The Children's Society assault on modernity, and public sympathy for the idea behind the Lindsey and Sellafield protests that we put 'our own' workers ahead of the principles of free market capitalism, show that we are moving into a period of social and cultural transition. Voices that had been considered unrealistic or extreme will be given a hearing.
The danger of this new burst of egalitarian pessimism is that it lays the basis for an appeal to authoritarian hierarchism.
By all means, let us discuss how progress may be hurting our children. Let's think carefully about how we might start to craft a more humane way of living. But in this spirit of compassion, let's also listen for the sound of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.
Today we have the strikes against foreign workers at Sellafield and the Lindsey refinery, which seem less a xenophobic outburst, more a backlash against European integration and globalisation. Predictably, the economic downturn is firing protectionist sentiment.
Also there is the report from a Commission sponsored by the Children's Society which appears to be a denunciation of almost every aspect of modern society and culture, from materialism to school league tables, from working mothers to video games.
The Children’s Society report needs careful reading. Its gloomy findings seem to be substantially based on two sources: attitudinal research, which is notoriously unreliable, and evidence submitted to the Commission, which is bound to some extent to reflect a self selecting sample. The conclusions drawn seem also to be somewhat slanted by the predispositions of the Commissioners. Much is made of the decline in trust as revealed by attitude surveys, and this is linked to individualism. But I haven’t so far heard the more uncomfortable fact for the progressively inclined: low trust is strongly correlated with living in diverse areas with high population turnover.
The Children’s Society has clearly decided its goals are best served by being as alarmist as possible. But even a cursory reading of the report summary finds the actual conclusions are more balanced. While the headlines today shout about stressed out kids in pressurised schools, the report summary is much more balanced:
“Whilst leisure and fun were clearly important to young people, the value of education was also recognised. A good quality of education was cited by many as one of the key factors of a good childhood. Young people also recognised the importance of their own commitment to working hard and achieving for their future well-being.
However, this generally positive picture was balanced by substantial comment about the negative impact of school pressure. There were both positive and negative comments about teachers. Positive comments emphasised support, help and understanding; negative comments tended to refer to pressure at school. Finally there was comment about the importance of wider learning about life and the need for positive role models. Over half (58%) of young people surveyed were worried about their exams at school, and almost half (47%) said that they often worried about school work.”
As I said on the Today programme, some of the things the report is most concerned about - working mothers and pressure on school performance, for example, can be seen as strategies to address some of the report’s other concerns: persistent poverty and low social mobility. The Scandinavian countries most often cited as being great for children have even higher levels of maternal employment and similar levels of family breakdown.
Using the framework of cultural theory, I have been predicting an egalitarian backlash against the dominant individualism of the last thirty years. The challenge is to welcome these big debates but not to abandon reason in the process. From greater tolerance of difference to the incredible opportunities afforded by modern technology, there is much to celebrate in our modern world. Opinion formers must beware pandering to social pessimism. After all, the most powerful attitudinal statistic may be how much more optimistic about our own lives, families and communities we are than as about society as a whole.
The period between the end of the second world war and the oil shocks of the seventies was dominated by hierarchical thinking; a time of the big corporation, national planning, a faith in expertise and technological progress. The protest movements of the sixties were the egalitarian backlash, but while the hippies and leftists shook the branches it was the free marketeers and champions of individualism who caught the fruit.