Did you know that British schoolchildren are having an existential crisis? You might have missed it, but a huge global survey by the OECD of 15 year-olds across 79 countries was published last week, in which UK young people placed second-to-last in the world in what they call the ‘meaning in life index’.
That’s right, of all the teenagers on the planet, ours are among the least likely to agree with the idea that “my life has clear meaning or purpose”.
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And yet, this unsettling news was pretty much ignored. The focus in the media was on the survey’s news about ‘modest improvements’ in reading and maths. The meaning of life stuff was left well alone.
The same survey suggested that the UK’s young people, while being in the middle of the pack in terms of happiness, also rank near the very bottom in terms of life satisfaction. Of all the countries surveyed, only the children of Turkey and the Macao region of China rate their life less highly than the British do.
It seems that what the researchers themselves refer to as eudaimonia, the philosophical concept of human flourishing that the ancient Greeks considered to be the highest and most worthy, is in short supply among British young people. This feels like it might be worth thinking about.
Perhaps the commentariat ignored the research because these big philosophical questions don’t make easy news stories. The whole question of meaning is now considered entirely private — it’s almost rude to mention in public.
It is also interwoven with religion, which makes it an even less appetising subject for liberal-minded debate. The top of the OECD rankings are filled with more religious countries, and the UK is now one of the most secular countries in the world. Many people would no doubt think that a dose of existential lostness in your teens is a price worth paying for being liberated from arbitrary superstition. Where would you rather bring up your children, after all: Catholic Panama and Muslim Albania, at the top of the ‘meaning in life’ index, or secular Sweden and the Netherlands, towards the bottom?
Others might argue that the real reasons for juvenile emptiness might be related to practical concerns about what the future holds for them: difficulties of getting on the housing ladder, surviving in the gig economy and anxiety about Brexit.
But while all these may be contributing factors, it is hard to avoid the sense that there is a wider crisis of meaning in our late modern society, and that the UK is particularly exposed. Already since the Brexit vote, hard-to-pin-down abstract nouns like identity, culture, community and belonging have forced their way into the political debate. If this report is right, ‘meaning in life’ could be next.
There are already energetic movements such as Extinction Rebellion which advocate thinking radically differently about how to organise our society, with less focus on economic growth and a greater attention on the Common Good and overall human flourishing.
Even to refer to the Good in this way is still considered edgy. A central premise of Aristotle’s ethics was that eudaimonia is the highest good, the end point that needs no secondary justification. But it’s telling that the OECD report’s authors felt they had justify this area of questioning with reference to secondary effects: kids who have a greater sense of meaning in life are apparently less likely to play truant and more likely to succeed in reading and maths. As if they were the more important goals.
I think there’s a similar leap that has yet to be made in our politics. Part of the reason that the response to the Brexit vote has been so woeful is that politicians lacked the understanding or vocabulary to respond to the deeper, more inchoate aspects of people’s motivation. It takes a rare kind of leader who has the vision, and moral authority, to address these questions convincingly — clearly, none of our current crop of politicians are interested.
To give them their due, both Labour and the Conservatives have at least understood the need to bolster regional and local culture and empowerment in the UK, which is a good start. Looking down the ‘meaning in life’ rankings, once you get past the predominantly Catholic and Muslim-majority countries at the top of the list, you soon arrive at Switzerland and Austria. These are both European countries comparable to ours, which are only slightly more religious, and yet 71% of their 15-year-olds say they have discovered a satisfactory meaning in life, compared with just 52% of ours. It seems fair to speculate that their famously strong national, regional and local cultures play a part in giving their children a strong sense of place as they grow into adulthood.
Strong culture doesn’t necessarily mean homogenous — Austria has a higher level of immigration than the UK, but rather like neighbouring Bavaria, its prominent local customs can make it easier rather than harder to assimilate newcomers. The OECD report actually singles out the UK as a country in which “students with an immigrant background were much more likely to report a greater sense of meaning in life than their native-born counterparts”. A combination of greater religiosity and stronger immigrant cultures seems a likely explanation.
Beyond religion and culture, there are other, equally controversial, areas that we should look at if we think this is a problem worth addressing: the damaging impact of technology and the internet, how values are taught in our schools, and how to better support families. Labour have now actively signalled their opposition to pro-family policies, and Boris Johnson steers well clear of family values, for his own delicate reasons. But absent religious faith or a stronger wider culture, the family is still the primary provider of meaning in life, and Britain has a high level of family breakdown: 28.5% of British 12-17 year olds live with only one parent, the third highest in Europe and nearly twice that of Switzerland.
Aristotle thought that eudaimonia was intimately connected to arete, or virtue — another word I don’t think we’ve heard once in this election campaign. Don’t hold your breath. Whoever wins on Thursday, the small matter of the meaning of life looks set, for now, to remain off limits.