And lo, the end of another year is upon us! Chilly, biting, spooky pea-soupers? Check! Brooding, dormant alcoholism? Check! Slacking off at work and no doubt groping the most entirely inappropriate person at the Xmas party? Check! Cupboards fully-stocked with Rennie, Gaviscon and peppermint teabags? Check! Trite, lazily-manufactured ‘best of’s constanting stream via your sacred TV, holy radio and in your beloved magazines? Check! A self-reassuring glance back at the highlights of your London year, assessing all that you have achieved? Check!
Do you remember what it was all like when you first arrived? Would you admit that you have changed just enough to feel completely intergrated into your new society? Are you metaphorically, culturally and literally at a distance from those that you left back at home? Perhaps you’re a future resident of this pulsating city, eagerly researching the mysteries that lie before you?
Whether you be new-born or born-again, imported or home-grown, it is no matter of mine. However, please allow me to throw you a few fact-bones and watch you chew on them a while.
According to John Salt and Jane Miller (in an article entitled “Foreign Labour In the UK: Current Patterns and Trends”, published on the National Statistics website), the 2006 league table of National Insurance Number Allocations saw Pakistan, Australia and South Africa all missing out on a medal spot. Surprisingly, the bronze went to Lithuania with just over 30,000 NI numbers. The silver was earned by consistant front-runners, India, with 46,000. Yet, winning by a margin far greater than Paula Radcliffe in an Under 9s Primary School Sports Day long distance race was Poland with a massive 171,000 NI numbers allocated. Whether these stats are simply due to the dramatic influx of Poles since joining the EU in 2004 or whether they are skewed slightly by consistantly below par capabilities of Australians and South Africans in obtaining an NI number, remains to be seen.
Salt and Miller also confirm that in 2005 there were over 1.5 million foreign workers in the UK. That total was more than 5% of the entire UK workforce. 45% of them were in London.
The capital has, by far, the biggest draw of workers coming to this country. 45% of all French and German, 53% of Australians and Kiwis and a whopping 70% of the total number of Southern and Central Americans, came to the capital. Comparatively, only just over 10% of UK nationals work in Greater London.
From browsing the Government Office For London website, one can discover that London has more car accidents than the rest of the UK. We also have a 30% higher crime rate than our friends out in the fields. As for employment, we have the lowest. And unemployment? Yep, that’s the highest. Plus we cram more than 4,700 of us into every square kilometre of land. Ooh, that’s tight.
Sounds inviting? Not very, but then according to recent research conducted by theLondonpaper, 58% of Londoners are not originally from here. Over 40% of us came with ??-signs circiling in our eyes (work reasons and job prospects); nearly a quarter were sucked into the vortex by familiarity (friends and family); whilst a further 7% were solely here to party (social reasons). Oddly, a brave 7% of you out their were only ever interested in a top quality London education. Mad, innit?! Cha.
Being an out-of-towner myself, I was curious to ascertain what brought fellow squatters to the capital. Using a shield of cold hard fact, and dressed in the shining armour of journalistic integrity, I recently began wildly swinging (easy now!) my gigantic sword of truth (I said easy now!) amongst the throngs of London’s plebs. Luckily, I landed crucial blows on three very different people, each with very different experiences to share.
Although they were from contrasting backgrounds and diverse in their occupational sectors, I wondered if they had anything in common.
Abby, an English lass in her late 20s, told me she hopes to become an Account Director and then own a business. She was originally from Oxford, where she allegedly “knew everyone” and where they allegedly have “great restaurants”. She had lived in the same place since the age of 3 and her family was very close, but the prospect of moving to London was not a daunting one because she’d “been to university in Manchester before so had experienced living in a big city.”
Aussie Chris, a single 24-year old who “cant do meanial jobs anymore,” wants to “start a career in freight forwarding”. He comes from a little place called the Sutherland Shire or, as he calls it, “God’s country,” so called because it is “surrounded by beautiful beaches and lovely weather”. He left behind a family consisting of Mum, Dad, a brother and his wife, a sister and her two kids and an awesome little dog called Ketti. Aah, isn’t that lovely?!
Liana, a married woman in her 20s, hopes to gain her Masters in Psychology and is crazy enough to want to own her own kindergarten one day. A UK resident for four years now, Liana also left her family, friends and nice weather behind. Unsurprisingly, she told me “South Africa is beautifuI”. It is no wonder, therefore, that she “misses the open space and outdoor lifestyle”.
It is apparent, therefore, that all three of my victims were very keen on their families and the surroundings they were contanied within. So, what made them leave their comfort zone when it was already picture perfect?
For English Abby, it was all about the eternal balance of work and play. “After my degree I worked in High Wycombe for three months temping. I moved to London to live the fast life and jump on the career ladder. I wanted lots of fun, a busy lifestyle and glamour”. Ooh, get her!
For Aussie Chris, it was all about his mates. “One day five of my good mates decided to up and leave to work in Brisbane so left me thinking ‘what am I going to do now?’ Then a few weeks before my mates left they had a farewell party where I ran into a neighbour who I knew for years but never really hung out with. He was talking about going to live and work in Canada then move onto London once the ski season had finished. He asked if I wanted to tag along. I had six months to save my ass off, so I gave up my party life, which was very hard but had to be done. I ended up saving $8000. I left a job that I really liked managing band tours around Australia.”
For Saffa Liana, it was mostly about love of travelling, and travelling for love. “I wanted to earn a lot of money to be able to travel around the UK and Europe and to experience different cultures. Plus, my boyfriend was here as well.”
Clearly, they were all lying and were embarassed to admit that it was the clement weather and hospitable, approachable Londoners that actually drew them here. Wary of their answers, I cautiously pressed on. Did they have any fears or trepidations about going out into the great unknown?
Saffa Liana was worried about, “what type of clothes to pack because you never know what kind of job you are going to find”. She told me that she “was also worried about the winter and how to cope with it”.
Abby didn’t seemed too fazed by the idea. Her major concern was merely “meeting people that were on a level.”
Aussie Chris, on the other hand, was the most apprehensive of the bunch. From behind his fluffy blanket he confessed to once saying “Where am I going to stay? Am I going to like It? Will I get a good job? I didn’t really have any expectations of overseas. I was more nervous than anything. I heard all these stories of people having an awesome time and meeting heaps of new people, travelling, partying. But then there was the cold and shit weather, not forgetting the warm beer.”
Obviously, too much sunshine is never good for your mental state. Chris, clearly failed by the inadequacies of propaganda and false rumour, displayed signs of discomposure and paranoia even before leaving the sandy shores of Australia. And so I asked, in terms of accommodation and finding that all-important first job, what approach did you take when you arrived?
English Abby moved in with a friend of a friend in Clapham Junction and her first job was as a waitress in the city centre. “I just walked around with my CV. It only took one interview to get the waitressing job. I also signed up to quite a few permanent and temp recruitment agencies. My first office job was a 3-month temp role that turned into 2 years in central marketing.”
Liana, unsurprisingly, chose to move into a houseshare with other South Africans. “I didn’t have a job and had no idea what I was going to do. Everyone told me about TNT Magazine, so I started there. I called an agency in the TNT and they arranged an interview within three days. I started temping the next week. I was really lucky”.
After suffering first hand the irritating Canadian ordeal known as ‘work and accommodation ain’t for foreigners’, Aussie Chris was understandably ill at ease with idea of something similar happening to him in London. To his surprise, however, he found the British experience all rather, well, accommodating. “I dossed with a family friend for a week in Bayswater. I ended up finding a place to live in three days and a job within five. I didn’t take the first job as I was looking for more money but after that it only took me one month to find work. I had a fun time during that month. Partied everynight. All my jobs and accommodation have come from the Gumtree. I signed up wth some agencies but nothing eventuated from them. They have so many people sending them CVs every day, all in the same position as me.”
Ok, so temping agencies can be a good or a bad thing, yet magazines and websites seem to be more successful. But, how did those first jobs turn out for you?
“I worked long hours until 3.30 in the morning and it was very busy. There was a nice crowd of people there but I only stayed 5 months,” English Abby confessed, implying that a career in the service industry was not high on her ‘Top Things to Achieve Before I Die’ list. “That’s when I started temping with Euromoney, a sales company in the high end of financial training products, publications and conferences. It was easier to temp. The money was good, ?25k including commission. I wouldn’t sign a contract because it meant less money. The people were fun but the job was boring, on the phone all day. I stayed there for two years.”
So, it appears that the roads through temping are paved with gold and all those that line the road are nicer than the nicest of local vicars. Well, that depends on who you ask. For Saffa Liana, things didn’t go as smoothly at first. “My first job was with a childcare agency working on a daily/weekly basis at different nurseries. The first week was horrible as I only did cleaning and never interacted with the children, so I asked for a new nursery and it was much better. The hardest part was the long tube journeys and long hours. I worked nine hours, five days a week.”
Again, the anthology of temping seems to be filled with just as many happy endings as it does with horror and suspense.
For Chris, though, life in London evolved at a more ‘Australian’ pace. “I didn’t work for one and a half months so getting back into the routine was very hard. I didn’t like all the training and it was very boring having to make friends with everyone,” he pouted, swinging a leg like a disgruntled schoolboy. “My first job was working for a major telecommunications company in their conferencing sector. It was a very relaxed workplace and very good job for a traveller as they were flexible for time off. At first it was just a job until I could find something else, but it ended up that I liked the job and the people I worked with”.
Apparrently some people adapt to having first-job-itis, whereas others simply cant wait to get the hell out of there. Whichever the case, some sort of previous experience is usually going to aid you in your quest for the perfect job. So, what grounding did you possess before you entered the London job market?
For Abby, a business degree specialising in Marketing “helped big time”.
The opportunity to work in the good ole US of God-Bless-A for seven months, prior to arriving in London, turned out to be very beneficial to Liana. In some respects, however, it failed dismally in preparing her for England’s finest, “As a South African growing up on a farm, I was not used to the tubes, public transport or wet winters. It is quite an adjustment but if you have the willingness to make it work then it doesn’t matter where you’re from”.
Contrarily, Chris was adequately prepared. His only downfall was his perfectly-comprehensible unwillingness to live anywhere BUT London, “I had experience from working back in Oz but all the jobs over here were located outside of London so I had to exaggerate my CV and other experiences to get a customer service job. I definitely think being Australian helped a lot because we have a very good reputation overseas for our hard work ethic”.
After suppressing the urge to burst into fits of laughter, I composed myself just enough to ask the interviewees the following question: Did your personal circumstances help, or hinder, your cause?
Although most likely of the three to have a large flat-packed group of friends at the ready, ‘English’ Abby only had a paltry sum of pals upon arrival, and most of them were scattered to the four corners of the capital. This forced her into the all-too common tendancy of going out with people from work. She was hesitant to point out, therefore, that “Weekends could be lonely”.
Owning an ancestry passport meant Chris was able to stay as long as he chose. Being astutely Australian, he was adamant that his glass was half full. “I think it was easier, in some ways, coming over to the UK as a single man because I only needed to look after myself. It is quite stressful and daunting when you first arrive and you always hear the stories of couples coming over together and breaking up soon after. That’s extra stress I wouldn’t want to have. Coming over in a large group would have been good but in a way it stops you from meeting new people as you already have your group together.”
Chris’s theory was proven correct when Liana told me, “I wasn’t married when I arrived but had a boyfriend here. I think it helped a lot as there are lots of things to get used to. The hardest is being away from your family. I don’t think I would have stayed this long in London if I didn’t have anyone I knew. I guess it depends on what type of person you are. Some people would like to come over not knowing what tomorrow brings. It is part of the adventure.”
As my ears pricked up at the disparity of opinion between our two foreign guests, I pressed them further on the changes they noticed when joining the British workforce. How did you find the work, the management systems and the conditions differed from that which you had back at home?
Liana had only done volunteer work in SA and found the long working hours and strict health and safety issues here to be very different from what she had experienced. “The rates of pay are ok, but I struggled the first year to save some money to travel. You can go much further with money in London compared with South Africa, though. My first job was just to get me started and gain more experience as I was only paid the minimum wage. I liked the flexibility, I worked when I wanted but it was ‘no work, no pay’”.
Chris found the issue of cash equally important in getting the most out his time in London. “I dont like the rate of pay at all. It’s very hard for me as all my friends are on ?400+ a week and when you earn just more than half that it’s very hard to do everything your mates are doing cause you just cant afford it. So I definitely believe the amount of fun you have in London is on how much you earn”. Commenting on the positives he had encountered at work, Chris thought the staff at his job were very supportive and keen to offer him training to improve his skills. “Although they do recognise good work, it’s not as much as they did back home. Oh, and they don’t mind when you come in hungover, they’re used to that,” he confessed, between sips of Fosters.
Before leaving my three victims to continue on with their frivolty and reckless abandon, I suggested it would be snazz-tastic of them to impart upon you, the unsuspecting Joe Blog(ger), the knowledge they had each gathered since arriving on the shores of the Thames. So I asked them, what have you learned from your time in the capital and what advice can you give to those that follow in your sunken muddy footprints (you filthy buggers!)?
English Abby chose the bleedingly obvious approach, “There is a great range of people you can learn from. It’s good to slow down sometimes! Do something that you find interesting but make sure that you earn enough cash because otherwise you won’t have any money to enjoy what London has to offer”.
Seemingly drinking from the exact same font of knowledge as Abby, perhaps even balancing on her sturdy shoulders to reach the top, Aussie Chris reiterated her point about splashing the cash. “My advice would be have a bit of money behind you. If you can’t get a good paying job it is a struggle, especially if you want to travel. If I was to come back again I would defo have a fair bit of money behind me. I’ve learned a lot from my time in London. I’ve definitely come out of my shell over here just from always meeting new people and it doesn’t faze me anymore just striking up a conversation with a random person. It’s a lot easier over here as most travellers are all like-minded and willing to meet new people”.
Liana, however, gave an altogether more inspiring and end-of-an-American-blockbuster-movie closing speech. “London can give you what want, you just have to be prepared to work hard and start at the bottom. It is a nice place to earn money to be able to travel to Europe. You also meet different people from different countries. It has so much to give: clubs, pubs, shows, shops… It makes working worthwhile! Make sure you have good references, an updated CV and a willingness to explore different types of jobs. If you are hardworking, people will notice it. Good luck and enjoy the experience!”
Yee-haa to that, Liana.
Since conducting this interview one of the three has continued, happily, in the job they were in previously. One has now moved on and procured the ‘perfect’ position with the ‘perfect’ company. The third has left London to return to whence they came. Can you guess which is which?
Hopefully these brief conjectures were sufficiently unfounded and confusing enough to leave you more in the dark than you were before. What can we make of it all? That is for you to decide alone. However, it is interesting to note that, according to theLondonpaper research mentioned above, 41% of Londoners intend on staying for life and almost a third for only 1 to 5 years. The most popular reason for leaving London? The living costs. So Liana and Chris were right after all.