The recesssion turns us into new people

Anyone looking for a happy, escapist view of recession and unemployment should skip along to the Vaudeville Theatre in London where a revival of Neil Simon’s 1971 play The Prisoner of Second Avenue has just opened. The storyline may be wafer-thin but there are one or two quite good jokes in the play, and excellent performances from Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl. While the theme of a middle-aged professional man sent slightly bonkers by the pressures of city life and redundancy may sound dark, it all ends reassuringly enough. Recession can be survived with resilience, humour and a loving wife, would seem to be the message.

Goldblum has suggested that the revival is well-timed since we too are living through an economic downturn. In fact, what the play does is remind one how utterly different the current recession is from those of the last century.

Simon, like Arthur Miller, Dennis Potter and others, chose to look at the collapse of hope associated with work from the perspective of a middle-aged professional man. Mel Edison, the character played by Goldblum, is a regular-guy, middle-management type whose sense of himself has always been bound up with his job. When that goes, everything else falls apart. “Why did I give them years of my life? What for?” he wails. “I still have value. I still have worth.”

His position is so appalling that at one point – horrors! – his wife Edna has to go out to work as a secretary while he, unmanned and miserable, stays at home.

Doubtless the play will do good business in the West End, but anyone expecting to understand the effects on individual lives of today’s economic crisis will be disappointed. The idea, quite acceptable 40 years ago, that the employee of a company could expect a job for life, died some time ago, at least in white-collar businesses. In 2010, the sight of a middle-aged man suffering a freak-out because he feels lost and useless is so commonplace that few playwrights would risk writing about it. The idea that a woman, clearly brighter than her husband, would be satisfied with the role of fussing housewife is ludicrous.

A play set against the 2010 recession would be very different. Businesses may be going under in time-honoured fashion but, on this occasion, a giddying new level of uncertainty has been added by the seismic changes in everyday life and work caused by the new technology. “I’m slipping, I’m scared,” says Mel in Neil Simon’s play. For a taste of real fear of the unknown, he should try living in the 21st century.

There are, though, a few early indications as to how these hard times will affect the way we feel and think in the future. Trust in the wider, official world will disappear, and for a long time. Two years ago, we knew that the large financial institutions were run by shysters and chancers. It was the blinkered stupidity of their money-grubbing which came as a shock. We won’t get fooled again.

The cynicism of consumers has extended outwards to other businesses. The larger the insurance company or supermarket, the more likely they are to masquerade as a cosy, caring organisation which has each of our personal interests at heart. They can save their breath and their advertising revenue, so far as most of us are concerned.

More seriously, government itself has become suspect. When in recent years the state has asked its citizens to trust in its good faith and integrity, most notably in the case of the invasion of Iraq, that trust has turned out to be misplaced. Now, when a former minister admits to misinforming MPs about the abuse of Iraqi detainees, the press hardly bothers to cover the story.

Graduates emerging from university into a wasteland of unemployment will feel this general betrayal of trust most keenly. Over the past decade, they have been told that the time and effort spent in gaining a degree would be worthwhile, that the heavy debt they incur would be justified by their improved career prospects. What a sad and sick joke that turned out to be.

None of these institutional failures has exactly come as a shock – indeed, some find the withering of the state distinctly welcome. An Englishman who lives abroad commented to me this week on the change of atmosphere in London since he had been last year. Now that the bad times are truly upon us, he discerned, at least in the cosseted south, a new sense of energy, perhaps even of renewal.

Money is no longer revered in the way that it has been for the past two decades. People have made the liberating discovery that a job can be worth doing even if it is poorly paid. The internet offers the possibility – or at least the illusion – of escape from a stifling work-life. Insecurity has had a bracing effect on the strong, the young and the connected. Nothing now is taken for granted.

That, presumably, is the Cameron dream: out of the ashes of tired old corporate Britain will rise a new spirit of individualism and personal responsibility. The problem is that not everyone is blessed with the confidence and education to set out on their own or to re-think their professional future. There will be millions left behind, and there will be less and less support for them from the state.

There would be other changes to The Prisoner of Second Avenue if it were rewritten for the current recession. Edison would be threatened less by changes at work than by life at home. His wife Edna, who clucked about him in a good-humoured, caring fashion in 1971, would be altogether less self-abnegating today – and quite right, too. If the people best equipped to ride out hard economic times are those who are adaptable, good at dealing with other people and less enslaved to professional status, there can be little doubt as to which gender will emerge in positions of strength and authority.

It will probably be a good time to be young, with those who have grown up with the new technology finally shaking the old guard out of the tree. There are already signs that this process is in motion. In America this week, a survey of suicide rates has shown that it is the baby boomers, aged between 45 and 54, who are deciding at an accelerating rate year on year to check out earlier than scheduled.

This recession will be exciting, frightening, brutal and energising. Somewhere, one hopes, a young, clear-eyed playwright is making notes.

Independent, Friday, 23 July 2010