The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “history”

Why soundbites don’t work for society

I often see Facebook images and articles about social issues and share them on my own timelinepensions image, but I don’t think I can share this one.  It’s not that I don’t agree with the sentiment behind it.

Let me start by saying that I support people of retirement age getting an appropriate pension. It’s a part of human decency in supporting society. Not least as, after forty years of working myself, my own retirement is on the near horizon.

This image came with the comment that ‘inept governments who did not invest wisely over the years shouldn’t blame the olds’. But it’s not as simple as that. Firstly we elected those inept governments and then put our trust in them to act in our best interests. At one time we genuinely believed they did, now as a society we are much less sure (NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey highlights just how much our trust and belief in our governments have declined over the years).

But did our governments act ineptly in this matter? Surely governments over the years (1) could never invest the money because it was always paying out this year’s pension with this year’s Tax and National Insurance income and (2) why should they because in the early days of pensions they could reasonably assume that it would always be possible to work that way. Isn’t that how the majority of us budget our own weekly or monthly income?

They didn’t have a crystal ball any more than the rest of us to see how technology and globalisation would change the world. And so for all sorts of reasons that balancing of the budget between pension income and pension outgoings became harder and so in recent years we have seen the promotion of the private pension provision and the raising of the retirement age. That doesn’t take into account the fact that there are only so many jobs in the market place and if the old are working then the young aren’t – but that’s another debate.

In the meantime there are some things for which we should still be grateful – the UK state pension has only existed for 106 years and when it was introduced in 1909 it was as a non-contributory but means tested benefit claimable only over the age of 70 when only 25% of the population lived long enough to claim it. And, due to poor working conditions and health, many of those who did reach 70 years of age would have been among the better off and so not entitled to a means-tested benefit. Before 1909 you went to the workhouse or died if your family couldn’t keep you if you couldn’t work for any reason. (for more detail see History of State Pension Age)

When the new contributory pension was introduced in 1925 this was still an era when married women did not work. Men became entitled to pension payments at the age of 65 but had to wait until their wife retired, often 4-5 years later, to receive the full couple’s entitlement, forcing them either into poverty or the wife into the impossibility of entering the workplace, some for the first time in 40 years. Fortunately in those days employability depended less on employment record, although she would still have faced the barrier of married women not being seen as needing employment. This was no doubt harder on the women of the middle classes at the time as the women of the working classes were more likely to have had to supplement the family income through domestic work, taking in laundry, ironing and mending, and could continue to do so.

Women didn’t work outside the home because that was the social norm. A young woman might begin working when she left education but when she married she was often forced to resign her job to allow that opportunity to be passed on to another young person. My own mother was forced to resign her job in a local pharmacy when she married in the mid-1950’s as she was now perceived to be the ‘responsibility’ of her husband. But her husband was a manual labourer and on low income and not earning enough to keep the two of them. One day when my mother went into the pharmacy she was talking to her old boss and said how hard it was. He offered her her old job back – on the condition that she was called Miss, used her maiden name at work and took off her wedding ring at work: he feared the disapproval and that he would lose customers if they thought he was employing a married woman. As a carryover from that time, when I married in 1981 my new aunts (all in their 70’s) were shocked and disapproving that I intended to continue working once married.

In the meantime, in this same cultural environment, when the retirement age for women was reduced to 60 in 1940 it allowed couples to receive their pension entitlement at approximately the same time, based on the average age differences between husbands and wives, reducing pensioner poverty but with the happier side effect of allowing long term marrieds to retire and spend their last few years together, particularly as men were still likely to die of old age before their wives retired before that time.

Of course the second world war (1939-1945) did a lot to change the culture then, with married women making up the backbone of the domestic workforce while so many of the men were away fighting in the war. Expectations changed and with the end of the war things were never the same again.

The continued changing nature of society and relationships, powered by technological developments and globalisation, has changed our society almost beyond recognition to those times and things like the age differential has ceased to seem quite so defensible, allowing for legislative changes for men and women’s pensionable ages to be increased and brought on a par again.

Finally, with improved health care for everybody under the NHS, far more people have been living longer not only to reach pensionable age but also to be entitled to a pension income for half as long again as they worked and contributed for, thus increasing the burden on those still working and contributing. Back to my own mother’s story: thanks to the generosity of her employer she was able to work full time for around 8 years between leaving school and giving birth to me. Thanks to a local employer who specialised in exploiting young mums in need of an extra income she was able to work part time for a further 11 years. Then she worked a further 12 years full time until she retired at the age of 60. Had she not retired at 60 she would not have been able to work for much of the next five years as she underwent two hip replacement operations, one of which took much longer to heal than normal, due to infection. On a low income or working part time for 31 years, it is questionable whether she could ever have invested enough in her working life to have funded what is already over 23 years of retirement. Why should I consider a government capable of doing that (as suggested by the commentator I quoted at the beginning of this article)? For comparison, my own pension arrangements include two private company pensions now invested in private insurances that represent 10 years of working life and a combined anticipated income of £70 per month. If that is representative of the potential investment over 50 years I would have £350 per month to look forward to – less than the rent on a one bedroom flat. The rest of my private pension entitlement is better for having been with a local government pension scheme for a number of years but since halved due to divorce and a compulsory pension sharing agreement, just one of the newer challenges faced by today’s pension investors and not anticipated by the original pension planners 100 years ago, and still, in my case, not enough to pay the rent on a one bedroom flat. Admittedly I started late, having been born into the generation that was still being told our National Insurance contributions included an investment for our pensions. For all governmental intentions, private sector pensions are never going to fill the Welfare Benefits gap.

Like most people of her age, my mum could not work if she wanted to. She may have lived well beyond the life expectancy of a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, when pensions were introduced, but like so many of her friends, it has not been in the kind of health that would have enabled her to compete in the workplace.

The fact is, when life expectancy means that retirement is going to last for as much as half as many years again as we are able to work (more if you add a long university education in to the equation), governments need to budget for an aging population that is based on more than ‘investing wisely’ what is paid in National Insurance contributions.

Public spending on Benefits in the UKIn 2011-12 pensions and pension credits amounted to £82.33b, almost double what was spent on disability benefits combined (£24.58b) and almost a third of the total welfare benefits bill; although neither figure takes into account Housing and Council Tax Benefits, which will somewhat increase both these figures and their proportion of the overall benefits bill. These are not figures that can be easily changed. Age and disability cannot be ‘undone’. And ironically a capitalist society needs a pool of unemployed people to keep wages in check and provide incentives to workers to conform.

Some things might be changing. Concerns over the impact of the rising incidence of diet related health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and more, have raised the possibility of a lowering of the average lifespan. The very real issue of antibiotic resistance, compounded by use of antibiotics in intensive farming methods and reduced research into new antibiotics under the growth of privately funded medical research where antibiotic development is not profitable, will have the same impact.

While the mercenary view suggests this will reduce the pressure on pension provision in the future it will hardly help the wider financial picture as pressure is put on health providers and disability benefits, while reducing the pool of people available to work.

Emotive photos with captions that pensions are not a benefit but something that has been paid for over years is sound-bite propaganda. It’s not helpful in the wider debate. We are collectively a part of a wider community. Bunkering down into our own field of concern, whether it be pensions, disability benefits, child poverty, NHS, or education, will not help. The creeping privatisation of our National Health Service and Education system (through increasing academies) will not produce an answer. Just as communism fell because of the greed of a minority and the oppression of the majority, so too will capitalism eventually follow for the same reasons.

The whole system needs an overhaul. Society as a whole needs to recognise shared responsibility for the functioning of society. That includes the domination of our food industry by companies that put profit before community health (and global impact); the impact of the privatisation of research that means that essential but unprofitable research doesn’t get done; the privatisation of healthcare that will disadvantage the already disadvantaged (just look to the United States to see why the NHS should be saved); the privatisation of education and social care that means that costs and services have to meet the needs of shareholders often at the expense of service users, because that’s how capitalism works; governments that make policy decisions based on short term objectives, or what will get them voted in again next time, because that’s how democracy works, instead of on what society needs five generations into the future, as the old American Indians thought.

I have become a fan of Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness (she’s also on TED Talks). Its human nature, it’s in the way our brains have been wired, to see only that which is easy to see. Facebook works that way: ever noticed how you always get more of what you believe, that’s because facebook works like your brain and ignores that which you will find intellectually uncomfortable. But we have to make the effort to see beyond the natural blindness, to see beyond the soundbites, if we ever want to be a part of a fully functioning society that cares for one another.

Champions for Children – book review

Champions for Children: The lives of modern child care pioneers (revised edition) by Bob Holman [2013], Policy Press, Abingdon, Oxon,, Paperback £22.99, ISBN 978-1-44730-914-7
In presenting seven short biographies of child care pioneers, who between them were influential in developments such as the introduction of Child Benefit, the 1948 Children Act, fostering services and professional training, Holman effectively outlines the history behind our modern social services, and the move away from the provisions of the old Poor Law in pre-war Britain. Contextually placed with important developments such as Seebohm, Utting, the 1970 Local Authority Act, and other well-known figures in the development of policies and theories still relevant today, this makes good background reading especially for the preparing social work student.

Although this is a revised edition this is mainly with the addition of an excellent Epilogue. However, incorporating this into the chapter ‘Past Present and Future’, while updating the chapters on Townsend and Holman (author), would probably help contextualise the thin thread of concern, raised by these pioneers even in their lifetimes, that, despite the significant changes they brought about, subsequent amalgamation and the bureaucratisation of social work has had a negative impact on child care practice; it would also reinforce the extent to which many of the issues and problems these pioneers tackled are still relevant today. In this area the book is still pertinent to today’s social work policy makers and leaders.

In all other respects this book is well researched and academically sound while remaining easy ‘curled up in an armchair with a good book’ reading anyone can enjoy, yet with the power to inspire the reader out of the armchair and into action.

Rats, Lice & History

I love reading oldish books.  The delight of digging out the odd word, since fallen into disuse, from among the multi-clause sentences, peppered with colons and semi-colons, clauses and sub-clauses, and a smattering of commas to make it all work.  Instead of my eye flying over the page I pause to re-read and devour the grammatical intricacies of long ago.  OK, so some people think I’m mad.  That’s OK.

Often there is little value in reading old non-fiction books.  And Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser (pub. Bantam) could have been one of those.  Written in 1935 its publication coincided with the production of the first antibiotics after Fleming discovered Penicillin and its message of caution about the terrible consequences of disease was soon lost.

Nearly 80 years on that message is once again on the agenda.  The BBC, celebrating 50 years of broadcasting, has teamed up with Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board to promote the Longitude Prize 2014.  The prize of £10 million could be won by someone (or a team) coming up with a solution to a modern day problem, of which six have been identified as possible contenders.  During May/June 2014 the British public have been able to vote for the issue they want to be tackled.  And one of the problems on the table is the rise of resistance to antibiotics – the others are Dementia: enabling independent lives; Flight: reducing environmental impact; Food: providing sustainable nutrition; Paralysis: restoring mobility; Water: creating safe, clean supplies.

In our modern word we have forgotten just what life was like before antibiotics.   Only a small number of people alive today remember those days, and most were children at the time.  But Rats, Lice and History tells the story in graphic detail.  If we don’t solve the antibiotics problem our history could soon become our future.  A history that included armies of 20,000 losing 15,000 soldiers to compared to 2,000 dying on the battlefield; plagues that could wipe out half or even three quarters of the population in a matter of weeks; losing limbs or suffering long periods of debilitating weakness, or dying slowly and in excruciating pain, from simple infections in a cut, burn or bite even.  Not to mention the death sentence that came with tuberculosis, malaria, smallpox and more.  Facing the horror of watching loved ones die a hideously painful death, lasting maybe only a few days or a couple of weeks, knowing the chances are you would soon be going through the same agonies yourself, each time with fewer left alive to care for the sick.

But as our memories of those times have faded so our society has become complacent.  From the time the antibiotic miracle was discovered through the to early 1990’s almost every year saw the introduction of a new antibiotic to the market, several in some years.  With privatisation and a focus on only developing drugs that bring a return on the research investment, this has dropped dramatically to just a handful of new antibiotics since 1994 (Wikipedia).  Already there is MRSA and strains of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis (TB) and malaria.  Modern research and antibiotic development is not keeping up with the bugs ability to develop resistance.  Which is why this problem has made it on to the Longitude Prize shortlist for 2014.

And the link to social work (this is after a loosely themed social work blog)?  In the event of any public disaster all social care and control agencies put in to effect their Disaster Planning schemes.  Social workers among them.  Perhaps those who have an input into those plans need to be including not just disasters caused by floods, crashes, accidents or crazed gunmen, but should also be acknowledging the increasing risk of disease epidemics.

Don’t just blame the boys

Hot on the heels of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber the boys of One Direction have hit the headlines with shocking tales of smoking drugs, adult relationships and erotic pictures, and using the ‘n-word’, chased by a phalanx of angry parents wanting to protect the innocence of their ‘tweenagers’ and crying that with all the wealth that comes from their fame and popularity should come responsibility. The same cries that went up about Miley and Justin.

But let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Are the boys to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans? Dare I answer both yes and no to both parts of that question?

In 2010 they were fresh faced teenagers at the start of a meteoric career in the entertainment industry. I find it hard to believe that none of them had experimented or come into contact with, or at least thought about, smoking, drinking, drugs or sex by that age, as innocent as they looked on X-Factor. It’s not for nothing fathers of teenage girls fear teenage boys, remembering their own youthful obsessions and intentions.

But four years have passed and today these boys have turned into young men in their early 20’s. Developmentally they are coming to the end of their adolescent years: years we know are about experimentation, breaking away from parental controls, testing new ideas and finding what will become your own adult identity. The influences that caused them and their peers to think about or try drugs, alcohol, smoking and sex four years ago have not gone away. At their age a proportion of their peers will be at university themselves experimenting with relationships, alcohol and drugs to varying degrees. The only difference is that the boys of One Direction have a lot more money to indulge in these activities than their peers.

Like it or not, their behaviour is within the bounds of normal for their age. That’s not to let them off the hook regarding their behaviour. It would be nice to think that in return for the fame and adulation, not to mention the money, they have received the boys of One Direction would feel a sense of responsibility towards their young fans. But although one of the learning curves in adolescence and early adulthood is in making decisions and taking responsibility for your choices, to be aware of the impact of your actions in the wider world, it’s a lesson that’s usually learned by experimentation and making mistakes!

I can fully appreciate the concerns of parents on the influences on their young children, their role is after all to protect and nurture these young lives. But is it realistic to throw all the blame at the boys of One Direction for being a bad influence?

Take a moment instead to look at how five hormonally and developmentally normal young men in their early 20’s have found themselves living in a time warp that presents them to the world as if they were still slightly naive 16 or 17 year olds.

What about the responsibility of the image makers behind stars such as Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber and One Direction, artificially presenting young adults in an unnatural way. They take fresh faced youngsters, vulnerable in their youth, enthusiasm and idealism, and straightjacket them in the appearance of delayed development because it makes more money for everyone. And they have been doing it is as long as at least the history of movies: Shirley Temple and Judy Garland from the pre-war years, the Disney girls Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus alongside other child stars such as Macaulay Culkin, who is still referred to as a “former child star” at the age of 33. But the pop music industry has not been immune either. I personally recall my teenage discovery that the squeaky-clean non-smoking members of the 1970’s band “The Sweet” were smoking and taking drugs. It was an early lesson as I realised their whole image had been a media creation; including their music which was chosen for its commercial properties designed to draw the pounds from the pockets of their teen fan base rather than the “heavy metal” they reverted to when their earlier contract ended. The parents of today’s “tweenagers” no doubt have their own memories of bands or singers whose real lives behind the scenes turned out different to the media spin. There’s no reason to think it will be any different today.

So, are the boys of One Direction to blame for their behaviour and are they responsible for their young fans?

They are doing a job (entertainment) and they get well paid for it. They have a responsibility to do that job well and ‘earn’ their income. They have a responsibility to themselves to complete their normal development, grow up and take care of themselves.

Ideally they should have some thought for their young fans but there are many others they share that responsibility with: the lion’s share of responsibility and the blame for misleading the public should go to the management companies behind the bands, the ones who decide on the public image and promote it. Their decisions affect first the vulnerable young starlets who have a talent and are dazzled by the prospect of fame, tying them into contracts at a time in their lives when they should be breaking free and developing their own identity. They know their young starlets will ‘grow up’ and that the straightjacket can’t last. It’s happened so many times before that they already know that the young fans will be disappointed and hurt when the truth cracks through the media spin (aka lies). The high income may be relatively short term, four years so far in the case of One Direction, but it must be worth it. They know that One Direction (and others) will get over this: maybe they will apologise enough to seem contrite and keep the machine turning perhaps with a more grown up audience, maybe they’ll split and go on to separate careers. Either way, the public will forget and move on to love the next squeaky clean star(s) they are presented with. Which leads to the final area of responsibility.

As members of the public and parents we also have a responsibility for the young fans. Cyrus, Bieber and One Direction are not a modern phenomenon. But as a society we have short memories and don’t seem to learn the lessons; each time another young star breaks free of the commercially profitable straightjacket many react with shock and horror as if we too believed the media image. We should know better. And we should be telling those behind the deceit that their practices are unacceptable.


Further information on all the stars mentioned can be easily found with a simple internet search. Similarly there is also plenty of evidence online regarding brain development in late teens and early twenties, some of which can be found in the following links:

Post Navigation