We Europeans

Family is one of the most elemental components of identity, even if it is going out of fashion – or has already gone out of fashion – in many parts of Europe, particularly the countries and cultures of the European North and West. Stockholm has the highest percentage of single-person households of any European capital, while there is also plenty of evidence that family ties have been breaking down in the UK.

At the turn of the millennium Britain looked like being a prime European example of the collapse of the nuclear family. A survey by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research in 2006 noted that only 64 per cent of 15-year-old British boys ate dinner with their families, compared with 93 per cent of Italians of the same age. A later study indicated that 70 per cent of British working-age women held down a job, so the blame might lie on both sides, children and parents.

The same 2006 survey concluded that young Britons were the worst behaved in Europe, spending less time with their parents, and drinking and fighting more. It also opined that British youths’ tendency to focus their relationships on their peers, rather than adults, was robbing them of basic social skills. In the UK, 45 per cent of 15-year-old boys spent most of their evenings out with friends, compared with 17 per cent of French kids: supper round the table with the family was the least popular venue of all (potato crisps in front of the telly was more likely).

Alan Walker, a British professor of social gerontology, calls intergenerational relations “the basic building block of all cohesive societies.” Unfortunately, this building block needs cementing in Britain. According to the Parentline Plus NGO, many British parents are regularly threatened and abused by their own children …

A UNESCO survey in 2007 looked at the relative “happiness” rates of 21 countries in terms of five parameters: material well-being, family and peer relationships, health and safety, behaviour and risks, and own sense of wellbeing. The Netherlands came top of the list and Britain bottom (see below). A subsequent UK Government report placed the responsibility largely on parents’ shoulders, adding that Britain was too competitive and selfish a society

1. Netherlands

2. Sweden

3. Denmark

4. Finland

5. Spain

6. Switzerland

7. Norway

8. Italy

9. Republic of Ireland

10. Belgium

11. Germany

12. Canada

13. Greece

14. Poland

15. Czech Republic

16. France

17. Portugal

18. Austria

19. Hungary

20. United States

21. United Kingdom

Source: UNICEF

‘ Bycomparison ‘the Netherlands has always been a very child-centred society,” says Paul Vangeert, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Groningen. “In particular, there is a lot of focus on young children.” Much of this, he says, comes from the relationship with their parents, also the fact that less pressure is put on them at school. Children are used to a “highly protective, highly positive caring environment.” Relations are generally good between parents and children, and they can talk about almost anything …

In 2009, the situation in the UK prompted a survey by the Children’s Society into the status of family life. Its conclusions: “In Britain, 70 per cent of mothers of nine- to 12-month-old babies now do some paid work. This compares with only 25 per cent 25 years ago – a massive change in our way of life.” Also, “as a result of family break-up, a third of our 16-year-olds now live apart from their biological fathers.”

So the causes of the recent UK troubles have deep roots, calling for a ‘bottom up’ approach and no quick fixes.

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