Saturday, 23 January 2010

Talkin' 'Bout a (Social) Revolution...

The horrific case of two boys convicted of brutally attacking two other boys in Doncaster has caused a wave of angst and anguish in the blogsphere. There's plenty of blame being thrown around and those considered culpable include the Council, the parents, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and God knows who else...

At a time when David Cameron has used speeches to put forward his view of how society should function and in particular the importance of marriage the polarisation of opinion and the heat generated suggests we are a long way from concensus and more interested in attributing blame than with coming up with solutions.

The unpalatable truth is that there is no quick fix to the problems in British society. Anyone who thinks we can turn the clock back to some romanticised idyll of family life ca.1957 is deluding themselves. Others seem to think a more disciplined approach to children involving corporal punishment will help but there's little evidence of that to be honest.

There is a general acceptance that there are deep problems within communities but where to start ? I don't believe there should be a financial incentive or disincentive to being married - marriage is or should be a far deeper commitment than simply a tax break here and there. One of the biggest changes in society in the past thirty years has been the emergence of financially independent women.

Another big development, as highlighted in The Sun on Wednesday, has been the decline in the number of households dominated by a married couple (roughly 42% now, down from 70% thirty years ago) and the rise in the proportion of households with co-habiting couples (up from 1% to 11%) and the huge rise in single-person households to roughly a third now.

These changes were perhaps predictable given the enormous economic and technological changes of the past thirty years but it was perhaps harder to judge the impact. There has been undoubtedly a breakdown in the cohesion of communities and as people have been forced to travel further from home to work (and spend more time travelling), we have got onto a treadmill of working ever-longer hours and have become a time-poor cash-rich society.

This kind of rapid economic and social transformation was bound to have repercussions and these are becoming apparent. It seems evident to me that looking at narrow legislative and financial changes is looking at the edge of the wider problem.

The fact that we work much less than France and have fewer holidays is interesting - the fact that France is top of the international quality of life league table while the UK is twenty-fifth also speaks volumes. If we are to effect fundamental changes in the way we function as a society then we need to effect fundamental changes to the way that society operates.

It's time to get Britain off the treadmill - longer holidays and shorter working hours would be a good start. Business will scream but part of the cultural change we need to embrace is that life isn't just about making money or having the newest gadget - life is about having the time to enjoy life and in our quest for material wealth we seem to have forgotten that.

David Cameron proposes nothing of any value because he is as committed to the work-life treadmill (despite some earlier weasel words) as everyone else. What is required is nothing less than a root-and-branch overhaul of our working lives and this needs unions, business, Government and individuals to agree on a way forward that, while supporting business, recognises that life is actually for living and that means if we have to earn a little less, work a little less and that shops have to put up the "Closed" sign a little more, so be it.

The world won't end if that happens and we might just find time for what really counts - our families, our children, our friends and our communities.

If we do nothing, there will be further breakdown and further breakage of Britain. Change won't be easy and many will resent it but it may just require all of us to do without a little for us all to gain so much more.

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