The fact that millions of people in Britain cannot cope with everyday life, as revealed in a landmark report today, is testimony to the deeply alienated, dog-eat-dog society that has emerged after three decades of intense globalisation and commercialisation of just about every aspect of society.
What has resulted is a more deeply alienated Britain, with people out of touch with themselves and with others. In a 294-page research study, the Young Foundation’s Sinking and Swimming – understanding Britain’s unmet needs combines statistical data, research based on conversations with citizens as well as professionals, case studies and reflections on both past patterns of need and future possibilities.
The report finds that health inequalities, inequalities of wealth and inequalities of income have widened while a large minority of teenagers (one in eight) remains detached from the education system and the labour market.
It adds: “Over two and a half million people remain on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance. And the very poorest have seen their living standards stagnate or even decline. Over the last year the recession has raised unemployment, put downward pressure on incomes and will soon be followed by sharp cuts in public spending which are likely to affect the poorest most.”
Between one in six and one in four people in the UK experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. The number of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs increased from 9 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2007. There are also important “psycho-social needs” – some people have no one to talk to day-to-day or about important issues, the report adds.
Unsurprisingly, the groups most likely to have acute and persistent needs include the unemployed, lone parents and many living with disabilities, as well as half a million irregular migrants, 140,000 child runaways, a third of a million problematic drug users and 80,000 looked after children.
The report acknowledges the “rise of individualism” as a factor and explains: “A more overtly meritocratic society has encouraged people to be more ambitious for themselves, but also made them more vulnerable to failures – and more likely to blame themselves (rather than fate or the class system) if things go wrong. Some of the shock absorbers – from faith to family – that helped us cope in the past have atrophied.”
"The UK [is a] largely happy country, but one with many unhappy people … Too many parts of British society are brittle, vulnerable to shocks, stressed and … close to the edge," says the report, which is backed by 13 charitable foundations. Despite material abundance, society's ability to meet psychological and psycho-social needs "appears to have declined" the report concludes. Among the recommendations are that unemployed teenagers and refugees should be given a mobile phone and internet access as part of their benefits package.
There are, however, no technological fixes to the deep malaise that the report reveals. Alienation is not a psychological construct but a reflection in people’s consciousness of the underlying social and political structures of capitalism. For example, where the welfare state was perhaps more generous and supportive, the modern market state built by the Tories and New Labour is harsh and driven by cost-cutting and driving people into unsuitable, low-skill, low-paid jobs.
The intense individualism and extreme competitiveness that can wreck people’s lives is manufactured by advertising and TV “reality” shows in order to sustain the illusion that everyone can “do well” if they only want to. In practice, a small group have actually done really well while the vast majority have to get by on credit card debt. No longer, however. Most of the research for the report was carried out before the financial crash and economic recession, which has left an estimated 1.7 million people taking a large pay cut or working reduced hours to avoid losing their jobs. With the financial crisis far from over, brittle Britain is heading for a collective breakdown.