I have been trying to find some words of Margaret Thatcher from the 1980s which I remember as being the only thing I could relate to in the commonly-called ‘yuppie’ era. It had to do, I seem to remember, with the traditional family unit and how it was being broken up. I’m not totally sure, but I think it also referred to families not sharing the same dinner table much. I’ve never been able to track this comment down, and now wonder whether it was just a figment of my imagination.
Actually, although I disagreed with much of what was done in the name of a Conservative ideal back then, (Elvis Costello’s Tramp the Dirt Down on his 1989 album Spike embodies some remarkable caustic sentiments of the time) I did agree with the idea that we had to be prepared for change in our families and things could not simply stay the same as our lives were changing. Indeed, it is true, that the introduction of many easily-prepared meals for children meant nursery teas were far more common, rather than families eating together. But also, (Mc)food which children could consume without knife and fork meant that the ‘table’, as such, became less of a ritual. I can still remember taking ten year olds away on school residentials and being disheartened at how many simply had not concept of sitting at a table, let alone holding a knife and fork.
It may sound arrogant or picky, but it could be argued that the family unit is less coherent than it used to be, along with all that it entailed, including learning to respect elders and nurturing a caring attitude towards them. Generalisations are easy to make, I know, but we do seem to have a generation of adults, some of whom, unless there is a huge sea change, may not ever take a responsibility towards their older relatives seriously. Everybody, it seems, is out for what they can get and cannot be bothered looking too far into the future. Consequently, the older generations in this country do not receive the respect and dignity that they deserve, and are treated, even by some professionals, as second-class citizens.
I speak empirically, but what I have seen has done nothing to alleviate my concern. I see professions which should value wisdom brushing it away in the name of innovation and enterprise, I see care workers sourced from low attainers at school who have little notion of how to relate to human beings, I see a service-sector which does not even try to understand confusion with technology… People are impatient and intolerant, and, throughout the lifespan, we have several different sectors now, each with its own unique expectations and needs. No longer is it just adults and children – there are several classes of adults.
A lot of this is a by-product of the tendency we have had to isolate different generations from each other, and the practice is continuing as a natural progression of society. However, we are also not dumping our conceptions quickly enough, perhaps. The nuclear family unit, as such, is not necessarily the norm any more. Plenty of children today are being brought up in changing familial circumstances, with paternal and maternal roles not necessarily being the norm. We have a tendency to be nostalgic (because marketing tells us to) about a simpler time, but we blot out the negative and only remember the positive. Family units have always differed, and what matters are values, not physical structure. One thing the ‘nuclear family’, as epitomised by the Ladybird Keyword Reading Scheme books of the 60s, did was define roles clearly within an expected structure where even the visit of grandparents were viewed as a special event. Today, in many households, it is grandparent who is responsible for the children whilst parent holds down a job. Whether this will engender more respect for older people remains to be seen.