When cool Britannia meets hard-headed economics

Britain's Brain gain

Share
Related Topics
Two little snapshots from the past week. First, I was walking across Canary Wharf station when a youngish City economist I know bounded up to me. I have seldom seen anyone quite as cheerful. "I've just been sacked this morning," he beamed. "What do you reckon my chances are of doing some writing in the newspapers?"

Knowing the fragile state of most newspapers' finances I replied warily that, provided he didn't mind not being paid very much, I was sure the papers would love to have him on board. "Oh, I'm not worried about the money," he said - and of course I then realised why he was going around like a dog with two tails. He had made enough money, so he didn't really need to work again. Now he could do what he wanted.

The second insight came in the weekend papers where there was a spate of stories about the magnetic effect that Britain, and London in particular, is having on young continental European professionals. The jobs are here. This is partly a City phenomenon, for many of those jobs are in financial services. It is partly a tax phenomenon, for this is the only place in Europe where highly paid workers can legally keep most of their earnings. (The "legally" is important - the German banks are losing swathes of their top directors who are forced to resign following the exposure of their tax fiddles.) As a result London is the only place in Europe where ordinary professional people can become rich through salary - the only place where thirtysomethings such as that City economist can make enough to be free to do what they like for the rest of their careers.

But according to the recruitment consultants, the lure is not just the City or tax. Other professionals - foreign doctors and lawyers, for example - are flocking here. And further down the pay scales young foreigners are working in the great mass of service industry jobs, in hotels, hairdressing salons, shops and the like. Why?

It is too new a phenomenon for us to be clear quite what is really happening. Part of the draw must be cyclical. We are up; they are down. The high unemployment levels in continental Europe bear particularly hard on the young. Whereas young people just out of university here can usually get some sort of job, though maybe not the sort they would ideally like, there simply are no such opportunities in many parts of the Continent. This is particularly evident in professions there which have, so to speak, "over-trained" - pumped out too many trained people for the jobs available. Medicine is a good example.

Part of the phenomenon is a function of the freeing of the EU labour market. This affects continental Europeans much more than us. While our young might want to spend a year or two in Paris or Rome, the move would be mainly for fun. Scandinavia would be fun too, for no one is going to go there to make money. (Ericsson recently mooted that it might move its headquarters out of Sweden because it could not get foreign nationals to work at its HQ.)

Even leaving the money aside, a Briton seeking career development would probably find it most useful to spend time in the US, if he or she can get around the visa restrictions, rather than go to France or Germany. From a continental European perspective, on the other hand, Britain is an effective career option. The States might be even better, but since many US firms use the UK as their regional base, coming here is a useful building block of a professional career.

All these factors would be sufficient to account for the pull, but I think there is something more: the cultural and media buzz. No one should take their own publicity too seriously, particular when that publicity is fostered by politicians, but there may actually be something in the "cool Britannia" image projected by Mr Blair and his colleagues.

There is a two-way link between money and culture. This country has now completed six years in which growth, every single year, has been higher than that of France or Germany (and in every year but one, higher than Italy too). As a result a lot of people have made a lot of money. Thousands will have made enough to retire on, but even people who have not made the big piles will have some surplus to devote to enjoying themselves. And for many people that means spending money on culture. There is a practical limit to the amount of restaurant meals you can consume, and when people have had their fill, the surplus often goes on cultural activities of all sorts.

Not everyone wants their art to be a plain white canvas, a pile of rubbish, or a pickled animal; but some do. Not everyone wants their theatre to be experimental; but some do. Not everyone enjoys the club scene; but some do. The great engine of economic growth is generating demand for a variety of fun activities, and the market is creating products to meet that demand. The explosion of culture is a response to the money; but the existence of cultural activities reinforces the sense of excitement, which in turn generates more economic activity.

The result is a series of virtuous circles. Growth generates wealth which improves services which generate yet more wealth. Foreign talent coming to Britain makes the country more interesting, which in turn attracts more foreign talent. The more international the economy becomes the larger the pool of talent, and the larger the pool the more attractive Britain becomes as a place to invest. We are reaping the benefits of a brain gain - the opposite of the brain drain of the 1950s and 1960s.

Will it last? No, of course it won't. You can see little patches of weakness at the moment - the job losses in the City, for example. Those patches will grow. Meanwhile the present levels of unemployment on the Continent will not last - those societies cannot function with year after year of 12 per cent unemployment. So the extreme imbalance that exists at the moment, where the UK is the only big jobs engine in Europe, will disappear. There will, nevertheless, be a lasting benefit.

We are lucky to be enjoying the benefits of the work of talented and energetic young people from elsewhere in Europe. We should recognise our good fortune and hope that we are giving these people something useful and lasting in return.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas