The last counterfactual goes back deepest in my personal history and consequently its outcome is even harder to predict than any of the others.
As I have described in my blog on Career Advice, prior to my studies I had been given some advice on what study options were available for someone with an aptitude for maths and who didn’t want to go into teaching. The career adviser outlined that doing a 3-year course for technical engineer (a non-university equivalent of the 5-year civil engineer studies) was a safer option, because if you passed these you had one degree under your belt, and could then, if you wished, start in the second year of the university degree.
That’s about as far as I can go with the possible outcomes of this non-university degree. I don’t know where you do these studies, what jobs are open to you after you’ve qualified, and how easy it is to then move on to university studies.
Still, knowing me, and considering that I would have finished my studies in 1976, chances are that if I found myself a job (and after getting my military service out of the way at an earlier stage), I would have stuck with t and not continued to a university degree. But where this would have led me, and how my career (if any) would have developed over time, there’s absolutely no way of telling.
As I said at the start, this is a counterfactual at its most blurry.
Delving still deeper into the past, and the counterfactual imaginings are getting all the more murky.
When I was studying at the Rijksuniversiteit of Ghent, I had to postpone my calling up for the national service for every year that I was due to study. So when I finally completed my studies in July 1979, I had a call-up date somewhere in the autumn of 1981 – just making sure that I had indeed passed and not having to endure the ignominy of having to resit my last year.
When I had the confirmation that I had indeed passed I could have have revoked my delayed call-up, but in the end didn’t and went to work for nearly two years at the laboratory of professor Dilewijns. What if I had decided to forego temporary employment and get my military service out of the way straight after leaving university?
It would have meant leaving the army in June 1980 rather June 1982. Would the economic situation have been better to find a job as a metallurgist? Would I ever have worked as a researcher at the university? After all this time it’s very hard to gauge which way the dice would have rolled. What’s certain is that I would have entered the job market without any practical experience (even though my job at the university didn’t seem to count for much anyway), and it’s really a toss of a coin whether I would have managed to get my foot on the first rung of the job ladder at all.
I also wouldn’t have gone on holiday to Iceland in 1981 and wouldn’t have met my wife. If I had a job in 1983 I wouldn’t have applied for a job with Iscor, and chances are that I would have stayed in Belgium. In short, this counterfactual really would have changed everything that happened later on in my life.
The year is 1987, I’ve been living in South Africa and working for Iscor for the past three years, I’ve got married and my first child was born. Thinking back to my original plan of working here for a few years and then moving on, I started to get restless.
I had heard from one person who had moved to New Zealand, having been interviewed by New Zealand Steel. So when they did the next round of interviews in Johannesburg, I made sure I did have an invite.
The interviews took place in a hotel on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and both my wife and daughter tagged along, since they wanted to see the family unit rather than just the interviewee. In the end the question came: how soon would I be able to come to New Zealand? My reply, which was that I was on three months notice, clearly did not satisfy them, and in the end I did not change jobs.
What if I had been more positive that I could have wangled a shorter notice if need be? I notice that around that time New Zealand Steel was acquired by Equiticorp, which went bankrupt later in the year. Two years later it was acquired by BHP, and it still exists as New Zealand Steel under the BHP corporate banner.
So let’s suppose I had moved to New Zealand. The first question would have been: could I, as a newcomer, have survived the disturbance of the bankruptcy and take-over? And if so, would I have stayed in New Zealand, about as far as you can get from my family in Belgium and the UK? Or would I have been tempted to try and move to BHP Australia, having one sister who lives in Adelaide?
All interesting but ultimately unresolvable questions. I don’t even know whether reducing my notice period to one month would have been sufficient for them to make a positive offer.
When I started work in South Africa my original plan was to stay there for 3 to 4 years, and then return to Europe to find work there. In the end it turned out to be 5½ years, and although my decision still held firm, there were plenty of reasons why we could have decided to stay. The job was good and one of the highlights of my career, I had two children born in South Africa, the living was easy with low rent and plenty of nice weather. And black majority rule looked no closer to reality than it did when I entered the country.
On the downside was the fact that my wife could never hold a steady teaching job unless she took on South African citizenship. I also did not think too much of the education system, with the local universities merely being glorified polytechnics. I also did not want my children to grow with a restricted world view that might have resulted from growing up in South Africa.
So in the end we decided to leave, but it could easily have been different. In that case it’s hard to tell how things would have worked out. Iscor was privatised in the same year that I left, presumably because someone foresaw the implementation of black majority rule in the near future. There must have been quite some movement of personnel around that period, because when I contacted Brian Parry for a recommendation after I had been made redundant in Allied Steel & Wire, he had become a big cheese (from lowly middle manager status during my time there) and a lot of the old guard seemed to have left.
How would I have coped during the upheaval that must have followed the privatisation is hard to tell. All I can say is that Aalwyntuine, where we used to live at the time we left South Africa, is now a gated community, meaning that Iscor properties must have been sold off, and we would have to make the decision to buy or rent a property in Vanderbijlpark. At the same time the South African Rand had plummeted in value, and what constituted good money inside the country did not amount to much in European currencies.
Meaning that the longer we stayed the harder it would have been to extricate ourselves and return to Europe. Still, as time progressed I’ve seen most of the people we knew in South Africa leave the country, so chances are that in the end that’s what we would have done as well.
It’s hard to tell how that would have panned out. It all would have depended on my job situation in Iscor / Mittal and the economic situation in the UK. But I can’t see how leaving the country when so many ties had to be broken would have been easy.
As things stand, I got made redundant from Allied Steel & Wire and, after joining British Steel, transferred all of my AS&W pension funds into the British Steel Pension Scheme. But what if I had managed not to be made redundant, or having been made redundant, found a job in a place where the pension scheme was not so well regarded as that of British Steel?
In the first case, I would have continued to build my pension in the AS&W scheme until the company’s collapse in 2002, in the second case, chances are that I would have left my money built up until 1995 in their scheme. And in both cases I would lost it all, or at the very least most of it.
Meaning that, if I managed to find a job either after the redundancy or after AS&W’s collapse, I would have to work until at least age 65 in order to build up a pension of a suitable size. At the age of 40 I would have rated my chances of finding a new job pretty good, but if I hadn’t pulled it off, I might have considered the offer of my sister in Australia, and emigrated there with her as a sponsor.
Unlike earlier counterfactual speculations, the possible outcomes of this one is becoming harder to predict, and presumably that will become even more so with future counterfactual blogs that delve deeper into the past.