The Consequences of Opting Out: Why We All Have a Role to Play in Society

I have been thinking a lot lately about why we are so apathetic in Northern Ireland. Practically every public service is on its knees and getting worse, but all we can manage is a collective shrug of the shoulders (see Why are we so apathetic about our collapsing Health Service?)

One issue that does not get enough attention is how the people who make the decisions tend to be least affected by the decisions. Take yesterday’s demonstration against the shameful Education Authority cuts to youth services like homework clubs and youth clubs.

Was anyone actually in the EA building to hear the protest? Or were the people who make the decisions working from home and oblivious to it all?

The great untold story of the Troubles was how cocooned many of our middle class were. The violence was concentrated mainly in a few key areas like North and West Belfast and Derry. If you had a decent job, you could live a great life in South Belfast or North Down and not be affected at all. More than that, the Troubles actually made life easier for the middle classes: it kept house prices down, and we generally had a lower cost of living than the rest of the UK. The middle class had excellent Grammar schools for their kids and even free University places.

An economist once told me that a BMW dealership here had the highest sales figures in Europe. Our public sector had the same pay rates as the rest of the UK, but the lower cost of living meant that quite a few people here had a high disposable income and could easily afford luxury German cars and foreign holidays. Even now, you still see an abnormal amount of BMWs on our roads, mostly driven by impatient entitled people.

So we have a history of the middle classes closing the curtains when times get tough. But this trend has only been accentuated lately as society gets ever more privatised. All over the western capitalist world individualism is growing. People are less involved in groups and clubs, they are going out less and spending more time at home.

If you have teenagers you know the problem is not trying to get them home at a reasonable hour, but getting them to leave the house at all. From the Washington Post:

According to the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey, the amount of time the average American spent with friends was stable, at 6½ hours per week, between 2010 and 2013. Then, in 2014, time spent with friends began to decline.

By 2019, the average American was spending only four hours per week with friends (a sharp, 37 percent decline from five years before). Social media, political polarization and new technologies all played a role in the drop. (It is notable that market penetration for smartphones crossed 50 percent in 2014.)

Covid then deepened this trend. During the pandemic, time with friends fell further — in 2021, the average American spent only two hours and 45 minutes a week with close friends (a 58 percent decline relative to 2010-2013).

Similar declines can be seen even when the definition of “friends” is expanded to include neighbors, co-workers and clients. The average American spent 15 hours per week with this broader group of friends a decade ago, 12 hours per week in 2019 and only 10 hours a week in 2021.

On average, Americans did not transfer that lost time to spouses, partners or children. Instead, they chose to be alone.

The percentage decline is also similar for the young and old; however, given how much time young people spend with friends, the absolute decline among Americans age 15 to 19 is staggering. Relative to 2010-2013, the average American teenager spent approximately 11 fewer hours with friends each week in 2021 (a 64 percent decline) and 12 additional hours alone (a 48 percent increase).

I don’t have data for us but I imagine it would show a similar trend.

Newton Emerson has been having similar thoughts. Writing in Thursday’s Irish News:

The pandemic has certainly laid a path for public fatalism but an older phenomenon is also recognisable.

Northern Ireland’s comfortable classes are retreating from the political fray, as they did during the Troubles, to concentrate on looking after themselves.

Self-absorbed suburban banality was the typical experience of life during the Troubles, a fact often noted with amazement by outside observers. It has been largely forgotten because history is only interested in protagonists and nothing could be less fashionable than the survival strategies of the provincial bourgeoisie.

This society has an extraordinary capacity to endure a crisis but it does so by drawing the blinds and turning away, leaving the worst-affected to their fate. You could still be unlucky during the Troubles, of course, but people believed they could protect themselves by disengagement, respectability and a little bit of affluence.

That protection was not just from violence but from any material or psychological disturbance to a nice, normal life.

Although the Troubles are not coming back, their middle class coping mechanism could easily return as public services fall apart. People will quietly turn en masse to private medicine: medical insurance is fast becoming a standard perk of professional jobs here. School fees will arrive, one way or another. The potential for private security as policing numbers shrink is intriguing and ominous.

A resilient job market will provide a sense of protection from bad luck.

There will be respectable sympathy for the unfortunate but little empathy: they can always get a job, or a better job; they should stop voting for parties that cannot agree; we are now paying insurance and tax, so why pay more tax?

Once Northern Ireland gets into this way of thinking, it can get stuck in it for a very long time.

During the summer we took a day trip out to Seapark beach in Holywood. While junior paddled in the water I looked out over Belfast Lough towards North Belfast. It struck me that I was sitting in the richest part of Northern Ireland gazing over at the poorest part of Northern Ireland but North Belfast might as well be on Mars for all the thought our rulers give it.

In a way, I don’t blame people. If I was not involved with Slugger I would probably try my best to ignore it all as well. I have written many times before about how depressing I find the news. When the world gets overwhelming it is a natural response to go inward and shut out the noise. During winter I have been going to bed early at 9:30. Being under the warm duvet reading my kindle is the perfect relief to a particularly depressing winter.

BUT reality has a way of bursting your bubble. The African Ubuntu philosophy advocates the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity, or in simple terms, we are all in this together. Stepping over the beggar on your way into the shopping arcade does somewhat spoil the experience. A night out in Belfast city centre is marred by the number of drug addicts roaming around. It is hard to fully embrace your life of middle-class bliss when the media is full of endless reports about people too skint to put the heating on or the increasing demands on foodbanks.

So the lesson for all those in positions of power is while it is tempting to stick your fingers in your ears and go “la la la,” eventually the misery will seep in. You are because we are.

 may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
… You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down


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