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Sunday, 27 December 2015

Still no time for parties in The Netherlands of 2015

In 2015 the ongoing depression tightened its grip on the moods in The Netherlands. While it has been a very succesful year on a personal level, nationally it became in hindsight a year of unnecessary victimship, mourning,  below-the-belt nationalism and barely disguised and untargeted resentment and anger against anyone and anything, in spite of the quickly improving economic prospects in The Netherlands.

What a year 2015 has been in hindsight, from a personal point-of-view. It was my first year as freelance ICT professional, after I ran the gauntlet and chose for a life of uncertainty and personal freedom by abolishing my steady job.

This job did not only bring its pension plan and its steady perks and benefits on the positive side, but also a considerable amount of personal frustration about the shortsightedness and unwillingness of the leading management to change and reinvent the whole company, under pressure of the “zeitgeist” as well as new, gamechanging developments in the ICT industry. I dare to call this “ostrich behaviour” of the executive management of my former company.

Their total denial of both the changing environment in ICT-land and the mounting financial pressure upon ‘suppliers without special services, skills and knowledge” brought this company – in spite of its very good and capable workers – almost to its knees. Even though my former employer still exists and – thus – survived 2015, the company is yet clinging onto life by the skin of its teeth. Their personnel ( my former colleagues) definitely deserve much, much better.

But to cut a long story short: I took the step and jumped into the deep water. And in spite of the shaky start in the first half of this year, the second half has been a ball for me personally, giving me the opportunity to work hard and play hard. I entered into a wonderful assignment at a leading Dutch international bank and acquired some news skills and deep financial knowledge in the process, while helping my bank to meet the new reporting requirements of the European Central Bank.

On top of that the second half of 2015 was arguably one of the best half years that my beloved ICT industry has ever been through. 

It seemed that all larger and smaller principals – from either the government, the financial industry or the commercial services industry – had shaken off their hesitation and reluctance and finally started to hire new people, on top of the skeleton crews that had been hired during the previous years.

They did this undoubtedly spurred by the improving Dutch economy and the increasing consumer confidence, as they decided that ‘now’ was the time to invest in new and improved ICT systems, as well as in urgent maintenance on systems that had been neglected in earlier years. From the situation in early 2015, that acquiring new assignments required massive amounts of effort and energy, it changed to a situation that the new assignments proverbially dropped down from the ceiling. Hourly fees that had been under pressure for almost seven years, became suddenly open for discussion again.

While the ICT and commercial services industry turned out to be a definite greenshoot in 2015, the rest of the country was still in the fierce grip of the depression that this enduring economic crisis had become.

From a toxic mixture of grief, fear and resentment against other countries and also the own goverment (emerging from the continuing attention for the MH17 disaster and the international blame game to which this explosive incident led), and from the mounting tensions in the East (Ukraine vs Russia), as well as the Middle-East (Syria, Jemen and Iraq), leading to an massively elevated influx of refugees in Europe, there was the emergence of a dangerous kind of nationalism and NIMBY-ism, in combination with a mounting aggression against the powers-that-be and especially the political decisions that they made.

There were massive and ubiquitous protests against refugees and especially against the (large) refugees camps and asylum centres that were needed to shelter the people from countries, like Afghanistan, Jemen, Libya, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq.

People from the lower (middle) classes were outraged, when they learned that their hometown or village could become the new domicile for a refugee camp that would offer a temporary home for more than 500 inhabitants or when they heard that their limited stock of social rental houses would be partially handed over to refugees with a permanent residence permit.

The residents of much wealthier cities and villages, on the other hand, simply put their political friends at work to prevent refugee camps and asylum centres from entering their communities.

Throughout the whole society there emerged an increasing, poisonous distrust against the political elite in reign, while the elite itself seemed to feed this distrust, by occasionally showing itself from its most negative, unreliable and cheap, opportunistic side.

At the same time, a number of political representatives in The Hague uttered themselves with increasingly shrill voices and aggressive language against refugees and also against the more moderate politicians, enthusiastically followed by the less civilized parts of society, who were more than willing to put their money where their mouth was. This led to a number of increasingly violent and frightening protests against local and national political decisions.

As an inevitable consequence, formerly moderate politicians also started to talk in an increasingly negative manner about these refugees, displaying them as fortune seekers and 'future leeches of the Dutch welfare system' that had to be stopped at the outer borders of the European Union. These developments happened not only in The Netherlands, but all over Europe and especially in Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom and Germany. The European hospitality and compassion regarding the refugees turned into an increasingly hostile stance.

As a matter of fact, this stance became so hostile that while “Schengen” had always been the backbone of the European Union since the borders disappeared in 1992, it suddenly became ‘en vogue’ to talk about reinstating the borders between the countries of the European Union itself. And this happened with the excuse, that Greece and Italy and a few other South-East European countries had neglected their gatekeeper function in controlling the outer borders of the European Union.

The United Kingdom, which had never been part of the Schengen zone in the first place, saw their traditional distrust against Schengen as a European institution confirmed by the events in 2015. 

The British residents and especially their leading politicians saw themselves increasingly as victims of the negligence of the other European countries and in particular France (hence: Calais). Allegedly, they would be flooded by refugees who would take away their jobs and their social security benefits, thus dragging the country into a new economic crisis. 

And so, when I thought about the political and economic year 2015 in The Netherlands and beyond, I could not help thinking about the following, very powerful statement by Minyanville’s former sage Kevin Depew, about the economic depression which he already foresaw in 2008(!).

Yes, it's here. Welcome to the Depression. No, don't drop whatever it is you're doing. Don't get up. It's not going anywhere. It will wait. It's just going to sit over here in the corner and read a magazine while you do whatever it is you need to do.

A Depression doesn't run hot and fierce like some crazed meth burner. A Depression is methodical, purposeful, patient. It will build a shelter out of tree branches and newspaper, light a small, well-contained campfire and wait you out, brother. 

While you feed on the empty calories of denial and popcorn, it will quietly gather shards of broken dreams and fashion them into a terrible weapon of blunt force reality.

While re-reading those wise words, being spoken in 2008, I realize that the genuine greenshoots in 2015 do not emerge one second too early. And perhaps those greenshoots might even turn out to be false alarms regarding an economic resurrection that might never emerge, just like the first half of 2011 was also a false alarm.

Do we not see that a number of large store chains is at the brink of imploding? And is one of the leading banks in The Netherlands not dismissing thousands of workers in the next few years? Yes, they are indeed! 

And undoubtedly the resurrection of the Dutch economy might be a long-lasting operation. Not to state that the mood of many Dutch citizens is still depression-like, as I described earlier in this article.

Yet, I don’t think that the positive signals about the Dutch economy are mistaken once again. What immediately comes to mind is that the number of traffic jams has really soared in the second half of 2015, while traffic was still rather quiet in 2011, when we already thought we were through the economic crisis. 

Traffic jams are a tell-tale signal about the state of the economy, as the number of passenger cars and especially the number of trucks say something about the economic activities happening in a country. And people seem more happy to spend their money on consumer goods, lifestyle products and household appliances again, in spite of their sometimes depression-like behaviour.

This in combination with the increasing number of (still flexible) assignments and jobs and the rising hourly fees for freelancers could mean that 2016 will be the year of the definitive turn-around for the Dutch economy.

Nevertheless, it will be a long and painful process to cure the Dutch and European economies and – with all the current political and economic tensions in the world – there is still a considerable chance for a sturdy relapse, when the political sh*t starts again to hit the fan. Let us hope that it will not come this far.

Nevertheless, I wish you a very loving, prosperous and healthy 2016 for you and your loved ones. I am grateful for the fact that your read my blogposts and for your mostly positive comments that you share with me at many occasions. And to quote my life-long hero Leonard “Mr. Spock” Nimoy:

May you live long... and prosper!"

Cheers, Ernst

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