Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, on his way to Radio 4’s Moral Maze, found time to leave us with his thoughts on what he clearly felt was one of the hottest of topics, even in the eye of the economic storm. What once seemed impossible now seems possible, he said. Certainly, the world financial crisis had just sent commentators, like the economy, into a spin beyond spin and the ‘credit crunch’, as it is rather euthemistically known, was upon us. But rather than representing an opportunity for new thinking as Taylor seemed to suggest, the reality is that no-one quite knew what to make of it then…or now.
Writing this just weeks later, it is clear that this debate about the problem with young people was also more of the same. Simon Lewis, chairing the session, and director of corporate affairs at Vodafone, its sponsors, drew our attention to those young people who have ‘dropped off the radar of mainstream Britain’. Or ‘Breakdown Britain’ as Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, self-declared ‘quiet man’ of British politics, chair of the Centre for Social Justice and panellist at this discussion, would have it. But is the collapse of the social fabric any more real than the collapse in values on the world’s financial markets? One can only hope that the rhetoric of breakdown and crisis, does not have the impact on young people and our relationship with them, that the political panic over the paper economy is having on the ‘real’ economy.
Duncan Smith didn’t fill me with confidence in this regard. He complained that the decline of what his political predecessors might have called ‘family values’ (he referred to community values) is at the source of today’s problems. But this was not so much a return to Thatcherite conservatism as a mirroring of the old Leftist complaint that it was the greedy Thatcher years what did it. The ‘culture of the street’ he said had infected our ‘banking culture’. In other words, the global financial crisis was brought about not by market failures and political bumbling at the top, but by irresponsible young men in pin stripes as much as the Burbery-clad masses.
But just in case any vulgar Leftists take heart from this new elite consensus on the origins of today’s crisis, his formulation of the wider problem as stemming from our society’s ‘dysfunctional base’ is not only therapeutic (and therefore individualistic) in its orientation, but is also disturbingly reminiscent of the racial science of the 19th century. Only that instead of explaining intelligence or criminality as a function of one’s skull size, Duncan Smith claimed (citing ‘research’) that it is the dysfunctional impact of the experience of abuse, and exposure to video games and domestic violence, that predisposes children in their early years to a ‘level of conversation which is stilted and low’. ‘Look who’s talking!’ I felt like saying but there was no time for questions.
In a transparent attempt to hide his class prejudices behind contemporary pseudo science, he told us in no uncertain terms that between the ages of 0-3 children’s lives are thus irreversibly damaged and mapped out in advance. In a deft sleight of hand he used the language of neuroscience (all synapses and ‘pathways’) to argue that there are a class of people whose life pathways are irreversibly foreclosed shortly after learning to walk. Most studies show that you can predict a child’s future in this way up to the age of 18, he said. This is bunkum, but it is popular bunkum informing (for want of a better word) everything from social work practice and early years policy, to parenting advice and crime prevention.
So Philip Udeh, the dynamic looking head of Community Builders, a charity that seeks to ‘inspire young people to become the next generation of social action leaders’, was not outraged by this old Tory and his chav-baiting nonsense. Not a bit of it, he only gave him much needed street cred. I hoped that he might have questioned the sweeping claims made about young people, or rubbished the proposed interventions to solve the problems associated with them. He might have pointed to the persistence of poverty and how it predisposes young people to crime or social ‘exclusion’. Instead, he confirmed Duncan Smith and the rest of the political elite in their tired prejudices. There is a ‘culture of self-abuse’ in our communities, he said. Improving outcomes for children ‘means targeting parents too’, he concurred.
I expected more of the same from Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. But she was refreshingly optimistic, avoiding the policy cliches of so-called ‘community champions’ like Udeh, and contradicting Duncan Smith’s determinist and downbeat analysis too. There is ‘lots that can be done at every single stage’ she said. Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, a Paralympian with 11 gold medals and 6 London marathons to her name, also gave cause for optimism. While her accusation that ‘technology has contributed to…social breakdown’ misidentified the culprits, her suggestion that companies like Vodafone should ‘put back some of the trust’ at least recognised the nature of the problem.
Similarly, while the notion of shaping young ‘active citizens’ minds and bodies has rather been hijacked by the government, I found her argument that sport and physical activity in schools can ‘re-engage people with society’ somehow convincing. There is a relentless problematising of childhood and youth in the contemporary discourse. What Grey-Thompson referred to as a ‘perpetuating cycle of inactivity’, is perhaps indicative of an intellectual malaise reinforcing the process of disengagement in and outside of the nation’s schools.
Put another way, in the absence of a meaningful public life that can act as a draw on inquiring young minds (and inactive young bodies), we can hardly expect young people to discover the ‘get up and go’, and engage in the kind of ‘pro-social’ acts envisaged, funnily enough, by Matthew Taylor in his inuagural address to the RSA.
Listen to ‘Young People and Social Exclusion’ debate here http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/young-people-and-social-exclusion