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What's Up With British Youth?

Aug 17, 2007
You have to admire the British, as represented by their current government and its intellectual constituency. They never stop trying to improve their society.

What other country wants to keep schools open 10 hours a day and put every single child on a national database? Whether driven by a Marxist hangover or by ethics derived from Christianity, the commitment to a better Britain is tireless and impressively resourceful.

It is also necessary. A couple of weeks ago the Institute for Public Policy Research grabbed headlines with a report claiming that British youth are the worst behaved in Europe and that their elders live in fear of them.

Drawing on international research, the report - Freedom's Orphans - says British teenagers are drunk more often, involved in more fights and are more likely to have had sex compared with their counterparts in Germany, France and Italy. One study suggested that 38 per cent of 15-year-old British children had tried cannabis, as opposed to just seven per cent in Sweden and 27 per cent in Germany.

The result is that only 34 per cent of British adults would risk life and limb by trying to stop a group of 14-year-old boys vandalising a bus shelter, compared with 65 per cent of Germans, 52 per cent of Spanish and 50 per cent of Italians. Last year, more than 1.5 million Britons thought about moving away from their local area to escape the young people who hung about there. About 1.7 million admit to avoiding going out after dark as a direct result of youths gathering. There is a new name for it: paedophobia.

There is also a new word for what the kids do: anti-social behaviour. Fifty years ago it would have been simply bad behaviour, a moral problem - delinquent parents producing delinquent kids.

Too simple and too harsh a view, no doubt, although media commentary in the last couple of weeks has been sprinkled with calls for a swift clip around the ear or a return to the stocks for teenage miscreants. Many responses were on a narrow spectrum from hand-wringing over the poverty and class divisions that breed social deprivation, to more subtle jabs at economic liberalism.

A social skills gap

IPPR, a left-of-centre concern, adopts the poverty/class analysis but gives it a new spin. It argues that young people born into the lower socio-economic classes during the past 30 years have missed out on the opportunity to better themselves through work, because the job market increasingly calls for social skills that depend on family wealth and extended education.

While richer kids spend time on music lessons or extra tuition, poorer kids just "hang out" with their peers or watch TV. In this way they become less and less influenced by the adult community and much more susceptible to consumerism and identities derived from "brands".

It is a plausible theory, although it does not explain certain differences between the UK and other European countries with a similar history of "de-industrialisation". For example, 45 per cent of 15-year-old boys in England spend most evenings with friends, compared to just 17 per cent in France. In Italy 93 per cent of teenagers eat regularly with their families, compared to 64 per cent in the UK.

IPPR acknowledges that family culture in Italy and France is stronger. Then there are the Nordic countries, where family structure is not strong, but behaviour is better. Well, says IPPR, that is because they spend more on social welfare and there is less child poverty.

This suggests that Britain faces a choice: spend more to make up for weak families, or adopt policies to strengthen the family. It is a choice every economically advanced country faces, but only the United States has come down squarely on the side of the family.

The UK, under the centre-left government of Tony Blair, has effectively, if not intentionally, opted for welfare.

Eliminating 'child poverty'

Take the government's goal of eliminating "child poverty" - a concept, by the way, that makes the family of incidental importance to the child. The key strategy here, as in the US, is getting single mothers into work, not just increasing welfare payments. Even so, an independent group estimates the cost of achieving this goal by 2020 at more than 30 billion pounds.

Some of the spending, ironically, goes on preschool and school-based substitutes for parental care. Kids can now be looked after outside the home for 50 weeks of the year from 8am to 6pm (breakfast and lunch included) at minimal cost to parents. They are to have classes in social skills such as self-control and respecting the feelings of others.

There is even a pilot scheme running to test the teaching of "happiness" in schools. Healthy food rules round out the picture of Britain's schools as homes away from home. Nevertheless they must still ensure that children master the rudiments of learning.

To be fair, Blair and friends are paying a lot of attention to parenting. They are keen for parents to become better and more confident at their job. This week the Minister for Children and Families (in that order) launched a new phase of this agenda with the announcement of a special parenting workforce - one of whose duties will be to ensure that parents read to their children and sing them nursery rhymes.

Predictably, this combination of nanny state and market forces displeases just about everyone. A couple of months ago a worried group of 110 teachers, psychologists and other worthies declared that children were growing up in a toxic social environment that includes a "test-driven primary curriculum" and over-exposure to the mass media and commercial forces. A few weeks later some child development experts chimed in with a warning about the dangers of childcare outside the family for children under three years of age.

Interventions like these make good points about negative influences on children, although they are more concerned with the "wiring" of their brains than with their souls, and with personal "skills" rather than virtues. And although they may talk about parenting and even families, what they and the government utterly fail to tackle is the breakdown of family life itself.

Refusing to deal with family breakdown

Here is what is wrong with British kids: one in four of them lives in a lone parent household, nearly 90 per cent of which households are headed by a lone mother. In England and Wales in 2003, 153,500 children under 16 were affected by their parents divorcing, with just over one in five being under five years old. A significant number of children (nearly 200,000 five years ago) do not live with their parents at all.

Teenage girls continue to embrace solo motherhood - despite, or more likely because of, being bombarded with contraceptive advice.

In the United States, welfare-to-work policy is complemented by marriage promotion and abstinence education for teenagers. But official Britain will not commit itself to the family built on marriage or to a sexual ethic that supports it.

In line with legislation which treats marriage and civil unions (of any gender mix) the same, the government in 2003 abolished the term "marital status" from its forms. And a former Married Couples Allowance has been replaced, except for older couples, with tax and benefit systems which treat couples equally whether "married" or "living together as if married".

Freedom's Children is symptomatic of this refusal. Courageously, for a socialist document, it recognises that behavioural problems among British youth result to some extent from "changes to families, such as more parents working, and rising rates of divorce and single parenthood".

It acknowledges US research which consistently shows that "children who grow up in an 'intact, two-parent family' with both biological parents do better on a wide range of outcomes than children who grow up in a single-parent family."

But in the end, the report treats "changes to families" as merely changes, "trends that are unlikely to reverse" (because they belong to the "evolution" of society?), and indeed ought not to be corrected because that "skews resources away from single-parent families, who tend to be most in need of financial support, and is unnecessarily morally prescriptive."

Unnecessary, because other research has shown that "marital status matters much less than many other factors in determining whether couples stay together" and that "children growing up in non-traditional family forms can succeed if warmth, stability and consistent parenting are present." IPPR's solutions therefore ring the changes on the status quo: welfare and state parenting.

Marriage does make a difference

By no means all Britons agree with this view of things. The facts themselves tell a different story. Claims that there is little difference between the family built on marriage and other types are contradicted by an important study carried out by the Bristol Community Family Trust and published in September.

With data from the UK's Millennium Cohort Study -- an ongoing survey of 18,819 babies and their families -- the trust showed there are substantial differences in family stability between married and unmarried couples in the early years of parenthood, even after discounting socio-economic factors.

"Most notably, the difference in family breakdown risk between married and cohabiting couples is sufficient that even the poorest 20 per cent of married couples are more stable than the richest 20 per cent of cohabiting couples."

How are "warmth, stability and consistent parenting" to be achieved or child poverty to be eliminated in relationships which are inherently less stable than marriage? On the current showing, not even a huge and permanent expansion of public financial and parenting support will do it.

and most people know it

The prejudice against marriage - for that is what it boils down to - is the hallmark of the contemporary secularist state. But what of the citizens?

When an English woman's magazine surveyed its readers a few months ago, it found that six out of 10 mothers thought families in Britain were under threat because the government "doesn't like traditional families".

Three quarters of working mothers wanted to reduce their working hours, and nine out of 10 favoured tax compensation where a wife stayed at home to look after the family.

As for secularism, a survey published last week shows that at least half of Britons believe religion is a force for good in society and 58 percent say Christianity has an important role to play in public life. Young adults are least likely (only 36 per cent) to dismiss religion as an evil influence - as the popular evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has recently done, again.

Dawkins represents the view that tradition is bunk, but this is not the view of the majority of people. For the privilege of being able to leave their homes without being menaced by a hoodie, most Britons would no doubt be happy for their government to encourage marriage and leave it to parents give their kids breakfast.
About the Author
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. MercatorNet analyses current affairs and international news and believes that ethics is more than opinions, that there is a transcendent dimension to our lives, and that facts are sturdier than ideology. Learn more at mercatornet.com.
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