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Algora Publishing - The affluent white sons of two working parents are becoming the new underclass
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Tuesday,
The affluent white sons of two working parents are becoming the new underclass
The main risk for British children, it said, was that their selfish parents were too busy chasing their own success. The culture of individual fulfilment for adults was making the lot of children much less happy than a generation or two ago.
The Financial Times

By Lucy Kellaway

Published: February 9 2009 02:00 | Last updated: February 9 2009 02:00

During my son's first year at secondary school, I was invited to the annual prizegiving ceremony. This was not much fun as it involved 90 minutes of uninterrupted, indiscriminate applause for other people's children.

In the course of it, I noticed that most of the academic prizes were being won by Chinese and Indian children in neat uniforms who were being videoed by proud parents. There were a few Jewish boys who seemed to be netting some trophies but the Wasp contingent was not getting much, save a handful of prizes for art. These boys sloped up to the stage in their tatty blazers, with long hair flapping while their cultured parents clapped indulgently.

Weeks later, I was invited to a more exclusive do at the same school. It was "by invitation only", designed for parents whose sons were dispatching their homework in five minutes on the bus or who were generally being a pain in the backside.

Cursing at having to leave work early, I showed up at the school to find that all the other mothers looked uncannily like me. They were almost all white, professional, middle-class women with that hunted look that comes from having cut short work in order to receive a bollocking on behalf of one's child.

What I learnt from the evening (apart from the fact that my boy needed to apply himself a great deal harder) was that at this highly selective, inner London school the affluent white sons of two working parents are becoming the new underclass. At the time, this did not bother me unduly. The Asian kids deserved to do better than my son because they work harder. It's a cultural thing, I decided airily. Their parents push their children harder than I push mine. And if, as a result, kids such as mine don't get prizes and sometimes get told off for being lazy, it doesn't really matter because at least they seem perfectly happy.

This thought, which had been giving me solace these last two years, was rudely overturned last week. On Monday The Children's Society published a report based on interviews with 35,000 people in Britain that concluded children such as mine may not be as happy as they should be.

The main risk for British children, it said, was that their selfish parents were too busy chasing their own success. The culture of individual fulfilment for adults was making the lot of children much less happy than a generation or two ago.

The report caused a storm in the British media last week - just as one would have expected. Social conservatives crowed in agreement: we should roll the clocks back to the 1950s, they said, when everyone lived in nuclear families and women baked cakes and everyone was happy. The social liberals, meanwhile, flew into a rage - female columnists protested that our children are happy (my old argument), and tried to rip the report apart, closing their ears to what they claimed was preachy nonsense.

Though I don't like the conclusion any more than they do, I can't dismiss it quite so conveniently. Usually I try to ignore things that damn working mothers, on the grounds that guilt is uncomfortable and unhelpful, but this time there was a word in the report that has lodged itself in my mind and won't go away. That word was selfish.

Odd though it might seem, it had never occurred to me that working was selfish. If we work hard, it is to make money, and because work is stretching and stimulating, which can't be bad. Sneaking off to have a manicure instead of grilling fish fingers is selfish, but toiling over the computer is not.

But then I think of those mothers in saris filming their award-winning sons. Their ambitions are not for themselves but for their children. (Quite possibly such pressure brings problems of its own, but that's another question.) The hunted mothers at the bollocking night, by comparison, showed up at the school with their minds full of their own jobs and concerns, so that each boy's hopeless performance was just another tiresome thing to have to deal with.

Recognising this uncomfortable truth ladles on the guilt. Yet the guilt I've carried since Monday has felt quite bracing; like a roll in the snow that was lying thickly that morning on the roof outside the office window.

A friend with a senior management job felt so braced after reading the study that she seized her diary and marked out more time to spend with her children when she would otherwise have been doggedly e-mailing. The following evening, she was due to go to a seminar, which would have been another opportunity to show off her considerable intellect and be admired for it. Instead she cut the seminar and took her eight-year-old daughter to the public swimming bath for her weekly lesson, stood in the beastly changing room and ran a comb through her wet, matted hair.

I haven't been to the public baths or seized my diary, and I'm not necessarily urging you to seize yours. I am not planning to stop working and start baking cakes. Life remains a succession of uneasy compromises, but this report has slightly changed the way I think, and may - though tests have shown this is easier said than done - change the way I behave at the margin.

In that spirit, I am going to stop tinkering happily with this column. I am going to do something more difficult and less rewarding: find my son and see if I can cajole, force or bribe him to learn the past tense of avoir and être .

lucy.kellaway@ft.com Read and post comments online at www.ft.com/kellaway

The affluent white sons of two working parents are becoming the new underclass