Real Living: Debate - Have the Nineties been caring and sharing?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
This week, charitable donations through the National Lottery reached pounds 1bn. There's more than enough `caring and sharing' to go around, says Andrew Bellass - as long as you don't mind it coming from the big corporations. Nonsense, says Martin Barnes, we're no more generous or social-minded than we were in the `greedy' Eighties

We are still motivated by money, but the Nineties have also taught us to be more caring and expressive, says Andrew Bellass.

"Greed is good," said the Eighties - and so, with unwavering determination, I became a product of Thatcher's avarice. I studied business and marketing and fulfilled the Eighties dream of working in advertising, only to be confronted, on entry, by what seemed like the ultimate contradiction: an advert for BMW proporting the values of recycling. No longer was the selling point its speed and luxury - this was environmental glamour.

Welcome to the caring, sharing Nineties, where men do the vacuuming and clean the kitchen and bathroom (although being men of "Muscle", we find a deceptively quick way of doing it). We have regained community spirit through a tin of Fox's biscuits, family cohesion through a bowl of Heinz soup. We have even swept beautiful young children in red coats away from impending death, while we search for the hero inside ourselves.

Caring and sharing - the Nineties have been positively angelic. However, as the decade draws to a close there appears to be a huge gap between the perception of caring and the reality of sharing as people appear to be more concerned about social issues but give less money to charity.

Such contradiction can be explained. Firstly, the Nineties have undeniably taught us to be more aware, to be more in touch with our own feelings and have allowed us to be more expressive, as demonstrated with the huge outpouring of mass grief over Princess Diana's death in 1997.

However, in other ways, it's hard to find physical manifestations of a society at the cutting edge of altruism. What has happened to recycling, global warming and CFCs? Were they just buzz words to give brands and companies - at a loss to find any intrinsic differentiation - greater emotional credibility? And wasn't it in the Eighties that Bob Geldof fed the world and Anita Roddick launched an empire on the back of animal rights? In the Eighties we did care and share; in the Nineties we've just congratulated ourselves about it more.

In this sense we are living the myth and not the reality. I am more caring and sharing because the Nineties have taught me to be. I am the hero inside myself because you told me. I don't have to prove it.

Couple all this with Nineties overload, too much information, too much stress, not enough time, concerns for the future and continuing pressure to be more responsible for yourself and it is easy to see that caring and sharing on a societal level has been converted to concern for yourself above the needs of others.

Looking back, it feels like it is brands and not people that have taken on the mantle of philanthropy. Tesco is giving computers for schools, Pret a Manger is helping the homeless and Reebok has been setting a fine example in the sportswear market by fighting child labour in the Third World.

Then there's the national lottery. If there was one thing which could embody the Nineties as caring and sharing it's this. But the lottery, like the Nineties itself, sends out mixed signals. It carries the torch of greed and hope from the Eighties - and yet does it in way which pacifies guilt and meets all Nineties criteria by giving back to the community.

Greed is good; it's even better when it's a moral pacifier.

Sentiment is not enough, says Martin Barnes. The number of people living in poverty has increased since the Eighties.

The decade is ending as it began, with concerns about the economy, rising unemployment and fears of a recession. The last recession, which devastated many families and communities, cast a shadow over most of the decade. Self-interest, a legacy of the 1980s, was still around but was perhaps fuelled more by fear than by greed. Even if we cared in the 1990s, because of our fears and insecurities (about jobs, mortgages and paying bills), we were not always willing or able to share.

I am not going to lecture on the need to be more caring. We all care about something or someone. The feeling is strongest in the private and personal sphere but our concerns also extend beyond the immediate and the personal. We can and usually do care about people we do not personally know - the others in our community or society who are anonymous and unknown. Individuals can and do make a difference, but it is important that our relationship to each other and our values are in some way also reflected by the agencies of government and the type and quality of our public services. In this public sphere the 1990s was not a good decade for caring and sharing with poorly funded public services, cuts to welfare and social security, increased poverty and inequality.

We are a very wealthy nation. Despite the recession, spending and consumption increased in the 1990s, although the good life (for those who had it) was less conspicuous and more self-conscious than during the "greedy" Eighties. But the number of people living in poverty increased during the decade, with the result that today more than one child in three lives in a household with an income of less than half the average. Inequality has increased, with a wider divide between the rich and the poor.

The recent report on health and inequality by Sir Donald Acheson was a wake-up call for politicians, although it received a surprisingly muted response. The stark message is that the poor are at greater risk of ill health, disability and an early death. Benefits levels are not sufficient - some parents have to go hungry to ensure that their children are adequately fed and clothed. Many will have had a miserable Christmas with only a short respite before debts and loans are due. Child poverty is a scandal, yet during the decade where was the public outcry? Perhaps the statistics became too overwhelming; the experience of poverty can get lost as people's lives are distilled to numbers on a page. Or is it that people do not really care?

I am an optimist. You have to be if you believe in change and fighting injustice - there has to be hope. But even if people cared more, fine words and warm feelings achieve little if they are not matched by deeds. We can and should share more. Private charity, although important, is not the answer. Redistribution (I wish I could find a better word for it) must be back on the agenda. The nation can afford it. The richest 10 per cent of the population have assets (excluding property) with a net value of pounds 680bn - one legacy of the 1990s. A 50 per cent increase in child benefit would be equal in cash terms to less than 1 per cent of the assets of the richest. What are the rich doing with their pounds 680bn - couldn't they share a bit more of it?

Andrew Bellass is a board planner at advertising agency TBWA GGT Simons Palmer.

Martin Barnes is director of the Child Poverty Action Group.

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