It can be difficult to appreciate those things one has not actually fought for, experienced or created. It can be difficult for a younger generation to imagine how basic or how difficult life was for their parents or grandparents, especially with so much in the media stating how tough life is for the young today. It is easy for them not to appreciate the advances that those of us living today in the UK are experiencing. Without understanding these developments it is all too easy to take them for granted.
In the recent BBC2 television programme ‘Living with the Brainy Bunch” two young students, Jack and Hollie, who were struggling at school, were placed within the families of two students who were doing well. Jack and Hollie seemed to have given up hope and were sabotaging their futures by not putting much effort into schoolwork and by being rebellious. They found it difficult to see the point of cooperating and working hard. Hope is an essential ingredient for galvanising people into action.
It was only when the Sri Llankan mother who was hosting Jack told him of her own struggles of leaving war-torn Sri Llanka, crossing the seas for eighteen hours in a container with no air with thirteen other people, not knowing whether she would survive, that he seemed to turn a corner. “You have a very fortunate country” she said. “I ask you to use it. Do you feel you are fortunate?” Jack reflected and replied “I suppose I grew up with everything being there for me … this has made me realize how lucky I am to have the situation I am in, with the country I am in and the opportunities I have, which before I didn’t realize…” He began to listen when she told him why she felt education was so important, why it provided the key to a successful future, “with good study you can do anything you want… Do it for yourself.” In the next maths test he achieved better marks and his attitude seemed to have changed.
In relating this snippet of another life Jack had his horizons broadened. Perhaps he had never been encouraged to look outside his own life experience, so how could he necessarily know how fortunate he is if no one has explained this to him? The philosopher John Gray, speaking on Desert Island Discs recently, said he could well imagine that we would lose some of the rights and freedoms that we have gained over the last decades because those who had not experienced the changes that have taken place could take them for granted and potentially let them slip through their hands. What a terrible shame this would be.
So perhaps we can make more time for sharing our life stories with our children and grandchildren. They may not choose to listen or may roll their eyes but perhaps somewhere some of your journey might give them an inkling that life doesn’t come easy most of the time. That life is, indeed, what you make it. And, also, that with the rights we enjoy in this country come, equally, responsibilities – a sense of balance between what we receive and what we give back.
Often one’s children only become aware of parents as individuals later in life – post teens – and by that time it can be that one has created a reasonable life, home and career. So they aren’t aware of the struggles we may have been through as young adults. Likewise they only see their grandparents in later life and it can be really helpful for grandparents to describe what life was like for them growing up. I wish I had talked to my grandmother about living through two world wars. I wish I had questioned my father about his journey through his working life as I think it would have given me more understanding of the difficult decisions he had to make and how hard he had to work to take care of us children.
Certainly life is transformed in so many ways for the better since I was born in 1950 and I do wish these positive changes were broadcast more widely. The endless negativity propagated by the media is likely only to disempower the young whereas if they realize how fortunate they are then perhaps this can help them seize the opportunities that exist here.
If anyone doubts me then please read Hans Rosling’s book FACTFULNESS which details in many statistical graphs the amazing advances we have experienced in the last forty years. Since the mid 1960s an incredible number of improvements have been achieved – reductions in poverty across the globe where only 9% now live in extreme poverty compared to 50% in 1966, medical advances that have increased average lifetimes through eradicating so many childhood diseases, a world where 80% of children are vaccinated, fewer deaths from natural accidents, fewer deaths from violence or warfare, a population that will not necessarily increase disproportionately as women are educated and make choices about family and career. The fact is that in most parts of the world the majority of people live within a middle bracket but selective reporting emphasizes the extremes of rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, developed or undeveloped, which are, Rosling argues, generally inaccurate.
Surely we can only build on our success by recognising it and by making decisions based on facts rather than on erroneous assumptions. We need to help the young understand that within a period of some fifty years many laws, policies and behaviours have changed and these have brought us to the not-perfect but-not bad society we have today. And importantly, as Hans Rosling points out in FACTFULNESS, that if we say that life has got better – because my generation has seen these changes – it does not mean that we are suggesting that there should not be further improvements.
We all need to understand that we only hear the negative and over-dramatized stories and that the everyday progress in medicine, living standards and equality are not reported because they are slow advances and are not news-worthy. So we receive a distorted view. Politicians focus on negatives so as to criticize other parties, as do charities who wish to fund-raise. Social media has sadly become a platform for people to share negative stories that breed division, intolerance, hatred and anxiety. We must help our young to realize that life is not binary, that it isn’t black or white, good or evil, that you aren’t with us or against us. That most of life sits in the subtle grey areas in between.
So how do we create an integrated society here where people appreciate what they have? How do we help young people to see that they are sabotaging their own future by hooking into gang violence, division, resentment? How do we prevent them disempowering themselves through lack of appreciation for the opportunities they have? Perhaps by sharing more of our own stories of the good times and the bad, the importance of pushing through challenges and also how, if we are lucky enough to be the recipients of free education, social services and an NHS health service we need to take responsibility for playing our part by not taking these services for granted. Call me old-fashioned but with a welfare state don’t we also have a responsibility to turn up for medical appointments and do what we can to plan our families, plan for old age, participate in schoolwork, plan for the unexpected disasters that might invade our budgets? If we drain the coffers by abusing and not valuing what we have then we are in danger of losing the privileges we currently enjoy.
So let’s share stories with our young and with others who may not know how life was in this country even just 20-40 years ago. Just as the Sri Llankan mother hosting Jack shared her story, we need to explain the improvements we have seen in our lifetimes. It brings perspective which can empower the young with that essential ingredient of hope plus the determination to build on what has been created thus far – for their own sake and for the sake of others.
What could you share about your life journey, or your parents’ or grandparents’ lives, this week that would give insights into how life today is better than it was in your youth?