How was it for you? We are all living in a time of sudden social change. The recession has bitten deeply, leading to loss of jobs, reductions in income – whether on savings or failed pension schemes, and in some cases substantial loss of capital built up with difficulty over a lifetime. And, of course, the fall in the golden goose of property, leading to re-possession of homes, or the collapse of buy-to-let schemes designed to provide for retirement.
While (at the time of writing, for events move so swiftly) some improvement is apparent, we do not know whether or at what rate this will continue; we know that there is a huge burden of national debt, and the gurus tell us that the effects on unemployment have by no means reached their peak. So what effect is all this having on people’s state of mind?
I find myself to be an odd case. Through my wife’s excellent financial management, and our rather conservative investment policy, we are fortunate to have suffered few practical effects. Mind you, our several children, who have families of their own, have not grasped the idea of supporting their aged parents, and the cash flow has tended to be the other way. But we have been happy to meet urgent needs. Nevertheless, I did go through a period of starting each day in a blanket of depression. There seemed to be no good reason for this. In the end I traced it to hearing, on Radio 4, the early financial news with its list of disasters. My solution was to switch to Radio 3, and the depression disappeared.
Others have not been so lucky, and we know this because enough time has passed to evaluate the effects of social upheaval in the countries of the USSR where, over a short period of time, there were widespread changes from state-run enterprises to private enterprises.
An interesting study published in the Lancet in January this year showed an overall increase in male mortality in these countries of around 13 per cent. But the differences between countries were even more revealing. Five countries, including Russia, showed an increase of 40 per cent. These were countries which had gone through rapid “shock” privatisation, and unemployment increased by around 300 per cent. The other countries, which had taken a path of much more gradual change, fared quite differently. The five best performing countries saw only a rise of two per cent in unemployment, and male mortality actually fell by 10 per cent.
This reinforces our knowledge that human beings do not cope well with change. Even good changes, like getting a rise or buying a new car, while producing elation, are rapidly absorbed into our psyches, and elation fades. Bad changes, which happen quickly and often unexpectedly, have deleterious effects on morale, depression, illness and, as we see, death. Another reported finding in this study was that belonging to social groups and organisations was an effective way of reducing the pressure and its outcomes.
An American study, published in Demography this May, found that the closure of a business, resulting in mass redundancy, led to an increase of over 80 per cent in rates of hypertension, heart disease, heart attack, stroke or diabetes. Incidentally, illness from stress continued after re-employment. In other cases, where jobs were lost individually, blue collar workers had increased rates of illness, but white collar workers were not significantly affected.
There are some lessons to be learned from this, I believe. We remember that Adam, following Original Sin, was condemned by God to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, but we do not as easily remember that, before he had sinned, his task was to till the Garden of Eden. So work is good, and its loss is an evil.
There is the obvious evil of not having the wherewithal to provide for oneself and one’s family, but also the, perhaps, more fundamental evil of loss of self-identity. We so often define ourselves by the work we do. And quite often an early question we ask of a new acquaintance is: “What do you do for a living?” There is no satisfactory way of saying with pride that one is unemployed.
Perhaps those of us who are in a position to give to charity should at least review the destination of our funds for the next year or two in order to help the situation. But greater benefits could well be achieved at parish level by looking at ways in which we can help the less fortunate (Catholic or otherwise) to bear more easily with their troubles.
This is not just a question of financial support but solidarity and social support which, as we have seen, can be important factors. And there are a myriad of opportunities for voluntary work. Of course we should constantly be looking for ways to help our neighbours (of whatever sort) but, right now, the need is particularly great. I would like to see every parish discussing and deciding how to do this – or what is a parish for, if not for love?
But let me end on a more optimistic note. Again in May this year, Kansas University, in conjunction with Gallup, reported a poll of 140 countries and no less than 150,000 adults. It provided a representative sample of 95 per cent of the world’s population. Some 89 per cent reported that they expected life to be as good or better in five years time.
Age and household income made little difference to individual results. The least optimistic areas were central Europe and, of course, Africa. Ireland led the list for optimism, America was 10th and Britain was 19th. Hope springs eternal, and God is good.
O O O
Perhaps I should have been neither surprised nor shocked when I read about the effects of recession at an individual level. But I was. Do you know of people in difficulty in your parish? Is this something to discuss with the pp and the parish council? Does anyone have the experience to tell us about credit unions and how well they work? By the way, although the evidence suggests that white collar workers who lose their jobs on an individual basis are quite resilient, I wonder whether this holds when, as seems to be the case now, there are very few white collar vacancies.