The end of risk

Swaths of regulation and an industry of "fear entrepreneurs" have fuelled a climate of timidity abou

This island was once populated by an upbeat, outgoing sort of race - the kind who rallied together in adversity, bailed out each other's houses in times of flood, and popped round to neighbours with a casserole if someone sprained an ankle and couldn't cook. Nowadays, it is more than likely that people would be too busy investigating which authority to sue for the unexpected rainfall, and the victim of an injured ankle would be too absorbed with putting together a personal injury claim to eat a donated dinner.

Since the mid-1990s we have created an entire industry of "fear entrepreneurs" - lobby groups, campaigners, regulators and inspectors - whose livelihoods depend on fuelling concern about the dangers of everyday life.

We probably would not want to return to the days when we were so cavalier about risk that we thought nothing of trying out a smallpox vaccine on unsuspecting milkmaids. However, this collective timidity is now so serious that it is posing a threat to our willingness to take on almost any sort of challenge. We are bound up in a risk-reducing bureaucracy that threatens our commercial competitiveness in world markets.

A growing anxiety about what one might call the dangers of fearfulness has led Gordon Brown to ask the government's Better Regulation Commission (BRC) to produce a document presenting a "fully and more rounded presentation of public risk" as soon as possible.

It is not clear whether anyone has dared to ask him exactly what he means, but the raw material he wants built on is a BRC report called Risk, Responsibility and Regulation: Whose Risk Is It Anyway?, produced last autumn.

The report warned that concern about risk in all aspects of life, and the ensuing plethora of bureaucratic regulation, were endangering Britain's economic performance. It is not a redundant concern. The US is the only country in the world that shares our risk paranoia, and last year another report, com missioned by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, warned that the city's pre-eminence as a financial centre was under threat from too many directives and risk "regs".

It remains to be seen if the BRC - which moved in June from the Cabinet Office to the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will get something done about whose risk belongs where. Last year, there were 33 acts of parliament and more than 1,000 new regulations aimed at reducing various forms of risk. The BRC announced a target for government departments and agencies alone to cut 500 regulations that would reduce administrative costs by £2bn.

The commission's report called for Whitehall training schemes for the management and communication of risk, warning that fear of being blamed haunts ministers and civil servants, driving them to legislate even when an obvious practical solution is staring them in the face.

At the time, the BRC chairman, Rick Haythornthwaite, declared that our national resilience, self-reliance and spirit of adventure were being destroyed by a pervasive cultural demand for the elimination of all risk. He announced that the BRC was to produce red-tape reduction proposals for private industry, which could save further billions.

Haythornthwaite, who is also a managing director of the investment management company Star Capital Partners, says that Gordon Brown's new injunction will mean the existing BRC work plan will have to be put on hold.

Others are doubtful that anything much will happen at all. "There have been loads of these reports in recent years," says Paul Sanderson, a senior fellow at the University of Cambridge Centre for Business Research. "The government message is: 'Learn to love risk - we can't protect you from everything for ever,' but there is not much evidence so far of any change in practice." Nonetheless, he himself is organising an academic conference in September, optimistically entitled "The End of Zero Risk Regulation". The intention is to propagate the message that elimination of risk is not only undesirable, but unattainable.

Elsewhere, the aspiration to zero risk is being positively encouraged. The laudable intentions of the BRC are already being undermined by a proposal from the erstwhile Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA, now the Ministry of Justice), which says it would be better if more people could get compensation for personal injury claims. Consultation ended on 13 July on "streamlining" new arrangements for such insurance claims, removing, in many cases, the need for legal representation. It is predicted that under the new rules the number of compensation payouts will increase by 40 per cent.

Critics argue that the proposals will mean that the concept of an accident will finally vanish from our collective consciousness. If you fall over on a pavement made slippery by dead leaves, then someone should have swept it. If you fall off a cliff, someone should have checked you by putting up a notice warning that it is too far to jump.

The damaging knock-on effect of this mindset will inev itably be a reluctance to take on life's big risks and challenges. Andrew Caplan is on a Law Society working party discussing the implications of the DCA proposal, which is being pursued by the new Ministry of Justice. "A huge number of personal injury claims put through by trade unions never see the light of day because they are filtered out as invalid," he said. "Most of them would only be worth a few thousand anyway, so it will be cheaper for insurance companies to pay rather than contest them. But it is sending totally the wrong message."

Caplan has reason to be bitter about personal injury claims. He has seen at first hand the results of the compensation culture in his role as legal adviser to the Scout Association. He says there is a steady year-on-year increase in claims and a fall-off in adult volunteer helpers because of the extraordinary attitude of parents. His most memorable recent battles include a couple who sued because their nine-year-old was not allowed to ring home at 3am when he was homesick during a one-night camping expedition. The boy continued to attend Cub Scouts meetings even as his parents continued their legal action.

Others such as Martin Bare, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, say the compensation culture is an inevitable consequence of the abolition of legal aid and the passing of the burden to insurance companies, with claims-management companies constantly touting for potential litigants and a slice of the payout. "The intention is to give more people access to justice, but I'm not convinced this change will really make the system any more workable," Bare says.

There is undoubtedly real anxiety about the consequences of the prevailing social attitude to risk. A parliamentary group on adventure and recreation has been established, as has a campaign for adventure training, and there are many other efforts to promote the benefits of challenge. A national kite mark system called Go4It, promoted by the Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) organisation, is being launched in schools nationwide next term; the aim is to reward those seen as most willing to offer pupils physical and psychological challenges. "We want to tackle the change from a can-do society into a can't-do one," says Anne Evans, the HTI chief executive, who is herself a former comprehensive school head teacher.

She faces an uphill struggle. Risk aversion is a recent social phenomenon, but it is now all-pervasive. The rot set in seriously only as recently as 1993, following the drowning of four teenagers on a badly organised canoeing expedition in Lyme Bay, Dorset, in March that year. The tragedy led to the creation of a sweeping new law and a licensing system for activity centres. About half of the 1,500 similar organisations operating in the early 1990s disappeared because they were unable to meet the stringent requirements. There is now a shortage of such facilities for eager children, arguably contributing to our spiralling childhood obesity rates.

Meanwhile, opinion polls consistently show that people who want risk regulated out of their lives as far as possible are equally balanced against those who kick against such regulation. Others manage to hold both opinions simultaneously.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and a leading commentator on the nature of attitudes to risk, says widespread concern about subjects such as climate change and fears about the future of mankind feed into a general pessimism. No senior politician will take the risk of publicly allying him or herself with the pro-risk campaigners, for fear of being blamed for the next disaster.

He ascribes the creation of phantom risk to the absence of real danger or adversity in our lives. "Safety has become a commodity which has a value of its own," he says. "It is not something you discover through trial and error: it is something you hold on to and do not change. I think that attitude will change only when there is a genuine external threat, like a war or a really serious disaster."

And that is something really worth worrying about.

Risk cases that have entertained us

An injured commuter called Brian Piccolo could win up to £1.5m in compensation after he slipped on a stray petal outside a florist’s shop at Marylebone Station. A high court judge ruled on 17 July that staff should have cleaned up outside the shop.

In April, a primary school teacher was awarded £12,958 out of court after falling off

a toilet seat. The woman dislocated her hip after toppling off the bowl, intended for use only by children under the age of 11.

In 1999, a family in Upper Mayfield, Derbyshire, sued the people who had sold them a 250-year-old cottage because, they said, the sellers failed to disclose that it was haunted. A county court judge threw out the claim.

A man won a £200 claim against a doctor he said had given him a cold. Trevor Perry, who got the sniffles after seeing Helen Young for a check-up, said she must have made him ill, as he’d not been in contact with anyone else. A judge reversed the verdict in 2002.

A deputy head teacher in Bristol sued her former school for £1m after it failed to replace a chair that made flatulent noises whenever she moved. Sue Storer, 48, claimed it was a “regular joke”, part of a catalogue of sexist behaviour that had undermined her position. She lost her case in 2006.

A binman made a claim against his local council after being “startled” by a dead badger that fell out of a rubbish bag . . .

Research by Marika Mathieu

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war