Terence Blacker: Pity those who get a bonus

We should feel sorry for these people, with their sad, limited lives
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It is the moment in the year when the great division of professional life, that between the salaried and the freelance worker, becomes cruelly evident.

For most of the time, the perils and privileges of each more or less balance out. The wage-slaves envy the bossless freedom of the self-employed; we, on the other side, fantasise about security as we edge our way forward on the increasingly frayed rope of our careers. On 31 January – this Sunday – we are forced to look down at the ravine below. It is the day of the tax return.

Those who work for themselves cling to the idea that, with risk, comes opportunity. The big break, the surprise pay-off which is the wet dream of freelance life, is denied to those on a payroll, or so we like to believe.

This year, it has become irritatingly clear that some people can get the best of both worlds. They earn a fat, safe wage and then, through some weird trick of the capitalist system, another great bundle of cash is thrown at them as an end-of-year present. Bonuses for the very rich seem to have little to do with the quality or quantity of work done in the previous year. They are just a fact of life: to those that shall be given a whole lot more.

Perhaps tax panic is scrambling my brain, but suddenly I find myself feeling sorry for these greedy, needy people whose huge salaries are never quite huge enough, whose sense of worth is defined by their own personal wad. What a diminished, impoverished world they must inhabit.

The craving for cash is particularly mysterious when the job itself would seem to provide its own rewards. Imagine, to take an obvious example, that one was director-general of the BBC. In every department, budgets are being slashed, worthwhile projects shelved or completed under great financial constraints. Salaries of junior staff and freelancers are kept to a brutal minimum.

You, by contrast, are taking home well in excess of £800,000 every year. You enjoy a generous expenses allowance, your job is secure and you are looking forward to a fat pension. The head of Channel 4 has just been taken on at around half your salary. You are paid to manage and you know that a demoralised staff is an ineffective one. Denying yourself, say, £250,000 a year would free money for programming and, more important, show your employees and the world outside that what you do means more to you than what you are paid. You decide to keep the cash – all of it – for yourself. To hell with how it looks.

This money-addiction, revealed in the banks and the higher echelons of the BBC, suggests a profound lack of imagination. According to Boris Johnson, 9,000 people who work in the financial sector may leave the country because a portion of their massive salaries will go in taxes to pay for hospitals or schools.

If that is true, it is almost as weird as Mark Thompson holding on to his mega-salary. In order to make a few more millions than they are already, these people will cheerfully uproot themselves and their families to go to live in a country whose only benefit is financial.

We should feel sorry for them and their sadly limited lives. Then we should remember never to trust the judgement of those whose priorities are so idiotically skewed.