MM 2001: So rich we're poor

December 21, 2000

What did they really mean, those anti-paedophile protests on council estates over the summer? Lurking beneath them I suspect there lies a disquiet that goes way beyond the immediate issue, one so fundamental that it leaves not just those mobs but all of us feeling powerless.

Since the end of the cold war, a vastly expanded market, accelerated by the internet, has made a fool of geography, driving inexorably towards the integration of markets, nation-states and technologies.

With every year that passes, the resulting battle for markets in this global economy becomes fiercer, and the pace of change grows correspondingly. The problem is this: we have no time for our children.

The ingenious economic engine that powers our world is playing havoc with the family. In the name of self-realisation, it captures our dreams, driving us to endlessly fashion and refashion ourselves - our bodies and our possessions - to keep us consuming more and more material things. To pay for this we have to maximise our incomes. Society has canonised this as the only means of measuring success.

So it is that the market has exploited the emancipation of women to its own ends: where in theory the equality of the sexes could have been interpreted in various ways, for us it has come to mean that women want jobs, and the same jobs as men. When I was growing up, my mother was there for me. In our household, I was not there in the same way for my children, nor was my husband. The situation in most of the families I know was not much better.

On top of this, our concept of work in the western world excludes children in a way that historically it did not and does not in many parts of the Third World. Even the 1.2 million people who work from home largely do the kind of work that cuts them off from their children while they are doing it.

Whatever kind of work we do, we are strapped to the wheel of perpetual change: training and retraining, management restructurings, developments in technology and serial job loss. And the pace is increasing with every year.

My father had a job for life and an adequate pension. My husband and I belong to a pattern of work that is becoming more common. We live by our wits, as freelancers. It is precarious and becomes more so each year. We do not anticipate being able to retire.

By the time many of us have finished work for the day, we are often too tired to spend the kind of time with our children that they need. What is the message our children are receiving? That our lives and priorities are more important than theirs.

And as we ride this dragon of change, as surely as breast-feeding mothers pass on the garlic or gin they have consumed to their children, so we pass on our anxiety and insecurity to ours. Is it surprising that many of our children show a marked reluctance to gravitate from casual jobs and a leisurely lifestyle to join "our" world?

The pace of change is also undermining the traditional relationship between parents and children. My parents' generation was the last that could even dream of preparing their kids for the future. We cannot claim to be able to teach our children what they are going to need to know. We have lost the authority of the parental role.

We have not just lost it - most of us have thrown it away with delight. When parents are prepared to spend their money and time trying to hold on to their youth, what role does this leave for their children? All too often it can leave them with responsibilities that are just not appropriate for their age.

Short of time, anxious about our children's safety, we do what we can for them. We keep them safe at home. But what a weird kind of safety it is that locks the front door against paedophiles and surrenders children to the brilliant, multibillion-dollar persuasiveness of the market (and not just the market for children, but for adults too) that pours into the house through our small screens?

If we are conscientious parents, we seek to mitigate the worst effects of this deluge by showering our children with wonderful educational toys and videos to keep them too busy to be interested in investigating adult porn. But even if we manage this, we are still turning our back on a larger problem.

"Mummy, I'm bored." These magic words have us reaching for a video, game or toy - anything to win ourselves the extra few minutes we need for working, cooking or keeping young. But is that response wise? In eliminating boredom we are cutting out the essential rainforests of our private ecology.

It is in the empty space that is boredom that character is formed and inventiveness provoked. In an economy geared to the creation of fresh needs and distractions, this is the hardest space to protect. Our over-burdened educational system is not geared to identify this as a challenge or to support parents in their defence of it.

So what are we to do? After travelling in Russia in the final years of the Soviet empire, I came back and experienced my own world as if for the first time. Abundance was in so many ways harder to cope with than scarcity. I had revelled in the leisurely pace of Soviet life, and in the absence of pressure that was the luxurious lining of their lack of freedom. In a culture with few material gratifications, I find that the gift of self, of friendship, was far more highly developed than in my own culture.

Ten years on I feel all that with a different urgency. Parents can reclaim their authority over their children, but not by turning the clock back. We can do so only by developing a measure of inner independence from the restless excitement of the market.

That is the great challenge of this century. We are going to have to work at it harder than we do at keeping up with technological change. Like staying fit, no one can do it for us, and it has to be worked at daily.

Susan Richards is a writer. Her next book Into a Dark Wood , about contemporary Russia, will be published next year.

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