In a boom economy the temptation to immerse yourself in the opportunity of making it big time is irresistible. What this means for the rest of our lives, the part that depends on firm personal relationships, continuity and stability, becomes acutely problematic1.
Increasingly the English seem to be living within a paradox. While many of us are earning more and living better than did our parents, our lives are becoming ever more unbalanced. Whereas our grandfathers earned enough money to maintain a family of two or three children, and of an evening dug the allotment, and our grandmothers played the piano after darning the socks, we have large cars, bigger homes and foreign holidays; but our children sense a continuous tension as we struggle to balance our careers, interests, families, and hopefully find some time for each other. We are so busy that we give our children money to buy what they want, rather than showing them how to do jobs around the home which would help us, and be good for them2.
It’s a composite problem. The inflation of the ‘70s encouraged more people to buy their own houses. As house prices went up so more mothers took up paid employment to help their husbands qualify for a larger mortgage. Further inflation increased wages, and the value of property. “Be smart”, said the financial advisors, “Buy the largest house you can afford. In a few years what now seems like a massive mortgage will be easy to afford”. People did just that. It appears that it was the willingness of women to enter the job market that was a key factor in triggering the never-ending escalation in house prices3. Even with mortgages now given on three times both partners’ salary there are whole swathes of England where no young teacher could ever afford to buy a house.
Then there is the issue of pensions. Basically a pension is a gamble — you want to pay in as little as possible in exchange for a guaranteed income of a certain size for as long as you live. The insurance company will rejoice if you die early, for they will make the profit which would, in fact, become their loss if you lived too long. It is pension-fund managers who now drive the stock market for they are under the pressure of their shareholders (us) who want their pensions (ours) to buy them (us) ever more4. The real bind is felt by the fully-employed, semi-skilled man working for a highly successful high-tech company, where the latter succeeds in giving an excellent return to its shareholders by holding down the wages of those of their staff who are the most easy to replace. The salaried employee now receives an ever decreasing proportion of the ‘profit’ they have helped the company create5.
Then there is the feminist movement6. Young women going off to university in the late ‘60s, were content that their degree might help them get a good job after raising a family, but by the late ‘70s that assumption was reversed; a degree may get you a good job, and years later you might decide to raise a family. That was before Thatcher became Prime Minister. Not that Thatcher was in any sense a feminist, but she simply believed she had the attributes of both the successful man and woman, as well as those of mother and of career politician. “I believe that it was possible, as I had, to bring up a family while working”, she said, “as long as one was willing to make a great effort to organise one’s time properly, and with some extra help”7. Here was her blind spot, her willingness to generalise too much from her own experience. In her case her husband earned from an oil company far more than she ever earned as a politician. Her family could afford, as few other families could, a series of live-in-nannies, boarding school fees, and regular treats, but neither Margaret nor Dennis had much time to actually live with, and enjoy, their children. Children were increasingly expected to fit in to their parents’ schedule8.
Taken up by the media as the ideal of a functional, successful, modern family, tens of thousands of young couples, accepting Thatcher’s assurance that anything was possible with “a great effort to organise one’s time properly”, sought to emulate her. Quickly this lifestyle became dependent on a ready-supply of domestic assistance (often from other countries and not always speaking English very well) who got the children up, ferried them to school and to endless activities, and who came to know the child better than its own parents. As the nannies distributed the weekly pocket money few bothered to show the children how to do jobs around the house for the child did not feel the sympathy that it would have extended to a hard-pressed parent, and couldn’t see any reason to help with the washing-up9.
The economic and social achievements of the past fifty years brought enormous improvements to our standard of living, but at a price we may not be able to sustain. The pace at which we live can deaden our finer sensitivities and destroy our sense of good neighbourliness10. It places excessive stress on families. Four out of ten children are now born to unmarried mothers and nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce. There has been a quadrupling of suicide amongst the under-twenty-fives, and a vast increase in clinical depression, and all the while we have the world’s most skilful advertising industry that has conned us into believing that the way to happiness lies in how many more toys we can accumulate.
Our problems in education are more about the country’s confusion about values, than they are about school buildings, or a national curriculum11.
Thesis 78: 25th August 2006