Gill Reeve wonders whether young adults today constitute a ‘sacrificed generation’. She suggests standing in solidarity with young people and turns to the example of Bishop James Jones for hope.
In some recent interviews with young adults in Europe there were some moving testimonies about the profound anxiety that many of them have experienced during the last 15 months and the huge effect the pandemic has had on their futures, mental wellbeing, education, and job prospects. One young adult interviewed describes himself as part of the ‘sacrificed generation’.
The interviews resonated with what I have heard as a chaplain in higher education over recent months. Many of the young adults I have spoken to feel that they have been let down by the government and have largely been forgotten by them. Even before the pandemic, these young adults had many more worries and responsibilities than I ever had in my late teens and early twenties.
As an Anglican chaplain I find myself searching in my own faith tradition for inspiration on how to stand with, and indeed fight alongside, this ‘sacrificed generation’, many of whom are passionate about social and ecological justice. But current Anglican theology seems to fall short when it comes to issues of ecology or justice. Having the environment as just one of the five marks of mission feels a bit like sitting on a sinking ship and reviewing your schedule to see if you have the time to start bailing! It gives the false impression that the social and the ecological are separate entities when they are inextricably bound together.
Someone I interviewed as part of my research into socio-ecological transformation said that they had recently asked a group of Anglicans: ‘Can we change our language? You know, the Roman Catholics talk about ‘Our Common Home’, which is better than talking about THE environment […] we are all in the environment, we are the environment—social cohesion, ecological care, it’s not different.’ Language matters because it shapes our conceptual thinking and informs our action, or lack of action.
Eco-church has certainly been a helpful tool for waking the church up to the ecological crisis, but there is also a danger that it could end up as an introspective response that is too focussed on meeting the church’s own needs. The urgency of the ecological crisis requires a far more holistic framework that emphasises partnership and working with others towards socio-ecological sustainability and justice. For inspiration in this, the church would do well to look to young adults themselves, who are finding ways to form alliances and partnerships that speak together and fight together on the big issues facing our world. Such collaborations are challenging because to fully embrace them we need to relinquish our own plans for the greater good, to let go of the need for recognition of our own achievements, and to listen and learn from others in humility. It is a demanding journey.
So where might I look, within my own tradition of the Anglican church, to help me as a chaplain in my work with young adults? I am inspired by the example of Bishop James Jones who spent much of his ministry engaged in fights for justice, including as chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chair of New Deals for Communities for Liverpool, and leading the Gosport Independent Panel related to hospital care. In an interview in 2017 he states that chairing the Hillsborough Independent Panel ‘became the climax of my time as Bishop of Liverpool. It wove together the three foundational values of my ministry—compassion, truth and justice’. In the late 1990s Bishop James visited schools in Liverpool to listen to what young people were most concerned about, and their overwhelming response was ‘the environment’ (Jones, Jesus and the Earth, 2003). He responded by spending a three-month sabbatical learning more about ecology, reflecting theologically on the care of creation, and gaining wisdom from people from other faiths. Returning to Liverpool he set up the Eden Project (now Faiths4Change) as a multi-faith initiative that aimed to bring communities and faith groups together to work on environmental projects.
What can we to learn from Bishop James about how to stand with young adults in the face of the immense challenges and worries that they face? We must start by listening and learning from young people and allowing that encounter to challenge us and shape our actions. If we are brave enough to fully embrace this, then these experiences will undoubtedly broaden our mindset and enrich and expand our theological thinking. But if we are to stand with this ‘sacrificed generation’ and struggle for a fairer and more just world, then as individuals and as the church we will need to set aside our own needs for security, significance, and growth. We will need new social and ecological values beyond those of the neoliberal metric that has so dominated our worldview in the West.
Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel believes that ‘growthism’ prevents us from thinking about the really vital questions, and he suggests that the way out of this is to embrace degrowth and the decolonising not just of lands and peoples but also of our minds. We need, he says, ‘a new way of thinking about our relationship with the living world’ (Hickel, Less is More, 2020, p. 289). Hickel warns us that: ‘We are in a trance. We slog on mindlessly unaware of what we’re doing, unaware of what we are sacrificing […] who we are sacrificing’ (Hickel, Less is More, 2020, p. 291).
Bishop James speaks of ‘a moral and theological imperative to encourage an embracing of environmental justice’ (Jones, Jesus and the Earth, 2003). And it is within this framework of justice that I believe the Anglican tradition best encourages me to stand with young adults today in their struggles to build a sustainable world and a more hopeful future.
Gill Reeve charts some of the new challenges, unavoidable losses and unexpected opportunities of 2020, drawing out lessons that are relevant for us all.
Starting my PhD in September 2018, I anticipated many of the challenges ahead: time pressure, difficulty finding focus, searching for the research gap, writer’s block… to name but a few.
But in March 2020, as I was writing my methodology chapter, a global pandemic was one scenario that had certainly not entered my head! I was all set for an ethnographic research project on the values that underpin collaborative, socio-ecological place-shaping. Participant observation was central to the deeply embedded research design. But, as the pandemic took hold globally, it felt as if the words of my research portfolio lifted off the pages and disappeared into the atmosphere. Not only was my field research now out of reach, but there was also a growing realisation of the seismic shift occurring in the world. Locating socio-ecological research at such a time of enormous flux and instability took on a new level of complexity.
Gradual despondency caused me to consider my options. I could suspend my studies; give up; start again on a different topic. But, over time, I began to realise that my current research was more important than ever. The values that underpin socio-ecological place-shaping are under-researched, and yet, in the sustainability literature there is increasing recognition that these values may provide deep leverage for change. COVID-19 has brought immense pressures to cities such as Liverpool, the context for my research, that, even in pre-COVID times, had extremely high levels of social deprivation. And whilst the government recently expressed a commitment to a ‘levelling up’ agenda, it is difficult to be hopeful about this. Historically, regeneration agendas in Liverpool have depended on high levels of pump-priming from central government and the EU. Given the national economic impacts of the pandemic and the new relationship with the EU, it seems implausible that any levelling up is possible without a radical re-think. The great danger is a repeat of the same: more top-down approaches that imposes new structures and bring short-term initiatives that are poorly integrated with existing community work and lack sustainability.
In April 2020 I started to revise my methodology, searching for creative new ways that would still bring depth to the research and capture insights that could inform future policy and practice. I started to re-engage with the New Materialisms through the work of Rosa Braidotti on the post-human and Jane Bennett on Vibrant Matter. Re-reading their work in a COVID-19 world gave it new potency and resonance. Bennett stretches our worldview towards a new way of seeing:
“… the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality. We are vital materiality, and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.”
(Vibrant Matter, p.14)
Bennett argues against the dominant anthropocentric worldview that focusses on human uniqueness and thereby upholds a moral argument that ‘privileges man over germ’ (p.12). Reading this statement again, in the midst of the pandemic, there was a palpable sense of the folly and arrogance of such a worldview. A tiny virus has floored humans globally in ways that we could not have imagined a year ago and the physical impacts of the climate emergency around the world are in plain sight. Our inter-dependency with the natural world and the fragility of humanity has surely been laid bare in 2020.
I was also increasingly drawn to creative arts methodologies as a way of delving deeper into the hidden values that underpin socio-ecological place-shaping. Creative arts provide a rich reservoir for re-imagining, enabling engagement with hitherto hidden and nuanced perspectives. Imagery, metaphor, and storytelling have become central in my research methods, enabling the exploration of the untapped imaginations of those working at local, community-based place-shaping. Many of my participants, interviewed on Zoom, have had decades of experience in local community projects and as I speak with them, I sense that I am mining the treasure that has been almost imperceptibly gathered over the years. Such is the nature of the embedded values that shape practice: they are illusive and often hidden actants in material assemblages. But perhaps their invisibility is more to do with the limits of our dominant worldview that priorities the concrete, visible aspects of the material world and has become incapable of perceiving what is hidden in plain sight. Values are woven into the intricate narratives and intriguing metaphors that my research participants tell, but we need Braidotti’s ‘post-human’ perspective to unravel such nuances and to see the multiplicity of actants in this complex web of materiality.
Researching in 2020 alongside COVID-19 has been exhausting! One of the hardest things has been coping with a lack of energy and concentration, arising from a more stressful working environment, months of social distancing and the anxieties that the pandemic brings. But it has not all been about losses. The pandemic has pushed me to embrace a more creative research approach that I might previously have felt was too risky, too out of my comfort-zone. But now, I am finding this creativity increasingly thought-provoking, life-giving, and intriguing.
With the UK government’s publication of a new obesity strategy last week, Gill Reeve suggests that a more urgent need is a broader strategy to address the underlying causes of poverty and inequality. With a cabinet minister inviting us to take personal responsibility for our weight, the new strategy should not be used to deflect attention from the government’s own responsibility to address inequality.
In his interview with the BBC on 24th July, Boris Johnson highlighted the problem of obesity. There is undoubtedly a serious health issue related to obesity in the UK, which also increases the risks of COVID-19, but is it really as simple as thinking a little more about lifestyles and taking personal responsibility, as Dominic Raab suggested in an interview? The causes of obesity are complex, but significant among them are the deep-seated inequalities that persist in the UK. In highlighting obesity without setting it in its broader context, there is a danger that the government side-steps their own responsibility for rising socio-economic inequality.
Social inequality and health outcomes
A recent government briefing paper on poverty in June 2020 highlights that poverty rates for children and working age adults are higher than they were fifty years ago, and that an estimated 24% of children are now in households of relative low income after housing costs (AHC). Research has long recognised that the health outcomes for deprived communities are much lower in multiple ways, and that people living in deprived areas are much more likely to live with multiple morbidities. The impacts of this are laid bare in a Public Health England report on health equity (2017), that showed people living in the least deprived areas live around twenty years longer in good health than those in the most deprived areas. Obesity is part of a much bigger health crisis that is significantly correlated to poverty.
Child poverty, obesity and food poverty
An independent report on poverty by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2017 suggested 4.2 million children were living in relative poverty, with the prediction (pre-COVID-19) for this to rise to 5.2 million by 2022. The Children’s Commissioner supports these findings and the forecast that about 37% of children will live in poverty by 2022. The impacts of COVID-19 on poverty are not yet known, but a recent article by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggested that COVID-19 has already placed an extra 200,000 children in poverty.
The Public Health England report on heath equity (2017) reveals ‘stark inequalities in the prevalence of obesity’ in children aged 10-11 years old, with a 17.5% gap in prevalence between the least deprived and most deprived areas of England. A report by the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (RCPCH) brings insights from doctors on the front line, who report that ‘poor nutrition as a result of the inability to afford enough healthy food is associated with both poor growth of deprived babies and children on the one hand, and rising child obesity on the other’. When obesity is considered within the wider context of poverty, the reports shows that central issues include: the inability of people to afford healthy food options, the struggle to afford essential items such as toothpaste, and widespread food poverty. Added to that, the RCPCH report points to other social factors that negatively impact health, including the lack of access to a garden and to safe green spaces in local neighbourhoods.
Intersectionality of obesity, poverty and inequality
Poverty leads to multiple morbidities, food poverty, obesity and much more, and it disproportionately affects particular ethnic groups. The Public Health England report on health equity (2017) provides evidence that there is ‘a clear gradient’ between increased poverty and increased obesity, with the most deprived areas of England having the highest proportion of overweight and obese children. And the statistics are startling in the connections made between poverty, ethnicity and childhood obesity. The Government briefing paper on poverty (2020) shows that in households where the head of the household is from a Black ethnic group, relative poverty rates are 42% (AHC) with 47% of children experiencing child poverty (AHC). Comparative data for a Bangladeshi ethnic household is 53% and 67%, and for a white ethnic household it is 19% and 26%. The Public Health England report on health equity shows the link to child obesity rates, which is the highest in Black ethnic communities at about 43%.
Policies to tackle underlying causes of inequality and deprivation
There is plenty of statistical evidence that welfare changes over the past ten years have put many more children into poverty, and a report in June 2020 by the Social Mobility Commission calls for a common strategy across government to tackle inequality, coordinated and driven forward by a single unit at the centre of government. It is this coordinated strategy that is needed in order to review complex issues that are deeply interrelated and to embed changes across policy, decision-making and implementation.
Addressing the key area of child poverty would have multiple benefits, not just to obesity but to the health and wellbeing of whole families. The IPPR report suggests targeted changes that would immediately decrease child poverty: removing the two-child limit and the benefit cap—imposed in 2015 as part of the government’s austerity measures–and increasing Child Benefit by £5 per week per child. The RCPCH report suggests restoring national targets to reduce child poverty and the adoption of a ‘child health in all policies’ approach to decision-making and policy development. In addition, there needs to be a reversal of the public health cuts that have decimated early years services, which are vital support services for families.
COVID-19 has exposed wide inequalities in the UK that are racially, socially and geographically aligned. Tackling COVID-19 is also an opportunity for the government to take responsibility and to strategically address poverty and the profound inequalities that negatively affect so many people’s lives.
William Temple Scholar Gill Reeve encourages us to act out of hope in our turbulent times by taking us to the community garden of St Michael’s in the City, Liverpool.
As the political turbulence in the UK continues with a new Prime Minister and a new cabinet establishing themselves over the coming weeks, we find ourselves at yet another moment of significant change and uncertainty. But with Parliament about to start its summer recess, many of the urgent issues facing our country remain in the long grass: the environmental crisis, pressures on social care and the green paper that is now over two years adrift, and the struggling NHS which is being increasingly privatised—with a record £9.2bn handed to profit-driven healthcare companies last year (an increase of 14% since 2014-15). With Brexit still looming, the political inertia which is hampering action on so many critical issues for local communities seems set to last much longer. Added to all this, recent weeks have seen politics hit a particular low point with Donald Trump’s malign, racist comments about other elected politicians and the ‘send her back’ chant at his rally, by people he later described as ‘incredible patriots’. In the UK, as well, the political environment has been aggressive and toxic, with the recent resignation of the Labour shadow justice minister Ms De Piero, who talked of receiving ‘grim’ online abuse, and the court case regarding Anna Soubry who was harassed and called ‘scum’, ‘Nazi’ and ‘traitor’.
It is difficult to know how to respond in such a difficult climate. Whilst it might feel like a drop in the ocean, perhaps one thing we can all do is redouble our commitment to the values of solidarity, unity and respect, through the small actions we do each day. It is easy to scoff at that, and to believe that such small actions do not amount to much. But there is a Christian hope embedded in the exhortation to ‘not despise the day of small things’ (Zechariah 4:10). In the biblical context, this line refers to the rebuilding of the second temple following the exile, and the leap of faith and the prophetic imagination that was needed in starting to lay the foundations for such an enormous project.
But what might ‘the day of small things’ look like in our own contemporary context?
In my work as a curate in Liverpool Diocese I have recently had the privilege of working with a small group of people to transform St Michaels’s in the City—a small church that was close to closure—into a community space with community gardens and an allotment. There was little budget, few people and a wilderness to tame; it was a daunting task even though it was a comparatively small project. The church teamed up with Faiths4Change, a local charity committed to the health and wellbeing of people and the environment, and this partnership has been central throughout the work. Gradually, over the months, a small team of people became committed to the project. On Saturday 20th July, less than a year after conversations started, the gardens were officially opened and a new future now lies ahead. We still have a long way to go, but this project has often reminded me ‘not to despise the day of small things’. Not only have we transformed the physical space, but along the way we have begun to build a small community that has grown together as they have worked together.
In Manchester, in 2013, I heard Jurgen Moltmann lecture on the theology of hope, and it had such a profound impact on me at the time that I made copious notes. He talked about a deeply practical hope that is always ready for a new start; a persistent, confident hope that remains unreconciled in the face of injustice. It is not hope based on an idealistic dream but one rooted in praxis and a determination to see a better world. Such hope demands great temerity because starting again when things have fallen apart often means stretching out for a future that cannot be seen, and then working for small gains and celebrating small steps. It is a hope that kindles the imagination because ‘it awakens our sense of potentiality’ (Moltmann, 2012, p.3). It is rooted in the present but stretches forward into the future, because ‘if our actions were only related to the future we should fall victim to utopia, [and] if they were related only to the present we should miss our chances’ (Moltmann, 2012, p.3).
Moltmann concluded his talk by saying: ‘for as long as I have breath, I hope’. On my way into our community garden this week I passed by a Turkish lady I had never met before. She had very little English but she greeted me with a warm embrace that bridged our language barrier. It was a very small act, but let us not despise the day of small things, because they are the foundations for a much bigger vision. And they enact a prophetic hope for a better world.
Moltmann, J. (2012). Ethics of Hope. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress.
William Temple Scholar Gill Reeve highlights the challenges for social care ahead of the government’s Green Paper on the issue, raising specific concerns about people in our communities living with dementia and the relatives who care for them.
Like so many people in the UK, I am a carer for an elderly parent with dementia who is struggling to maintain independent living. As dementia increasingly clouds my mum’s thinking and memory, I am drawn into a disorientating world where reality and fiction are blended into a rather bizarre new narrative of life. There are funny moments, such as when our 18-year-old son introduced his new girlfriend and my mum exclaimed ‘oh, have you brought your mum to see me today?’. But there are also anxious times, such as when she disappeared from her bungalow and after some hours was found by the police, lost and upset.
We all know that dementia is on the rise, but the statistics are still astonishing. In 2015 it was estimated that there were 850,000 people living with dementia. The King’s Fund predicts that by 2030 the population aged 75 and over will have doubled resulting in an 80% rise in dementia to nearly 2 million people. The impact of these changes on society will surely be immense and it is difficult to see how families and communities can absorb these escalating needs. Currently, two thirds of people with dementia live at home, supported by about 670,000 unpaid carers. In total, across all care needs, there are five and a half million carers in England; 110,000 carers are themselves aged over 85; and one in five people aged 50-64 years are carers.
The impact of caring for someone with dementia may be particularly significant for the working lives of 50 to 64-year olds, as many will be caring for parents with dementia. Recent government research on carers found that only 19 percent of carers had been able to maintain full-time employment; 34 percent had reduced working hours to provide care and 47 percent had left work altogether to provide care. Many people in their 50s are now also supporting adult children living at home due to the unaffordable rental market or unemployment, and the additional pressures of caring for someone with dementia may result in rising financial hardship in this age bracket. These social changes are set in the wider context of austerity and ongoing cuts to local authority budgets, that continue to strip back support for people at a local level. According to the King’s Fund, ‘between 2009/10 and 2015/16, spending by councils on social care per adult resident fell by 11% in real terms, and the number of people receiving publicly funded social care services fell by 400,000’. In the city of Liverpool, where I work, the council estimates that between 2010 and 2020, the core grant from the Government will have been cut by two-thirds: some £444 million. Joe Anderson (Mayor of Liverpool) warns that the council is struggling to protect vital social care services, and that this situation—for one of the most deprived cities in the UK—just isn’t sustainable.
Few would disagree that our current system of social care is unsustainable; its breakdown can be seen in the fact that, ‘at least one quarter of acute hospital beds are occupied by people with dementia, many of whom would not need to be there were it not for their dementia’. The King’s Fund report warns that, ‘doing nothing is not a safe option,’ given that the whole system is at a tipping point, and yet the Government’s Green Paper on Social Care—originally due in the summer of 2017—has been repeatedly delayed and is now due ‘at the first opportunity in 2019’. The slow response is baffling given the urgency of the current situation and the challenges on the near horizon. A Briefing Paper issued in December 2018 suggests that the Green Paper will ‘include a focus on unpaid care and how our society supports carers as a vital part of a sustainable health and social care system’. The Government is also reviewing how to provide carers with more information and technology to support their caring and ‘to identify and promote creative and cost-effective models that look beyond statutory services to develop carer friendly communities’. These statements concern me as they seem to suggest that the solution is to get unpaid carers to work more effectively to uphold an unsustainable and broken system. Given the enormous contribution that communities and carers are already making, I wonder what ‘society’ the Government is envisioning when it looks to ‘society’ to solve the problems. There seems to be a failure to grasp the fact that society is under pressure and is made up of the many carers who are already working hard to support neighbours, family and friends.
The system cannot be ‘fixed’ by piling more pressure on carers; it needs a systemic overhaul and the Government needs to be prepared to put in a very significant financial investment in order to increase practical support for people living at home with dementia and to provide the respite and day care provision that are so vital for carers. I hope the Green Paper grapples with the real challenges people with dementia and their families face. But if it doesn’t, then what will be our response? An inspiration is found, perhaps, in recent news that three women (supported by Child Poverty Action Group) have successfully challenged the government in the high court on universal credit and caused a significant change in policy. This has arguably been the climax of a sustained and collaborative protest by many, including the Church. It demonstrates that change is possible, through perseverance and by uniting together around a common cause. Perhaps it is time for the Church, in collaboration with other partners, to ‘turn up the volume’ on concerns about social care, highlighting the pressing needs of people living at home with dementia and the families who care for them.