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Michael Gove and my midlife crisis

October 1, 2009 by · 23 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

I’m feeling a bit racked off at the moment. To be honest, I’ve been feeling a bit off colour for about a decade. I put it down to my age. Surveys of contentment over the lifecycle consistently show people over 55 as the happiest, those under 30 next and the middle aged the most miserable. ‘But why’ I hear my reader ask?

A few years ago, Dan Gilbert’s wonderful book ‘Stumbling on happiness’ (the book that got me into thinking about brains and behaviour) summarised research showing we humans are bad not only at predicting what will make us happy, but even at accurately recalling how past events made us feel. Bear in mind also the evidence that we consistently exaggerate our own qualities, so, for example, 90% of motorists will say that they are ‘above average’ in their driving abilities. Then there is a type of attribution effect whereby we put down our own qualities to our inherent strengths and our failings to circumstance, but tend to do just the reverse with other people.  

My theory for the lifecycle contentment valley relates to the power of self delusion. When we are young, those of us who are reasonably undamaged are very receptive to all the ways we are inclined to think we are wonderful and are bound to succeed. In middle age we are starting to see through the tricks performed by our brains; the way we are inclined to think of ourselves keeps bashing against the reality of the mistakes we’ve made, the ambitions unfulfilled. It’s very uncomfortable. Some people get depressed (more often women); some become angry and misanthropic (more often men).

Then, when older age dawns, we start to get over it. In the end what does it matter how successful we are in our jobs? There’s not much point being vain when time’s gravity is dragging down your skin, plucking your hair, and tricking your memory. What matters then are more prosaic comforts: family, food, warmth, and for the most blessed, a nice garden to tend.

What’s this got to do with Michael Gove? It’s not just that I don’t like being older than most ‘senior’ politicians. Several weeks ago, after he had spoken here at the RSA, I wrote a post asking Michael seven questions about Conservative schools policy, particularly concerning the curriculum. He promised to reply, a promise his office, and even he personally, later repeated. But no reply is yet forthcoming.

Now, were I under 40 I would see this as evidence of my brilliance. Clearly, my forensic questioning is causing great concern in the Gove camp. They have probably spent many hours in meetings wondering how on earth to deal with my questions in ways that are acceptable to the educational traditionalists but not frightening to ordinary parents. Had this been 1999, I would be out there accusing Mr Gove of running scared and hiding his true intentions for Government. Perhaps I would drop a note to Ed Balls: ‘Hi Ed, I know we’ve never exactly been pals, but I’ve got your opposite number on the run …..’

Not now. When I wake in the night with some minor ailment or other, I don’t comfort myself with the idea I am causing waves in the pond of education policy. Instead I see my blog post gradually moving down a pile on the corner of the desk of one of Mr Gove’s more junior researchers. Perhaps it is with the letters in green ink that all MPs get from people who have had their internal organs invaded by aliens or want assistance with their twenty year old quest to prove it was they who invented the internet.

Perhaps, Crispin or Jemima have looked up one morning from the cappuccino they are drinking outside a charming riverside pub in Chiswick and said to one another ‘oh gosh, we really must deal with that tiresome blog by that chap who used to work for Tony Blair, or was it Harold Wilson’. But maybe even this is a self serving fantasy.  

Never mind, just a few more years and the final delusions of grandeur will become a memory, rather like the waist that used to hold up my trousers unaided (how is it that waists disappear when you age, how can the middle not be there when both ends still are?). Thank you, Michael, your silence brings the comforting balm of my dotage a little closer.


The future of ageing

April 1, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Social brain 

 Among yesterday’s comments James Horn kindly asked me to elaborate on the top lines of my Resolution Foundation speech about ageing.

I argued that the future for social care looks very grim (a point emphasised this morning on the Today programme by Baroness Young from the new Care Quality Commission).  As well as fighting to protect care budgets in the recession I suggested that the growing debate about how our lives will be different after the economic crisis is an opportunity to confront the unjust and damaging way we tend to think about getting old.

Three findings from research into neuroscience and behavioural science might help, giving us clues as to why we have come to have such unhealthy attitudes and reasons why they could change.

Behavioural economics and social psychology tell us that human beings tend to be bad at making judgements over the long term. This means we don’t prepare for old age (for example, saving far too little for our retirement) and we aren’t very good at empathising with older people even though it is a stage we will sooner or later reach. Avoiding being with old people is a way of avoiding having to recognise it will ever happen to us.

As Dan Gilbert shows in Stumbling on Happiness, we are also bad at predicting how change will affect us. We assume that we will be happy for life if we win the lottery and sad for life if we become disabled. In fact, over a relatively short time most people adjust to even major changes, ending up at the same level of contentment as when their life altered. We tend to think old people are just like us except less fit, less attractive and closer to death and that makes us think of being old entirely negatively. In fact, we will adjust to old age and – as long as other things in our life are OK – we are likely to be more content in our seventies than in our thirties.

We underestimate both the brain’s plasticity and the way we are all affected by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. So we think of old age as a linear process of decline instead of a stage in life through which we continue to develop depending in large part on our decisions and the circumstances in which we place ourselves. Experiments with older people undertaking low level cognitive and behavioural therapy have found major impacts on their sense of well-being.

There are many other reasons why we view ageing so negatively; the youth fetish in fashion and the media, and – as a self fulfilling prophesy – the actual conditions in which many vulnerable older people find themselves left by family and society. Many visitors to this country, especially from Asian cultures, are shocked by our attitudes to older people. Applying Avner Offer’s argument in ‘The Challenge of Affluence’ it may be that cultures with a strong tradition of deference to older people protect us from our predispositions to fear ageing and shun the aged. These traditions act as what Offer calls a ‘commitment device’  but like other traditions and norms they are eroded by affluence. 

A transformation of social attitudes would involve asserting that one of the characteristics of a good society is that it respects its elders. It might also involve recognising that being a good citizen is not just about respect for people of different race, colour or creed but also for people of different generations. Finally, we might see that personal well-being is impossible if we are dreading what lies before us in the final fifth of our lives.  

It can be frustrating to be asked to speak on a topic, to generate some ideas and then not get another chance to air them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on myself, but I hope I’ll get more opportunities to develop this thinking. It’s certainly a fundamental issue for society.


Obama, Gaza and the virtues of inaction

January 19, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, The RSA 

There is an old joke which has a cardinal running into the Pope’s chambers in the Vatican: ‘Holy Father, Jesus Christ has returned, he is walking now into St Mark’s Square’. ‘Quick’ says the Pope ‘Look busy’. 

Despite the deflation of the Brown bounce, Labour strategists still believe their attack on the ‘do nothing’ Conservatives can hit home. Today for example the Conservatives can either support Alastair Darling’s new production, ‘Bank Bailout 2 (this time it’s desperate)’, which looks weak, or they can oppose it which implies they don’t care that businesses can’t borrow and the housing market is as dead as a Norwegian Blue.  Perhaps that’s why there is as yet no comment on the Conservative website.

Whatever the pros and cons of the Conservatives political strategy on the economy, the allegation of doing nothing is damaging. It’s not just that it smacks of laziness and complacency. There may be a cognitive reason too. As Dan Gilbert summarised brilliantly in ‘Stumbling on happiness’, most of us are hard wired to rationalise our past actions. Given that we tend to think that what we did in the past worked for us (regardless of the evidence), and that doing something creates more powerful memories than not, we are prone to think action is better than inaction.    

The world now awaits President Obama’s inaugural address. For months the papers have been full of articles about how the new President handles expectations, the best of which in my opinion was this beautifully written piece by Benjamin Lamm (also check out my ex-insider’s take written a few days after the US election).

From the global economic crisis, to the Middle East, to climate change we hope Obama will sprinkle his magic dust and all will be well. There are certainly some areas where we need decisive early action. Foremost among these is the economy. Labour is hoping to make capital from the apparent similarity of Obama’s strategy to Brown’s, in contrast to the Conservative position.

But on the Middle East there are some important words of caution from Hussein Agha and Robert Malley writing (before the Israeli invasion of Gaza) in the New York Review of Books. Reviewing several books from seasoned veterans of US Middle East policy making and diplomacy, Agha and Malley conclude:

Amid all this, the question of what ought to be done on the Arab–Israeli front remains unanswered, and that may not be a bad thing. With so much that is novel, and with so much having gone so wrong for so long, basic issues should first be addressed. Among them are the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of US mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests and the benefits that would accrue to America from its resolution. One also might ponder reasons behind America’s chronic ineffectiveness in persuading lesser powers (Arafat, Hamas, Syria, or Hezbollah) to acquiesce in its demands, a pattern that suggests incapacity to identify local political forces, understand their interests, or comprehend their appeal.

Raising such questions might lead to heretical answers, or impractical ones, or none at all. But it is preferable to a headfirst rush to follow costly familiar patterns and to seek the comforting embrace of ideas that have been tried but never worked or that were never tried but can no longer work. Among the flurry of recommendations the next administration will receive, Obama could do worse than consider some simple advice. Don’t rush. Take time, take a deep breath, and take stock. Who knows, fresh and more effective policies might even ensue. Now that would be change we could believe in.”

Solutions to conflicts don’t simply carry over from one place to another. But it is telling to consider some of the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process (vividly described at the RSA last year by Jonathan Powell). It is futile to negotiate only with moderates regardless of whether they command the support of their communities. It is important to have clear objectives and a willingness to be tough in enforcing the conditions on each side necessary to keep the other side on board. The latter can only be done if the leaders have at least some control over their own communities.

No one knows how the situation in Gaza will settle down in coming weeks, nor the result and impact of the Israeli election. The new President will have to say he is determined to make peace in the Middle East. But he may be well advised to be patient and realistic about the role the US can play in the absence of effective leadership in the region.


The fickle finger of fate?

September 3, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Credit crunch 

Slightly random blogging I’m afraid. My butterfly mind needs to land on some new themes before I get going. But some nuggets to keep my reader (hi Mum!) happy

I spoke this morning at the London Skills for Care conference. Not a huge gig and no fee for the RSA but it was returning a favour. I decided to start by telling the delegates about my last speech to the final conference of Commission for Social Care Inspection. It’s a long, very amusing (really) story, but the crux is that I successfully dissembled in order to get away with being badly prepared.

The story is about my good fortune and it led me to ask this question; why is it that whenever people say ‘life’s unfair’ they always mean they’ve have had bad luck?

Why does it sound wrong to say ‘life’s unfair, I’ve just won the lottery’ or ‘it’s unfair, I haven’t put on any weight despite eating lots of chocolate’.

It is, I think, a confirmation of the argument developed by Dan Gilbert in Stumbling into Happiness which is that we systematically exaggerate both the control we have over our own life course, and our own talents in comparison with other people. So, we have an inbuilt tendency to believe that good things in our life are the consequence of our own talents and actions while bad things are the result of misfortune.

Last but not least, we have some exciting news about our Chair of Trustees designate. It will be in the public domain by tomorrow, but suffice to say that after the fantastic work done by our existing Chair, Gerry Acher, the new man will bring invaluable new skills, experience and networks to the RSA as we move on to our next stage of development.