How should we live?


  • Social brain

The Young Foundation’s report ‘Sinking not swimming: Understanding Britain’s Unmet Needs’ is an important contribution to public policy debate. This is how YF Director (and my former colleague) Geoff Mulgan, sums up the report in today’s Times:

Our survey shows that Britain is a rich country but with many poor people; a generally happy country but with many unhappy people. It’s not broken. But it is brittle, anxious and stressed. To the public it is obvious that psychological needs are as important as material ones, that love, care, peace of mind are as vital to a good life as having enough heating or enough clothes to wear. Yet there is an odd gulf between this common knowledge and public policy. Whoever can bridge that gap may win the battle to convince the public that they understand poverty and what to do about it.     

This is a nuanced and credible account. It suggests we should give more attention to three sets of issues:

1. How can we enhance individual resilience? Earlier in his Times piece Mulgan says that one of the most important findings from recent research is that people can learn resilience. This has implications for schools, for health care (the Government marked the YF report by announcing extra public investment in services to fight depression), and for community development strategies. Individual resilience as a psychological trait could come to be seen as ranking alongside literacy and numeracy as a core competence in the modern world.

2. The report once again opens up the question of the relationship between conventional economic growth and wider social well-being (an issue discussed in the RSA's Journal and which I covered here a few weeks ago). Interestingly, in his talk here last night about the enlightenment, Tzvetan Todorov identified an unquestioning belief in technological progress as one of the weaknesses of enlightenment thought. 

3. It may not be easy to have a national debate about growth and well-being nationally but how about at the local level? The RSA strategic partnership with Peterborough is exploring the concept of sustainable citizenship. Can public policy be shaped by a community wide exploration of the kind of place people want to live in and the kind of lives they want to lead?

After decades when policy debate seemed dominated by technocratic debates about how best to configure public services, the growing interest in more substantive questions of public good is surely to be welcomed. It is absolutely in line with the RSA’s way of thinking and working.

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