Then and now: starting work

Thirty years ago today, aged 18 and fresh out of school, I turned up at Wandsworth Town Hall for my first day of work (proper job, not school holiday temping) in the Housing Department. My main memory from that day is the pervading smell from Young's Brewery across the road, which had been brewing on that site for over 400 years. Compared with that, thirty years is a mere blink of an eye, but the rapid technological advances of recent years, along with changes in practices and society, mean that the world of work I entered then is very different to the world of work today.

In 1981 new technology hadn't yet arrived: we employed shorthand typists (now virtually extinct), all our accessible records were stored on paper, and all communication with my colleagues was either face-to-face or via the telephone - no emails, just conversations. Health and safety? Well, there were no mobile phones to enable us to keep tabs on housing officers on their rounds (solo of course), and smokers puffed away wherever they liked. Meanwhile, despite the area's ethnic diversity, staff were predominantly white  - and usually British - and inappropriate comments and attitudes were commonplace.

But there were other, wider, differences between then and now. Not only did we enjoy the protection of a strong trade union, but new teenage staff like myself actually knew what a union was, and understood the benefits of membership. And we had job security (thanks to NALGO), and loyal staff who had been with the council 10, 20 or more years, and fully expected to remain until retirement. Wholesale privatisation of in-house services... compulsory competitive tendering... these were still glimmers in the eyes of zealous Tory councillors who were only just beginning to privatise services like refuse collection.

The summer of 1981 was filled with riots and unemployment figures reached 3 million; and yet, leaving school, I had every reason to believe that I would find work. Yes, I had some anxiety, of course, but newspapers were full of job ads, not stories about desperate graduates unable to find even bar work - whereas today's school leavers and graduates are scrabbling for jobs at a time of savage, widespread cuts and fierce competition. And sadly, I think that is the biggest difference between then and now: not advances in technology, equal opps and smoke-free buildings, but the existence of HOPE, and the knowledge that decent job vacancies - for which even an inexperienced teenager like me stood a chance - did actually exist.

I'm told A Level results are due tomorrow. I'll be praying for the people who don't make the headlines, the ones who don't get five A*s or whatever, the ones who need help, to keep their hope and self-belief alive.


  1. I am crying as I read this Silvana. Thank you for praying for my son who is 18 and has nothing but the most beautiful gift in the world a baby daughter who he loves and cares for. I wish those youngsters could be celebrated as I look at my son and how much he has given up. I know he had choices and his girlfriend did but I admire him for sticking by her and being the great parent he is. I could never have done that at 18. Clarex

  2. Extra prayers for your son, and especially for your grand-daughter; may she - and her generation - grow up into a future filled with hope


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