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What BHS, Tata and Ghosting teach us about society today

by Andrew Teacher

A grim, grey expedition swimming in a sea of beige is how I recall visits to British Home Stores, latterly BHS, as a kid. Like smacking, strikes and smoking, it was a defining factor in being raised in the 1980s. If ever there was a haven for children to go on the rampage, this was it. Now, many of these stores will be like ghost towns.

Without question, the failure of BHS to escape that era has been its undoing. Next, an equally dour catalogue shop at the time has evolved into the retail industry’s bell-weather: when Next’s results slide everyone worries. To some degree, Next, like Argos, has inadvertently benefited from the rise of the internet.

Demand for a logistics network has made firms like Argos - non-specialist purveyors of mediocrity - accidentally relevant. Good for them. Sainsbury’s acquisition of the chain was single-handedly driven by its design to get its teeth into said network.

But what of BHS, its 11,000 staff and £571m pension deficit? Well, to say any of this was unexpected would be folly.

Many questions have already been asked about how Sir Philip Green extracted so much cash from the business while leaving it in such a black hole. I’m sure all this is perfectly legal. Just about. Questions are also likely to be raised over when there’s any link between Green and the incumbents. Many pre-pack administration deals – where the “good” assets of a business are packaged up and sold to investors as going concerns – see the original owners step back in having cut off cancerous debt, much to the ire of creditors.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the same happened here with the government holding the pension baby and being forced to feed it to the tune of millions.

The other, rather large pension liability we, the tax payer, are about to pick up is Tata’s of course, following its high profile retreat. This, like BHS, is the result of longstanding failure although arguably, not of Tata’s own making.

While the chancellor has been right to nurture relations with China, what this highlights is the effects of pure, unbridled myopia on the part of government. It underlines the need to some kind of long-term responsibility-taking from politicians who only give two hoots about what happens on their time horizon. What’s the next Tata Steel? Take a look at the pricey PFI deals we’ll still be paying off in 2030 or any other long-term economic cracks that won’t appear for decades.

Thankfully, irresponsibility isn’t the sole domain of the old and rich. Millennials, it seems, are also well schooled.

A recent survey from Plenty Of Fish, a dating site, found 80 percent of millennials had been “ghosted” – where someone they’re dating cuts off communication without a word. If nothing else, we’ve raised another generation of people happy to walk away from basic responsibilities.

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