There is nothing like the simultaneous publication of independent reports on the state of the nation’s youth to whet an appetite for public wringing of hands and conscience-searching. So you may recall the publicity accorded the latest Good Childhood report from the Children’s Society with its disturbing ‘headline messages’ about the low levels of child well-being in England, compared with a range of other countries. Another report by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) told a bleak tale of graduates surviving in jobs beneath their qualifications.
There will be a temptation to dismiss, or at least underplay, reports that seem to bemoan current times. After all, has childhood ever been as rosy as it is sometimes painted? And weren’t the sufferings of children in the past more acute than today? The key point to remember is that expectations are structured by social institutions and forces which change and develop. Some of the evidence could be interpreted as simply about temporary feelings but if we look more deeply there are signs of something more enduring.
We are strongly reminded that in 2015 there are powerful contradictions affecting the generations coming to maturity which are due to impact increasingly over time on politics and social institutions. Indeed there is an emerging template for the systematic dissimulation of young people and their parents about their life-prospects.
In the UK, children must enter school earlier than in other countries, a policy that could be justified if it meant that they were given a better start. They are then subjected to a schooling regime of regular assessment designed to ensure that their progress is monitored against common benchmarks. Children do not seem to like the schooling they experience.
‘Compared to other countries in the survey, children in England tended not to like going to school and reported poor relationships with teachers. England ranked 14th for satisfaction with teachers and 14th for children feeling that they were treated fairly by teachers.’
If this rigorous schooling is for their benefit, they would not seem able to claim it as part of the rights to which they are entitled. The report from the Children’s Society points out that children in England have ‘relatively poor knowledge of their rights, compared to children in other countries. In particular, only 36% of children in England agreed with the statement ‘I know what rights children have’ and this was the lowest level of agreement for any of the 15 countries.’
Even more worryingly, the report showed relatively low levels of subjective well-being more generally.
So what can these unhappy children expect in the future? As maintenance grants for university study are due to wither and loans for living expenses are added to university tuition fees, students face long years paying back debts. Much has been made of the good prospects faced by graduates but the CIPD report reveals the reality of over-qualified graduates in jobs that fail to do justice to their expensively acquired knowledge. These generations experience a perfect storm of dashed expectations.
‘Graduate over-qualification is a particular problem for the UK, which has 58.8% of graduates in non-graduate jobs, a percentage exceeded only by Greece and Estonia.’
Of course, ‘dissimulation’ implies personal deceit but what may be happening instead is an impersonal social process whereby populations are pushed into competitive schemes structured so that some are likely to win and others to lose. How long will the losers tolerate being pushed to the edge? Commentators on the current political climate may do well to look at these reports if they want to see the way the wind is blowing.