bookmark_borderCounterurbanisation and the corona crisis – or why this is the right time to buy a rural property

Our house
Our house.
I started writing this blog post back in October, long before anybody had even heard of the coronavirus. I didn’t post it at the time, mainly because I thought it was going to be slow change that would take years to manifest itself, so time was going to be on my side, and I might as well spend a bit longer adding more details. I was wrong – the pandemic has accelerated a change that had probably already started but was moving at a glacial pace, and I suspect things will now start happening really fast: People will move out of the large cities, leading to a repopulation of the countryside and to huge social problems in the shrinking metropolises.

Let’s start with a bit of history: For the past decades, large cities have grown and grown in most countries (and the larger they were to start with, they more they’ve grown), and the small towns, villages and the countryside have increasingly been deserted (or turned into holiday destinations). Several factors have been involved in this process, including:

  1. It has becoming rarer to stay in a job till retirement. This means that it has to be possible to find an equivalent or better job if you’re made redundant, and that is of course much easier if you’re staying in a large city.
  2. The fact that most families now consist of two main earners means that it has to be possible for both to find a good job – again, that’s much easier in a metropolis.
  3. The long-term migration towards the cities has had self-reinforcing effects. For instance, most villages have lost many of their shops, schools and public transport links – in some cases, nothing is left. As a result, living in the countryside means driving a lot – and not just yourself, but also your children. And in return, the cities have got more and more facilities and jobs.
  4. The cheap and abundant food made available by globalisation has made it rather pointless to have the ability to grow your own food (unless it’s a hobby). In the same way, producing your own energy has not in general been done for financial reasons.
  5. Because of falling property values in the countryside, in many countries banks have become rather reluctant to finance the purchase of rural properties. On the other hand, borrowing money for an overpriced flat in a large city has been relatively easy.

This might be about to change, however. Property prices in the cities have risen to crazy levels – young families have to live in tiny flats and/or in remote suburbs.

Currently a two-acre property with a house in good condition less than half an hour’s drive from Odense (Denmark’s third city) costs less than a typical two-bedroom flat in Copenhagen.

Fast and cheap broadband even in remote locations has made it easy to work from home, and if employers allow their employees to work from home most of the time, it makes perfect sense to buy a bigger and nicer house in the countryside instead of living in a cramped flat close to the job.

For a long time, employers seemed to be resisting the change, fearing their workers wouldn’t get anything done from home, but the coronavirus changed that. Forcing so many people to work from home for several months has been an amazing social experiment, and the conclusion in many workplaces has been that most of the work actually is easier to do from home, but that it’s useful to meet up for a couple of days a week to have meetings and have a cup of coffee with your colleagues.

If that’s the pattern that will eventually prevail, it becomes very feasible to live two to three hours away from the workplace. In small countries like Denmark, such as change will suddenly make it possible to live almost anywhere (apart from a few islands); in larger countries, some areas might of course still be too remote. It all depends on how often you have to turn up at the workplace in person – if you only have to go there once or twice a year, there’s hardly anywhere on the whole planet that’d be too remote.

So what will people be looking for, apart from fibre broadband? Good home offices are of course now a necessity, preferably with sound proofing so that you can work no matter what your kids are doing. And the corona lock-down demonstrated the value of having a garden, so that you can get fresh air and exercise even if you’re confined to your own property – although that might be a one-off issue that will quickly be forgotten.

We bought a rural property on a 2 1/2-acre plot of land (heated by geothermal energy) back in September, and it made the corona lock-down much easier to cope with. It’s not even that rural – we’re less than half an hour from the centre of Odense (Denmark’s third city), and 15-20 minutes from my job in Bogense, and it’s much cheaper than a smallish flat in Copenhagen.

Even before the corona crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested we weren’t alone. But now things are accelerating – see for instance this article in The Guardian:

The destinations where London househunters have registered to search in increasing numbers since lockdown include the Sussex beach town of Worthing, Ipswich in Suffolk and Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, where populations are at least twice as spread out as in the capital. The biggest increase was seen by estate agencies in Aylesbury Vale, in rural Buckinghamshire, where in April 2019, only 28% of people signing up for viewings were from London. Since Covid-19, that number has risen to 44%. Its rolling fields are around 30 times less populated than the London average.

And of course, if enough people start doing this, house prices will start falling in the metropolises and start rising in the areas people are moving to. Once these trends become noticeable, the effect will start reinforcing itself, as people in the large cities rush to sell before the value of their property drops too far while trying to snap up a nice house in the new hotspots before there’s nothing left.

Some people will of course be left in the cities – the ones who can’t leave because they have a job there that requires attendance (shop workers, museum guides, bus drivers and many more), the ones can’t afford to leave, and the ones who won’t leave for personal reasons. But if the cities suddenly are filled with empty, decaying houses, boarded-up shops and transport links that get worse every year, it will potentially become a huge problem to prevent them from turning into dystopias.

Of course I might be exaggerating, but my gut feeling tells me the counterurbanisation movement will get stronger over time, not weaker.

For instance, I expect several other independent developments to strengthen the development, such as:

  1. Self-driving (autonomous) cars and drones will make it much less cumbersome to live in remote locations, because they can deliver your shopping, take your kids to football practice, or drive you home from the pub when you’re over the limit.
  2. Global warming will probably lead to a reduction in air traffic, so living near an airport will be much less useful, and living in a place you actually like will become more important. (So people might not only move towards less densely populated places, but also towards places with a nice climate – for instance from north to south within the EU.)
  3. Farming robots will make it possible for everybody to grow their own food, with very little effort. Most people like the idea of having fresh vegetables and fruit in their garden but can’t be bothered with the practicalities. Once robots take over the chores, most people will want to do this – if they have enough space. It’s just so much easier to be self-sufficient if you have a few acres of land than if you live in a tiny flat.

This means that the ideal property should tick the following boxes:

  1. Not too far from workplaces (perhaps two to three hours from major employers, but time will tell)
  2. Good connectivity (5G, or 4G mobile network and fibre broadband, for instance)
  3. Decent road connexions (that self-driving cars will be able to navigate).
  4. Not threatened by an increase in sea levels
  5. Plenty of land to be self-sufficient.
  6. If it also is beautiful and has a pleasant climate, even better.
Your home office could have a view like this.

In the long term, I tend to believe Paul Mason was right in his book Post-Capitalism, and that automation (AI + robots) will eventually erode the value of labour, leaving only land (and other physical resources) as valuable.

See for instance my review of the use of the Labour Theory of Value in Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism:

We might thus be heading for a situation where value derives from land (for living on, growing food on and extracting materials from) and energy (which ultimately derives from land, too). So an app or a book will be practically free, whereas a house, a gold ring or a trip to Barbados will still cost real money.

[…] [W]e’re therefore not heading for a future without money. Even if you tried, you’d get USSR-style black markets and corruption in order to get the most attractive house or the newest smartphone before everybody else.

I guess the real question is where people will get money from in the first instance if their labour isn’t needed. Landowners will be rich, but apart from them only people doing important work (such as building and maintaining robots) will be necessary. The rest can then to some extent make money by providing personal services to the landowners and robot builders and to each other, but it doesn’t sound like a very prosperous future to me.

If I’m right, people will never move back into the cities, and the people left there will struggle more and more, because they’ll have to buy food, energy, clothes and other things that people in the countryside will be able to produce themselves. This is pure speculation, of course, but if I’m right, the sooner you swap your inner-city flat for a large rural property, the better – the early movers always make a better deal that the ones catching up.

bookmark_borderDa jeg var Kapellets Far

Diskussionerne i de danske aviser om konflikten mellem 3F og Vejlegården får mig til at tro, at danskerne efterhånden har fået den idé, at arbejdsgiverne i bund og grund er godgørende, og at fagforeningerne er nogle slyngler, der gør det umuligt at drive virksomhed i Danmark.

Jeg var i et par år “Father of the Chapel” (egl. “Kapellets Far”, men reelt tillidsmand) i fagforeningen National Union of Journalists (NUJ) ved det Murdoch-ejede Collins Dictionaries i Glasgow, og den oplevelse har måske givet mig et noget andet syn på sagen.

I teorien var lønnen individuelt forhandlet for ansatte, der ikke var medlem var NUJ, og kollektivt forhandlet for medlemmerne.

I praksis skete der det, at man centralt i HarperCollins (Collins Dictionaries’ moderselskab) fastlagde en årlig lønstigning, der normalt var lidt mindre end inflationen (reelt altså en årlig lønreduktion), plus en meget lille pulje til ekstra stigninger til nogle få ansatte (der var måske nok til, at 5-10% af de ansatte kunne få 1-2% ekstra i posen). Dem, der forhandlede individuelt, havde et møde med deres chef, hvor de fik et brev med oplysning om deres lønstigning; i teorien kunne de naturligvis brokke sig, men i praksis var der ikke noget at forhandle om. NUJ’s forhandlere (altså på et tidspunkt mig, suppleret med de professionelle fagforeningsfolk fra NUJ) gik til møder med HR-folkene ved Collins, og det normale mønster var det, at vi tilbudt ca. 50% af den stigning, som ikke-medlemmerne fik tilbudt, hvorefter vi kunne forhandle os frem til 100% af stigningen. Det lykkedes aldrig at opnå mere end 100%, så hele forhandlingen var reelt en farce.

Vi kunne naturligvis vælge at strejke, men strejken ville kun have omfattet os selv, uden sympatistrejker eller blokader af nogen art, og da vi kun havde ca. 50% af medarbejderne ved Collins som medlemmer, var der en risiko for, at resten kunne holde afdelingen kørende, til strejken var slut. Vores medlemmer var derfor aldrig synderligt interesserede i at strejke og brugte mest fagforeningsmøderne til at brokke sig over, hvor meget bedre alting var i gamle dage.

Resultatet er, at ansættelsesvilkårene for privatansatte i Storbritannien er blevet forringet år for år. Det er kun i det offentlige, at fagforeningerne har egentlig magt, og det er derfor kun her, at man har fået rimelige lønstigninger.

Da min kære hustru begyndte ved Collins først i halvfemserne, tjente leksikografer ca. 30% mere end gymnasielærere, og deres pensionsforhold var sammenlignelige. Da hun forlod Collins for tre år siden, tjente leksikografer ca. 30% mindre end gymnasielærere, og deres pensioner var meget ringere. Er det en tilsvarende udvikling, man ønsker at se i Danmark?

bookmark_borderHTML5 metric clock

Three years ago, I added a metric clock to this blog, but I later redesigned the whole site and the clock got lost.

In the meantime, HTML5 has been getting more and more widespread, so I think it’s now time for an HTML5 metric (or decimal) clock:

Your browser is not capable of displaying an HTML canvas. 🙁

(Based on an ordinary HTML5 clock.)

Just in case any readers might have forgotten my definition of metric time and dates, here’s an edited version of what I wrote nearly five years ago:

I think the basic unit should be the day, so that we get some nice units such as deciday (slight less than 2.5 hours), centiday (almost 15 minutes) and milliday (almost a minute and a half). Just a shame there’s no SI prefix for 1/100,000, because this fraction of a day is the closest one would get to a second (0.864s, to be precise). I guess people would just say “second” in everyday speech and mean 10µday, just as “minute” would be a sloppy way of saying milliday.

Looking at longer time scales, the decaday could replace the week, the hectoday the month, and the kiloday the year. It would of course have the slight drawback that holidays wouldn’t fall on the same point in each kiloday (because it wouldn’t be aligned with the solar year), but moslems already have a similar problem with their calendar, so I’m sure we’d get used to that quickly. A ten-day week would lead to different working patterns, I guess – seven days at work and a three-day weekend, perhaps?

To honour the people who introduced the metric system in the first place, I think kilodays should be counted from the start of the French revolution, that is, day 0 would be 22nd September 1792. That would make today (12/06/12) day 80,251 (kday 80, hectoday 2, decaday 5, day 1).

bookmark_borderAt arbejde i Storbritannien som dansker

Working for UK
Originally uploaded by jepoirrier

En af mine danske venner spurgte mig for nogle uger siden om forskellen på det danske og britiske arbejdsmarked, da en af hans venner var blevet tilbudt et job i England.

Jeg skrev som svar en e-mail, som har dannet basis for denne blogposting.

Det flg. skal tages med det forbehold, at jeg kun har arbejdet i én virksomhed (bortset fra min egen), og måske var de ikke typiske på alle punkter.


Lønningerne er generelt en del lavere i Storbritannien end i DK, men det modsvares så af lavere skat, og af et meget lavere prisniveau. (Det er værd at huske på, at pundet er faldet fra ca. 12 kr. til ca. 8 kr. i de år, jeg har boet her, og lønninger og priser er ikke steget tilsvarende.)

Det hænger altså fint sammen, hvis man bor herovre og ikke tager til Danmark for ofte, men hvis ens plan var at bo i Danmark og arbejde i Storbritannien, får man sikkert problemer, medmindre man har særdeles gode forhandlingsevner.


Skatten på indtægter under ca. £40.000 er formelt set 22%, men dertil kommer national insurance, som reelt også er en skat, på 11%. Kommunalskattens størrelse afhænger af ens bolig, ikke af ens indkomst, og den vil typisk være på £1000-£2000 om året.

Der er stort set ingen fradrag for almindelige lønmodtagere (bortset fra bundfradraget), så man skal ikke regne med fradrag for renter, befordring eller andre ting, som en dansker tager for givet.


Hos HarperCollins var der ingen lønforhandling. Man fik hvert år et brev med årets lønstigning, og det var normalt kun inflationen. Jeg fik reelt kun mere i posen de gange, jeg blev forfremmet. Så man skal være tilfreds med lønnen, når man skriver under, for den stiger ikke nødvendigvis. (Naturligvis kan man gå ind til chefen og true med at skride, hvis man ikke får lønforhøjelse, men der er jo ingen garanti for, det virker.) HarperCollins forhandlede også altid løn ved ansættelsessamtalen, ikke bagefter, som man normalt gør i Danmark.


Det svinger meget, og det kan være meget mindre end i DK. Det tælles i arbejdsdage (10 dage betyder, man kan være væk i to uger). Nogle virksomheder tæller også helligdage med. Hvis de altså siger “20 days including bank holidays” skal man reelt trække ti dage fra.

Der er ikke noget, der svarer til feriepenge – man får simpelthen løn, mens man er på ferie.


Er sikkert ikke til forhandling, men man skal bestemt undersøge det, da det ikke er nær så standardiseret som i Danmark. Det interessante er, om der betales for overtid eller ej. HarperCollins gjorde normalt ikke, og det er vist ret udbredt.


De fleste virksomheder har i dag en pensionsordning, hvor både arbejdsgiver og -tager indbetaler til en pensionsordning, hvor penge investeres i aktiemarkedet. Det giver i de fleste tilfælde en meget ringe pension, så hvis man regner med at arbejde i Storbritannien i længere tid, skal man passe på, da den offentlige pension også er meget lille.

Mange briter klarer sig udmærket ved at afbetale deres hus i god tid, så de reelt har meget små udgifter i alderdommen, men de fleste britiske pensionister har bestemt ikke råd til at betale husleje eller afdrag.


Man skelner mellem firing (ca. = bortvisning) og redundancy. Ved redundancy får man typisk en stor pose penge (jeg fik fx en måneds løn for hvert år, jeg havde været ansat), og det er skattefrit i Storbritannien. Til gengæld findes dagpenge ikke, og understøttelsen er så lav, at det for højtuddannede ikke kan betale sig at ansøge om den.


Vuggestuer og børnehaver er meget billigere i Danmark end herovre. Man skal regne med at betale mindst £7000 om året per barn, så det løber hurtigt op. Skolen begynder i Skotland, når børnene er mellem 4½ og 5½ år gamle, men skolen slutter typisk ved 15-tiden, og SFO koster også mange penge.

Barselsorlov afhænger i stort omfang af firmaet. Hos HarperCollins fik mødre op til ét år, og fædre to uger.


Jeg håber, dette har givet en basal indsigt i det britiske arbejdsmarked. Hvis jeg har glemt noget, så skriv en kommentar, og jeg skal prøve at uddybe det.

bookmark_borderComplexli, our company

As I’ve mentioned before, Phyllis and I have for some time had plans to get a company of our own.

It’s been a busy week, what with getting the office ready and getting the web site up and running.

But finally we’re ready: Let us introduce you to Complexli Limited, our company to sell computational, lexicographic and linguistic services.

Please do get in touch if there’s anything we can do for you!

Please get in touch also if you might be interested in working freelance for Complexli.

bookmark_borderBye to Collins

My old office
Originally uploaded by viralbus

Seven years ago, I was still living in Aarhus and was looking for a job, when I noticed the following email on the ling-tex mailing list (a very specialised list about TeX/LaTeX for linguists):

Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002 13:42:14 +0000
From: Paul Boot 3267 Systems Manager To: “” Subject: Ling-TeX: Interested in working with dictionaries?

Collins dictionaries are looking for an experienced programmer/linguist
to join their team in Glasgow. If you have 3 or more years experience in C++, Perl, Unix, (Solaris) systems and especially if you have knowledge of typesetting solutions on a Unix platform, it could be you we’re looking for.
You will need to be a fas-paced and team orientated, able to work happily with linguists and lexicographers and to adhere to deadlines. In the first instance send your CV and covering letter explaining why you want this role to….

I thought that sounded more interesting than the jobs I had seen in Denmark, so I decided to apply.

I had no money at the time, but fortunately they paid for my flight and hotel to go to the job interview, so there was no reason not to go.

I guess the interview went well, since I got the job at the salary I asked for, and I moved to Glasgow and started my new job as analyst programmer in March.

For the first few weeks, I was sitting alone in a tiny cubicle, but soon they moved me to a double cubicle that I was to share with a lexicographer called Phyllis.

Soon we started talking, and we’re now married with a daughter.

Working at Collins has changed a lot over the past seven years. The cubicles made way for an open office, the MD changed two years ago, the department changed its name and remit from Collins Dictionaries to Collins Language, and lots and lots of colleagues and friends have left in successive rounds of redundancy.

And today was then my final day there. Phyllis of course left months ago, so in some ways it’s just going back to the good old days of sharing an office with her.

We’re planning to start up our own company, but I’ll blog about that separately in a few days’ time.

bookmark_borderThe recession is getting closer

That’s All Folks….
Originally uploaded by n8kowald

Some of you might have noticed this article in The Bookseller:

[HarperCollins UK CEO Victoria Barnsley said:] “We have restricted pay increases to those earning under £30k, cut back on hiring and halved our travel and entertainment expenses. But now that the full scale of the recession is becoming clearer, we’re going to have to take further action. We will have to look at reducing the size of our workforce, possibly by about 5%.”

At the moment very little is clear – consultation can’t begin till employee representatives have been elected.

However, it does look like the Language Division might have to bear a higher than average proportion of the workforce reduction, and it does unfortunately look like my role might be affected.

So I have to prepare for the worst and find out what my options are for the future.

Can I find a job that allows me to use my rare combination of linguistic and computational skills? Within commuting distance of Newton Mearns?

If not, should I go for a regular computing job? I’m obviously well qualified for this, although it seems like a shame to mothball my linguistic skills.

Alternatively, should I aim for a freelance career? Perhaps even set up a company with Phyllis providing linguistic and computational services?

Is the latter option more or less risky than usual given the recession that the world is going through?

Please leave your suggestions in the comments section!