The family is the original safety net. But, for many of us, it's just not there any more

I was depressed by Monday night’s Newsnight – so depressed in fact that I could not bear to watch more than a few minutes of the opening item. The subject was the pensions crisis. How are we all going to pay for our old age, given that our pension funds are not going to be able to manage it? Once upon a time investments could be counted on to rise; the same was true of government bonds; as for our savings, these bring back a miserable return. So – who is going to pay?

Old age pensions have had but a brief heyday: they started with the Liberal government of 1906, which perhaps inaugurated the social democratic moment. That is now fading fast, even before our eyes. But if the state does not provide, who does?

This reminds me of a conversation I had once with a Maasai in the Ngong Hills.

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“Is it true that in your country, when you go to the doctor, it is free?” he asked me.

Yes, it was true, I replied.

“Is it true that in your country when you go to school, you do not have to pay fees?” he asked.

Again, I assured him this was true. And I then explained about unemployment benefit and subsidised housing. I assured him that I was not having him on. He was amazed by the generosity of the British government. In Kenya, after all, one paid for everything, though primary education had recently been made free.

“British people must be very happy and very grateful,” was his conclusion.

In fact, I told him that the welfare state had not led to a huge upsurge in national happiness. In more or less every way Kenyans were more happy than Brits, as far as I could see. There is questionable research into happiness levels, but it is generally agreed that some quite suprising places are very happy. Kenya is one of them. So is Nigeria.

But where does this leave us? In the end, when the state fails, we have to go back to what we had before the state, namely the family. That is our original safety net, and the family precedes the state in every way. In Kenya it is the family that looks after you; true, very sadly, in some parts of northern Kenya, people starve to death, and there is much want all over Kenya: but all Kenyans know that in the last resort their relatives (quite distant relatives too) will always share their final crust of bread with them.

What makes the British situation worrying and depressing is that this family safety net is simply not there for so many of us. Many old people now live alone – something that was once more or less unheard of, or at least very unusual. Many family ties are strained to breaking point. People live atomic lives, not lives in family communities.

How did this happen? The answer would require considerable historical research, but that it has happened is surely beyond doubt. And that it is a bad thing is surely equally beyond doubt, though not all want to face this. True, some family structures were stifling, but the truth remains: the family is the natural unit that underpins human flourishing, and we need to rebuild family life. Without it, we are sunk; there has never been a good society without strong families. All wicked societies have done their best to undermine and destroy families.

So what can we do to promote the family, and specifically get children to look after their parents in old age? Any ideas?

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