Rise of healthy but troubled generation

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The Independent Online
THE LIVES of children entering the new millennium have been transformed by 50 years of medical breakthroughs. But the improvements have been tempered by the persistence of the poverty trap and growth in juvenile crime, according to a new report.

Diarrhoea, bronchitis and tuberculosis are no longer the killers they were in 1949. Instead suicide is among the top 10 causes of death for young people today. And although housing has improved since the days when only half the country had piped water, a cooker and a fixed bath, 70,000 children faced homelessness last year.

The snapshot survey of then and now has been drawn from official statistics by the Variety Club of Great Britain, which is marking half a century of raising money to help children.

Jan Walsh, the report's author, said: "In 50 years, Britain has seen vast changes. After the Second World War children had to live in a country still devastated by the conflict. Life was tough but straightforward when compared with the life children face today."

Breakthroughs in medicine have cut the child death statistics to hundreds rather than thousands. The expansion of universities and cuts in classroom sizes have improved education. But the divorce rate is four times higher than it was 50 years ago and children of lone parents are among the most impoverished.

Fifty years ago, a baby boom was under way among couples who had put their lives on hold during the war years, the report notes. Despite an 18 per cent increase in the population since then, there were nearly as many young people as there are today - more than 14 million.

The death rate was similar to today's with just over 1 per cent of the total population dying each year. "But children were far more likely to succumb to fatal diseases in 1949 than they are now," Ms Walsh said.

Better nutrition, improved living conditions and the NHS immunisation programmes have helped to cut the figures. The report suggests that because death by disease is less likely, parents' fears that their child may be murdered have increased. Although homicide rates were slightly higher in 1949, the relative importance has risen. "When compared to the other dangers that exist for children in the late 1990s, the possibility that they might be murdered is stronger incomparison to other possible causes of death - because death by disease is now so unlikely."

When teenagers started work in 1949, they were paid relatively low wages. On average, a man aged under 21 earned 58 shillings and sixpence (pounds 2.92) a week which, taking account of inflation, would be an annual wage of pounds 2,872 today. Girls under 18 earned the equivalent of pounds 2,460. The report said: "Even the lowest paid just-out-of-school workers today would get at least pounds 5,000 a year."

But alongside the good news comes bad. Although fewer young people are found guilty of burglary, boys and girls are now committing significant numbers of violent crimes.

Some subjects are impossible to compare. Child abuse was barely recognised half a century ago.

Professor Sir Eric Stroud, whose childcare work at King's Hospital, Lewisham, south London, was supported by pounds 2m of Variety Club money, said there was no doubt the health of children was better than it had been 50 years ago.

Philip Burley, head of the Variety Club, said many medical and health problems may have been solved, though other social and political problems remained. "They are much harder to solve and are really the challenge for the future."