SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 124 - December-January 2008-09

The youth of today

ACCORDING TO a survey published in November by the children’s charity, Bernardo’s, over 50% of adults view youngsters in a negative way. Or, as the mass media would sensationalise it, ‘adults demonise kids’. One in ten children is estimated to suffer mental health problems. Another charity, Parentline, says that 80% of its calls are about violence of children towards their parents. What is the true picture?

Last year’s UNICEF survey, Report Card 7, into the well-being of children in rich countries, found that children growing up in the UK suffer the greatest deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world. British children come bottom of 21 developed countries across six different categories. The Nordic countries fared best with Netherlands at the top.

Although league tables should always be viewed with a great deal of circumspection – schools scored merely ‘satisfactory’ by Britain’s school inspection body, Ofsted, can provide stimulating learning experiences for pupils – this was an absolutely damning report. Since it was compiled, by gathering statistics and direct responses from thousands of young people, the situation seems all the more bleak.

In the early 20th century, Lenin commented that the measure of freedom in any society could be judged by the degree of freedom enjoyed by women. In the 21st century, children face such an array of problems and challenges that we could add that it should also be judged by the way it treats its children. Although the report showed a mixture of strengths and weaknesses in all countries, its results increase the imperative for socialist change – for the well-being of our children, alone.

The report found that in the most economically rich societies there is a huge amount of poverty, measured from workless households to low income families, and other assessments of cultural deprivation: for example, not having a quiet place to work, or having less than ten books in the house. In this category of material well-being, British children scored very badly (19th), just ahead of the USA (18th), although Ireland, Hungary and Poland fared even worse. Despite all the funds that the New Labour government reckons it has put into reducing child poverty, the levels remain the same. Child poverty has stalled at around 15% – with one third of children living in ‘official’ poverty in areas of London and other cites.

This level of deprivation crucially affects educational levels. The report placed the UK in the bottom group. In contrast, Finland, consistently in the top group, has no high-stakes testing and puts a great emphasis on early years provision as a key to educational development. These are issues that socialists and trade unionists have campaigned on for a long time. A wide spectrum of experts have raised serious concerns about child mental health, partly arising out of the stress of constant testing, but also the narrowing curriculum and the regime of control both within and outside schools. It has been highlighted that school children and prisoners are the only people who have no choice about their freedom!

Over the years, surveys have consistently revealed that poverty is the best indicator of educational achievement. However, what is needed now is not more surveys but real action. The government’s response to these horrifying facts, in the words of the children’s commissioner, Al Aynsley Green, is to "stop demonising children". He urges us to "to start supporting [young people] to make positive choices". But what choices are there? Would you prefer to live in a private rented house costing your parents an exorbitant rent, or would you settle for bed and breakfast accommodation? Would you prefer that your mum works full time and gives you a latchkey, or will you do without gas or electricity this month? These are the real choices facing families. They could begin to be addressed by renationalising the utilities, and organising housing as a public service. Of course, that would raise a socialist alternative to the free-market free-for-all. Not the sort of thing Gordon Brown would want a children’s commissioner to encourage!

Would the capitalists make a choice of upgrading the welfare state instead of selling off huge chunks to private profiteers and greedy shareholders? It is clear in the UNICEF report that the countries that came out best in children’s real experience are those that have, for the last 60 years, invested in the welfare state to ensure that the basics of life are generally available. The social democrats of Sweden and other Nordic countries developed the welfare state from roughly the same starting point as Britain in the immediate post-war period. However, where Margaret Thatcher unleashed deregulation and privatisation from 1979 – continued and strengthened by New Labour from 1997 – social democracy in Scandinavia maintained many of the gains of the welfare state for longer. Like everywhere else, they are now suffering from the neo-liberal onslaught.

It was not only material conditions that improved in these countries. The attitudes that flow from the provision of good public services, and the ideals of public good, led to more contented feelings about people generally. This contrasts starkly with the dominant dog-eat-dog culture fostered by the neo-liberal juggernauts. The report presented a worrying picture in the UK about relationships with friends, which are so important to children. Not much more than 40% of our 11, 13 and 15 year-olds found their peers ‘kind and helpful’. This is reinforced by daily reminders in the media of the dangers of bullying, knife crime, and all manner of violence in schools and on the streets. It is easy to see how children could emulate many adults, becoming suspicious, isolated and prone to relationship difficulties.

Added to this are the terrible restrictions on many children. There is now less space than ever for kids to meet, play and hang out. It has been estimated that for every acre of land devoted to public playgrounds there are more than 80 acres for golf – and that most young children never go more than 70 feet from their own front door. Figures from the Audit Commission show that each child under twelve has a ‘ration’ of 2.3sq metres, about the size of a kitchen table. The words ‘bred in captivity’ do not apply only to the celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver’s, caged chickens!

Concomitant with peer relations is peer pressure, a devious route by which capitalists have identified children from birth as units of consumption. Companies make it their business to aim unprecedented levels of marketing at adolescents, primary age children, even toddlers, a new market in childhood. The commercialisation of childhood is now a fact of life, where fashion and food play a major role. According to the chief policy adviser of Which? magazine, companies "seek to circumvent parental authority by appealing directly to children", selling everything from breakfast cereals to trainers. The pressure associated with the hard sell adds to the drive to conform: be ‘cool’, or be out of the social circle. Extreme anxieties around the need to possess and be seen with the latest gear, eat the same foods, and chat about the same TV programmes in order to belong to a friendship group, could all be factors in this lack of trust in peers.

If we questioned any group of teenagers in the UK about the UNICEF findings they would likely be somewhat sceptical. Many own ipods and mobiles, trainers and designer clothes, achieve at school and probably consider themselves happy enough. Most say they spend time chatting with their parents, despite the fact that they score low in the question about ‘eating the main meal with parents several times a week’. They have only known life under casino capitalism, reality TV and fast food – so far. However, the world is changing for everyone. Look at how young people in America have so openly embraced the idea of change with the election of Barack Obama.

While this ailing capitalist system exists there is no way to eliminate child poverty, or even reduce the stress and anxieties children face. All those young people who, yesterday, were answering intriguing questions put to them by well-intentioned researchers will be posing very real questions of their own, today and tomorrow: Why have I got a degree and no job? How can I live on such low pay? Why are the rich still leeching off the economy? With the assistance of Marxist ideas, these young people will not leave things at the level of discussion. Alongside the youth and students in the other 20 richest countries, they will set about organising, and will prove to be the best fighters for socialist change.

Linda Taaffe


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