The tropic of torpor in Western society

Some of you reading this are parents and what follows most probably does not apply.

With that disclaimer out of the way, do you find it interesting to watch how other parents are preparing their offspring for adult life?

A few I know — and know of — are scrambling to register their sons for secondary school. For those who can afford it, at least where I live, the nearest single-sex fee-paying school is highest on their list. Anyone who has read schools guides, headmasters’ interviews and so forth will have picked up on the ubiquitous use of ‘well-rounded’ in reference to students’ interests and activities.

The most sought-after schools gauge this by interviewing prospective students.  Many parents think this is nothing to worry about until their children ‘fail’ the interview.  They say, ‘Can you imagine? How could they do that when his entrance exam results were so good?’

I have in mind one lad whose parents ply him with the latest entertainment gadgets yet do not teach or coach him in anything practical.

‘Well, he does sports,’ his mother says. ‘That should be enough.  He’s very good, you know.’

She thinks he will be able to get some sort of preference on that basis alone. What if a number of other applicants are better?

‘Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.’

Maybe she and his dad should have a fallback position, a Plan B, for their son.

‘Well, he doesn’t really read.  He has problems writing an essay. His maths are all right, though. Still, he’s at the top of his class.’


This lady — a university-educated stay-at-home mother — hired a tutor to get the boy up to speed.  If he applies himself, he might do reasonably well when he takes the exam in a few weeks’ time.  However, knowing the school he wishes to attend, competition will be fierce.  If he excels in the exam, I would be very surprised.  If he also does well in the interview, I would be astounded.

Back to his outside interests and the possible interview.  Does the lad have any mechanical ability or any woodworking skills his dad might have taught him?  Does he like geology or botany?  Chemistry, perhaps?  Does he play a musical instrument or sing in a choir? Does he like stamp collecting? Military history? Electronics? Photography? Cookery? Something?  Anything?

‘No, we’ve really focussed on sport for him. We don’t want to push him too much.’

Any child can play some sort of sport and most can do it rather well.

One can imagine school interview questions about a favourite book, interesting hobbies, an instructive experience, a memorable year, aspirations in life, potential interest in politics or business.

I couldn’t help but think back to a boy his age, a contemporary of mine from, ahem, some years ago in the US. By the time my friend was ready for secondary school, he’d already had a paper route for two or three years and a savings account with over a thousand dollars in it — money he’d earned.  He planned on joining the Navy.  His dad had already taught him practical skills, e.g. chopping wood, heavy gardening work and a bit of DIY.  By the time he turned 16, he had enough ability and nous to leave school and go into business for himself.  He didn’t, however, and, from what I had last heard, enlisted in the Navy after high school, as planned.

Back to the lad applying for secondary school here in the UK.  He’s been out of the house only once on his own.  His mother is afraid to let him walk to the shops alone.  No particular reason, except that perhaps she secretly fears she hasn’t trained him to cross the street properly.  The child is obviously not a member of the Tufty Club!

This isn’t a comparison between the US and the UK, by the way. Nowadays, they both seem to be on a par with vapid parents and vacant children.  The same is going on in other Western nations, too, no doubt.

Having said that, though, one thing struck me over the summer.  It was a phone-in programme on France’s RMC (Radio Monte Carlo).  The topic was, ‘Should children on holiday be expected to devote an hour or two a day towards revision in French and maths?’ Two-thirds of the audience responded with an overwhelming ‘Yes!’  Mums had already purchased exercise books to take along with swimming cozzies and sun cream.

By contrast, the young English lad got a ‘break’ from studies during his month away. ‘Oh, he works so hard.  Regardless of how he does in his exams, we’re going to get him a new gadget thingy of his choice.  Whatever he wants.’

Blimey, really?

No wonder the Occupy movement has taken root in a number of cities. It’s the most recent manifestation of a something-for-nothing, prizes-for-all society.  Parents reinforce the message that their children are somehow ‘special’, ‘deserving’, ‘hard-working’ when they don’t do a thing except mooch around and expect free stuff, provided by everyone else’s largesse, much like they receive at home from Mum and Dad.

So, where are our new inventions going to come from?  Who is going to resurrect our tradition of engineering innovation? Who will be our next entrepreneurs and captains of industry?  Who will be able to teach self-reliance and ingenuity?

We have a generation of kids between 10 and 25 years of age who are living in the tropic of torpor.  Not all, mind, but many.  They have enjoyed their childhood so much that they cannot abide the idea of growing up and striking out on their own.  Unfortunately, their parents have raised them that way.

My neighbour friend and I could hardly wait to grow up and leave home.  It was a sign of maturity and adulthood.  We were also ready to achieve great things, relatively speaking.  My friend looked forward to serving his country and ‘seeing the world’.  I wanted to live and work in Europe.

But we also did not wish to be burdens on our parents.  Back then — and rightly or wrongly — every one of my mates thought that kids who stayed at home beyond university age were ‘losers’.  We earned our way to independence with a paper route, doing odd jobs for neighbours, getting summer jobs, working whilst at university.

I don’t see that message of independence and self-reliance coming across to this generation, but it doesn’t seem as if their parents care to instil it, either.

If many families are truly like this one — and not just hyped up by self-loathing media types — all I can say is: prepare for the worst.

12 comments for “The tropic of torpor in Western society

  1. ivan
    November 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    I think I’m getting more despondent the older I get because of what I see happening in the UK.

    In my young days – 40s / 50s – if we wanted anything ‘special’ we worked for it. In school we were pushed as much as possible to extend ourselves and woe betide anyone they over stepped the line.

    I remember walking the two miles to the village to see my grandfather – I was three at the time, and after having a rest, riding back on one of the farm horses my grandfather had taken to the blacksmith for shoeing.

    The summer holidays were a time if exploration and learning. My father, a carpenter/builder, taught me all he knew and I also helped in the blacksmith shop – can you see the children of today doing such things. One of my grandfathers taught me to plough with horses, the other how to make and repair shoes. By the time is was 13 I had cycled, on my own, up the east coast to Newcastle to visit relatives, then along to the lake district and then home down the west coast and across the width of the country through Northampton and Cambridge to home.

    In school we were taught to think for ourselves and be independent and stand on our own feet – something that is totally missing in today’s society.

    I was the first in our family to go to university but not the first to travel the world – that went to my great grandfather who sailed in the clippers.

    Today we have kids, many of whom don’t know their fathers let alone their grandfathers, that have never done anything for themselves, indeed most expect to have everything done for them. Parents don’t pass on their knowledge to their children, but above all never push the children to make something of themselves and stand on their own feet.

    I think almost all of the problems can be put at the door of welfareism and the socialist ideal.

    Indeed the worst is yet to come and it will take several generations, if at all, to get back to and independent nation that stands on its own feet and looks to no man for support other than self.

    • November 4, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      Thank you, Ivan, for your recollections of childhood. They are nothing short of brilliant; I could see them in my mind’s eye.

      I wish I had had the opportunity to do half the things you did as a lad. You’re most fortunate to have experienced all that you did.

      No, I can’t imagine any child doing any of those things today, which is a shame. Our society would be much better if they could.

      Yes, our welfare state is part of the problem. (Think back to the days when people would do what they acceptably could to avoid the shame of the dole queue.) Another aspect is the rampant push for communitarism, which reinforces the notion of a safety net: ‘We’re all here to take care of each other’, the subtext to which is ‘The middle classes are just going to have to suck it up because they’re successful and owe it to the less fortunate’.

    • Thornavis.
      November 4, 2011 at 9:15 pm

      Fascinating stuff Ivan, it reminds me a little of one of my great uncles. He wanted to join the Navy about 1905 but his dad wouldn’t let him, he had a job lined up for him on the railway – a sought after position then, he had no money so he just set off to walk to Chatham to enlist. It wasn’t far only about ten miles but at thirteen to take off from a close family with a dad who was pretty stern and arrive at the dockyard without knowing whether they’d take him must have taken some doing. Anyway they did accept him and he was in the navy for quite a time, I still have a couple of his WW1 medals, it didn’t seem to cause any family rift, I should imagine his dad respected him for it as he’d been in the army himself.

    • Mudplugger
      November 4, 2011 at 9:23 pm

      In a similar vein, my late father was a foreman bookbinder and, from my being around 8 or 9 years old in the late 1950s, he often took me into work with him on Saturday mornings, giving me ‘real jobs’ to do, such as cutting rounded corners on pass-books, running printed paper through the perforating machine or applying numbers to sequential tickets.
      I loved it, every minute of it, including the tea-break when all the staff gathered round a large table, treating me like an adult amongst them. Probably one of the most formative experiences of my early youth.
      Can’t imagine what the Elf ‘n Safety mafia would think about it these days, nor the company’s insurers, but I never came to any harm and learnt far more about real working life in those few hours than I ever did in formal education. Thanks, Dad.

      • November 5, 2011 at 6:48 am

        Nowadays, they’d all have to be CRB checked too… 👿

  2. November 4, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    If the young man is so good at sport, why can’t he parlay those competitive skills towards use in the workforce? And if he can’t, a parent or adult should be able to show him how.

    Lazy parents these days.

    • November 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm

      Precisely, m’lord — yes, his parents (particularly his father) should show him the way. But, yes, they they are lazy parents — and as a result — he is lazy.

      We won’t go into his cutlery skills at table — too much for those of a sensitive nature. Mum says, ‘Oh, he couldn’t possibly handle a knife AND fork.’

      Occupy, here we come. 🙄

      I shall enjoy reading your blog, by the way!

      • November 5, 2011 at 6:47 am

        When I was a child, I was expected to use a knife and fork at the age of six because I was taken to eat out in restaurants on family holidays. But then again, those restaurants weren’t MaccyD or KFC!

  3. November 5, 2011 at 6:46 am

    And in this morning’s ‘Daily Mail’, this: “She said: ‘He was crying and he kept saying, ‘I’m dying’. I just screamed. There must have been a weakness in the wall for it to happen.

    ‘I know these walls are all around the area but they shouldn’t be by a children’s play area.’…”

    And if there were no walls, she’d be complaining the play area was unsafe! Society cannot win, with people like this in it…

    • November 5, 2011 at 11:20 am

      She just screamed? Oh, yeah, way to calm your son down. Well done. Or is it a bit of embellishment for/by the reporter? 🙄

  4. November 5, 2011 at 11:17 am

    On the plus side the kid’s not saying he wants to grow up to be a sleb or get on Big Brother. Pretty small plus, granted, but take what you can is my advice.

  5. Maaarrghk!
    November 7, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Dad is still (aged 80) a self-employed Builder and took me to work with him when I was a kid. On Sundays he would, re-dress old stone and it would be my job to stack it all by the square yard. As I got older, I would help lay flags and mix the cement for him.

    At about 15 I got a job at a local haulage firm as a steam cleaner – those tippers from the open cast coal sites that were due for MOT and re-spray were a right bugger at 8 on a winter morning. I remember stripping off fuel pumps and putting them in the oven cos the diesel had frozen in them.

    The ownwer was also a bit of a farmer, so when it was slack at the garage, it was up there for general property repairs and hay-making with a pitch fork.

    Mrs M! is from a family of Philippine Farmers, so she also had her jobs on the farm from a very early age.

    As for our young Saddam, I don’t know what he will be allowed to do, other than a paper round and helping me around the house on various DIY stuff. We both want him to have the sort of upbringing that we had, but it’s becoming less and less possible.

    I tried the local pit when he was born, but all the jobs are taken by grown-ups. We had the chimney sweep round a few weeks back, but he wouldn’t take him either – apparently, they “don’t do that sort of thing” these days. Still, another 17 years and 10 months and he can get the dole.

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