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Reported conversations

I went to a networking event for Imperial alumnae last week and had some conversations that felt very zeitgeist-y. A bit like if they made a film twenty or thirty years from now, they would show a character having these conversations at a party to ‘paint a picture’ of what life in London in 2023 was like.

One woman had just returned to work from maternity leave and was disappointed at the lack of support. She said she was working four days a week because she couldn’t afford nursery for five full days. She felt like she was doing five days’ worth of work, anyway, and felt like she was constantly trying to catch up.

Her boss, a woman with small children herself, had turned down a request to hire a junior person for the team so that my conversation partner, who was more senior, could spend the time she did have on the tasks that require skill and experience. She attributed this to the boss hoping that things would just go back to the way they were and no accommodations would have to be made.

I next spoke with a Spanish woman who had lived abroad for, I think, 17 years, and was shortly moving back to Spain. The reason she was leaving was that she had negotiated an arrangement with her company to work remotely full-time. She worked in a role where she was the only one doing that job and didn’t have a team, so going to the office had felt pointless after the pandemic.

She thought that she was going to have a reverse kind of culture shock – apparently social attitudes to all kinds of things are different and, in business, remote working hasn’t taken hold at all yet, if it ever will. The negative stereotype is that Spaniards are lazy, preferring naps to work, but she said professionals actually work very long hours, and ideas about being protective of your home and family life are not popular the way they are in other parts of the West.

A model of The City from the venue, Guildhall Library

I also spoke with a woman who was a published novelist, writing full-time. She had had enough success with her books that she had had TV and other media interviews. I said something like ‘what an exciting job you have!’ and she sort of shrugged, which was unexpected. It turns out, she was bored of the process. She said she had ‘kind of seen it now’ and she didn’t particularly look forward to publishing another novel.

She mentioned interviews as a particularly ho-hum affair by now, mainly because journalists didn’t ask interesting enough questions. I was gobsmacked at first, but it makes total sense. She said she never wanted to answer the question ‘what inspired you to write this book?’ ever again. Apparently questions about the process of writing would be more rewarding to answer, but those rarely get asked.

If I was the screenwriter for this film set in 2020’s London, I would now return to the present and show the main character, wrinkled and sage: ‘It’s been 84 years, and I can still smell the flat whites. The extended paternity leaves had never been used. The value of face time had never been questioned…’

For balance, what my three-year-old wants to talk about:

  1. What happens if you don’t put socks on before you put on shoes? What happens if you don’t wear a seatbelt in the car? What happens if you wear your day clothes in bed at night?
  2. I like my tummy so much I’m going to give it a name. I’m going to call it Soup Potato.
  3. I want to be a egg, and make sure you crack me!
  4. Never trust birds.

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