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James Murphy © 2000

 

 
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Epochal hit -- or myth of decline?

Think back over the last wee while. How many articles have you read on the general theme of social failure and decline? How many articles about, say, growing income inequality, executive stress, the North-South divide, unsustainable time-pressures among working mothers, the spread of depressive illness, the scale of divorce and family breakdown, hyper-confused consumers, TV-zombied children.? You have probably read quite a few. You have also probably read a fair amount about how life was better in the 1950s, how families were stronger then and homes happier, how nutrition was better. (We are confidently awaiting the major new study which will confirm that the sex was better in the 1950s!). And perhaps, like us, you have wondered about the strange talent for believable hyperbole that pessimism seems always to possess.

For we are, by all proper registers, living through a unique time, one to which, in decades to come, we will look back with awe. This is the age of Peace & Plenty. Our task in this article is to prove that such a phenomenon exists -- by piercing through the froth of today's broadsheet features and peering into the deep engine of social change. It is the obligation of the forecaster to identify and measure the big changes taking place and to assess how each phase of our experience -- as citizens and consumers -- is adding to the social geology of the next. In a spirit of utter vanity, we argue that a good deal of contemporary analysis is failing to meet this obligation and, as result, along the way, proper discourse about our direction as a society -- civil and consumer -- is being badly mangled.

Peace and Plenty : a recipe

We believe that a full understanding of Britain in the late 90s and early 00s has to be referenced through the following interactive elements, the DNA, as it were, of Peace & Plenty:

  • dramatic income growth combined with reasonably efficient income-distribution mechanisms in the UK
  • the progressive marginalisation of inter-generational, industrial and ideological conflict
  • a prolonged, continuing period of peace - making our era highly unusual within the modern history of the UK
  • the death of Victorian drudgery in the workplace and ever improving and widening entertainment choices for individuals
  • the benign psychological effects of a long collective experience of stable money values

We believe that we can explain much of our culture, our politics and indeed our behaviour in markets by exclusive reference to these factors. Meanwhile, those who are arguing that our society is currently -- in some way or another -- degenerating purvey little more than a malign nostalgia, a mythology-of-decline based on a sometimes grotesque misreading of perfectly transparent data. Just in case we are misunderstood, let us affirm that we for our part are not merely being wantonly optimistic as a trivial counterpoint to the "malign nostalgia" school. We speak not of an optimism but of an interstice, a package of transient -- but, in the meantime, highly favourable -- circumstances that define our times.

In the period beginning with the start of Edward Heath's premiership and ending with the start of Tony Blair's, household incomes have doubled in the UK. Since 1955, household spending has swelled at an average of around 2.5% per annum -- a very powerful expression of the principle of compound interest. Contrary to disturbingly widespread opinion, most families in Britain have shared in this income growth. Recessions, such as the slump of the early 1990s, have brought great but transitory upheaval along the way. But these have not disrupted the flow of a socio-economic model within which most -- and let us stress that it is most -- household living standards have increased.

In 1970, only 35% of households had a telephone; by 1985, the figure had risen to 81%; by 1998, 94% of households had at least one telephone. The figures relating to other durables paint a similar picture of -- let's call it -- relentless democratisation. In our own times, the number of households with a home computer has risen to one third. It is the pattern that over time luxury consumer goods become the standard furniture of every-home -- right to the point where the very definition of luxury has to be put under continuous review.

Average weekly household income in the UK is now around £400. Many argue -- and indeed are morally outraged by the fact -- that such averages disguise very substantial inequalities in income-distribution. Such inequalities -- let's say it out loud -- are rampant in modern Britain. Between 1993 and 1998, household incomes for the wealthiest quintile rose by 6% per annum; for the poorest quintile, they rose by only 2%. The rich are certainly getting richer -- but the poor are meanwhile growing richer too, not in relation to the rich but indisputably in relation to their past.

All too often, poverty in Britain is measured in relative but not absolute terms. Some very potent distortions flow from this habit. A recent study entitled "Factfile 2000" from NCH Action for Children tells us that in the UK "child poverty has trebled over the last thirty years". But such a claim is understandable and meaningful only by reference to the relativities of poverty measurement. Consider this specific point from the same study:

"The proportion of children who live in households whose income was below half of average income has increased substantially. In 1979, 8% of children BHC (Before Housing Costs) and 9% of children AHC (After Housing Costs) lived in households with less than half of the 1979 average income. By 1995-96, 24% of children BHC and 34% of children AHC were in households with less than half of the 1995-96 average".

This is essentially the basis of the "child-poverty-is-trebling" claim. But the definition of poverty in exclusive relationship to average incomes can be powerfully misleading -- if, for example, one wantonly overlooks the fact that within one single generation in Britain (from, say, 1972 to 1997) the total volume of income "taken home" has increased by 100%. Yes, it is objectively true, as any scan of income distribution data will confirm, that many people have seen their relative position within the income scale worsen -- but these same people will have seen serious absolute improvements in living standards. It is impossible to draw any other conclusion from the Government's own figures relating to the penetration of household durables, the increase in recreational spending, the ever-swelling amounts of money spent on overseas tourism. Most people are significantly better-off. Only in a very particular statistical sense can child poverty in Britain be said to have "trebled". Beyond that sense, in the real world, the statement is quite simply preposterous.

Moreover, imagine this. Imagine a long and deep recession during which income growth stagnated for the mass of workers and even fell in real terms for some. In conditions where there is downward pressure on average incomes then, according to the kind of analysis used by NCH Action for Children -- an analysis widespread among anti-poverty groups and charities -- the incidence of poverty will fall! In other words, really poor people will see their relative position -- relative to, say, average incomes -- improve even though they may be experiencing no material improvement whatsoever in their actual, daily living standards! Such are the marvels of measuring poverty only in relative terms.

While mass income improvement has done its benevolent doings, the life has drained from many other sources of British stress and strife. Across the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of workers left heavy industries such as mining, metals and textiles. The evacuation was not always desired and not, politically and socially, always pleasant. But a good deal of the worst kind of residual Victorian drudgery in the workplace simply disappeared along the way. At the same time, thousands have found work in the research and computing trades, in healthcare, in the creative industries and in services generally. This phenomenon has characterised the labour market experience of the entire continent. Across the 1990s in the EU, some four million jobs in manufacturing disappeared while a virtually equivalent number were created in "market services". In the UK, meanwhile, we end the nineties within unemployment considerably less than it was in 1989. In other words, a great deal of labour market upheaval seems to have been successfully absorbed by our economy and our society.

At the same time, people have moved into better, cleaner jobs. As we shall observe later, it is striking how little acknowledgment there is of this -- to our minds -- rather telling fact in much contemporary social analysis. Think of how strangely dated the phrase "both sides of industry" now seems. For good or for ill, we no longer have institutionalised industrial conflict in Britain -- a Britain where trade union membership is now at its lowest since 1945. It is Tony Blair's happy boast that under his premiership the number of days lost through strikes and disputes has fallen to its lowest level ever. More widely, it is hard -- looking around Britain -- to find too much evidence of real ideological conflict at work. Young people do not seem to be adopting political postures that are at any kind of radical variance with those of their parents. A taste of revolutionary politics is about as common these days as a taste for real ale or a preference for origami or an appetite for Geordie cuisine. The fact that rich people are most certainly richer than they have ever been in history does not provoke a politics of class envy or a clamour for radical social reform. We know, of course, that a kind of anarchist chic is fashionable in some quarters; we know too that many citizens are genuinely outraged by the swelling of fat-cat pay and the number of rough sleepers and the trials endured by the benefit-dependent elderly But such concerns no longer harden into organised politics. New Labour successfully re-branded itself along non-ideological, indeed purely technocratic lines and achieved a position, post-1997, of stark national hegemony. QED.

And finally, a word from our sponsor. Once upon a time, John Maynard Keynes told us that there was no surer way to destroy a society than by "debauching the currency". We wonder whether some kind of inverse corollary might be at work today. For there is no greater contributor to Peace & Plenty than a persistently low inflation. When Sir Geoffrey Howe became Chancellor in May 1979, the inflation rate was 13.4%. Today, for many practical purposes, inflation no longer exists. This fact alone injects the most valuable kind of damp-proofing into our political sub-structure. It renders prices transparent; it exposes the claims of advertisers to realistic scrutiny; in ways subterranean and slow, it buttresses generalised trust in public institutions. Low inflation (2-3%) sponsors and seasons the entire living reality of Peace & Plenty. Did anyone who lived through the 1970s and 1980s ever think that stable currency values would be as normal as supersonic flight or Bank Holiday rain or bad batting averages from England's openers?

Anti-P&P: the devil has all the details

The analysis so far offered -- the heart, really, of the Peace & Plenty thesis -- seems to us to be entirely obvious in a compelling sort of way. But the cold truth is that many of our leading contemporary commentators would regard it as bunk. Our argument is that Britain is living through a unique time in which socio-economic progress is dynamic and true and concentrated. We believe that we can explain much of our culture and our politics by reference to the interactive ingredients of "peace & plenty" which we discuss above. That being so, we stand utterly baffled by the number of books, reports and articles that would contest that the existence of any such phenomenon. So many seem to have a perverse interest in proving that things are going badly, that Britain is in decline, that the poor are getting poorer, that stress is eating our mortal souls, that the consumer society is bad for us, etc, etc. The doings of this myth-of-decline school have entered the world of commercial consultancy and penetrated the strategy advice given to businesses and public authorities. It is for that very reason that this article has been written -- and indeed the whole Peace & Plenty portfolio has been developed.

Just in case some may think we are protesting too much, please do reflect on the following quotations, all drawn from the ever-widening myth-of-decline school of analysis. To portray our own feelings of irony, we have italicised particular remarks.

1.From : Luxury Fever: why money fails to satisfy in an era of excess, by Robert H. Frank, 1999

"All of us, rich and poor alike, are spending more time at the office and taking shorter vacations; we are spending less time with our families and friends; and we have less time for sleep, exercise, travel, reading and other activities that help maintain body and soul.

"A host of careful studies suggest that across-the-board increases in our stocks of material goods produce virtually no measurable gains in our psychological or physical (sic) well-being".

Comment: Frank's is a very common type of argument. Note the sense that social change has brought us nothing but trouble, the sense of ever-deepening cultural gloom. This is a universally present motif within myth-of-decline scholarship. Frank is a leading American economist and his arguments give off a superficial odour of accurate measurement. But, point by point and fact by fact, so much of his analysis would be hotly contested by other sources. We know of no institution or think tank, for example, that is actually currently claiming that we are sleeping less. We know many who claim that we are spending more time with our families and that the stock of parenting skills in our society has actually increased across this last generation. But it's not the details that trouble us so much -- it's this determination to affirm and convince that social progress is bogus and that we are more unhappy than ever.

2. From : The Age of Anxiety, 1996

"It is difficult enough, as fifty years of recent British politics should attest, to raise average living standards. Raising the average sense of well-being would be more difficult still... Rising living standards and well-being are ambiguously related at the best of times". -- Michael Ignatieff.

"Our cities are replete with degradation, with racism; our countryside devastated by the profligacy that comes from wanton consumerism The economic and social consequences of Empire, the coming to grips with the transformation of Britain from a wealthy country to a rapidly declining economy can thus remain largely neglected". -- Susie Orbach

Comment: When this quite famous book was published, the UK economy had been growing for each of the previous four years. The average UK increase in household spending -- let us repeat -- has been 2.5% since 1955. What is this strange impulse among our finest Islingtonian intellectuals to stand data on its head?

3. From: Britain on the Couch: why we're unhappier than we were in the 1950ss despite being richer by Oliver James, 1998

"Since 1950, expectations have risen dramatically for personal and professional fulfilment... Likewise, demands for individualism have inflated... Increased pressure to compete at work makes us obsessively preoccupied with how we are doing compared to others.

"New patterns of parental behaviour, such as the increased divorce rate or pressure to succeed at school, have almost certainly increased the proportion of people emerging from childhood with high and medium risk of low serotonin compared with 1950... Changes in our class structure and gender roles [and] the introduction of television and changing values have profoundly affected our expectations and contentment. [Thus we] explain a shift from a relatively benign to a relatively toxic society".

Comment: Think of some of the words that have faded from our language: words like smog, slum, whooping-cough, prefab, ration-book, blue-collar, rickets... words that can let you smell the living reality of millions of people living in Fifties Britain. Think of all the novels and plays that documented both the grinding poverty and the emotional imprisonment that defined so many lives that were inwardly desperate to bloom. Of course, every age and every success creates its own fresh generation of problems but how can any reasonable person -- with perhaps the street-level life-quality of Fifties' Salford or Merthyr or Maryhill in mind -- honestly conclude that in comparison with those years we have become a "relatively toxic" society? James is the high priest of this particular brand of myth-of-decline. There is, by the way, no serious evidence whatsoever that "we" were happier in the 1950s. But "we" were certainly poorer, sicker, more socially confined. As is so often the case, the myth-of-decline involves a comprehensive and wilful flight from data, a flight in to a kind of analytical blasphemy.

Peace & Plenty : the truth does not hurt, it helps

We could add more quotes. The decline-mythologisers are everywhere. And yet, bite on this: if the next quarter-century is like the last, the total volume of UK household spending will almost double to reach £1,000 billion in 1997 prices; incomes, meanwhile, will be at least four times what they were in the early 1970s. Now, we know money does not buy anyone happiness and we know that our Peace & Plenty model is vulnerable to all manner of external shocks and internal stresses. But just put yourself in the position of a visiting sociologist from the planet Mars. In any measurement you made of contemporary Britain, you would have to conclude that this was an almost boringly stable, quietly successful society. Our politics are not very exciting -- because we agree grosso modo about most things. Our novels are dull because we have no epic conflicts of class mobility left to resolve. Our leisure is mundane because we have time and money to spend on home improvements and gardens and on holidays venues we have been happily visiting for the last twenty years.

These are almost dramatically unique circumstances. In due course, life will change. But, for now, do not let anyone tell you otherwise and reflect hard on the localised implications for your company, your brand, your institution. For they are legion.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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