Britain in 2010: rich but far too stressed to enjoy it

SOCIETY UNDER PRESSURE Report says wealth gap will widen but increasing income will not prevent middle class suffering big social problems
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS 2010. A 45-year-old divorcee manoeuvres her Porsche out of the drive of her mansion in Hampstead, north London. Like one in five of the population, she is self-employed and as she drives she reflects on how glad she is not to have children. They would have stopped her from working the long hours necessary to be able to afford retirement these days.

A few miles down the road in Hackney, her former husband huddles on the pavement asking passers-by for spare change so he can buy a drink. After he lost his job as a City banker because of his drug habit, his wife divorced him and he was unable to afford anywhere decent to live. His chronic alcoholism prevents him finding another job and he will probably have to go and live with his ageing parents, who need looking after.

In the game of snakes and ladders that is the 21st century, this couple typify life as it is forecast in a new report published today. The research and its conclusions make grim reading, particularly since it comes from the highly regarded Henley Centre.

The Paradox of Prosperity, which was commissioned by the Salvation Army, found that although the economic outlook was bright, the problems facing society at the end of the second millennium were likely to deteriorate by the start of the third. For some, life will improve beyond their wildest dreams in terms of material wealth, but the human cost will be enormous.

The report paints a bleak picture of a society in the grip of upheaval and rife with family breakdown, drug dependency, workplace stress and an ageing population. The gap between rich and poor will increase and despite the increased prosperity of the professional classes, who will have a 90 per cent rise in disposable income, they will be too busy working to enjoy it.

Michelle Singer, the author of the report, said: "Material wealth has become decoupled from personal fulfillment. Contrary to previous representations of well-to-do people as the idle landed gentry, the modern axiom seems to be that those earning the most money often have the least time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. High standards of living are not necessarily accompanied by high quality of life.

"The professional classes are under increasing pressure, working longer hours and suffering higher levels of stress. As this continues, drug and alcohol abuse could become worrying prevalent and at the same time people will feel the need to ensure private financial provision for their old age and will be less able withdraw from the rat race.

"This will put more pressure on the already shrinking family unit and in 10 years' time there will be a 33 per cent increase in the number of lone-parent households. The number of women remaining childless at the age of 45 will increase to 22 per cent compared with 16 per cent two years ago."

The poorer elements of society will become trapped in an increasingly desperate cycle of unemployment, poor education and ill-health which will be passed on through the generations. The report also forecast that the top 10 per cent will be 10 times richer than the bottom 10 per cent.

Alex Hughes, the territorial commander of the Salvation Army in the United Kingdom and Ireland, said: "Our role as the biggest provider of social care after the Government is set to become even more crucial.

"When the Salvation Army was founded 130 years ago, it focused on helping the poorer sectors of society. Now it is not only the poor who need our help. All sectors of of society are suffering from the modern social condition - loneliness, stress, and a deteriorating quality of life."

But he added that the army would also be facing a massive funding crisis as it struggled to cope with rising demand for its welfare programmes. If it could not find funding, "many people who depend on the army for social care and rehabilitation into the community will simply fall through the net. We cannot allow this to happen".

But Ms Singer said the report provided a glimmer of hope in the increasing spirituality felt by many people. "It's not all about religion but people are starting to say that they will leave the office at 6pm to have time with their families and they are turning to yoga and other forms of exercise and relaxation.

"It is gradually becoming more acceptable to want to be with your family and we need to make that a more mainstream attitude. We need to take a more holistic approach to life and if that becomes more widely accepted then there is a chance that things might be better in 10 years' time."