Pollyanna vs the pessimists

That's enough gloom and doom - we're still much better off than we were a century ago

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Why do we feel as bad as we do? Downing Street is trying in vain to shift the pervading gloom, but the people remain obstinately in a slough of despond. A snapshot of popular foreboding was offered to us yesterday in a Mori poll commissioned by the children's charity Barnado's: two-thirds of people said today's children would inherit a worse world than they had inherited. Easy to understand if this was a poll of the poor, but it was people of all social classes who said so.

This survey explored the thick pall of pessimism in the air. "What, if anything, do you think will make the world that today's children inherit worse...?" The answers are easy to guess: crime first, then unemployment, pollution, drugs and the breakdown of the family.

Perhaps this survey reveals as much about the human condition as about current gloom. We have always believed that the young generation is on the slide, literally degenerate. Generation after generation feels that things are falling apart: their parents were better, their children are worse and we are all on a downward path to perdition.

Back at the last fin de siecle, much the same millennial panic gripped the nation. Professor Geoffrey Pearson's research has revealed how in 1898 newspapers were reporting that young hooligan gangs with sticks, knives and catapaults were fighting territorial battles around neighbourhood pubs. Shocked commentators blamed the weakening of family ties, a lessening of parental control, a lack of respect for parents and general physical and moral degeneration among the young. It sounds familiar.

The symptom of moral decline was always "the youth of today", but the cause was usually women; bad mothers, working mothers, voting mothers, short-skirted mothers, as any sign of independence in women undermined traditional family values. So it is today.

Back in the 1840s, women working in mills were the destroyers of family. In both world wars mothers in factories, with their new independent affluence, were a moral peril. In the Thirties it wasn't mothers but Hollywood gangster movies that corrupted the young with filth that undermined family, community and moral ties.

When the teddy boys of the Fifties caused another outbreak of youth-fear, they were said to be latch-key kids, sons of neglectful working mothers. Each wave of youth culture strikes terror into the hearts of the elders, even though time and again youth grows up to be largely law-abiding parents, equally appalled by their own off-spring.

At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna playing the Glad Game, counting blessings like Candide in the face of terrible adversity, it is worth remembering that average incomes have risen by 37 per cent in real terms in the past 16 years. Most people now own homes, cars, televisions, fridges, and washing machines, and take good holidays. Superstores offer a sophistication and diversity of taste previously undreamt of. Most children's life-chances are hugely improved, with many more gaining qualifications and twice as many in university.

Jobs are getting better, even if transitions are painful. A century ago, more than 90 per cent of people were in manual jobs, but now 60 per cent are in white-collar work, with one-third in professional or managerial posts. We live longer and we are healthier than ever before, free of a myriad painful disorders that plagued people's lives.

But above all, we have more personal freedom. Freedom to live with whom you like is the great benefit people forget when they indulge in "breakdown of the family" fears. Home-ownership brings freedom to live wherever you like, with even now a relatively low risk of repossession and disaster. Freedom to choose your community with a personalised network linked to work, family, friends and interests is far better for most than the tyranny of geographical ties, yet too often it is called "breakdown of community". Freedom does bring added stress and anxiety, but who would prefer to return to a life of more certainty and less choice?

So why are we such a miserable nation of moaners? Most people are not in negative equity, are not victims of seriously threatening crime, and are not unemployed. Yet people fear these things inordinately. The old right believes that lumpen mass culture is overwhelming excellence, when they should be celebrating the spread of mass education. The left regrets the passing of shoulder-to-shoulder working-class solidarity instead of welcoming the new mass middle-class lifestyle.

It would be nice to think that current gloom is caused by disgust at the plight of the 25 per cent of people who have not shared in the general wealth - the permanently unemployed or the growing numbers of poverty- stricken children. But polls show little sign of a new spirit of generosity. People say they would pay more towards their own services, health and education, but not in general taxation for social security. Alas, the neurotic gloom afflicting middle England is for themselves, not others.

This fin de siecle malaise is unhealthy and dangerous. Though it may prove to be a sign of fin de gouvernement, it is not a progressive impulse but a deeply conservative yearning for "tradition". Moral panic creates a weariness of spirit full of the lassitude of despair. Relatively small and manageable problems loom large as symbols of some great imaginary social sickness. The panickers elide all kinds of unconnected phenomena into a ball of fear. As they have done down the centuries, they point to the immorality of the poor (crime, idleness, scrounging, single mothers) and extrapolate from that predictions of moral decline all round.

Thus the smallish number of poor, alienated and bad young men who commit most of the crime become not a problem group, with various solutions, but outcasts we can do nothing about. Divorce and single motherhood become emblems of deep moral decay, and we are unlikely to make the social and financial changes needed to accommodate the new shape of families if all we do is bemoan an unstoppable revolution. If inner-city estates are regarded as black holes of hopelessness, nothing will be done.

"Nothing works" is a mentality that causes political inaction. If problems are blown up into great clouds of despair, then everyone gives up. All this pessimism distances people even further from the political process, which depends on a measure of hope. In one form or another, only energetic political will has any chance of dealing with social problems, most of which can be solved or at least contained.

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