LONG ago I learned the value of the small interludes in our life when we can find the time and space for reflection; whether prayerful or philosophical, introverted or extending us beyond our shores to the rest of the world.
Taking some time to think, in poetry or prose, enhances our ability to get through strife, challenge our position and savour the flavour and the true richness of this life of ours. We only rarely take the time to do so when we purposefully pause. It is to be encouraged.
So, for example, I give thanks for the great British institution that is “Thought for the Day” on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. To stop the busy preparations of a morning and listen to the guidance of often the most thoughtful and profound in our society, is a rare privilege that can happen every weekday. We don’t have to agree with what is being said to find worth.
Last week I was deeply moved by the words of Professor Mona Siddiqui of Edinburgh University. She was reflecting on a dry but important report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies finding that children of my generation are the first in many decades to enjoy lower living standards than the generation they follow.
This reality and the gross inequality of its distribution is one of the great challenges we face as society, and a troubling indicator of the health of the nation.
It is written into the DNA of our condition for parents to want their kids to have a better life than them. It is why all but the most selfish of people will forgo money, time and joy to secure the same for their children.
It is therefore a sad reflection for us all when the once relentless march of improvement misses a step.
Those born in the 1960s and 1970s have, according to the IFS, no higher take-home income; have saved no more of their previous take-home income; are less likely to own a home; will probably have lower private pension wealth; and, of course, their state pensions won’t go as far.
They did have higher incomes during early adulthood than their predecessors. But this additional income – that came at younger ages relative to earlier generations – was all spent. They have not saved any more past income than their predecessors had by the same stage in life.
This was not entirely stupid or indolent or indulgent. The obsessive focus on housing as our store of personal capital and a seemingly unending rise in prices due to planning rigidity and antiquated land ownership structures, made it logical for people to strive to participate in housing booms. Right up until the point when it wasn’t.
But the unequal distribution of wealth in the UK is reinforced by all of the above and makes the inheritance of assets the only means for many to get on. British economic history demonstrates that down this particular road lies ruin. It stifles meritocracy.
The pressure on my generation in mid-life is therefore exacting. The resulting challenge for policy-makers is substantial. As individual citizens we must strive to find the leaders who can live outside the bubbles of the daily news cycle or the five-year electoral cycle. Being able to lead policy that will improve the lot of entire generations is rare in politics.
All of this is clear, but Professor Siddiqui touched the issue and took us on a different journey, asking whether the striving to pass on inheritance itself was right: “Money will always be important and what the state does matters, but we can shape our children’s destinies in so many ways. It’s natural for parents to want to leave their children something. But rather than raising them to be hopeful for an inheritance from us, we should raise them with a sense of self-worth and purpose which will keep their lives meaningful whatever they face”.
For me standing at my kitchen sink on Wednesday morning this was both a liberating and changing thought.
This is the sort of intervention and lead that puts a strong finger under the collective chin of an entire generation and helps us focus our gaze on where it needs to be. It is easy for the rich to say money doesn’t matter. Like oxygen you certainly notice when it is not there. But the endless pursuit of it at the expense of other goals has to be a misdirection of our purpose.
How many of us miss too much time with the people we otherwise worry about all of the time? We excuse our neglect as its opposite, but the happiest of children live in homes lit by love rather than riches.
Nothing is ever simple in life, of course, and as we strive to keep every plate spinning we pause often to regret the ones we let drop. Siddiqui’s point reminds us that we should focus first on the example we set to the next generation by our actions and by passing on the wisdom we reach eventually about what truly counts.
Will they listen? Well, we know that’s another story, of course, which is why what we choose to do matters more than what we say.