On the face of it last week contained two really good bits of news. First, there was unemployment apparently peaking at nearly half a million fewer people than most analysts, including the Government’s, were predicting this time last year. Second, the crime stats showed an 8% headline fall, again defying the widespread prediction that there would be more offences committed during the recession.
I am sure the Government wishes more attention was being paid to the good news, and hoping an effect might show up in the opinion polls. If so, ministers will have been disappointed to open Sunday newspapers, brimming not with glad tidings but endless analysis of the child assaults in Edlington, plus pages of speculation about how the current and previous Prime Minister will perform in the Iraq inquiry. But it’s not so much the politics that interest me.
Both the employment and crime news are genuinely interesting. There are various explanations for the former and tucked away on the BBC website is a very good overview from Stephanie Flanders. So the news was reported and there are analyses available, but why don’t people seem particularly interested? Compare this with the endless agonising – on the news, in the papers, but also in bus queues and pubs – about whether this would be the worst recession since (or even including) the Great Depression.
It’s a cliche that the news focuses on bad things. Over the years various people, from newsreaders to website founders, have tried to get people interested in a more balanced offering. But our lack of interest in how we have come through the downturn better than we expected, and our willingness to put so much more emphasis on the terrible crimes of two disturbed boys than the benign social trend revealed in the crime stats, underlines the depth of our social pessimism.
Last week, in an RSA Thursday event discussing optimism, a telling point was made. One of our advocates for pessimism, the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, said that a great thing about thinking the worst is that pessimists are surprised and delighted when things go well. But, as Laurence Shorter, author of The Optimist replied, what actually happens when inveterate pessimists are presented with good news that they ignore it, discount it or start looking for its drawbacks.
So wedded are we now to social pessimism that we are unwilling even to acknowledge that as a country we appear to have become both more economically resilient and socially responsible. If we don’t take in the good news we will be even less able to deal intelligently with the bad.
I was privileged yesterday to chair a conference launching a new coalition of charities concerned with the provision of services to adults with severe and complex needs. The event was organised by Homeless Link.
For the second session, I interviewed three service users who have been helped to turn their lives around by a combination of statutory and third sector services. Their stories were humbling, frightening and inspiring – humbling, in the way in which they had overcome huge personal problems; frightening, in the sense that each of them recognised the need for change, but would not still have been here if the help hadn’t clicked in when it did; and inspiring the way each of them paid tribute to the professionals and volunteers who had helped them.
Against the background of social pessimism (which I have blogged about before) and the more recent despair over the Baby P case, it is important to remember that whilst ‘the system’ does too often fail, it also saves thousands of people every year, enabling them to lead useful and fulfilling lives, when previously they had lived in hopelessness and chaos.
I have been swimming in a sea of social pessimism. Last night it was the focus for my talk to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation event on new social evils. This morning I went along (in a personal capacity) to a Progress seminar about the ‘broken society’ thesis. The seminar featured the predictable split between those who urge ministers and progressive commentators to refute the broken society thesis and expose the motives behind it, and those who warn that unless Government shows it is responding to public concerns (however misplaced or anecdotal) it will look complacent and out of touch.
These options having been stated early on, there were then attempts to suggest a middle way: empathise with social pessimism but maintain that something is being done about it; or encourage optimism but with a ‘pro social’ emphasis on the responsibility of citizens to contribute to further progress.
Inevitably one of the speakers this morning was Ben Page from IPSOS MORI. Ben, you will recall, provided entertaining and authoritative overviews of the public mood to each of the RSA’s three party conference meetings. It was on a different issue that I cornered him as I left the seminar.
Ben spoke here at the RSA last week. But his findings highlighting public inconsistency and pessimism was called into question by Professor Paul Dolan from Imperial College. Dolan argues that survey data on questions such as the state of the country was of very little value for three powerful and overlapping reasons. First, people rarely think about such grand issues, so the response they give is bound to be off the top of the head rather than considered. Second, the framing of the questions is highly suggestive of particular responses; just asking ‘do you think the country is going in the right direction’ seems designed to produce the response ‘well, if you’re asking, I guess the answer must be ‘no’’. Third, there is a great deal of evidence that our answers to such questions are heavily influenced by ephemeral recent events. People will give more positive answers on sunny days and much more positive answers if something good has just happened to them.
This struck a chord with me as in recent talks and conversations I have been extolling the virtues of cultural theory (yes, that again). With public sector types one finds oneself underlining the importance of engaging with the individualist perspective; the view that nature is resilient and that the world goes on just fine if we all do what comes naturally to us. The problem is that the tool councils use to find out what people want tends to be polling (usually done by colleagues of Ben Page). But, as I now tend to argue, in view of the limitations of polling, they should be spending much less time asking people what they think and much more finding out what people do.
A classic example of this relates to green public spaces. If during the design process for a park which may be, let’s say, rectangular, members of the public are asked whether they will stick to the paths round the edge of the lawned space they are likely to say ‘yes’. But, in fact, we know that if there a quicker diagonal route between entry and exit points to the space the public will quickly create an unofficial path or ‘desire line’ cutting the park in half.
I said all this to Ben expecting him to respond with a spirited defence of opinion polling. But, no, as usually he was unflappable. ‘Very interesting’ he said ‘and probably why we have started employing our own in-house ethnographers at IPSOS MORI’.
PS: Five minutes after finishing this blog, I came across the front page of Society Guardian about Irena Bauman. She, it turns out, is doing exactly what I advocate above and has been doing it for some time, and brilliantly.
We hosted a Joseph Rowntree Foundation debate here last night as part of their project on the new social evils. Perhaps surprisingly given the economic gloom the overall message of speeches from Julia Neuberger, AC Grayling and Anthony Browne was that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Grayling and Browne were particularly keen to argue that we have never had things so good (Anthony now works for Boris Johnson, so an echo here of the Mayor’s dismissal of Conservative talk of a ‘broken Britain’ as piffle). Julia Neuberger highlighted how fear of being accused of abuse can discourage people from showing kindness and concern to children and old people alike. She called for a renewal of trust and altruism, the opening up of institutions so the public feel confident about getting involved as volunteers or advocates and an end to a culture of blame.
Responding, Naomi Eistenstadt from the Cabinet Office made a spirited defence of the role of the central state in providing a social guarantee, a framework of values and protection for children.
As all this suggests, there was much to chew over but it still felt that we hadn’t got to the heart of the question. If things are getting better and there is no real evidence of a decline of social values, why are we so pessimistic and why do four out of five of us agree with the assertion that we are suffering from a decline in moral standards? Indeed if we think things are getting worse doesn’t that mean they are? After all, how we feel about society is surely an important measure of its health? Also, social pessimism can be a self fulfilling prophesy – if we think it’s cold and hostile out there we’ll go home and lock the door.
I have been commissioned to write an overview chapter for the final JRF report on this project. Given the slipperiness of the central concept and the quality and range of other contributors it’s a tough assignment. But after last night I think I have a clearer idea about what I am looking for. I want to try to overcome the dichotomy between how society is (getting better) and how it feels (getting worse). ‘How it feels’ is part of ‘what it is’ and how it feels feeds back into what it is. Instead of the starting point being ‘society is getting better but people don’t think it is’ – the theme for last night – it should be ‘society is generally getting better but one of the things that is not is how we feel about it’.
This opens up difficult questions about the relationship between progress and social contentment. Is it in the nature of some of the things that seem to be getting better – for example, growing affluence or tolerance – that they contribute to making (some of us) feel worse? Should we give greater weight in social policy to the subjective than the objective? Interestingly this has been the general shift in how the Government measures public service performance, moving from outcome based indicators to user satisfaction.
One interesting example of this is social mobility. Everyone says they are in favour of having more of it. This is fine when we are talking about absolute social mobility – increasing the numbers getting into the middle class, as happened in the fifties and sixties. But the only way to increase relative social mobility (or to increase absolute social mobility when the middle class has stopped expanding) is to make it easier for people to come down as well as go up. But it is far from clear that a society in which it is easier for middle class people to be downwardly socially mobile would be a more content society. Behavioural economics teaches us that the pleasure of upward social mobility (getting something we didn’t have before) is less than the pain of downward social mobility (losing something we have now). So the net social contentment impact of increasing relative social mobility (disregarding other knock-on effects) is negative. In other words the one thing all leading politicians say they want more of is something that will make us less happy as a society!
I have just been reading a draft article about public attitudes soon to appear in a current affairs magazine. The article uses a battery of statistics to highlight the paradoxical nature of our attitudes. To put it in a nutshell:
- Generally, we are happy and optimistic about own lives and families
- Important objective aspects of our lives ranging from health to affluence (notwithstanding the current crisis) to life expectancy are improving
- Many ‘social fabric’ indicators including crime levels, teen pregnancy, divorce and even drink and drug consumption, are either static or going in the right direction, and are anyway not that much different from ‘happier’ countries like Denmark
Yet despite all this we – like the other big four Western European countries – are ever more pessimistic about the direction in which we think the country is going. There is a range of explanations for this phenomenon.
Inequality. Many social researchers and progressive commentators argue that the more equal a country is the happier it is. We may be better off than we were but we are also more unequal, hence more unhappy about society.
Migration and diversity. Robert Putnam and others have shown how people who live in diverse and fast changing communities are – regardless of their own background – less content.
Politics. Our pessimism about society is really just pessimism about this Government. Would a new Government restore the heady optimism of the summer of 1997?
Decline in values. From Melanie Phillips to Richard Reeves to David Cameron there are those who highlight a decline in morality and public spiritedness. Is this why we are so open to the Conservative’s Broken Society mantra?
Private hubris, public despair. This is the thesis I outlined a few months ago. The rise and rise of individualism coupled with the decline of collective institutions means we have an exaggerated account of our own efficacy (which appears to be a hard wired trait) and a diminished account of society’s scope for collective progress
The media. Bad news sells. Most of us get our information about the world out there from a media ever more desperate to get our attention by peddling rage and fear. This view is underlined by the gap between the positive story we offer about our own communities and public services and the negative view we have of communities and services at large.
Each of these accounts is worth exploring but none of them are wholly convincing. But social pessimism is a bad thing – it undermines trust and the myth of decline contributes to bad politics and policy making.
‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his inaugural address. The modern version is ‘we have nothing to be pessimistic about but pessimism itself’.