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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood