The UN’s first ever report on the state of childhood in the industrialized West made unpleasant reading for many of the world’s richest nations. But none found it quite so hard to swallow as the Brits, who, old jokes about English cooking aside, discovered that they were eating their own young.
According to the Unicef report, which measured 40 indicators of quality of life – including the strength of relationships with friends and family, educational achievements and personal aspirations, and exposure to drinking, drug taking and other risky behavior – British children have the most miserable upbringing in the developed world. American children come next, second from the bottom.
The report confirmed many people’s suspicions about the “British disease,” in the process raising doubts about the Anglo-American model of progress in general. As the older but also weaker partner, Britain may well serve to warn a host of nations following closely behind on its path. While an aging, ever more crowded Europe looks on anxiously at the stress behavior currently being exhibited by its own dysfunctional young – be it Parisian car barbecues or riots in Denmark and Germany – our continental cousins can’t help but notice that many of these behaviors debuted in Anglo-American cultures. The report explicitly demonstrated that, at least on this side of the Atlantic, the British are trailblazers of generational instability and social deterioration. On the whole, British children were more disconnected from their families, with nearly half of 15-year-old boys spending most nights out with friends, compared to just 17 percent of their French counterparts. Forty percent of UK youth had sex before age 15, compared with 15 percent of Polish teens. They drank nearly four times as much as the Italians, and, perhaps most saliently, had the lowest sense of subjective well-being among all the youth surveyed.
But to what degree was the report accurate, and how much of it was hyperbole? The Independent’s Paul Vallely quickly dismissed it as just another tabloid chapter in the UK’s ongoing moral panic about its feral children. “Consider the hugely varied responses,” he observed, “Everyone sees in it confirmation of their pre-existing worldview. It’s an indictment of our dog-eat-dog society. It showed how the furious pace of technical and cultural change is accelerating childhood depression and behavioral problems. It confirmed how rubbish New Labour has been on eradicating poverty. It is the result of market forces pushing children to act, dress and consume like adults. It is the fault of junk food, computers and pedophiles lurking round every corner. Pick your prejudice, you can find the evidence here.”
Others were neither as sure nor as reassuring. Veteran columnist Mary Dejevksy noted that “while Labour politicians swerved frantically away from accepting the findings – variously blaming Margaret Thatcher, the subjectivity of the categories, or the supposed obsolescence of the statistics – large numbers of people across the country breathed a sigh of relief. Here was documentary support for their fears. After ten years of official assurances that things were only getting better – greater all round prosperity, less child poverty, more nurseries, fewer teenage pregnancies, and improved exam results – callers and emailers embraced the Unicef findings as an alternative truth more in line with their own experience.”
Around the nation, airtime was cleared for cathartic phone-ins, heated discussions, and a torrent of contributors that simply would not stop. As if sensing that many of the problems might in part stem from the government’s unparalleled obsession with monitoring, measuring and homogenizing the very children it once sought to cherish, many former Labour advisors suddenly sought to introduce daylight between their ideas and those of the heavily surveilled nanny state. Neil Lawson of the Labour think-tank Compass bleakly admitted: “Society is hollowing out, but not just in the rotting boroughs of south London. The middle classes are anxious too. Many are richer but few seem happier. Mental illness abounds. White-collar jobs are outsourced to India. Everyone looks for meaning in their lives – but all they find is shopping.”
“The reason our children’s lives are the worst among economically advanced countries is because we are a poor version of the USA,” he said. “So the USA comes second from bottom and we follow behind. The age of neo-liberalism, even with the human face that New Labour has given it, cannot stem the tide of the social recession capitalism creates.”
Others claimed that Labour had conducted a botched experiment in social engineering through financial incentives that favored full-time work for all parents, except the super rich or the desperately deprived. Popular psychologist and Affluenza author Oliver James called on the UK to raise the status of being a parent over the status of the worker-consumer. “Being a stay at home mother has a lower one than that of a street-sweeper,” he lamented, adding that after spending a decade trying to advise the current administration, they had done almost the exact opposite of what was needed.
But what if the behavior of broken British children is less a violent reaction to their inadequate pasts than calculated defiance against their hopeless futures? Looking ahead, demographers and sociologists have begun to map out the downward trajectory on the bell curve called “progress.” They’ve spotted trouble – the kind of trouble that may already be written in the faces of today’s teens’ older siblings. In their Class of 2005 survey, LSE economist Nick Bosanquet, along with Blair Gibbs of the independent think tank Reform, branded Britain’s under-35s the “iPod Generation” – insecure, pressured, over-taxed and debt-ridden. Warning that Britain was at a generational tipping point when it came to quality of life, they argued, “The common perception is that today’s young people have it easy. But the true position of young people is thrown into stark relief when compared to their parents . . . who enjoyed many advantages of which the younger generation can now only dream, including a generous welfare state, free universal higher education, secure pensions and a substantial rise in housing equity which has augmented their lifetime savings.”
Others have called the tripling of housing costs in under a decade the largest generational asset transfer – from young and poor to old and rich – in UK history, and it is almost certainly the key factor contributing to both the nation’s plummeting birth-rate and its record £1.2 trillion in personal debt, a figure that puts even the most voracious American consumer to shame. Debt, whether measured in a natal deficit or angry letters from the bank, is a sure sign that the good times are up, because the only way the pretense of affluence can be continued is if tomorrow’s hardship is used to pay for today’s brief consumer whims.
The first stirrings of major intergenerational conflict are already being noted. The basic rights of the recent past – a safe job, free education and healthcare, secure homes to raise a family, a modest but comfortable old age – have slipped quietly away, all to be replaced by a myriad of vapid lifestyle choices and glittery consumer trinkets. Excluded from a national social housing scheme sold off by their parents, unwilling to give birth in the UK’s draconian new system of rental accommodation which gives tenants no more than six months grace from eviction, and unable to afford homes of their own in 85 percent of the country, today’s iPod generation is stunted: trapped halfway between childhood and adulthood. It now takes them until 34, on average, before they can afford a house, let alone have a family of their own. Little surprise that they are such a woeful models of grown-up responsibility for their younger siblings to emulate. Mom and Dad aren’t much better. By blowing their children’s inheritance on 80 percent of the UK’s luxury good purchases, from SUVs to cruises and anti-wrinkle creams, Britain’s baby-boomers seem hell bent on ensuring that, even without coming resource shortages such as Peak Oil, their offspring will be the first generation in living memory to have a lowered standard of living.
The economic impact of baby boomers is certainly no surprise to those in the city, who have long described the boomer charge through the decades as the “pig in the pipeline.” As Channel 4’s economics correspondent Faisal Islam observed, “They embraced social liberalism, flower power and a large state when they were teenagers, and low taxes, a smaller state and loads-of-money individualism in their period of high disposable income. Then on the realization of their own mortality, up goes spending on the health service and pensions. Fifty to 64 year-olds also have the largest carbon footprints – 20 percent bigger than other age groups – yet the climate change phenomenon will not affect them. Perhaps we are seeing the scary sight of a generation that has been rather brutal in getting its own way squeezing everything it can out of its children.”
Or, as Conservative MP David Willetts, put it: “A young person could be forgiven for believing that the way in which economic and social policy is now conducted is little less than a conspiracy by the middle-aged against the young.”
No wonder the UK is increasingly repressing its youth. As the generational divide deepens, it makes sense for the older generations to stake their claim now, while they have the power of the state on their side. Aside from handing out more than 10,000 Asbos (Antisocial Behaviour Orders, a cross between a human parking ticket and the sort of condemned notice you sometimes see on the walls of derelict buildings), the petty misanthropy that bans hoodie-wearing teenagers from shopping malls, forces parenting classes on failing single mums, and allows 79 percent of police forces to impose curfews on children, comes easily to a nation that thought up the idea that its young should be seen and not heard. But never before have we put them under this degree of surveillance while simultaneously turning a blind eye to our adult responsibilities. Satellites track their phones, marketeers groom them on cyberspace, police add the DNA from 600 innocent children a week to a 50,000-sample database, while libraries fingerprint them to borrow books – all linked by rafts of new childhood databases joining the dots. In an age of hyper-individualism we are recoiling from the very children we have created. Monitoring is not enough, we must be protected from them. So Conservative leader David Cameron’s call to “hug a hoodie” was mocked, but Tony Blair won praise for ignoring compelling crime statistics and launching a “Respect agenda” to protect the societies safest members (the over-50s) from those most at risk of crime (the under-25s)
Just how much more hopeless does the situation have to become before Britain’s children wake up and realize that they no longer want to be monitored, marketed and manipulated for the benefit of their elders? Is it possible to wake and warn them? Some would seem to have neither the skills nor the will to articulate their anger and isolation.
As a small, densely populated island that spawned both the industrial revolution and colonialism, Britain has a lot to tell the rest of the developed world in general, and America in particular, about our common future. If the crisscrossing fault-lines of greed, geopolitics and social inequality do reach a tipping point, we may well see a conflict between youthful brutality and the power of old age that will only accelerate the decline. Maybe we should hope that our young people never wake. Because, if they do, Britain may soon be no place to grow old.