Long life

The rich have given up their freedom

I'd have made a good member of the old leisured class. I'm not so sure about the new elite

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

The appointment of Sajid Javid as the new Secretary of State for Culture has been much criticised on the grounds that culture is not his forte; and in an interview with the Times the other day he confessed that he had never been to the opera. This is a little surprising because, as a former banker in the City earning an estimated £3 million a year, he is just the kind of person you might expect to go to the Royal Opera House if only to flaunt his wealth. However, Javid has never seen an opera; and the reasons he gave for this in his interview were that when he was young he was too poor, and that once he had become rich there was ‘not much time outside work’.

Not much time outside work? It used to be the case that very rich people had much more time to enjoy themselves than anybody else. I once asked a godmother of mine, who was very well-off, where she was going on holiday that year, and she replied with furrowed brow that people like her didn’t go on ‘holiday’; they just went wherever they wished whenever they felt like it. She was, I suppose, a member of what used to be called the ‘leisured class’, those people who were rich enough to work very little and to devote themselves instead to philanthropy or to private interests such as art, music or gardening.

But it seems now that the rich are no longer as free as they were. Research conducted by sociologists at Oxford University has purportedly shown that the people who earn the most money are also the people who work the longest hours. It is not entirely clear to me why this should be so, but one reason appears to be that working for huge rewards is so stimulating that it becomes addictive; and another that it generates intense competitiveness and feelings of insecurity. Other research done recently has revealed that one in three fathers working in the City of London are failing to exercise their new right to paternity leave, and that this is because they fear that even to ask for it would mean career death.

Such findings are cheering to people like me who are eager to believe that a lot of money doesn’t bring contentment. Often, of course, it really doesn’t; though sadly much of the evidence points the other way. Lottery jackpot winners, for example, are generally much happier than they were when they were poor; and only rich opera-lovers can afford the tickets in the stalls at Covent Garden. In any case, I can’t help suspecting that people without money worries are happier than those who have them, even if it means that they spend all their time working. And the irony is that the less you work, the more you want to spend because you have got so much time in which to do it. This generates more money worries, while those workaholic millionaires just go on getting richer.

I am lucky enough to write a weekly column for The Spectator, but I have to admit that I don’t do an awful lot else (not anything that earns any money in any event). So I spend a lot of time buying things on the internet, taking trains up and down to London from Milton Keynes, and wandering up and down the aisles of Waitrose in Towcester (which has just reopened after a recent refurbishment with everything maddeningly in a different place). Sometimes I order new plants for the garden or go to the local poultry centre to replace a duck or a chicken that has been killed by a fox or a visiting dog (a rather too frequent occurrence). And then I may drive to the Apple Store in Milton Keynes to update my electronic equipment.

These are all perfectly agreeable ways of spending time, but they are the opposite of remunerative. However, as I get older, I feel more and more lazy. I think I would have been a most contented member of the former leisured class. But that is not to be; and while I have always liked Ronald Reagan’s self-deprecating joke, ‘It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?’, I reckon there may be more truth in Noël Coward’s remark that ‘work is more fun than fun’. Perhaps I should give it a try.

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  • mikewaller

    I think the opening line of Kenneth Clark’s autobiography is one of the best ever written. It runs thus: “My parents belonged to a section of society known as the idle rich, and although in that golden age many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler”.