The schools are closed for the holidays and morning rush hour traffic in the suburbs has dwindled. Traffic reports herald this blessed relief.
Driving kids to school, and clogging up roads, is a relatively new thing. Our household is at it too on occasion. Indeed, sometimes it’s the only way of getting them into school at all.
However, the school-travel trends are marked. According to the census, in 1981, 21 per cent of primary and 8 per cent of secondary students were driven to school. By 2016, 62 per cent of primary-school kids and 41 per cent of secondary students were driven to school.
This sharp rise can only partly be explained by deficiencies in public transport, and suggests a more substantial societal shift.
Could the individually wrapped child, trussed up in the car seat and shielded from danger from morning till night, turn out to be a too-fragile creature unable to deal with the cut-and-thrust of a new hypercompetitive jobs market?
That market is changing rapidly and in years to come attitude, rather than qualifications or credentials, will have a significant impact on an individual’s career prospects. So, faced with a less certain world, do Irish children and teenagers need more protection; or more exposure to real life, exposure that will help them build resilience to the ups and downs that come with life?
Such a big question should be examined in the burgeoning field of behavioural economics, but is rarely explored there. Fiction writers, on the other hand, have not shied away from the subject – and these days, TV is where you’ll find some of the best fiction writing.
The Netflix series Black Mirror deals regularly with the impact of technology on society. In an episode called Archangel, an anxious mother, terrified after having briefly lost her kid in a suburban park, avails of new nanotechnology that allows her to insert a microchip into her daughter.
The chip allows her to track where her daughter is at all times, to see the world through her daughter’s eyes and to block out unpleasant experiences that might unsettle the fragile child. This is mollycoddling squared, the child swaddled in surveillance technology.
Not surprisingly, the TV episode ends traumatically, but in the real world there’s also a danger that excessive parental protection will affect children negatively later on.
In today’s economy, “projects” rather than “careers” are becoming the norm, and short-term gigs are replacing permanent jobs. According to a recent survey by Red C for the National Youth Council of Ireland, 47 per cent of Irish workers under 29 – 170,000 people – are on temporary contracts.
Only 10 years ago, the largest companies in Ireland were banks, offering careers, status, and stability. Bank employees were traditionally secure. Today, working in a bank must be one of the most vulnerable places to be. The days when you could get a job for life, at the same company while gradually climbing the corporate ladder, are largely over.
The world of work is becoming hypercompetitive, and the children who will inhabit that world need to learn to stand on their own two feet. They will have to deal with upset and develop coping mechanisms for a globalised world, where personal opportunism may be the key determinant of success.
Most significantly, workers will have to understand risk and workers’ attitudes to risk will be of paramount importance in this future. When permanent and pensionable jobs were the norm, a significant amount of economic and financial risk was carried by the employer. The risk pendulum is swinging away from employers and back to employees.
In this world, sole traders will live on their wits, selling their services in a competitive market where their work is reviewed and rated like a restaurant on TripAdvisor.
So, what does this have to do with protected children being driven to school? It’s all about risk appetite and the understanding that we can’t be protected from risk.
Children learn through trial and error. The child who is allowed to make mistakes remains curious and open, and might therefore be the one better equipped for life.
Look again at the clogged suburban roads of Ireland. Think of the parent who drives the child to school. That parent might be doing so for practical timesaving or financial reasons, or because their school bus has been cancelled but the effect of the driving is to minimise the risk the child faces.
If overprotection is carried to other areas of their life, it might stunt the child’s capacity to meet failure and unpredictability head on.
One of the most harrowing aspects of the recession was seeing contemporaries, many of whom had little capacity to deal with shock, being laid off. Their resources had been committed to eliminating risk from their lives, playing office politics, and climbing up the corporate ladder.
But risk cannot be eliminated (if it could, the insurance industry wouldn’t exist), and running away from risk doesn’t make us more secure; it makes us more vulnerable when the unexpected happens.
As the economy becomes more globalised, random events will happen with greater frequency because they will come from more directions. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg had any idea last week that his company’s market value would fall by $75 billion in a matter of days?
The ability to stay standing in the face of economic, commercial or financial adversity depends on flexibility and robustness. And those are things we learn at a young age.