Piecing together the picture: Why P matters so much in Jamaica

Social media is often taken by some as a good barometer of people’s concerns, in part because a large percentage of the population is estimated to have social media accounts. I’m not wholly agreeing with that, however, but I accept that it does offer interesting insights. It’s a constant polling station, but without the nicety of being well-structured, so cannot be called representative in any rigorous scientific way. It also has the characteristic of ‘herd mentality‘, meaning that lots of self-reinforcing ‘trends’ tend to appear, in opposite directions.

As far as Jamaica is concerned, I’m not averse to the idea that social media has a strong bias in terms of say social class or socioeconomic status, but I cannot control that. So, the disparaging notion of it representing an ‘articulate minority’, as coined by then PNP-Chairman Bobby Pickersgill in 2014, may be true but it doesn’t make the views invalid. Social media commentary may well be consistent with the views of a wider population though many may not have the same access to social media platforms.

I’ve had a bit of a love affair over the past year or so with the letter P. A good friend of mine, who is now a politician representing a constituency beginning with P, will attest to that 🙂 It’s been an interesting bellwether or magnet for many issues. So, understanding that party politics involves a lot of propaganda, we know that the current administration has been selling the notion of prosperity as if it were the best hot bread at Coronation Bakery in Portland. That notion is based on deliberate economic measures such as tax breaks that were meant to put more money into the pockets of average Jamaicans. Yet, this notion keeps getting a wrinkled response from a wide spectrum of Jamaicans who say they are not expeiencing it, or worse, feel that they are living in poverty.

The ‘poverty is real’ feeling got a boost with the ‘latest’ data on national poverty (annual Survey of Living Conditions) released earlier this year, though inconveniently it relates to 2017 as its latest year. But, the release of that data led to the spillage of a lot of media ink and typical recriminations between our two main political parties.

As The Gleaner noted:  it is a ‘matter for robust debate as the potential outcome of the Government’s policy actions‘ and ‘represent a call to vigilance for the Holness administration to ensure that it frames an economic agenda that delivers growth with equity’.

What I find interesting and intriguing about the poverty aspects is how much of the concerns get aired on social media by a body that, while not immune in a fragile economy, would seem better placed–young professionals. There’s a lot to unpack in the concerns that I have seeen, including whether the cries of poverty reflect unrealistic expectations as opposed to real hardships. By that, I mean the simple truth that a lot of university graduates, say, may matriculate with expectations about job prospects that are unrealistic and when faced with cold reality cry ‘poverty’ as job satisfaction, pay, costs of living etc. stare them in the face with little margin. In other words, making your way in the world isn’t easy and maybe part of what we’re seeing is adjusting to that.

While not using my own experience as the best paradigm, when I went to university in the UK it was at the beginning of the 1973-75 recession, ending a long period of post-war expansion in industrial countries; during the recession, UK GDP declined sharply and it took over a year for that process to begin its reversal. I graduated in 1976 but decided to do post-graduate studies, so entered the workforce in 1978, by when conditions were improving (GDP rose over 4% that year). However, within a year, the UK economy was again in a severe downward trend as the Thatcher government took power after the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’. I moved from London and took a job in local government in Wales, which was a country just heading into a period when many were facing unemployment as mines closed (a process that went on from the 1970s through 1990s), and had the effect of decimating many communities. So, in my mind, I was always thinking I was lucky to have a job.

Like many starting on a working career, I had few savings, and did not realistically expect to own a house, and rented, though after a year of work, depressed housing prices made the prospect of owning a realistic option. It didn’t materialise for several reasons.

When my first daughter graduated from university in the mid-2000s, just as the USA was exiting a recession, I remember telling her that it was more important to get a foot on the job ladder and figure out afterwards whether she could climb from there or if she needed to jump off onto another ladder later. Work experience has a huge impact on job prospects.

All of that is to say that, for a good part of the past 40 years, rapid growth has not been part of the story for many coming into the workforce, which is a far cry from the story of most of the post-war period through the 1970s.

A country like Jamaica does not have many people who have any notion of what ‘fast growth’ really means in their own country. Some might have been fortunate enough to experience it abroad or perhaps at home in a sector that had some boom, but it’s not part of the national experience. So, how does that really shape expectations?

Even with what I would call paltry growth, many things are possibe in Jamaica now that were pipedreams in the mid-1970s, when the country might not have been ravaged by world recession but was racked by its own internal political and economic turmoil. Many material signs point to Jamaica having some of the best things to offer, if you have financial means. Interconnections with foreign countries and relatives abroad also mean that many Jamaicans can see worthwhile material gains for themselves. But, even with such gains, life in general can seem ridiculously difficult. It still takes substantial saving to buy a car or a house. How easy it is to bridge the gap through borrowing seems to be improving, if lower interest rates are any guide. But, new debt repayment on top of say repaying student loans is clearly a bridge too far for some, even most. So, a lot of deferred gratification appears to be more the norm than perhaps many expected.

This world is not the world of their parents. We may also have in place what has been seen elsewhere in recent years, namely ‘jobless growth‘ or a developing country manifestation of that in the form of growth in jobs that are not of really in keeping with improving skills or higher education. Much angst surrounds the notion of ‘worthwhile’ jobs, even though it no special phenomenon for graduates to face a market where they are overqualified. Part of the problem may also be a kind of mismatch, whereby we have churned out people with graduate ‘skills’ that are in overabundance and the jobs that are growing require much lower skills. That mismatch isn’t new or unique, and Jamaica has finessed for decades by most graduates migrating (about 4/5 of them according to most statistics). The ‘payoff’ for this migration has mainly been in individual personal development and remittance flows. But, this is something that happens with many small states, so we’re typical.

It’s trite to suggest the answer to this is simple. It’s not conundrum. What I’m wondering is if this is now becoming a phenomenon that pushes for a different kind of sociopolitical and socioeconomic change.

My focus on P means that I have a nagging suspicion about pent-up frustrations and unfulfilled promises. Looking around the world evidence is building that the release for that in some countries comes with a massive social explosion. Is that a prediction that has relevance for Jamaica?

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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