Has Britain become a nation of wimps?
The question was put to me in a radio interview this week. It is one that I think may resonate with many people beyond these shores, in other affluent and industrialised nations.
Are we less robust than our parents were? Are we more prone to buckle or complain under pressure, or to look for someone to blame when we’re faced with out-of-the-blue challenges?
Much of Europe is enduring an unusually cold and threatening winter. Britain is in the midst of its worst cold spell for thirty years, with overnight temperatures in some places hitting a Siberian -15C.
Snow and clear blue skies provide a brilliant change from grey and drizzle, but the unexpected freeze has closed thousands of schools and left drivers struggling to keep control on icy roads.
This weekend, local authorities are facing renewed questions about the lack of grit on main roads and residential streets, with major salt stores running low.
In Britain’s case, the weather freeze has come on the back of an even colder financial one.
Alone among its big European partners, Britain remains in recession - again, coincidentally, cited as being the worst in thirty years. The government warns of the biggest spending cuts in two decades as it struggles to reduce the £176 billion budget deficit.
So if you’re looking to have a winter’s gripe, there’s plenty to gripe about.
Before Christmas, when snowfall was much lower than that of the past week, long-suffering commuters were already asking why ‘adverse weather’ is so consistently trotted out as an excuse for late-running trains and dangerous roads.
After all, in these northern climes winter has often thrown up the unexpected. Surely, with computers that can generate models of climate-change for decades to come, somebody should have been able to spot a bad winter looming?
Governments and local authorities should be held accountable for mistakes. Yet I wonder whether there’s another question we might also be asking, one that cuts a little closer to home.
Have we become too comfortable, too used to being ‘looked after’ by a nanny state that we’ve lost confidence in our ability to work our own way through certain problems? Have we allowed a sense of learned helplessness, or a feeling that life is more about rights than responsibilities, to chip away at our inventiveness?
Do we spend so little time working in creative teams, face-to-face and up close with other people, that we lack collective resolve when things go wrong?
I think we can safely say that on a physical level we are more robust than people were thirty years ago. Medical advances, better nutrition and new technologies have all contributed to higher levels of general health.
Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy (years spent in fairly good health) have increased for both British men and women since 1981. In that time, life expectancy has risen by almost six years for men and just over four years for women. In some other first world nations the jump is even greater.
Whether we’ve become more psychologically robust is a very different matter.
The Mental Health Foundation says that there are now 800,000 more people in the UK who suffer from anxiety disorders than they were in the early 1990s. Apparently, seven million Brits suffer in this way.
A global psychiatric conference in 2007 declared ours to be the ‘age of paranoia’. In the same year, a leading British psychiatrist announced that one in four adults suffer irrational fears of some kind.
In the age of 24/7 news about climate change, terrorism, pandemic diseases and a myriad other threats, fear itself may be the greatest hazard to our future. Media newscasts regularly warn of this ‘crisis’ or that ‘emergency’ – words that, according to some studies, were used far less frequently just fifteen years ago.
The hyperbole grows as the media marketplace becomes more crowded and news providers jostle to hold our ever more limited attention.
Many of the supposedly earth-shattering stories we hear about may be nowhere near as dire as we’re led to believe, yet we may now be more attuned to threats than we are to facts.
To illustrate, most of us will thankfully never experience an act of terrorism first-hand, yet many of us live with the threat of terrorism as the background music to our lives, impacting important lifestyle choices.
Fear has benefits, but only in an immediate, fight-or-flight capacity. If it is sustained, fear becomes counterproductive, limiting our ability to see creative options and plan strategically, and dangerous to our health.
The level of fear in a community is difficult to measure, but harder still is peoples’ self-reliance. It’s difficult to prove statistically but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we rely more on external agencies to help us get by than our parents ever did.
Governments, having also contracted the fear virus, continually set up all kinds of new agencies and introduce new laws to ‘protect’ us – which in public safety areas often means protecting themselves from us, as in lawsuits.
Yet many of these new laws impinge too much on our personal liberties and new agencies often provide only dubious public value for money.
In the end, both often produce disempowerment, further weakening our already fragile sense of resourcefulness. And we let it happen; we even welcome it.
Recently, the UK government announced that sex education classes in schools will soon be expanded to include instruction in such things as transsexual issues – even in primary grades. New legislation, it said, will also mean that parents will no longer be able to remove their children from such classes on moral or religious grounds.
Whatever government department dreamed up this patronising nonsense provides a clear example of money wasted on ‘non-services’. It shows a complete disregard for the smarts of parents who should, after all, have the biggest role in the sexual education and development of their children. Governments come and go about every four to eight years, but parents are for life.
We would do well to downsize departments like this one and use the money to support better education on things that will actually help people rise to the challenges of day-to-day life.
Perhaps some of the money could go towards offering employers training materials to enhance the problem-solving and creative-thinking skills of their workforce.
If we’re less self-reliant than our parents’ generation, we’re definitely more self-contained and individualistic. This makes it more difficult for us to pull together as local communities when times are tough.
This is the age of telecommuting. Millions of people, something like ten percent of the UK workforce, now take advantage of the opportunity to work from home using digital technology.
The advantages are clear: flexible working hours, more environmentally friendly lifestyles and a better work-life balance, to name just a few.
Yet telecommuting also means fewer opportunities for building face-to-face relationships with co-workers, less time to ‘rub shoulders’ with people of diverse experience and backgrounds.
It can also mean less opportunity for teamwork which, if the team is well-led, can breed encouragement and motivation – and improve our problem-solving skills.
There’s a lot to be said for the digital world, virtual friends on Facebook and Twitter can't help you dig your car out of a snowdrift, or help you keep the roads and pavements free of ice.
Yes, there’s a lot that governments local and national could be doing better in these days of ‘big freezes’, climatic and financial. In the end, though, the real change we need starts with us.
Because of economic pressures, we’re entering a new era of ‘make and mend’. This may be the best thing for us. It may give us the chance to rediscover just how innovative, self-reliant and resourceful we can be, as individuals, families and local communities.