Was it only eighteen months ago that the world was living in a state of Covid anxiety without a war in Ukraine, England’s Queen was delivering messages commending people on their stoicism, Boris Johnson was glorifying his Brexit strategy and Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg were receiving praise in Australia for their big-spending JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments?
Homeowners and buyers across the Western world were blithely enjoying the benefits of historically low interest rates. The costs of energy were manageable for most and inflation was still regarded as the economic beast of the 1970s that had been subdued for ever by the mid-1990s.
Roger Federer was about to play at Wimbledon and neither he nor Serena Williams were hinting of retiring. Apparently, Serena is still reluctant to utter the “r” word!
Suddenly, the world seems to have moved into a new political and social orbit. Many transitions are having to be made: some have been chosen, some have been thrust upon us.
Covid-19 is now regarded as a “scourge of the past”, even though it lingers and menaces to varying degrees. Such was its effect that we have already begun to talk about the ‘pre’ and ‘post’ Covid worlds. Many are still suffering from its physical toll; all have been affected by the changes it has wrought to our working and social lives. A post-Covid economy and workforce has emerged, where the working imperative has been tempered by a desire for flexible working arrangements and a less slavish devotion to the imperatives of the office.
Education has forever been changed by Covid and there will be no transitioning back to the future. The pandemic struck just as there seemed to be a growing recognition that students needed to reduce their dependence of computers to better develop skills of individual thought and research; however, Covid-19 has made students more dependent on their devices than ever. Schoolteachers have had to move into an educational half-way house: lesson content must be permanently recorded on learning platforms that provide students with the ability to “look up the lesson later.” Teachers are left struggling to convince their students that immediate engagement with material to dissect its nuances is important.
Even more worryingly, long periods of lockdown seem to have made students even more aware of the diversions , especially sports betting and inane social media content, that phones and computers can offer. Extrinsic stimulation by devices seems to have triumphed in the post-Covid world over the intrinsic motivation to learn.
Statistics can mislead, but recent information suggesting that most Year 9 Australian students are writing at a level expected in Year 7 and 85% are using punctuation at a Year 3 level are telling. The latest dire information is that one in nine Australian male teenagers are unable to read at a basic standard. A third of Indigenous teenagers-girls and boys- are functionally illiterate. The democratic contribution that State education has made to increased social opportunity has also stalled with the gap in educational achievement between teenagers from affluent and poor families widening.
Are adults any better at communicating? Recent research in Australia has shown that the 'millennials' are not comfortable with impromptu conversations in the office, preferring that fellow workers e-mail them with notice of their intention to have an unscheduled conversation. Visited a bank lately? If you have, the absurdity of modern social interaction is apparent. Customers are charged for interacting with a teller, but not for using an automatic machine.
A tax on talking if you will, which is a far more insidious development than the concept of daylight robbery when landowners were taxed in England in the nineteenth century on the number of windows in their home!
Civilised discourse is increasingly elusive. Political and social debates are conducted by tribal armies sheltering in their preferred Instagram or Twitter bunker. Rhetoric is exaggerated. Complex issues are shamelessly simplified. The more extreme the vitriol the ‘better.’ The terrifying attack on the husband of America’s Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, speaks of a society dismissive of democratic and restrained behaviour. Our legal system struggles to maintain the presumption of innocence amidst the onslaught of unsolicited media commentary on cases.
Other certitudes are under siege. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy seems to be a moment whose time has come. Unfortunately, it has come at a time of global energy shortages, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The result? Soaring energy prices in developed countries with increases of up to 50% and more predicted in England and Australia. The inflation dragon which must be slayed has had extra fire added to its breath with the energy price crisis.
The lessons of history are clear. If the economic foundations start to weaken, the strength of democratic structures are also diminished. Ironically, the generation most determined to see Western economies rapidly switch to renewable energy are those experiencing one of the toughest transitions of all. The under 35s are the generation fearing that they will experience lower living standards than generations past and that they are condemned to chasing an impossible dream of home ownership. Despite major political parties around the world endorsing changes in energy policy, this is also the generation most disaffected with the political process, with record numbers of voters indicating their lack of allegiance to major parties.
There is a hostile generation out there seeking to distance themselves from the directions of their parents and punish them for their perceived sins.
The stability of the world’s democracies would not give this generation reason to be reassured. Brazil is deeply divided after its Presidential election between an extremist incumbent and a victorious former President, once imprisoned, later acquitted of corruption charges. Teacher and transport strikes continue in France. Germany records its first trade deficit in eons. America’s mid-term elections loom with the prospect of President Biden’s Democratic Party losing its legislative majority in the Congress. Israel is having its fifth election in three years and the Danes are going to the polls: neither country has confidence that there will be a clear outcome.
Not that those living in democracies would want the crushing certainty of China’s system of government which has just renewed their leader’s “lifetime” mandate of authority.
Energy policy failures and/or division have arguably claimed the scalps of six Australian Prime Ministers- Howard, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull, and Morrison in the last fifteen years. Energy policy and/or policies on how to react to rising energy prices have seen England have two Prime Minister in barely over two months.
More certitudes come crashing down. The children of Empire have struck back. The elevation of Rishi Sunak sees No.10 Downing Street occupied by the first Prime Minister of Asian background. Rishi’s Indian parents emigrated from Africa and adopting Thatcherite principles of hard work and responsibility established a pharmacy in Southampton and sent their son, born in Thatcher’s first full year of office in 1980, to England’s elite Winchester College.
The rest is Oxford and Stanford University, Hedge Fund Manager and Westminster history. For someone who grew up seeing England’s empire immigrants being mercilessly satirised and degraded – I remember the TV Show ‘On the Buses’ and Tony Greig, a former English cricket captain, telling the Indian cricket captain in the mid-1980s on television not to be too upset about a loss and “to go home and have a nice curry and cheer up"- this is no ordinary changing of the guard, even if the meme creators could still find some humour.
Speaking of captains of sporting teams, there was a time when they were simply thrilled to be playing. Now, sporting captains around the world seem compelled to offer their editorial opinions on all environmental, social and political matters. My generation saw community protest and health concerns deprive Benson and Hedges of the opportunity to sponsor cricket matches and Marlboro the Australian Open. Now it is the players themselves declaring what types of financial support are acceptable to them. Many are prepared to openly bite the hand that feeds them.
And then there is the ongoing debate about the rights of men transitioning to women to participate in female sporting competitions, which Joe Biden waded into recently. At Australia's premier racing carnival this weekend the winner of the unisex Fashions on the Field was a man transitioning to a woman. Who knows? Maybe we have to accept that everything and anything goes?
Thankfully, some certainties remain.
Australia’s new Labor government recently announced its first Budget and displayed the callow understanding of economics we have learned to expect from most left of centre governments.
Whilst outlining Australia’s fundamental structural economic problem- we are spending more than we are earning- the Treasurer blithely announced new expenditures in the very areas where he identified runaway budgetary problems- health, defence, and National Disability Insurance Spending. These new expenditures were announced alongside a predicted decline in economic growth, continuing falls in real wages and rising unemployment.
Ah, the triumph of wishful thinking over reality. It is a special kind of government that espouses its special care for people whilst condemning them to further financial bondage to a reckless spending State.
Hold onto your hats- it may well be a bumpy ride! We don’t even have the elan and dash of Roger to distract us at the forthcoming end of year Men’s tennis championships in Turin. Meanwhile the Women’s tennis season is ending with its end of year tournament in Fort Worth, Texas. The former home of Martina Navratilova when she lived with Dallas beauty queen, Judy Nelson, Fort Worth, and the rest of Texas would no longer be seen by many as the home of female emancipation and equality.
Like so much in the world at present, explanation, logic and compelling personnel seem to be missing!