Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Modern society less trusting

A new book on our social life by the Young Foundation- recently set up in the name of the social researcher Michael Young and called Porcupines in Winter- has produced a fascinating collection of essays edited by Alessandro Buofino and the former most influential number 10 adviser, Geoff Mulgan. Comparisons are made with the fifties- the decade of my own childhood- and the present day. During the fifties I can recall the closeness of the Shropshire village in which I lived and the degree of support my mother received as a school teacher struggling to bring up three children on her own. And yes, we did not lock the doors at night and crime was virtually non-existent in the village and surrounding areas. The only deviant behaviour occurred on a Saturday night outside the village hall when local lads- boozed up in Shrewsbury- would fight each other, often over girls at the dance.

Families were close knit- in my village most families had relations close by; in Bethnall Green each old person had 13 relations living within a mile and over half had a married child living within a five minute walk. These days old people tend to live alone and suffer acute loneliness. The economy has changed. In 1881 Slough had only 13 per cent working in manufacturing; by the 70s the figure was over half; but by 2000 it was back down to 16 per cent, the new activities being mostly service industries. But while we have many more 'super rich' we also have a stratum of people at the bottom who eke out insecure lives ether as part-time workers or as the unemployed. And whilst in the fifties working class communities contained quite a few people with experience of leadership- as foremen, union oficials or non commissioned officers in the military, these days it's possible to find not a single person living in similar communities. Consequently respect for the working class has declined-its white elements are dismissed by the midle classes as 'riff-raff' or racist whilst its multicutural elements are widely feared as subversive.

And we don't trust each other so much. In the fifties 60 per cent of people polled said that other people could usually 'be trusted'; now the figure is a mere 29 per cent. Why should this be? Publicity is given to the activities of paedophiles which was never the case in the past and children are kept at home in consequence. Much of the communal playing on streets and socialising outside has disappeared. Neighbourliness is in decline with many people actively dsiliking their fellow citizens and wishing to live separately. It seems we are more misanthropic generally, more likely to bully colleagues at work or indulge in road or air rage. And we fear crime, despite its relatively low incidence and most people perceive it as rising rather than falling as most of the indicators show. We are generally more insecure: the result of wider media coverage of crime, terrorist outrages and misbehaving drunken youth.

What can be done to alleviate these shortcomings? The book suggests a number of ways forward: decentralising power to local communities; discouraging the hostility towards clients in many public services; design buildings and infrastructure which encourages contact and cooperation. The authors admit that reversing these trends is a big task. They can say that again.

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