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Friday, July 25, 2003

The Age of Innocence?

Going back in time to a point Eddie once made about his children:

My kids are 9 and 6. Often I wonder if their childhood is passing too quickly & that they spend too much time doing homework. They have fallen behind pretty relentless schoolwork. So Daddy comes and gives them a push. They’ve got years ahead of them, to learn and educate themselves. But kids get streamed at 10yrs here. So much for the family

And to a response from Manard, which although I would perhaps put it differently, has an important argument behind it. What is childhood?

As all good Orwellians know, the way to win a debate is take charge of it by stating the controversial points in a way that makes it seem that they are generally agreed upon, and relegate some minor issue to the focus of the debate. The above is a perfect example. The implicit assumption is that there is a real "thing" called childhood, and that it is somehow important that it be spent doing something other than homework. These are not inarguable facts, they are assumptions based on a particular, western world view, that got this that way because of some accidents of history in the west. ..............However there are other cultures out there that did not get to the 21st century along the same path as the West, and they see things differently.

I will leave aside the fact that Eddie, who is of course from Singapore, will probably have a particularly Janus-like view of the western tradition Maynard has in mind, and go for the fundamentals.

I think they are both right, and for non-Orwellian reasons. Eddie is right to raise the question of homework and childhood, not because of some 'essentialist' notion of what childhood is about, but because things are clearly changing. The pressure today is greater. The more homework jibe is a reflection of a reality which lies behind the talk about the increasing need to realise our 'human capital advantage' in the OECD countries, fewer children are going to be under pressure to achieve far more. At the same time the arrival of a global mass media has had what appears to be a dual impact: a growing 'worldiness' at ever younger ages (the Britney Spears Karaoke effect), and a later emotional maturity, as evidenced by a tendency to form stable couples later and a growing dependence on the 'family nest' until ever older ages. The childhood reality is changing. But again, Maynard is right too, since it always has been.

In order to put things in context, I would like to return to my now favoured source: Bo Malmberg, and the Four Phases of the Demographic Transition

So let us turn, first, to the child phase, the period of child abundance that initiates the age transition. England was among the first countries in the world to enter this phase of rapid population growth and child abundance. This happened around 1800, in the time of Malthus, whose influential – and largely pessimistic – analyses of population growth was based on this very experience.9 As regards our main case, Sweden, the most clear-cut effects of an increasing number of children can be found somewhat later, from the 1820s. At this time, Sweden entered the demographic transition, and with declining mortality rates, larger cohorts of children survived...................

If one were asked to enumerate characteristics common to child abundant countries, such as Sweden in the 19th century, a first observation to be made is that child abundance is closely related to poverty. In Sweden, the period from the 1830s up to the early 1870s was marked by recurring political struggles around ”the poverty question”. Contemporary evidence tells the story of a country challenged by an unexpected population growth and alarming signs of disintegration and destitution.11 The connection between children and rural poverty in 19th century Sweden is confirmed by the fact that the share of children (0-14 years of age) in Swedish counties around 1870 is strongly correlated with the poverty rate (defined as the share of adults unable to pay taxes). A statistical analysis shows that a one- percent increase in the share of children corresponds to a 2.5 percent increase in the poverty rate. The share of children explains slightly more than 50 percent of the regional variation in poverty.12 Today, this close relationship between child abundance and poverty can be found again in many parts of the world, not least in sub-Saharan Africa. The sub-Saharan African states have at present remarkably high child dependency rates, and these countries are also among the poorest in the world.

Another characteristic feature of child abundant economies is the occurrence of child labour, a phenomenon clearly connected to the state of poverty. In Sweden, child labour was widespread during the child phase, and regional analyses indicate that the incidence of child labour peaked in different regions when the share of children in the population was at the heighest.15 The demographic transition in Sweden started in the south, in the first half of the 19th century, and as the number of children rose in this part of the country, the incidence of child labour appears to have risen as well. For example, child labour in Swedish urban industry, that was mostly located in the south, peaked in the 1850s. In northern Sweden, by contrast, where the child phase occurred later, child labour continued to exist well into the 20th century. Northern children worked within agriculture and lumbering, but also in the sawmill industry.16 Today, when child labour is no longer an issue in Sweden and other ageing countries, child labour has instead become very important in poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where child dependency rates are still high. As could be expected, the highest activity rates are found in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, more than 30 percent of children aged 10-14 years are consiedered part of the labour force. The highest incidence of child labour is registered in Burkina Faso, where 59 percent of children aged 10 to 14 are included in the economically active population.
Source: Bo Malmberg, Four Phases in the Demographic Transition

Now the point I want to make with Malmberg is that attitudes to childhood seem to track demographics. In child super-abundant societies there is no 'childhood' as we knew it in the US and Western Europe in the 1970's and 1980's. Children have to work, or fight, as we see all too often on our TV screens (and this point also applies to my reply to Elliott earlier in the week). At the same time, as children become scarce, 'childhood' once more comes under pressure, whether the children are squeezed as an easy pathway to their parents pockets, or as a future source of acquired value for the society into which they are born.

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