The Late Career Switch

Lucy Kellaway had a dream job. Her self-proclaimed title was Chief Bullshit Correspondent for the Financial Times though in polite company she’d describe herself as an observer of the peculiarities of corporate culture. Her weekly columns deconstructed corporate press releases and deflated the bloated egos of management gurus. She interviewed hot shot bankers and massacred CEOs making flatulent statements. If she showed up at your AGM it was not to value your company’s share price; she was there to expose the “heinous guff”.

After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics – the academic equivalent of a train ticket for the front carriage of the British ruling class – she took a stab at banking at J.P. Morgan and, in 1985, walked through the old doors of Bracken House for a lifetime at the FT.

She resigned in 2017, 32 years and 1023 columns later. In her book Re-Educated: How I changed my job, my home, my husband & my hair released this summer by Ebury1 she explains why. More entertainingly she recounts how she reinvented herself and ended up teaching Maths and later Economics at inner city comprehensives in London’s poorest boroughs.

It was not so much the decision to leave her ‘swanky’ job that was ‘brave’ as her friends and colleagues discouragingly told her, but it was what she did in the transition that became the most instrumental aspect of her journey. Not only did she convince others roughly her age (she was 58 at the time) to join her but with her friend Katie Waldegrave they founded Now Teach2 a charity that entices professionals near the end of their careers to consider re-training as teachers. In the midst of a teacher recruitment crisis in the UK the Now Teach website says it has been “a colossal waste” that no one had never successfully managed to recruit experienced people into teaching.

Before resigning Kellaway consulted an online life-expectancy calculator and answered a series of questions ‘mostly honestly’ and was reliably informed that she is likely to live until she is 93. She was also encouraged by the new gerontological division of old age into two classes: Young-Old and Old-Old. The former identifies those between 60 and 75, the period “when you are healthy and can still do most things.”

It is rarely considered strange when executives or politicos leap into academia and take on professorships but it does seem odd to see someone step into a secondary school classroom. The latter is of course more complicated. It’s probably a status thing as well. Now Teach maintains that this older class of professionals not only brings wisdom, experience of the world, fresh ideas, perspective and careers advice but status too and “may offer solutions to some of the more intractable problems our schools face”.

Whether they have the stamina, the patience and the willingness to suffer the huge salary cut that comes with it is another matter. In their first year qualified teachers earn between £24,000 and £30,000.

Kellaway landed in a school “built on the broken windows theory of policing where pupils who get yelled at for putting their hands in their pockets are considered less likely to throw desks or stab each other”. She agrees that such children are more likely to do their homework, get decent results and have a better start in life. But she is torn when on her very first day she sees a nervous pupil vomit during assembly.

Re-Educated is a unique and meaningful story; it is cleverly structured and despite the brutal self-analysis it is elegantly told mostly because Kellaway tells it without bullshitting. But more significantly the book captures England’s social inequalities, the deteriorating state of the education system, the difficulties of parenting and of course the mystery of the savage but rewarding experience of being a teacher.

And because once-a-journalist-always-a-journalist the book’s greatest moments come when Kellaway the journalist observes Kellaway the teacher and deftly describes her own humiliations when she loses control of her class and the stress of talking to a parent about their child’s poor performance.

When Kellaway was a child she attended the Camden School for Girls where her mother taught English. When she meets people she knew at school most don’t remember her but they remember her mother. Her mother’s death, almost a decade before she took the plunge, was the first time quitting the FT crossed her mind. She made up her mind when her father died.

Kellaway’s own daughter, Rose, also became a teacher. Unlike the Now Teach troupe Rose went straight into teaching after university. It is not right to feel jealous of your children says Kellaway but recounts how along with pride she did feel envy when a particularly difficult boy gave Rose a Christmas card on which he’d written “You’re awesome, Miss”.

One evening, after they had become colleagues, Kellaway begins to recount a difficult conversation she had with the parent of one of her worst Year 11 students. Rose interrupts her: “Mum, let’s not talk about school stuff.” Rose, writes Kellaway, “had spent ten hours at the coal face in a much tougher school than mine. And now she wants some life. I, on the other hand, am still new enough to teaching and still so in thrall to the whole thing I don’t want any other life at all”.

Kellaway confesses that she decided to leave her job at the FT because she wasn’t getting better at what she did. Her writing, she claimed, was no better than what it used to be. In fact, sometimes she thought it had actually gotten worse. On the evidence of this book that is bullshit.


2. Now Teach:

Photo from the Now Teach website



A month before the fall of Kabul, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed that Turkish non-combat forces there stay beyond the agreed withdrawal deadline. The Taliban warned that despite ‘historic, cultural and religious bonds with the Muslim people of Turkey’, they would view such a move as a continuation of the occupation of Afghanistan.

Despite the snub and the anticipated migratory pressure on Turkey the Afghan crisis has played into Erdogan’s hands domestically as well as in terms of his geopolitical ambitions. With the help of the Turkish media the crisis has deflected attention from his mounting difficulties at home, it has made him strategically more useful for the US and, crucially, it has reignited Europe’s migratory phobia.

No one will be in the mood to get tough with him now. Not that anything the EU has said or done over the years has restrained his misguided imperialism or domestic despotism.

To a large degree Erdogan’s unbroken 19-year rule has rested on his capacity to impose his narratives through the near total control of Turkey’s media. Reporters without Borders found that 90 percent of Turkish media are controlled by the government1. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 37 Turkish journalists in jail2. In the coming weeks a Social Media Directorate will be established under the guise of regulating digital media3.

Despite this stranglehold the gap between his AK Party and the opposition CHP stands at 8.2 percent, the narrowest on record according to July polling monitored by Michael Sercan Daventry, a British-Turkish journalist4. It stood at 20 percent in the 2018 elections.

The British analyst Robert Ellis reported that the mood in Turkey is grim and “like the wildfires which destroyed the country’s forests it doesn’t take more than a spark to set off an explosion”. He quoted editorial sources as saying that “Drop by drop, the fury against Erdogan’s rule is accumulating.”

It is this domestic fury that will in the end bring him down. Internal resistance and the turmoil it has intermittently given rise to has always been his greatest fear. It does seem like a long shot, yet the EU can begin to contemplate what Turkey might look like after Erdogan.

It must know that handling a volatile and potentially hostile fall-out might be tougher than handling Erdogan himself. There is no guarantee that the rule of law, the respect for fundamental rights and media freedom would prevail even if he were to go quietly after the 2023 elections.

More pressingly his departure won’t mean that imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists and academics will be released. Nor can it be guaranteed that activists and dissidents, those abroad and those within, would be able to cope against a pro-Erdogan body politic unwilling to transition to an era without him. What happens to the elite courtiers both corporate and institutional that have set roots? How quickly can the secular but divided opposition regroup and how can free media re-engage?

Certainly, unlike other autocracies on the periphery of Europe, Turkey does have experience in democracy albeit the kind closely surveilled by its once invincible and not so democracy-loving military.

Erdogan’s fall will not mean a return to 2002. Religious nationalism has completely reshaped the country and has created deep divisions. The refugee crisis and the deepening economic one will still be there. On top of which there is no guarantee that if and when the toxicity he injected in the country’s judicial and educational veins is diluted that any new leadership would actually step back from his internal tactics or ambitious expansionism.

To hope therefore for ‘a new kind of politics’ would be exaggerated particularly when western democracies are incapable of attaining it themselves. The burden will fall on Turkey’s own liberal class, the moderate political elite, even the now protesting westward looking university student body and, especially, independently minded journalists and intellectuals.

Once a new Chancellor is elected in Germany the EU and the US will need to reflect closely on Turkey. They cannot afford to get it wrong this time. Sixteen years ago, in 2005, the Financial Times maintained that Erdogan’s government had made ‘enormous strides’ in meeting the conditions for EU membership but considered that Turkey was still ‘a decade away from actual entry’. Turkey and the world have changed since then but it is still absurd that membership was actually seen as feasible sometime around 2015.

Today Turkey is sitting somewhere in the 1980s. Fed on a diet of political Islam and populist notions of military prowess the majority of voters seem to have stopped looking west and have bought into Erdogan’s narrative. Not only has he convinced them not to want EU membership but many now believe Turkey to be the EU’s equal.

Accession always was and will remain an impossible prospect; clearly neither side wants it anymore. Yet a strong EU-Turkey political partnership is absolutely necessary. It will take time for a changed Turkish public opinion to see meaning in that.

The re-emergence of independent media can help a post-Erdogan Turkey re-frame its domestic priorities, gradually redefine its foreign policy orientation and create a new narrative. It might, hopefully, also help dispel some of its illusions. Among them one that predates Erdogan but which he and the media that support him have shamelessly exploited: The myth that Turkey is constantly under threat which gives it license to systematically bully its neighbours.

Photo: Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 summit in Hamburg, 2017. Reuters/Bernd Von Jutrczenka.