Page 8, 28th February 2003

28th February 2003
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Page 8, 28th February 2003 — There is still no new thing under the sun
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Organisations: Institute of Education
Locations: Canterbury, Westminster

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There is still no new thing under the sun

Mary Kenny

Taie received wisdom is as old as civilisation, as old as storytelling, s old as Aesop 's Fables: to be richer does not always mean to be happier.

And now it is has turned up, once again, in one of the most far-reaching surveys ever done on life in Britain.

In spite of higher incomes, better health and more opportunities, says this most comprehensive new survey, people in Britain are "increasingly depressed, unhappy in their relationships and alienated from civic society".

The study, entitled Changing Britain, Changing Lives and published by the Institute of Education, has monitored over 40,000 people bom in 1946, 1958 and 1970. This is a huge sample for a survey, and the findings must be highly authoritative.

Yet most of us could guess at the results of this research, just by looking around us and observing. For example, there has been a most dramatic drop in voluntary work and participation in local community life. Among men born in 1946, about 60 per cent of them were involved in community and voluntary organisations, which would include church groups. Only 15 per cent of men born in 1958, and a mere eight per cent of men born in 1970 had any voluntary involvement at all.

It is true that people tend to do more voluntary work as they grow older, But even so, the drop is huge. There has been a marked falling-away, among young boys, in all sorts of "Boy Scout" type organisations. Among working-class lads, there is virtually no participation now in any such groups.

More people seemed to be discontented with their marriages, too. Among those born in 1970, some 22 per cent of the men and 24 per cent of the women said they were unhappy in their first marriage.

Of those born in 1958, only three per cent of the men and two per cent of the women said they were unhappily married, at a similar age.

This, in a way, is amazing. A hundred years ago, when matches were sometimes organised for a young couple. it was claimed that marriage would be happier if freely chosen. Fifty years ago, it was claimed by progressives that marriage would be happier if only people could indulge in "trial marriage" before embarking on the real thing. Thirty years ago, it was alleged that marriages would be happier if there were easier divorce. When all these changes were effected, it seems that many marriages are now less happy!

Ancient wisdom would explain this quite simply: happiness is relative. Among the greatest obstacles to happiness are over-inflated expectations. In fact, that is exactly what Oliver James, the psychologist, says in his perceptive

book Britain On The Couch: people are more depressed now than they were in the 1950s because they expect so much, much more.

In the Institute of Education survey, the authors claim that "personal fulfillment" has become the goal of relationships. This can put great strain on marriage and relationships, because it is such an elusive concept. Small wonder that among women born in 1946 some 18 per cent experienced depression and anxiety in their early 30s; whereas among women born in 1970, 20 per cent of women were depressed at the same age. Twenty-nine per cent of women aged 30 in the year 2000 experienced "trouble with nerves, feeling low or sad", as opposed to 16 per cent of women among their mother's generation.

Plenty of good things have happened in this country since 1946. Education is better, and there are more opportunities for people to live less rigid lives. Female earnings have greatly improved, though they are still not equal with men not unsurprisingly, either, since women often choose to have other priorities besides work.

Yet class distinction remains stubbornly entrrenched. The Gospel words are as true as ever: 'The poor you always have with you."

Indeed, this survey echoes that phrase from the Book of Ecclesiastes which puzzled me so much when I was young: 'There is no new thing under the sun." There are new gadgets of many sorts, but the human condition today would be as recognisable as it ever was to ancient wisdom.

Freddie Forsyth,

P the novelist who can be a brilliant broadcaster, pompously dismissed the two archbishops Canterbury and Westminster for their peace exhortations. "Prattling prelates," he called them, speaking on David Dimbleby's Question Time. What the archbishops say is irrelevant, in Freddie's view. But Mr Forsyth is wrong. Churchmen have a certain entitlement to preach on war and peace, and a long tradition of moral theology to draw upon. Secondly, since present conflicts are, in one way, a clash with Islam, it is their responsibility to teach and preach on the whole matter.




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