A haven in a crisis

With both the state and market proving unreliable, maybe families will look to each other for support in hard times.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Whatever the precise impact of the economic crisis on everyday life turns out to be, one thing is certain: ordinary people, and their families, will be the hardest hit. People with less money have fewer financial reserves with which to absorb economic shocks; families with dependent children have less flexibility about how they organise their lives to accommodate the new pressures imposed upon them.

With this in mind, it seems extraordinarily naïve, if not downright insensitive, that some commentators are breezily proclaiming that the impending recession could be a blessing in disguise, a much-needed push to get us to put our childish consumerist habits behind us and concentrate on the more important things in life. As though, for the normal family in Britain today, life is just one big luxury cruise, and the household budget consists of easily expendable chunks.

India Knight started it, back in September with a breathtaking Sunday Times column headlined ‘Aah, what a relief the boom has turned to bust’ (1). Read this paragraph and ask yourself: exactly what does she think is the average family income in the UK – even before the banks went bust? (FYI, in November 2007 it was £32,779 before tax.) (2)

‘The belt-tightening that has become necessary may feel like unjust punishment – is unjust punishment – but it has advantages; you could even argue that this particular cloud has an especially sparkling silver lining. Just think: no more infants in designer clothing, but a return to the loveliness of hand-me-downs. No more drinking perfectly ordinary cocktails at upwards of a tenner a pop in some overdesigned bar, but hanging out with friends at home with a couple of bottles of wine and lasagne in the oven.’

Once you get over the notion that parents nationwide are drinking, not cut-price vino from the local Tesco (where they also buy their children’s clothes), but fancy cocktails next to their favourite children’s designer outlet, you find, a couple of paragraphs later, that Knight’s blithe dismissal of the problem of having no money is a way of promoting her new book, which is all about ‘the joys of the New Thrift’ (and was written before the economy went tits up, back when Thrift could be seen as a lifestyle choice). There is certainly nothing thrifty about Knight’s extravagant use of cynicism and self-delusion in writing this particular column.

A more thoughtful variation on the same theme came from Alice Thomson, in a column headlined – and no, I’m not making it up – ‘Why the recession is a blessing in disguise’ (3). Citing American research that reveals that, when times are good, ‘people of all classes tend not to take care of themselves and their families’, Thomson argues that during recessions, ‘[p]eople tend to drink less, smoke fewer cigarettes and lose weight. They enrol in higher education, the air is cleaner, the roads are less crowded … [P]eople have more time to visit their elderly relatives and are more likely to look after their children themselves rather than booking them into expensive after-school activities or crèches.’

On the face of it, Thomson’s argument that parents need to be forced, with a big financial stick, into looking after their children and elderly relatives ‘themselves’, is no less objectionable than Knight’s. But at least she situates her argument within the broader political-cultural debate about happiness (and why money doesn’t buy it), and the anxiety about the impact of consumerism on relationships between people. While it is rather fanciful to think, as Thomson seems to, that levels of social capital will be magically restored by the fact that people can’t go shopping so often, her argument implicitly raises a question well worth considering. How will people’s ability to survive the economic crisis be affected by the declining relations of solidarity and trust in society?

For the majority of families, whose everyday life is determined more by the age-old imperative of getting by than by the frenzied juggling of expensive lifestyle choices, the odious ‘austerity is good’ argument that has been roundly criticised elsewhere on spiked must seem just bizarre (see Against austerity, by Brendan O’Neill). How can driving slowly to save petrol, spending hours comparison-shopping at supermarkets, or ‘return[ing] to the loveliness of hand-me-downs’ seem so exciting to members of the chattering classes? But behind this crass celebration of more expensive times lies a nostalgia for the social relationships that enabled people to cope with them: looking after each others’ children, helping out the neighbours, being self-reliant in the sense that one’s sense of security and self-worth did not depend so heavily upon one’s income and the lifestyle one was able to afford.

Of course, it is important not to romanticise these ‘good old days’. One of my Top 10 ridiculous comments of the past few weeks comes from Joanna Blythman, food scares champion, who told the Cheltenham Literary Festival that, because of the rising cost of food, ‘We could potentially be more like the sort of nation we were during the Second World War, where they were worried about food, there were blockades, it wasn’t so easy to get hold of food, and we really had to focus on growing things ourselves, cooking things, making a lot out of a little’ (4). Few of us, I would hope, have any desire to go back to the days of dried egg and rationing, and few of us would want to revisit a time where strong communities were held together by women not working, devoting their lives to juggling meagre household budgets and caring for the extended family, while men risked their lives for war or their health down the pit.

But there was a time, far more recently, when children weren’t kept imprisoned in their homes by inflated fears of stranger danger, when looking after children wasn’t something you could only do with a certificate and a CRB-check, when the elderly weren’t written off as either total incompetents or dodgy characters, when people drank together in pubs instead of alone in front of the telly and rallied round their friends and neighbours in times of need. That is no bygone age – and the spirit of it is not impossible to recapture.

Much of the commentary about the problem of our consumerist times is based on a mean-spirited agenda: that people are hopeless, money-driven fools, raising their children according to the wrong values. Only some of it touches on a genuine sense of bewilderment and regret about the extent to which we, as a society, are making life very difficult for ourselves through formalising relationships that were once taken for granted, and setting standards and priorities for ourselves that do not make for worthwhile, or even happy, lives. Unfortunately, when this sentiment is expressed it gets the problem the wrong way round, and points the finger of blame at the wrong protagonists.

For example, the professionalisation of childcare, both at the level of daycare for children whose parents both work and extra-curricular sporting, social and educational activities that take the place of old-fashioned play-dates, has been encouraged by a broader culture of parental anxiety about the need for children to spend their time in ‘improving’ activities by trained and vetted (and therefore paid) staff. These anxieties have been fed and moulded by policy that inflates fears about stranger danger and puts the onus on parents micro-managing every aspect of their child’s life to give them the best opportunities.

The various reasons behind the professionalisation of childcare would be a very useful problem to isolate and unravel. Instead, the finger is pointed at mothers using paid childcare instead of looking after children themselves, and individual parents being so determined to spoil their kids that they buy far too many things and activities for them.

Or look at the problem of the elderly. How has it happened that old people are seen to be a problem to be managed, shut off from the world in care homes and the ghettos of sheltered accommodation, apparently acting as nothing more than a drain on society’s scarce resources? If you like, you could blame their uncaring children for trying to buy their way out of their caring responsibilities, and hope that the credit crunch will force them to take grandma into their spare room. Or you could look at the way that contemporary culture and policy systematically isolates older people, encouraging children to be repulsed by them as ‘strangers’, turning libraries into glittery IT suites and pubs into trendy, smoke-free, punter-free establishments, and shunning the values and attitudes often held by old people as racist, sexist and behind the times.

These are significant developments, fuelled and legitimised by policy, and they will have a real impact upon how people are able to cope with the economic crisis as it hits home. Their logical conclusion is that the experience of financial hardship will be very much worse for families. People will become more isolated, more fearful, and more withdrawn from a world in which it is assumed that before you can trust anyone else with your children or your elderly parents you have to have the cash to afford the ‘quality-assured’ service that is necessary. Without the informal, spontaneous relations of support and sociability within the community, family life will become more privatised and pressurised.

But – this is not inevitable. The degree of social fragmentation promoted by, for example, an overblown concern with child protection, or the relentless cult of youth, is primarily cultural. Market forces might be the root cause of individuation, but the sharp anti-socialisation of everyday life that we have witnessed in recent years is driven by fears, policies and ideas that go way beyond this. That these are cultural trends means that they can be challenged – not easily, but effectively, at the level of public debate and voluntaristic activity. And the ongoing realities of life provide a solid basis for providing these challenges.

If nothing else, this economic crisis is a sharp reminder that, actually, there are more important things in life than what you feed your children for dinner, and forces that affect your child’s life shape opportunities far more powerfully than whether you help them with their homework or not. Those relationships of community and potential solidarity that we can no longer take for granted still do exist, simply by the virtue that there are many, many families around experiencing similar worries and pressures to ourselves. Now that my eldest child is at school I have been struck by the easy informality with which parents interact at the school gates, and the knowledge that there are any number of people whom I now know, not very well at all, who would gladly pick my child up from school if I asked them and whom I would easily trust to do so.

Our individuated, risk-averse culture has discouraged us from making such connections, and has encouraged us to put our trust in the state and the market instead. Now we know how unreliable these bogus friends are, maybe we will be encouraged to look to ourselves and each other for support in hard times.

The same goes for our kids. In a sharp column in The Sunday Times on 12 October, Rachel Johnson argued that one lesson of the financial crisis should be the need to grow tougher children (5). ‘[A]s society has grown richer, we’ve encouraged a complaints culture in which health-and-safety concerns lead to children being wrapped in cotton wool – and it’s always someone else’s fault when something goes wrong’, she wrote. Now that we are going to get poorer, it’s time for ‘a brisk return to the old ways of raising children’: growing character through such pursuits as ‘[p]laying team sports – and losing. Volunteering. Camping. Travelling solo. Discovering the value of money the hard way – by doing crappy jobs and finding out how hard it is to come by. Having to cope with debt, poverty and “broken” homes.’

It would be naïve to hope that the experience of financial hardship alone could spur anyone on to greater things. But it would be fatalistic to assume that nothing good can come of a time when people are thrown back upon their own resources. Families know, deep down, that the most reliable and precious resources we have lie within ourselves and other people. And as real, big, daily risks loom large over our livelihoods, maybe this will help to put our fears of the hypothetical – stranger danger, the possible link between a bar of chocolate today and morbid obesity if our kids ever make it to age 40 – into some perspective.

Jennie Bristow runs the website, Parents With Attitude and is co-author of Licensed to Hug: How Child Protection Policies Are Poisoning the Relationship Between the Generations and Damaging the Voluntary Sector published by Civitas, 2008. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) She is also speaking on ‘The problem with families’ at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) What a relief, boom has turned to bust, The Sunday Times, 7 September 2008

(2) The UK family: In statistics, BBC News, 6 November 2007

(3) Why the recession is a blessing in disguise, The Times (London), 10 October 2008

(4) Recession could work wonders for British diet, The Times (London), 17 October 2008

(5) Just give them grit, The Sunday Times, 12 October 2008

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Topics Politics


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