Next time you see her pouting, arms crossed, brow furrowed as the knot of nasty grows bigger and bigger inside her little tummy because you got her the 16GB version and she’d specifically asked for the 64GB, remember, she’s miserable, especially if she’s British. Well, according to Unicef anyway, in a study on the role of inequality and materialism in children’s happiness.
Unicef UK commissioned Ipsos Mori and Dr Agnes Nairn to do some qualitative research after the organisation’s Report Card 7 said the UK was the worst place for a child to grow up in of the 21 developed countries covered. They asked Dr Nairn to try to find out what lies behind the statistics and to compare the situation with Spain and Sweden, countries that scored higher.
Researchers interviewed hundreds of children in the three countries, using an approach that’s similar in philosophy to the OECD’s award-winning Better Life Index: they asked the kids what was important for them and what made them happy.
The researchers examined how children perceived inequality and materialism, for example by asking them to imagine that a new pupil had joined their class and point out the different groups in their school and say whether any of these groups were happier than others. Spanish and UK children seem to be the most sensitive to this, distinguishing rich and poor on the basis of the brands they possess and often using insulting terms like chavs or chulitos for the poorer kids.
The main finding though is that in all three countries what children really, really want is time with their family, good friends and to be able to do things outdoors.
Most children in the countries surveyed agreed you shouldn’t get everything you want, and they had no respect for “spoiled” kids. Moreover, the vast majority of children had high regard for the notions of waiting, saving up for and earning material rewards. Like the 10 year-old Swedish boy who wanted a special toy: “I had to lay out my own clothes for the morning. I had to make my own breakfast as well as giving my mother breakfast in bed… I wasn’t allowed to complain and I had to do this for a month”. (Do try this at home. Better policies for better lives isn’t just an OECD slogan, you know.)
So if kids in the three countries seem to share similar values, why are little Britons unhappier? Children in Sweden and Spain had far more chance of getting time with their parents and playing outside. Speaking on Yougov, Anita Tiessen, deputy director of Unicef UK, blamed the long working hours of British families: “Parents have a much greater pressure in fulfilling the commitment to their children. They try to make up for this by buying their children branded clothes, trainers, technology.”
Given the cost of many of these products, the parents have to work even more to pay for them, and thus find themselves locked into a system of consumption they know is pointless but find hard to resist. This is reflected in how inequality is viewed in the different countries. In Spain, parents who have no time with their children are “the deprived”, while in Sweden a deprived neighbourhood is one where children can’t play outside. In the UK inequality is firmly related to money and consumer goods.
Unicef’s solution for breaking the cycle of compulsive consumerism is threefold: ban adverts that target under-12s (as Sweden has done); raise the minimum wage; and don’t close playgrounds or other facilities for children as part of budget cuts.
I wish them good luck getting that approved in the present climate.
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