The (Economic) Life Of Harry

Listener 10 June, 2000

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

So much history in New Zealand ignores the economic context in which the people’s lives take place – censored out, like death itself. Attending a recent funeral of an ordinary New Zealander, it occurred to me that I could illustrate my point in his life.

Harry was born in 1918 in Silverstream Hospital, near the Trentham military camp where his father was based. The family tradition is that he was born in a tent, for New Zealand was still at war. One doubts a tent would have lasted long in the Wellington wind. The delivery room must have been a makeshift building (although given the way we run our hospitals, it probably lasted half a century).

I wondered how much GDP had increased in the 82 years that Harry lived. Our best estimate suggests it grew at an annual average of about 1.5 percent per person. Today the economy is about 10 times bigger and the average person about 3.2 times better off measured by material output than when he was born. That does not allow for quality change. I should think that today’s maternity hospitals are more than 3.2 times better than Harry’s.

Harry was the first of seven children. In contrast he was to have three and each of his children two. Family size has diminished over the years. One cause has been women’s changing aspirations. Harry’s mother stayed at home (housework was onerous in those days), his granddaughters work. His father was a railway clerk in Christchurch, until a blood disease from the Great War got the better of him. That was in the 1930s, when they had also taken in an invalided grandfather. There was no comprehensive social security so times were tough. To support the family, Harry went to work as soon as he could leave school, drifted from job to job, until he became an electrician specialising in rewiring the armatures of motors. He did this into his sixties part-time, for it involved such specialised skills, few others followed. The job was created by import controls. Burnt out motors had to be recycled. In any case they came in such a variety that there was no certainty one could be replaced.

Harry benefited greatly from the welfare state. He was married in 1940 (missing war service by not being medically fit). He had job security. You could walk out on a bad boss (there were a few) and immediately find another job. There was even a bit of overtime. His kids got decent health care and education, in a benign – if not inspiring – social environment. In the mid 1940s the family moved into a state house. He died in one, except it had been bought from the state 30 years earlier on favourable financial terms. His wife, Thelma, went out to work, as a school secretary to pay off the second mortgage.

Harry played a lot of sport, and did more than his fair share of its administration. Halfway through his life, was sport that gave him the big chance. Forty years ago the Christchurch City Council did not allow sport on its grounds on Sundays. So enthusiasts played out at the Templeton Hospital for intellectually disabled men and women instead. One of its staff asked Harry if he had thought of psychopedic nursing. Harry proved to be a very good nurse, for he loved both the technical side, and cared greatly about the patients and fellow workers. (For a while he was a P.A. union delegate.) The hours were long and there was the shift work, but the pay was good. He became a charge nurse, not seeking further promotion because he wanted to be hands-on rather than an administrator. After retirement, he kept in touch with the hospital until it was closed down. It was not a job but his profession. Had he the chances of a later generation he might have become a doctor.

He retired in 1983 on New Zealand Superannuation, topped up by an employer subsidized occupational pension from the National Provident Fund, and a freehold house. He kept himself busy helping the neighbours, friends, and family. He was bewildered by post-1984 governments’ apparent desire to cut the welfare state which had given him so much.

Five years ago, he had a bad lung infection on top of emphysema and almost died. (Yes, he had smoked for forty odd years.) The local hospital gave him superb support as an inpatient, and then as an outpatient when he returned to moderate health. He died peacefully (and suddenly) about a month ago, from a dissected aneurism. The hospital staff were again marvellous. The health system to which he had given so much in his working life returned the favour, the state to whom he paid his taxes supported him in his need.

At Harry’s funeral, I thought about a book I am writing, of some of the great nationbuilders – politicians, economists, artists – of his generation. But we should not overlook the many ordinary men and women, who each made their own contribution, without whom those nationbuilders would never have succeeded. Ordinary people like Harry – Harold Easton – Dad.