banks drowning in debt.

But as any French school child will tell you there is one sector that will benefit - government. If the last few years have been an Age of Excess, we are now entering the Age of the State. While the past 25 years have been spent rolling back the bureaucrats, it is now clear that they will be taking over. Governments must spend to save us from recession, say economists, or we will end up with another Great Depression.

The advice to my son is clear. Look east towards France for inspiration and become a civil servant. Your job will be secure, you can use the Treasury's jet to travel to international meetings, and when in 25 years' time, another bold leader tries to roll back the state and privatise the banks again, you can leave your safe billet and be appointed chairman. You will receive share options and many other perks. History will repeat itself, as it so often does.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," so says the closing line of The Great Gatsby. Poor Fitzgerald tried going east but could not cope with the excesses of the South of France. Like Nick Carraway, he eventually drifted west, ending up in Hollywood, where he drank too much and called everyone "sport". If only he had taken a job as a civil servant and not as a screenwriter, he might have lived another 50 years and written many more books. rwright@thenational.ae