A new deal for British children

Why are our young people so unhappy? Because we have become a society that fears, demonises and sile

"We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day," sang that well-known lover of children, Michael Jackson. Children making a brighter day? Not in this country, it seems. Where are these magical children who come with a promise, not a threat? They certainly haven't featured in the headlines of the past few years, unless they have gone missing. Nor in the endless discussion that tells us both that our children are awful and that to be a child in Britain is to be in a pretty bad place.

"We have the unhappiest children in the world," chirruped David Cameron in his recent speech on social revival. Makes you feel proud, doesn't it? Are we a nation of actual child-haters? Or are we so frightened of our children these days that, like mice which have been disturbed, we may eat them? Certainly, if one ploughs through the "expert overviews" from everyone from the UN to Ofsted, it becomes clear we are failing our children. Yet somehow this monumental failure cannot be admitted politically, or policy radically altered. By nearly all the criteria by which we measure the well-being of our kids, we come very low in the league of industrialised countries. We lag behind in terms of relative poverty: the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 since 2005, despite the government's efforts. We rate low in the quality of children's relationships with their parents and with their peers, in basic child health and safety. Our kids rate highly only for "risk-taking" (sex, drugs and alcohol) and, unsurprisingly, low for subjective well-being. The kids ain't all right and they are saying it themselves.

The Children's Society claimed in 2006 that up to a fifth of our kids have mental health problems, and one in 12 is self-harming. The latest UN report compiled by the children's commissioners of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adds to this bleak impression. We incarcerate more children than any other country in western Europe, locking up nearly 3,000 under-18s last year. Thirty children have died in custody since 1990 but there has never been a public inquiry into conditions in youth detention centres. We are actually breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in several areas.

Depressed? I am. I need a break, so I wander down my local street, where mothers stop to give their toddlers baby cappuccinos or whatever those things are called. There is yet another newly opened expensive children's clothes shop with designer high-chairs and special baby jewellery. I was here a few days ago - my youngest was drumming in a parade as her school had some Brazilians in to do a carnival workshop.

How does this bubble of cosiness fit with these horrendous statistics? Are some children just doing fine while those close by suffer? Well, yes. But we turn a blind eye. In the fifth-richest country in the world, nearly four million children are growing up in "relative poverty". We mostly don't care: half of the respondents to a recent survey didn't accept the concept of "relative poverty". We don't even agree on what counts as a child. If I say we lock up too many children, many would agree. If I say we lock up too many 16-year-old "hoodies", many wouldn't. If the British are generally rubbish at parenting, we are spectacularly bad with our teenagers. Our moral panic about feral youth is surely a panic about adolescence. Small children may be badly behaved and socially deprived, but we don't actually start to fear them until they start becoming the same size as us. Isn't this how we remain grossly sentimental about some aspects of childhood while being completely negligent of others?

What preoccupies us about other people's children is their antisocial tendencies; what preoccupies us about our own is their school. The national conversation about education has been dumbed down. The question about education is no longer even multiple-choice. The answer is private good, public bad, even though most can't afford that choice. What makes a school good, apart from results? What is learning for? I have mused for the 17 years since I encountered the school system as a parent. These airy-fairy questions have been batted away as my kids have been subjected to regime changes entailing relentless waffle about standards and non-stop testing. I have often felt it's a shame that no one has properly devised a system where you can revise something for an exam before you have actually learned and understood it, as that appears to be what is required.

I no longer feel such a minority with my insane ideas about child-centred education because over testing is belatedly seen not to have worked. It has not produced more functionally literate and numerate children. Quite the opposite. Music and art have been squeezed out. Children who won't or don't fit into this system start bunking off and never really return. A pupil referral unit refers mainly to explicit social exclusion. School can be a rewarding place for already successful children, but for the many who already, by secondary level, feel failures, they are often simply another venue in which to fail fast.

Instead of dealing with this head-on, the national discourse acts as a form of displacement. We worry terribly about Oxbridge entrance and starred A-levels and how degrees aren't what they once were. Serious people fret about the kind of social engineering that may allow more state school candidates to enter the elite institutions. Have we become so idiotic that we refuse to insist that education remain the most important form of social engineering, of the widening of opportunity, available to us? Education matters increasingly because it indicates the future economic function of each child. As the economy now demands two working parents to provide a decent standard of living, this matters. A lot.

As social mobility has ground to a halt, what will differentiate one young person from another is not only formal education, but social and personal skills. According to a 2006 IPPR report, in a survey of those born in 1958 and 1970, person al and social skills "became 33 times more important, between generations, in determining earnings in later life". And how do you get those skills? You pay for them. The middle classes purchase activities that will enhance their children's development. Poorer kids commit the crime of hanging out in unstructured environments. The mantra of the young is that they simply want to "be themselves", but some have had a lot more support than others in learning who they may be. Those who cannot be contained indoors or via extended school activities may have the audacity to go outside, to inhabit public spaces, to call the streets their own. This in itself is now seen as anti social. One of the most mind-blowing statistics I read was that in the British Crime Survey of 2004/2005, 1.5 million people said they had considered moving or leaving the country "mainly because of young people hanging around". With any luck, they can emigrate to countries where children are culled at puberty.

Visible youth

"Visible youth" are seen both as at risk and as a danger to others. They are a potent signifier of our deep moral decline. We are completely schizophrenic on this subject. If kids are inside, they risk obesity and absorbing ever more violent imagery from computer games. They are also in peril from "turbo-consumerism", encouraged to identify themselves only through brands. Should they venture outside the home, if they are small they could be taken by paedophiles, or if they are big their presence may upset any adults who come across them. Children are ever more contained and surveyed. Rowan Williams, ever the man for the unpopular cause, is one of the few public figures to speak up for the rights of teenagers to loiter. The kids themselves say they have nothing to do. And it's true. For those with little money there are few places to go, or organised activities. Solutions such as having parks and playgrounds staffed have not materialised. As the recent UN report says: "The government must urgently address the widely held intolerance of children in public places." But how? By remaking civil society, or by a Cameron-style social revival? All this runs counter to the privatisation of so many aspects of childhood.

The rapid social changes of the past 30 years have hit women and children hardest. Women have adapted by going out to work, and as soon as women can be financially independent, marriage is in trouble. The impact of this on children is undeniable. Two parents may be better than one, but this is not a trend that is going to reverse any time soon and the Tory fantasy of glueing together broken families by means of tax breaks remains just that - a fantasy.

Underpinning much of our concern about youth is the undeniable fact of widening inequality. This is especially pertinent to the way we have criminalised whole sections of our youth as though a punitive attitude is in itself a solution. Inequality does not "excuse" crime, but to deny its effect is preposterous. We can certainly look at countries such as Germany and Finland, whose youth justice systems do better than ours, and ask what they do that we don't. One of the most obvious is that they do not criminalise children at such a young age. At ten, our children are not deemed legally responsible enough to own a pet, but they can still be a criminal. The murder of James Bulger brought these arguments to the fore. Who can forget the women with toddlers in buggies coming to scream that the killers should be killed because, as one red-faced mother with impeccably twisted logic said to a TV crew, "Killing children is wrong"? All the latest research by neuroscientists indicates that at ten, the frontal lobes may not be developed enough to fully manage and control emotions. Our current youth justice system is not working, and produces a huge rate of reoffending.

The years of hardcore and basically right-wing policies enacted by new Labour in the fields of education and crime have not worked. Money has been poured in and child-centred or therapeutic approaches have been pooh-poohed. The tide now has to turn not simply for ideological reasons, but for economic ones. We have more money than ever, but our children are demonstrably not happier. Overtesting our children has not made them cleverer; criminalising them has not made them behave better. Not enough children have been "lifted" out of poverty. Frank Field MP talks of the cul-de-sac of government policy on this issue. If something is not working, why do we keep doing more of it?

As adults, we do not seem mature enough to deal with a changing world. We fear the virtual world our children inhabit because we cannot mediate it. We fear consumerism but we do little to challenge it. Our children cannot grow up properly, as the traditional markers of adulthood, such as marriage and setting up home, occur much later. The gap between childhood and adulthood is not easily defined. Instead, we rush to occupy this space ourselves, colonising the culture of our offspring and refusing to grow old.

The only agency that we offer young people is consumption. That they choose then to overconsume a toxic mixture of skunk, Primark and fantastically cheap booze should not surprise us. Adults have in effect given up their role of socialising the young. We are scared to intervene ourselves but are outraged when public bodies fail. When a child dies, the witch-hunt for the hapless social worker ensues. It is shocking that we have no single agency responsible for early intervention in children's lives, because just about everybody agrees that this is absolutely key.

All the statistics show that the emotional well-being of a ten-year-old will predict their behaviour at 16. All of us have surely seen this in the classroom - kids already lost before they have begun. Still, we spend 11 times more on locking up children than we do on trying to prevent difficult behaviour. Countries that are doing better than us do so because therapeutic and family interventions are not only more effective than punishment, but cheaper.

Our own failing

The public and political response to this failure has been denial, calling for these already deficient systems to become harsher. Lock up more kids, make them do even more exams, hate them for staying indoors, be afraid of them outside and ignore the collateral damage. The state as it functions is not a great parent. It is impotent in the face of declining social mobility as it now cowers before the market instead of trying to regulate it.

Our current fear of youth is basically a fear of our own failing. The "I'm all right, Jack" approach that requires us to become entrepreneurs on behalf of our own offspring has produced a culture that now fears the children of others so much, it turns them into aliens. We have angels, they have devils. And what do these demons say when asked about their aspirations? They want love, respect, to feel safe and protected, but they also want freedom and places to go that are free and local. Are these such ridiculous demands?

The battle of the future is chiefly about the limits of the state. Cameron dodges it by quaintly reinventing society and promising to deliver the voluntary sector. I look forward to the rehabilitation of crack addicts by the Women's Institute. Yet both of the main parties must acknowledge that the state has not been adept at catering to the needs of young people. It appears in their lives as both anachronistic and antagonistic.

In short, children need a New Deal. One that works. They need to be given much more space, both physically and mentally. They need to be seen as full of potential, not evil. Demonising them has proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. Culturally, politically and economically, they need to stop being punished as symbols of our self- indulgent idea of moral decay. The first step is that they be "decriminalised"; the second is that they are allowed to be seen in public; the third may be that they can sometimes be heard. Radical stuff, I know.

Housing by numbers

The kids are not all right

  • 3.9m number of children living in poverty in the UK (30%)
  • 25% of 11- to 16-year-olds have been bullied online, by email or by text message
  • 70 number of exams andtests the average schoolchild takes in England up to age 16
  • 5hrs, 20 mins time the average UK child spends in front of a TV or computer screen every day
  • 1in5 children play outside every day
  • 7in10 children have a TV in their bedroom (6 in 10 have a games console)
  • 10,000 number of TV ads a UK child sees every year
  • 21% of 11 to 15-year-olds in 2006 reported drinking regularly
  • Research by Alyssa McDonald, Alex Iossifidis and Iselin Åsedotter Strønen

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood

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