Justice, Genes and Welfare: Are Intergenerational relationships toxic?

Francis Thirlway reports on the BSA Family Studies Group and Youth Studies Group Seminar “Justice, Genes and Welfare: Are Intergenerational relationships toxic?” (28 Nov 2013):

Intergenerational relations increasingly seem to be called into question in contemporary society, highlighted as centrally implicated in some of its key ills. For example, the topic of intergenerational justice has been the focus of a slew of popular and political publications, contending that the ‘baby boomer’ generation has skewed the allocation of economic, social and cultural resources in its own favour and left younger generations immersed in debt and facing a perilous future.Early years policy reports pose parenting as formative in babies’ brain architecture, hard wiring future (anti)social behaviour and empathetic (in)abilities, as well as shaping the genetic inheritance that passes down through the generations. And ideas about cycles of deprivation, transmitted disadvantage and intergenerational cultures of poverty and worklessness are a recurrent feature of political pronouncements, where low aspirations and benefit dependency are alleged to be passed down in families and communities.

These ideas were explored in a BSA seminar at London South Bank University on 28 November 2013. Jonathan White (LSE) spoke about the rise of generationalism – the systematic appeal to the concept of generation for narrating the social and political – and questioned whether it is a helpful way of addressing contemporary problems. Susie Weller (LSBU) and Ros Edwards (University of Southampton) presented material from a qualitative longitudinal study of young people’s relationships with their siblings, which challenged the idea of the competitive, selfish individual, drawing attention in particular to children’s aspirations for their parents’ future over time. Val Gillies (LSBU), Nicola Horsley (LSBU) and Ros Edwards (University of Southampton) described their recent research into the use of popularised neuroscience to inform ‘early intervention’ programmes,  memorably referencing Niklas Rose on  the ‘blobology’ that claims that an area of the brain is the location for this or that human mental state (Rose 2013), and highlighting pressing concerns about the classed and gendered nature of ‘early intervention’ programmes which conflate poverty with poor parenting. Tracy Shildrick (University of Leeds) described her fruitless hunt for the mythical ‘three generations of worklessness’ in deprived areas of Middlesbrough and Glasgow, finding instead strong pro-work attitudes across families, genders and generations. Eldin Fahmy (University of Bristol) charted the development of cultural transmission theories in UK social policy, from notions of ‘transmitted deprivation’ in the the 1970s to the current ‘Troubled Families’ unit, before looking at data from the 2012 UK Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey to consider what light these data shed on the cultural transmission hypothesis and alternative explanations for the persistence of poverty across generations in the UK today. A concluding review of the state of intergenerational relationships was given by the Chair for the day, Jane Pilcher (University of Leicester).

Francis Thirlwy is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Postgraduate Associate of the Centre for Medical Humanities and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing

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