So remarkable it deserves its own post, complete with our political afterthought.
From the (conservative! Telegraph):
The report by Unicef, the UN children’s agency, warns that materialism has come to dominate family life in Britain as parents “pointlessly” amass goods for their children to compensate for their long working hours.
While parents said they felt compelled into buying more, the children themselves said spending time with their families made them happier.
Unicef UK said the obsession was one of the underlying causes of the riots and widespread looting which gripped the UK last month, as teenagers targeted shops for the designer clothes and goods.
The study, which was jointly funded by the Department for Education, was commissioned after an earlier Unicef report ranked Britain as the worst country in the industrialised world to be a child.
It prompted David Cameron to coin the expression “broken Britain” and fuelled calls for a raft of new family friendly policies.
In its latest study Unicef commissioned researchers from Ipsos Mori interviewed hundreds of children in Britain, Sweden and Spain, asking them about their ideas of happiness and success.
Researchers found that consumerism was less deeply embedded in Sweden and Spain, which rank significantly higher for the wellbeing of children.
British parents work longer hours and are simply “too tired” to play with their children whom in turn they can no longer control.
Families across the country, irrespective of social class or race, are less likely to spend time, eat or play games together, with children often left to their own devices.
In British households television is increasingly used as a “babysitter”, while children’s bedrooms have become “media bedsits” with computers, games consoles and widescreen TVs taking the place of dolls houses or model aeroplanes.
The report found that children from poorer families were also less likely to take part in outdoor activities than those in the other countries, opting for a “sedentary” lifestyle in front of the television or computer games. The trend was more marked in teenagers.
Among the more startling examples of obsessive consumerism uncovered by the report was a mother fretting over whether to buy a Nintendo DS games system for her three- year-old son conviced that he would be bullied if she did not get him one.
In Sweden family time was embedded into the “natural rhythm” of daily life with parents sharing mealtimes, fishing trips, sporting events or evenings in with their children.
While in Spain fathers tended to work long hours, children enjoyed more attention from their mothers and wider family circle.
But in Britain, some parents spoke of having “given up” on taking their children to organised activities.
The report, authored by Dr Agnes Nairn, an academic and marketing expert, said: “Parents in the UK almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist.”
She concluded that there was an “enormous difference” between Britain and other countries.
She said: “While children would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods, [their] parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children. This compulsive consumption was almost completely absent in both Spain and Sweden.”
Last night Unicef called for the Government to ban advertising aimed at children under the age of 12 and encourage parents to work fewer hours and spend more time at home. It also warned councils against cutting children’s playgrounds and other facilities.
David Bull, Unicef’s UK director, said: “Right now politicians are grappling with the aftermath of the riots and what they say about our society, culture and families.
“The research findings provide important insights into the pressures children and their families are facing and may speak to some of the underlying issues relating to the disturbances.
“It is vital that those in power listen to what children and their families are saying about life in the UK. The government needs to make sure parents earn enough to spend fewer hours in work and more time with their children, protect children’s play facilities from spending cuts and consider reforming the laws controlling advertising to children.”
It comes just six weeks after a landmark Government review into childhood by Reg Bailey, the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union, which found that parents are often complicit in the sexualisation and commercialisation of children.
Last night Mr Bailey said the Unicef findings echoed his own experiences.
“I think it is an issue with the nature of our society, that so often we’ve placed a dependence on things rather than being,” he said.
Sarah Teather, the Children’s Minister, said: “We share Unicef’s concerns about the rise of consumerism among children, and it’s worrying to see that in some cases parents are under the same pressures.
“We are clear this needs to be tackled and are currently working with businesses and regulators to implement the recommendations from Reg Bailey’s review on commercialisation and sexualisation of children.”
The original Unicef report, which published in 2007, ranked Britain bottom out of 21 developed country for child welfare. It was third from bottom for educational standards, bottom for self esteem and second from bottom for the number of teenage pregnancies.
British children were twice as likely as the average to have been drunk by the age of 15, and significantly less likely to be in two parent families than those elsewhere, were more likely to have tried drugs and had one of the worst diets in the developed world.
Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, said: “We are teaching our children, practically from the moment they are born, that the one thing that matters is getting more stuff.
“We are probably the most secular society in the world, we do not have the counterbalance of religion but at the same time we are a very driven society very into progress and making money.”
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As an afterthought, we have long considered political conservatism and free market thinking as rather odd bedfellows. While we’re hardly the first or alone with that insight (read for instance Turbo Capitalism by the conservative Edward Luttwak). If you still don’t get it here is a quote from Luttwak (taken from a Business Week review):
The problem, Luttwak says, is pace. After 20 years of relentless deregulation and market-opening, we’ve turbocharged the destruction-and-creation process essential to a competitive economy’s advance. The speed of structural change now ”brutally exceeds the adaptive limits of individuals, families, and communities,” Luttwak writes. And the process is not creating what we want. Instead, it’s leading to minuscule aggregate wage gains (in the U.S.), high unemployment (in Europe), and rampant economic insecurity (pretty much everywhere). Only a few forlorn holdouts–Luttwak singles out France and Japan in particular–now resist the pattern.
That one sentence in (our) bold, “The speed of structural change now “brutally exceeds the adaptive limits of individuals, families, and communities” sums it up in the best way possible. Conservatism is about preserving individuals, families, and communities, their identities, their way of life, their tradition, their cohesion. We actually have considerable sympathy with that ideology, as long as they do not engage in all kinds of Voodoo economics to square their beliefs with one of the other pillars, the belief in unregulated markets. These don’t mix very well, to put it mildly..
By the way, the book was published in 1999, when there still were miniscule wage gains. Even these have turned negative..
But what is remarkable and historically unprecedented is the breadth and depth of the loss of middle-class income…: compared to its peak in 1999, median household income is down down $3,800 (2010 dollars), more than 7%. [Economist view]