"Every time I see it, that number blows my mind.”
Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, was delivering a speech at the Booth School of Business this June about the rise in leisure among young men who didn’t go to college. He told students that one “staggering” statistic stood above the rest. "In 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men [those without a college degree] aged 21 to 30 had not worked at all during the prior twelve months,” he said.
"Think about that for a second,” he went on. Twentysomething male high-school grads used to be the most dependable working cohort in America. Today one in five are now essentially idle. The employment rate of this group has fallen 10 percentage points just this century, and it has triggered a cultural, economic, and social decline. "These younger, lower-skilled men are now less likely to work, less likely to marry, and more likely to live with parents or close relatives,” he said.
Critics sometimes talk of an artist’s “late style”. Shakespeare’s last plays have a distinct flavour all their own, as do Beethoven’s late quartets, or Henry James’s densely fluid later novels. To pick a more contemporary example, we can ponder both the continuities and the differences between early David Bowie and his last album Blackstar. Edward Saidhas written well on this topic: how certain artists use a lifetime’s wisdom and technical maturity to do something both recognisably their own and also new, even contradictory, “a form of exile from their own milieu”.
Such thoughts are provoked by reading Christopher Priest’s new novel, since Priest, now in his 70s, has moved into a potent late phase of his art. He has always deployed unostentatious prose to tell elegantly complex stories about alienation and loss; about twins, conjuration, displacement and strangeness. His most recent fiction still does all this, but it feels somehow different: cooler, more austere, balancing his perennial fascination with mortality against a new sense of the possibilities of restitution.
Inasmuch as anyone ever has to read anything, you have to read Jerusalem. People are going to say a lot of things about it — that it's massive (obviously), that it's brilliant (it is), that it's beautiful and maddening and sweet and stupid all in equal measure (true, true, true and true). That it involves dozens (hundreds) of characters — from artists to angels and prostitutes to politicians, from James Joyce to Lucia Joyce (his daughter) and Samuel Becket to Oliver Cromwell — across a span of a thousand years. And that's true, too. Except where it isn't.
So I’ve decided to start today by tutting at the cereal boxes.
Look at them there, all lined up and colourful. There’s something about the sides of these boxes that is so utterly infuriating. All of that minuscule type and gleeful clutter. Who could possibly need this much immediate information about riboflavin?