The World on Their Shoulders

Traditionally it was Atlas who had the task of carrying the world on his shoulders, and there are many adults today in positions of leadership and responsibility who tend to look and as if they also have much, if not all, of the world on theirs. Think of the General Secretary of the United Nations, for example. Think of the leaders of the so-called superpowers, and of major religions or denominations.

Entertainment bombardment

But it is dawning on some of us that it is actually today’s children who are the ones who are increasingly experiencing life as cosmically burdensome. Let me try to explain. Today’s children for the most part (irrespective of where they are in the world and their relative poverty or wealth) are living in a wholly new world where global media communicate to them twenty-four hours a day a range of completely unmediated news, information, stories and entertainment.

There is very little chance for most of them of escaping it. (I was reminded of this yesterday when I sat in the little home of a mother of three where the television seems to be on not only for the whole of the children’s waking day, but at night too.) It was not so when I was young: the radio (there was no television) was controlled by either my parents or grandparents and I recall vividly the thrill when I was allowed to switch on “Children’s Hour” for myself! It was a far cry from the contemporary scene.

Technology attack

We should not underestimate the effect of this massive shift in information technology on the lives of children. But we also need to ponder the messages that they are receiving, for these have changed too. If they own mobile phones then unfortunately they are susceptible to cyber-bullying. My own sense is that this is reaching massive and sinister proportions. How sad to discover a girl committing suicide because she felt that there was no way out: no way of switching off! To those of my generation the solution would have been all too obvious: get rid of the phone, or turn it off. But we do not understand the pressures she and thousands of her peers are under.

Then there is the onslaught of the global corporations, constantly insinuating that life without what they have to offer is drab, dull, unfulfilling and unacceptable. Children and young people are bombarded and coaxed individually and collectively into aspiring to and wanting to buy products, watch films and purchase the accompanying merchandise ceaselessly. It is, as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and others have pointed out, the primary aim of marketing to create dissatisfaction with everything that a child possesses in order to persuade them or their parents to desire and then acquire or consume the next product. Commercial television programmes and films always flag up the next product or programme before the existing one has finished. It is a huge burden to bear: the continuous awareness that what you have and what you are is always inadequate. (Can you remember an advert that told you, “Enough is enough: be content with what you have”?)

School stress

It might be argued that at least schools provide some solace from this pressure, but there is another problem here: in the UK at least there is a virtually constant anxiety among staff and pupils about tests and inspections. The notion that you can jog along and that learning can be fun and spontaneous is far from the outcome-dominated and regulated agenda of Government.

I have become aware of the sheer fear that there is among many teachers about the whole system of monitoring and evaluation, and cannot believe that this does not rub off on children. Anxiety and depression are increasing among children and adolescents and it would be disingenuous to think that the pressure of school tests had nothing to do with this increase.

Then there is the pressure of family disruption and break-up as a result of a number of factors. It is not just that something has actually happened in your family and now the household has been reconstituted, but that pupils are aware of what is happening in many other families and so they too live under the shadow of the possibility that this could be replicated in their own family.

It is pretty well accepted that this is one of the biggest anxieties of children. In my own view, adults can barely conceive of the magnitude of the disruption that family ruptures and break-ups represent. We tend to sanitise such human tragedies by using smooth language that disguises the rugged and unacceptable realities.

Health hazards

There is in addition to this what might be called an obsession of professionals and the media with issues of health, particularly diet and obesity. Figures are trotted out with monotonous regularity about what percentage of children will be obese by a certain date, while luminaries such as Jamie Oliver are doing their best to improve school meals. All the time there are people, for the best of motives, who are drawing attention to the effects of junk food and obesity on children and childhood. The point I am making is that there is nowhere for children to escape this whole debate: the issue surrounds them at home, school and in the media.

Terrorism threat

And last but not least, there is the world scene with its twin threats of global terrorism (with a so-called “war on terror”) and global warming. Predictions vary but they tend to be apocalyptic. For many adults born after the Second World War there were childhoods of possibly unique security. In middle class families divorce was comparatively rare, the environment outside the house and garden was experienced as generally safe and benign; strangers were assumed for the most part to be friendly; paedophilia via the “battered baby syndrome” was yet to be “discovered”. The Cold War seemed to be some way off from the everyday world of home, school, clubs and holidays.

Now images of bombings, terrorists who are threatening suicide bombings, wars and uprisings are part of the normal run of things. It would be a brave, if not foolhardy person who predicted that things were becoming safer and more stable. And so it is our children who find that the world in which they are living, and for which they will in due course be responsible as adults is fundamentally unpredictable and unsafe. The world of terror and terrorism (whether real, or an image in the mind of significant others) is the one that they will occupy when today’s adults have died. This world will fall on their shoulders.

World warming

And at the end of this sad catalogue is the threat of global warming with floods, storms and famines. From the melting ice-caps to the ozone layer and the oceans that are no longer dealing with carbon dioxide as they used to, the picture is a distinctly worrying one. Many of the worst predictions are for deterioration or catastrophe after today’s adults have died. But yet again this is the world that is being shaped for our children.

Leaving a legacy

It might be observed that this is a distinctly one-sided view of things: there is after all much that is positive about the advances of science, medicine, information technology, discoveries of the resilience and hope of children. But it is vital that we do not allow that which is positive to obscure the fundamentally heavy world in which our children are growing up.

In every era the time comes for the next generation to accept responsibility for the affairs of families, communities, nations, regions and the world. That is no different today. What is different is the sort of world in which children are developing, and the world that they must shoulder. In my view this deep down is how many, if not most children and young people in the world experience reality.

If so, it should cause us no surprise that there is increasing evidence of mental health problems among children and adolescents. It is part of the price they are paying for discovering the nature of the world that they already perceive and before long will carry on their shoulders.

We would do well to pay closer attention to what they are experiencing, feeling and telling us, rather than making the basic assumption that we are the ones who can help them. We and our forbears have not made a very good job of shouldering the world we are bequeathing them.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.