Jeremy Hunt’s granny-friendly societies

Tory politicians spent the weekend telling us that we should be more like the Chinese. Fresh from his recent visit, a starry-eyed George Osborne praised China while dismissing Britain as defeatist and second-rate. (In the space of just over a year, it seems, the British have gone from being the worst idlers in the world, to being hardworking, to being second-raters.) The Chancellor’s China-worship was well and truly trashed by Will Hutton yesterday so I’ll leave it for now.

Jeremy Hunt was on a similar theme when he said that the British should follow the example of the Chinese and look after their elderly relatives in their homes. After a BBC survey found that many elderly people in Britain felt lonely, the health secretary, whose wife in Chinese, branded the findings a source of “national shame” and said we should learn from Asian cultures where there was “reverence and respect for older people” and “residential care is a last rather than a first option”.

Now you don’t have to think for too long about the Chinese economy to realise that this is almost certainly baloney. China’s industry is heavily dependent on migrant workers who travel thousands of miles, leaving their elderly parents behind. Earlier this year, the Chinese authorities brought in a law in an attempt to force people to visit their elderly parents but with so many people living so far away from their home villages it is difficult to see how the law could be enforced. Some people have resorted to paying others to visit their parents; a sort of privatised, unqualified and unregulated health visitor system.

Jeremy Hunt’s claims have been pulled apart by, among others, Channel 4, Age International, Professor Hans Schattle of Yonsei University in Seoul and the Guardian’s Phillip Inman.

Here’s Age International:

Hunt’s vision of China is out of date – and potentially damaging.

China is currently facing significant challenges regarding its older population. As the number of older people increases, multigenerational households are in steep decline. The tradition of family members taking care of older relatives in countries such as China has waned – suggesting that traditional values may no longer be enough to support the requirements of an older population.

In developing countries, the extended family has long been celebrated as a model for how to care for older people within the family home. However, social and economic changes are having an impact and the extended family is breaking down.

According to UN population statistics, now only 20 per cent of families live in ‘joint family’ structures in India.

In many developing countries, the middle generation often migrates to urban areas or other countries in search of work, sending back remittances to provide for their parents. But as the global recession grips, it becomes harder for people to continue sending money back to care for the older generation.

Even if people work locally, it is now common practice in an increasing number of countries – including India and China – for both men and women to work and the situation is exacerbated by a work culture of long hours, leaving little or no time to take care of parents. Many people in later life can no longer rely on their children to care for them, nor do they have the funds to pay someone else to do so.

Phillip Inman agrees:

The Asian example is associated with an agrarian economy, where family is close by. Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and China are rapidly urbanising and confronting the same issues as us.

Consider this brief extract from an article in the Jakarta Post:

Cumi Solechah, a 65-year-old widow, says she did not think her senior years would be spent in a nursing home.

“Life is just a mystery. You don’t know where it will lead you,” Umi told the Jakarta Post during a recent visit to Budi Mulia 4 nursing home in Radio Dalam, South Jakarta. 

Umi, who worked with the Indonesian embassy in Washington DC for 10 years, recalled serving Indonesian diplomats including former ambassadors Soesilo Soedarman and Arifin Siregar. 

Her life changed when she had to return in 1998 to treat her sick mother.

“I spent nearly all my riches treating my mom before she died,” said Umi, who worked in the US from 1989 to 1997. 

Her husband then passed away. 

Umi did not elaborate on why she went to a nursing home aside from saying: “I was abandoned by my brothers and sisters despite my contributions to them.”Is this the Asian example Hunt wants us to emulate?

Indonesia’s National Commission for the Elderly said only 3.9% of the country’s elderly in 2006 could rely on their monthly pension fund.

The commission said this drove about 50% of elderly women to rely on their children and their partners, compared with 29% of elderly men.

The Post reported one nursing home head as saying that in many cases the elderly were abandoned by their children or other family members if they had a low income or health issue such as Alzheimer’s.

So much, then, for the Asian model.

The myth of the deracinated, cold-hearted, materialistic and liberal north Europeans abandoning their elderly, while the more traditional family orientated societies venerate and care for them, is a persistent one.

While Hunt’s speech was being reported on the BBC, a graphic flashed up showing the levels of loneliness across Europe. It seemed to show that the situation was worst in southern and eastern Europe. Unfortunately, it then disappeared from the screen almost without comment. (So much for the BBC’s anti-government bias.) I decided to track the figures down and discovered a study by Keming Yang and Christina Victor entitled
Age and loneliness in 25 European nations. It found that the percentage of elderly people reporting feelings of loneliness varied widely throughout Europe. I have put their findings on a graph.

Loneliness in Europe

As you can see, northern Europe, including the UK, comes out pretty well. The situation is worse in southern Europe and a lot worse in eastern Europe.

The authors conclude:

Our data generally confirm the north–south divide of European nations with regard to the prevalence of loneliness reported in other studies. Broadly speaking, those living in Northern European nations report lower levels of loneliness across the age groups than those in Southern Europe, which is consistent with previous studies (Jylhä and Jokela 1990; Sundström et al.2009; Walker 1993). People in most Northern European nations, including Denmark, Finland, Norway, The Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland, report the lowest levels of loneliness across all three age groups: the prevalence for the young and the middle-aged are below 4 per cent and below 6 per cent for those aged 60+.

Nevertheless, this traditional typology of North–South divide is limited because it fails to include Eastern European nations. Our results strongly suggest the North+West versus East divide, that is, it is those living in Russia and other Eastern European nations, not those living in Southern Europe, that report the highest percentages of frequent loneliness. The nations in which the highest levels of loneliness were reported were all former Soviet states, including Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia.

Against this background, then, the UK doesn’t look too bad.

None of this is to say that we don’t need to do more to look after our elderly people. As the population ages, there will be a lot more of them so the situation isn’t going to get any better. But Britain is far from unique in this. As I keep saying, the population is ageing everywhere in the world. This is a challenge for the whole human race, not just for Britain.

If they ever existed at all, the traditional, family orientated societies that respected and looked after their elders are a thing of the past. You are no more likely to find them in Asia and southern Europe than you are here.

Politicians, especially conservative ones, have a habit of cherry picking aspects of other societies and admonishing us to be more like them. In the 1980s it was Japanese industry, in the 1990s, it was the Asian Tigers, until they bombed. In the 2000s, Daniel Hannan even told us we needed to be more like Iceland. And now Jeremy Hunt is conjuring up images of granny-loving traditional societies and telling us we should be more like them. (And save the state a bob or two in the process.)

As ever, it’s rubbish!

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3 Responses to Jeremy Hunt’s granny-friendly societies

  1. Pingback: Jeremy Hunt’s granny-friendly societies - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. The irony of your chart, in relation to Hunt’s Chinese fantasy, is that there is a pretty obvious inverse correlation between loneliness and urbanisation. The greater the proportion of society that works in the agricutural sector (still high in Eastern Europe), the greater the loneliness. This appears counter-intuitive because of the trope of “the lonely city”, but you always have to remember that the existential loneliness of the big town is an experience of youth (i.e. one that Chinese migrant workers are now experiencing). We have too easily forgotten the “idiocy of rural life” (the word idiocy being used in its original Greek sense of isolation).

    In practice, town and city-living makes people less lonely. Despite the myth about isolated neighbours (which appears in every generation – e.g. in the 50s people were claiming that the communtiy spirit of the 30s had disappeared), simple proximity trumps other social trends. The modern origins of the fabled Chinese respect for their elders lie in the diaspora tendency to shackle youth to family-only businesses (something that commonly distinguishes rural communities migrating to cities – see The Godfather). This is a product of economic pressures, including the absence of state pensions, not Confucianism.

    Stripped of the nonsense, Hunt’s brief is to further erode support for the idea of social provision. The state pension made sense when few lived long enough to enjoy it, and when its reassurance maximised the current spending of workers, but it is now seen as an excessive burden on industry and an impediment to tax cuts. Hunt is not just a dissembler and a willing tool (we knew that and more after the BSkyB affair), he is plainly an idiot (the word here is NOT used in its original Greek sense).

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