We’re not that different when all is said and done

Just try taking one side away...Speaking with my father recently I was told a story from my youth. At four years old I was watching a boxing match between a black British and a white American boxer, and watching my dad getting excited as the Brit took the upper hand. When asking him which one I should cheer for he told me the black boxer was ours – confused, I calmly told him I didn’t understand what he meant and asked what colour shorts he was wearing otherwise I couldn’t tell them apart.

As I grew older I struggled to understand the differences in status and class which meant so much to my parents. I couldn’t understand the differences between me, friends from school who went on skiing trips and those whose parents had no need to work who we met on holiday. As far as I could see, the only difference was that I didn’t have to wear a blazer and tie to school.

As I started work I initially struggled to work out the differences in authority and power of those I worked with, treating all with a friendly comeraderie and ignoring any undertones of formality. Now, why on earth am I bringing this trip down memory lane up?

Because I am now facing another blind spot – I’m struggling to see a real, identifiable, quantifiable difference between public and private sector workers.

With the strike action from yesterday and the pension arguements which rumble on, with the salaries of public sector servants at the top end of the scale being compared with the PM and their private sector counterparts, with the current cuts being made to the public sector and the various places the public wants to place the blame for them; I fear we are rapidly dividing the country up into opposing sides on the private and public sectors, and I fear for the impact this has.

Many of those I grew up with now work in the private sector, with some also taking the public sector wage (although invariably not for reasons of the pension at the end of it I might add). At a recent get together subtle tensions began to be raised between friends as the issues mentioned earlier were discussed, with a pretty clear line drawn between these two camps. People who had grown up together and known each other for most of their lives were all of a sudden taking diametrically opposed points of view and attacking the other with some venom based solely on the organisation which put money into their bank accounts each month.

However, when in single sector groups these same people are frankly a lot more balanced in their opinions and less vitriolic in their stances. Why they feel the need to band together when discussions come up about other sectors baffles and saddens me.

It reminds me of my travels many years ago, when I noticed the further I travelled from home, the less local was the place I identified with. When I was in Holland I told people I was from east London; by the time I reached Egypt that had broadened to London; by South Africa it had reached England, Australia saw me describing myself as British and at one stage I recall simply saying that I was European.

To relate this back to local government, in the past public sector workers have been split amongst all manner of fields, from social care and youth work to nurses and teachers. Equally private sector employees have been described as bankers and lawyers, but also as shelf stackers and shop assistants. It’s only more recently that these two groups have been homogonised and melded into mass descriptions, with little to no differentiation of individuals in either group.  If you are public sector then you are probably a council bureaucrat, if you work in the private sector you are a fat cat banker – no exceptions.

I’ve heard public sector workers slamming their private sector counterparts, blaming them for the downfall of society and the reason that their services are being cut. Of course, they don’t mean their friends personally, who work hard for their minimum wage jobs and scrape by as long as overtime is on offer – no, it’s the rest of the private sector that’s the problem. Oh, not the cleaners though, they work hard, it must be the rest of the private sector. Hang on, I don’t mean taxi drivers, or restaurant cooks, or small business owners, or gardeners, or factory workers, or IT technicians, or footballers, or…. the list goes on.

Equally, I’ve heard private sector workers ripping into the public sector staff, with their ‘gold-plated pensions’, their secure jobs and their cushy terms and conditions. Wait a minute, I don’t mean social workers, they are some of the most caring people out there and earn their money, it’s the rest of the public sector. Er, not the school dinner ladies or council finance workers either, we need some of those. And FOI staff are needed to keep an eye on things, so they aren’t the problem, or… again, the list goes on.

My point, which we’ve also made previously on this blog, is that the more we simplify the argument into us against them, the less sense it makes and the less good will come of it. We need the various services that the public sector provides if we are to continue to live in the country and social system which Britain has worked so hard for centuries to produce. And much as certain elements of it may be easy to dislike, we also need the services offered by the private sector to continue to improve our lot as a nation.

This blogger has a personal opinion that things have changed – the public sector is not the same as it was in the past, and has become far more like its private sector mirror image, with jobs sought after, little job security in certain areas and more in others, and with people focussed on ensuring that benefits from any service do not outstrip investment in it. People my age do not join the public sector for the pension, they join it to either make a difference to their communities or simply because a job was on offer there – in effect, it is simply another employer.

I therefore see no reason why we don’t work towards the national retirement age and don’t buy into the argument that public sector workers get paid less and put up with more stress and less credit – try telling that to someone stacking shelves in Tesco or hand washing cars in the winter. Other parts of the pensions argument are perhaps for another post, but fundamentally most of us are in the same boat; we work hard at a job that we don’t always hate but don’t always love, wish we could earn more money and just want some job and life satisfaction.

The public and private sectors are the ying and yang of Britain – we need both to make things work, so let’s stop trying to drive artificial wedges between artificial mass groups of people.

And before anyone points it out, the third sector are the dots in both parts – and they grey bits in between.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

Explore posts in the same categories: Big P Politics, The future of Local Govt

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3 Comments on “We’re not that different when all is said and done”

  1. Big K Says:

    The lines between sectors has certainly blurred in recent times given the number of for-profit jobs now reliant on work paid for from taxation. In addition the growth of the social enterprise sector means more people providing a community service but with a private sector ethos.

    I have some sympathy to the arguement about increasing the pension age along with the retirement age but lets be consistent on this. If the country can’t afford to pay out early for one sector then surely it can’t for all sectors. So let’s make it illegal for anyone to get a pension payout ahead of retirement with some exceptions for ill-health or industrial injury. That way I can’t retire at 55 but then neither can Fred Goodwin.

    I’m also in favour of career average approaches as it levels the playing field and doesn’t excessively reward those promoted very late in their career. It should also benefit women who make up the bulk of low paid staff in the public sector.

    What seems to be forgotten in the public / private debate is that if private sector employees don’t get occupation pensions then the state has to pay out through the benefits system so currently the private sector is being massively subsidised. A case for compulsory employer pension contributions to level the playing field perhaps?

  2. jgh Says:

    Hear Hear! You can be a conveyancing solicitor in private practice or in the local council, you can dig holes for Balfor Beatty or for Direct Services, you can paint windows for Barratt Homes or for Housing Services, you can serve food in MacDonald’s or in a school. It’s all just work. Private or Public should be irrelevant.

  3. […] week one of my colleagues, reflecting on the pensions strike argued that in reality the public and private sectors aren’t so different. This followed up a piece from the week before discussing the future of the local government pension […]

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