Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

Tate London 2014
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The good daughter

The truth is I don’t want to be a full-time carer, any more than I wanted to be a full-time mother. And I don’t want to live with my ma any more than she wants to live with me.

In Tate Britain is a painting by the Victorian artist George Elgar Hicks of a woman ministering tenderly to her invalid father. It is called Comfort of Old Age. The work is the final panel of Hicks’s triptych Woman’s Mission. The first part, Guide of Childhood, in which the same figure teaches her little boy to walk, has been lost. But the second panel also hangs at the Tate in London: Companion of Manhood shows our heroine consoling her husband after ghastly news.

Hicks depicted “woman” in her three guises – mother, wife, daughter – and in her ideal state, the selfless provider of guidance, solace and care. Her life has meaning only in so far as it nourishes and facilitates the lives of others, principally men.

Domestic and emotional labour, we call it now. Feminists have long campaigned both for this to be acknowledged as real work and for men to do their share. Women cannot reach their potential at the office, notes Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, until men pull their weight at home. But this has always been the toughest, messiest fight, because it is about domestic harmony, varying standards of personal hygiene, nagging, sulking and love. Besides, there is an enduring sense, little changed since Hicks’s day, that not only are women better at caring duties, but it is their natural lot.

I have spent a long time in the first two panels of the triptych: a partner/wife for 30 years, a mother for 21. (My two sons are grown and pretty much gone.) And I have seen, in the course of my adult life, enormous progress in those two domains. Men no longer assume that wives will dump their careers to follow them on foreign postings, for instance, or that mothers cannot work. According to research by the Office for National Statistics, women still do 40 per cent more household chores than men but, growing up, I never saw a man make dinner, let alone push a pram. Marriages are increasingly equal partnerships and each generation of fathers is more engaged.

Now I have reached the third panel, the trickiest bit of the triptych. My 93-year-old mother is 200 miles away in Doncaster, and since my father died, five years ago, she has been living alone. She is – I must stress – admirable, independent, uncomplaining and tough. A stoic. Someone who doesn’t mourn her every lost faculty but relishes what she can still do. Yet almost everyone she ever knew is dead, and I am her only child: her principal Comfort of Old Age.

For a long time, the landscape was a series of plateaus and small dips. Her little house acquired rails, walking frames, adaptations; she wears an emergency pendant. But until she broke her hip four years ago, she wouldn’t even have a cleaner. (“I don’t want strangers in my house.”) She managed. Just. But since Christmas the terrain has shifted. A persistent infection, two collapses, three ambulance rides, tachycardia (in which your heart beats to the point of explosion), but then, after three weeks, back home. Finally I persuaded her to have carers – nice, kindly, expensive – for an hour five times a week. (She demanded days off.) A slightly lower plateau.

Then, a few weeks ago, a neighbour called to say that my ma’s curtains were still closed at 4pm. She was found dehydrated, hallucinating. (She hadn’t pressed her emergency button; it was a non-carer day.) I hurriedly packed my bag for God knows how long, then scrambled north to sit by her bedside believing, for the third time this year, that I was watching her die.

For three weeks, on and off, I slept alone in my teenage single bed, in the house where I grew up, weeping every time I opened a cupboard to see her cake tins or Easter eggs for her grandsons. That week, I read a news report about how having children makes people live two years longer. Of course! As her daughter, I was her advocate, hassling doctors for information, visiting, reassuring, making sure she was fed, washing her soiled clothes (even long-stay units won’t do laundry), trying to figure out what to do next. God help the childless! Really, who will speak for them?

Finally, having wrestled her into (almost) daily care – she is very stubborn – I returned to London to find a letter. I am a Times columnist and write a weekly notebook slot, occasionally featuring my mother. I am used to harsh reader critiques of my life. But this, I must say, stung. It was from a man who lives in Cheshire (he had supplied his name and address), and he wanted me to know what a terrible person I am. “I have been puzzled when reading your column over the past months how you have been able to leave your mother – whose serious health issues you have used as copy . . . to holiday in Mexico, East Anglia and Norway.” I was “selfish and self-regarding”, and I should be ashamed.

He was not the first. Online posters often chide me for maternal neglect, and otherwise kind letters sometimes conclude: “But I do think your mother should move in with you.” Anyway, my egregious Mexican holiday had been long delayed by her illness and although she was well when I left, I was braced to fly back at any moment. The Norway trip was to visit my son on his 21st birthday. No matter. How dare I have a life.

I was reminded of when my children were young and I was a magazine editor. The guilt-tripping, the moral judgement: the looks from full-time mothers, the pursed lips from older relatives. Why bother having kids if you work full-time? Back then, I was “selfish and self-regarding”, too. My husband, who worked vastly longer hours, was blameless.

So let me warn you that just when you’re free from being judged as a mother, you’ll be judged as a daughter. It is the last chance for reactionary types who resent women’s career success, or just their freedom to live how they choose, to have a dig. Look at this selfish bitch, weekending in East Anglia when she should be a Comfort of Old Age.

When we say someone is a Good Dad, it means he turns up to football matches and parents’ evenings, gives sensible advice, isn’t a derelict alcoholic or a deserter. I know many fathers do much, much more. But that is the bar to Good Dadhood. It is pretty low. To qualify as a Good Mother, however, a woman must basically subsume her entire existence into her children and household and may only work part-time, if at all.

So, what is a Good Daughter? A US report showed in 2014 that daughters were twice as likely as sons to care for their elderly parents. In a survey of 26,000 older Americans, Angelina Grigoryeva, a sociologist at Princeton University, discovered that daughters provide as much care as they can manage, while sons do as little as they can get away with. If they have sisters or even wives, men are likely to leave it to them. I can find no equivalent UK study, but I’d bet the same is true here.

I know many sons who help out with ageing parents: Sunday care-home visits or a spot of DIY. Some do the truly grim stuff, such as washing and toileting a frail, dementia-patient father. And all sons – unless they are estranged, or cruel, or in prison – are Good Sons. Being a Good Daughter is a much tougher gig. However often I go north, sort out bills, buy new ironing boards, listen to my mother’s worries, take her shopping, organise her Christmas presents and stay awake worrying, it won’t be enough. A friend visits her disabled mother every day, despite her family and career, sorts out wheelchairs and carers, runs errands. Her three brothers drop by for ten minutes once a fortnight: so busy, so important! Yet my friend’s care is a given, and her brothers are “marvellous”. A truly Good Daughter would quit her job, have her old mother move in and tend to her alone.

The truth is I don’t want to be a full-time carer, any more than I wanted to be a full-time mother. And I don’t want to live with my ma any more than she wants to live with me. Now that I’ve served out my motherhood years, I want to do other things with my life besides looking after people. Is that a shocking admission? Men wouldn’t give it a second thought.

Yet politicians of left and right are always telling us that the solution to our screwed-up social-care system is the family. To socialists, the “care industry” is further evidence of marketisation and the profit motive taking over the personal sphere. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, has said that he favours the “Asian model” and the care minister David Mowat said recently that we must care for our parents as unquestioningly as we do our children. In practice, these all amount to the same thing: women, chiefly daughters and daughters-in-law, toiling away unpaid.

After Christmas, while my mother was living with me, frail and recuperating from her infection, I hired a private carer so that I could work. This lovely woman was boundlessly kind, calm, patient, unfazed: I am none of these things. Ask me to fix the car, get sense from a doctor, shout at the council: I’m Action Daughter, at your service. But expect me to sit still in a room making nice for hours and I am crap. In Hicks’s Woman’s Mission, I have failed.

A Times reader chastised me for hiring help: “Well, I’d expect to look after my own mother myself.” And I was reminded once more of early motherhood, when I employed a nanny. Yes, a nanny, not a childminder or a nursery. I know the word makes left-wing men crazy: you cold, rich, privileged cow. That nanny, funnily enough, allowed both my husband and me to work, but it was me who got the rap.

Even hiring a cleaner is “problematic”. A good feminist shouldn’t expect a poorer woman to clear up after her, I hear. To which I reply: my mother was a cleaner for thirty years and her meagre wages paid for my new shoes. When a couple hire a cleaner, it is nearly always to compensate for the shortfall in male domestic labour, yet it is the woman, again, who has somehow failed.

In the third part of the triptych, paid help for elderly parents is even more of a dereliction of female duty. My mother’s next-door neighbour has cared for her invalid father, unaided, for 20 years; a friend has remodelled her house to accommodate her elderly parents. Across Britain are millions of people who care for relatives with little respite. When I say that a private carer now visits my mother, I do so with shame because, most days, this is the only company she receives. A nice lady called Sue helps with her jigsaw puzzle, chats to her, does some light housework and fetches her shopping. But what she is paying for is a surrogate me.

It tears up my heart. Yet it is complicated. What if you live far from your home town: should you be expected to return? My unmarried aunt came back after an interesting single life to live with my grandmother until her death. Her siblings didn’t thank her for this sacrifice. Indeed, without the status of marriage, she was treated with disdain.

Last month, as a Nigerian health assistant helped Ma to the hospital bathroom, I remarked that she lives alone. “Why?” came the horrified response. In her culture, this made no sense. But northern European society has evolved an individualism that often transcends notions of family and duty. This applies to the old and offspring alike.

Largely our elderly do not want, Asian-style, to be infantilised by their children, or bossed around by their daughters-in-law. (The claim that Indian parents are “revered” is undermined by rampant elder abuse.) My ma wants to watch Corrie, eat quiche, not feel she is in the way. “I like to please myself,” is her refrain. Her home of almost 50 years is her carapace: her central fear is of being too ill to stay. Despite the much-discussed return of “multigenerational living”, the most popular British solution is the “granny annex”, where an old person maintains autonomy behind her own front door.

Moreover, members of the baby-boomer generation recoil at living with their parents. We spent our teenage years trying to escape. What if your upbringing featured divorce, personality clashes, arguments, abuse? What if, like me, you left your working-class culture for a completely different life – what if you have little in common? Or your widowed father now expects you to run around after him like a skivvy, just as he did your mum? You can reject your roots for your entire adulthood, then your parents’ frailty yanks you home.

Now those Guide of Childhood years seem simple and golden, although the parallels are striking. From stair gates to stairlifts; from pushchairs to wheelchairs; the incontinence provision; the helplessness. But raising children is largely a cheerful, upward trajectory. Elderly care is an uneven descent, via those dips and plateaus, towards some hidden crevasse. There is no compensatory boasting, showing cute snaps on your phone. You learn not to mention geriatric travails. People look uncomfortable or bored: too grim.

But, just as a child shows you the world anew – look, a spider, a leaf, the sea, Christmas! – through clear, unjaded eyes, older people reveal what truly matters in the end. A reader remarked that it was probably best that my mother, at 93, now died. I replied that she gets more joy in M&S than some get from a Caribbean cruise. With age, the world distils down to elemental pleasures: seeing a grandchild, a piece of cake, a sunny day, the warmth of a hand. When my father was very close to death and when recently my ma was at her sickest, both still managed to utter the words “I love you”. Just as when a frightened child cries for you in the night, you are utterly irreplaceable, needed.

And it will be your turn soon, when your parents are old. We are living longer, often fading out in medically preserved decrepitude over many years. I can’t understand why both as individuals and as a society we refuse to plan. Well, actually I can. It’s horrible. As my mother always says: “When it happens, it happens.”

Yet there is so much we could do. Come up with a cross-party agreement on how to fund social care through the tax system. Invest money and imagination in ways that old people can remain in their home, rather than slash home help. Develop friendship schemes and clubs, so the lonely aren’t so dependent on faraway children. Enable the old to use the internet: few are online, though no one would benefit from it more. Rip up the care-home model in which the elderly are objects in a chair: let people be their full human selves until the end.

Above all, we must redraw that final panel of the triptych. Don’t judge daughters more harshly than sons. Don’t let men slink away from their fair share. Don’t wield the family as a glib solution. Instead, acknowledge that it is hard, heart-rending work, being a Comfort of Old Age. 

Janice Turner is a columnist for the Times

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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