The ever increasing amount of graffiti, swearing and spitting in public, binge drinking and a general disregard for others’ personal space and property are all widelyacknowledged indicators of the trend.

‘Normal’ people just aren’t safe to walk the streets in 2005.... But is this really the case? It’s an age-old tradition that the older generation blames the younger for destroying the value system that underpins civilisation. Do our 60- somethings have a point or are they grumpy old men and women, merely repeating the opinions of previous generations? Is there really fear and trembling in middle-England, the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, the valleys of Wales?

To find out, Age Concern and Green Light International held a series of group discussions with men and women in their 60s, to supplement the knowledge that both organisations have built up over the years through conducting many hours of qualitative research with the Saga generation.

At first glance, there is a clear disconnect between the behaviour and values of Britain’s older and younger generations. Sentiment such as ‘There’s no respect any more, not for the Royal Family or the Flag or the Police or adults…’ is relatively common, and what one might expect to hear from older people. However, scratch beneath the surface and a much more complex picture emerges. Qualitative research by its ability to analyse beyond the merely superficial is uniquely placed to uncover some of these underlying trends.

Working Mothers, School Discipline… and Wayne Rooney

Initially, three factors are cited by our respondents as contributing to the deterioration of social order. Controversially, the first of these relates to working mothers, with our respondents pointing the finger at women who go out to work for a number of reasons.

Firstly, working mothers are held responsible because, with both parents at work, teenagers are left to their own devices: there is no-one at home to teach them right from wrong and supervise and discipline accordingly. Younger children are looked after by child-minders or ‘dumped’ by their parents at impersonal nurseries, and this too is seen as a root cause of poor behaviour.

Secondly, the fact that more women work outside the home has resulted in much weaker local communities because there is no longer time or the inclination to build relationships with other women over coffee or in the school playground. The knock-on effect of this is vastly increased anonymity for children and youths, which catalyses anti-social behaviour. One respondent’s claim, which sums up this point, was met with unanimous agreement:

‘In our day, if we were misbehaving as teenagers, any adult would have known us and told us off. So we never did anything that bad…’

Finally, cash-rich time-poor parents are accused by our senior citizens of buying their children every expensive toy and gadget imaginable to compensate for their lack of interaction with the new generation of ‘latch-key’ kids. Many modern toys such as Playstation and Gameboy — or simply being plonked in front of the latest DVD — are seen by the older generation as encouraging solitary behaviour and the inability to communicate effectively or interact socially.

‘Parents have no time to spend with their kids these days, they’re too busy making money… so they buy them these expensive games to compensate...’

Another area of great concern is school discipline and declining standards of education. There is a clear link with poor levels of literacy and the advent of computer games, seemingly 24 hour children’s TV and movies available instantly on DVD. It seems that a culture of instant gratification has deprived today’s children of the ability to think for themselves and to be able to write and spell correctly. They just sit there and consume. And our respondents were quick to mention how this couch potato behaviour has also led to the growing problem of obesity in our schools.

As for discipline in schools, many of our ’60- somethings believe it to be non-existent. Many teenagers are seen to be seriously out of control both at school and in the wider community. Few teachers or members of the public are brave — or foolish — enough to stand up to either a swaggering teenager with his feet on the seats of a train or a group of louts spraying graffiti on a park bench for fear of a serious mugging.

And finally, the lack of appropriate role models for today’s teenagers appears to create a huge problem. Wayne Rooney, for example, whose behaviour on and off the pitch is seen as lacking in integrity, not to mention charm, comes in for widespread criticism.

Money, Money, Money

Our respondents felt that a renewed culture of materialism, fuelled by advertising and easy access to credit, is making matters worse. They confirm that savings and pensions are already a very low priority for their children because they have first-hand experience of the current shortfall. And they comment that the prevailing culture of instant gratification is creating a double pressure on their children.

On the one hand their children want everything now. On the other they can see how their grandchildren also want everything now. And this is the real worry for our respondents, that the prevailing spend, spend, spend trend is exacerbating the culture of materialism with the next generation, their grandchildren. With spiralling house prices and burgeoning credit card debt, does there have to be a final day of reckoning?

What’s the Answer?

Paradoxically, far from feeling that the younger generation ‘have-it-all’, many of our respondents expressed a genuine empathy for them. They understand why two incomes are necessary for most households and acknowledge that it’s actually much tougher to survive in today’s world than it was 30-40 years ago.

Comments like these were common throughout the groups we held:

‘The average household cannot survive on one income… our kids are much more constrained than we were, they have a lot less freedom…’

‘Making your way in the world is more difficult now… it’s a different world… it’s harder to find and keep a job.’

In light of this, do our interviewees really see working women as the cause of all the perceived ills of modern society? Do they advocate a return to the values of the 1950s, where women stay at home and play a traditional role once again? Certainly not!

Ironically, when asked to describe their world and their values, the key images they use to describe both revolve around quality of life, holidays and travel, good food and wine, music… In other words, the material things they have criticised their children for wanting. So maybe they’ve passed on the values of materialism to the younger generation? Maybe the disconnect between the older and younger generations actually started with them and their parents as a backlash to post-war austerity? Certainly not, again!

The fault lies fairly and squarely at the doors of successive governments, banks and credit card companies, ‘namby-pamby liberalism’ and the ‘PC Brigade’.

There is a feeling within our older generation that an underlying vein of political correctness has led not only to the decline in standards of behaviour, but also a lack of clear distinctions between right and wrong amongst the young. In a culture where little account is taken of older people’s views (what happened to political correctness here?) they view the future for their grandchildren with great pessimism.