Summertime, but the livin' ain't as easy as some people would have us believe

Summertime, but the livin' ain't as easy as some people would have us believe
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A half century ago, the great singer Ella Fitzgerald - no relation - summed it all up to perfection. "Summertime, and the livin’ is easy; Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin'; So hush, little baby, don’t you cry."

We all have our troubles, but in Ireland most of us have access to the sort of goods and services our parents and grandparents could barely dream of. There is a price to be paid for all this, of course, and some of the outlay takes the form of time pressures and a life of endless motion and mobility. But, come mid-year, many of us have the chance to sit back and reflect on a beach, in a backyard or wherever.

At this point, we get the perhaps fleeting opportunity to think just awhile on where we are going, as individuals, managers, producers, representatives. A sense of historical perspective comes in handy. Of course, the current challenges are real enough. Rental pressures. The surging cost of childcare. Rocketing insurance premia. The spectre of a no-deal Brexit.

Just remember that 70 years ago, Irish city dwellers poured into buses to go up the hills to cut turf, or help with the harvest. There were real worries about the availability of enough food for the winter. Fuel was in short supply. Most towns and villages had yet to receive electricity though rural electrification plans were in train.

Huge numbers died prematurely from TB, or lung diseases caught on farms or while working in dirty industries. There would have been need for at least three Joe Duffy shows on RTÉ each day to cover all the crosses people bore. Instead, the radio broadcast classical music, GAA games and Din Joe’s dance series, 'Take the Floor'.

Regrettably, the study of history has been downgraded in the curriculum. The Minister of Education, Joe McHugh, is said to be reviewing this situation and not before time. Too many people live in the here and now and risk losing out on the many lessons that history can teach us.

It is almost exactly half a century since Belfast went up in flames. We must never forget quite how this situation was allowed to develop. It is a dozen years since the global financial crisis started to bubble up – already this period is starting to feel just a little ancient.

We need to wage an ongoing battle against amnesia – the procreator of various forms of societal dementia that appear to afflict so many of us human fireflies. Our politicians, senior officials, business and union leaders; our top scientists, technicians, humanists and creatives should set aside some vacation time for a bit of relaxed deep thought and some mind expanding reading.

So where to start when it comes to this examination?

Start with oneself. You are a senior manager, a leader. Are the hours you are working and the work schedules of your team of subordinates and those of their teams, excessive ? There is plenty of evidence that this, indeed, is the case.

The coal miners of yore used to keep caged canaries – if the bird started to look peeky and then topple over, it was usually time for the humans to get out. The 'canaries' in the workplace, these days, are human. When the absenteeism rate is high or rising, when staff retention drops, it is time to start asking serious questions of yourselves as top managers and boards.

Our professional firms are often the worst offenders. Senior partners in large firms all too often work back breaking hours while bringing home hundreds of thousands, if not millions of euros. Previous generations of leaders in Ireland could be blind to opportunity, but many were less intent on feathering their own nests than is the case nowadays.

We have been influenced by hard edged American ways of doing business, sometimes for the better. Irish firms have risen well to many of the challenges presented by the wave of multinational firms which have transformed our economy.

However, this has all come at a cost - to family life, the fallout often in the form of drifting problematic offspring and in the loss of key employees and colleagues to burnout and worse. The drain of highly skilled young women following motherhood, other family commitments, or through the accumulation of work pressures, is considerable. It represents a huge loss of accumulated experience and educational spend.

Many male workers, too, fail to reach their potential because they lack the sheer levels of endurance asked of them by the 'open all hours' culture that so often prevails. Sometimes, society can benefit from this churn of employees, however. It is often late on that some fortunate ones discover - or rediscover - their real vocation.

The opportunity to forge a new career in mid life should not be passed up and our Education Minister, together with his cabinet colleagues and officials, might consider more tangible measures to promote second chance education.

Mature students are often forced to pay high levels of fees for the chance to access third level courses, yet it is at this stage in life that people are often at their most motivated and best placed to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.

Business leaders need to use some of the time on offer to them "when the livin’ is easy" – when they are not engaged in an overdue recharging of their batteries – to cast a cold eye on their existing strategies and work habits.

While doing so, they should chuck their smartphones in the cupboard and, above all, avoid contact with colleagues or customers bar emergencies, of course.

One question they must - above all - pose to themselves is whether they are really needed in their current role and whether it might not be best to make way for someone else? But let’s assume that there is still life in the old dog yet then they might ask: So, is their time really being put to good use? Are you delegating enough tasks, or maybe actually delegating too much?

Jimmy Carter as President was famously involved in drawing up the White House tennis schedules. He clearly needed to reassess his priorities.

At the same time, the late Arthur Ryan - founder of Primark/Penneys, one of the most successful fashion retailers of all time - found time each day to walk the floor of his shops and chew the fat with his employees, at all levels, so as to gather in the sort of intelligence that consultants and marketing managers could not provide.

He realised that you could not spend all day in the office poring over spreadsheets, crunching data. His antennae were sharp enough.

This summer, one suspects, will be a holiday period when some serious reflection is likely to come in particularly handy. Ireland has enjoyed a five to six year period of relative social and economic respite – the equivalent of a run of good harvests.

Storm clouds threaten, however. We all know where they are coming from. It could be time to start battening the hatches and coming up with brand new strategies. It is not quite July 1914 or August 1939 as yet, but the officials in Merrion Street might be best advised to start locating their tin hats.

This is, by no means, a counsel of despair. It is in times of upheaval that rebirth most often occurs. Wartime is when many, if not most, of our great medical advances - from penicillin to innovations in facial reconstructive surgery - most often occurs. But during the crisis period, it is skills in triage – in intervention in emergencies – that are needed above all.

The challenges presented by a sharp change in our fortunes; whether cooked up in Westminster, Washington DC, Paris or - as is so often the case – the Middle East, will test to the limit the skills of our leaders in politics, business and the bureaucracy.

Those men and women of influence currently lying or strolling in the garden or on the beach need to have their thinking caps on. They need to make themselves more alert than ever to the presence of those people in their organisations from top to bottom – above all, the latter – who may be best placed to cope and come up with fresh ideas in times of upheaval.

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