The UK national debt is fast approaching one trillion pounds and will exceed that number next year, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. For most people, big numbers like this are pretty meaningless. So how can we really understand the scale of a trillion – one thousand, thousand million?
I went to the theatre on Saturday to see Enron – a story of corporate excess and duplicity. In the play Jeffrey Skilling’s daughter asks how long it would take to count to a billion. The answer was 32 years, so for a trillion that means it would take 32,000 years.
Back to the problem with big numbers again. Just how long a period of time is 32,000 years? Well, the French did their thing at Hastings nearly one thousand years ago; the iron age started about three thousand years ago; the bronze age four thousand years ago. The first evidence of farming takes us back just 6000 years and about ten thousand years ago Britain was still joined to Northern Europe. The staggering fact is that to count to one trillion you would have had to start way before the last ice age (10,000 years ago), during the Palaeolithic period (the early stone age) when homo sapiens was still a hunter-gatherer.
Now to the second part of the question – does it really matter?
Well, we are spending more on interest payments to service the national debt than we do on defence and nearly as much as we do on education. And that one trillion figure does not include private finance initiatives and liabilities associated with public sector pensions. With those included, the number could be four times as great.
So, yes the national debt does matter because it consumes massive amounts of cash. But even with the aggressive an aggressive deficit reduction programme, it will continue to grow over the next 5 years to 1.3 trillion.
The public sector impact is obvious and private sector fall-out is inevitable.
The good news is that at times like these there are always opportunities for adaptive, resilient organisations.