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Unkind, risk averse and untrusting - if this is today's society, can we change it?

Discussion of social evils on the theme of 'a decline of values' which argues that we can change society for the better by deliberately rebuilding trust.

Written by:
Julia Neuberger
Date published:


The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern 'social evils' on the theme of ‘a decline in values’. Julia Neuberger argues that we can change society for the better by deliberately rebuilding trust, opening up our institutions, and stopping the ‘blame culture’ from preventing simple acts of kindness and altruism.

Key points

  • We have become more self-obsessed, more narrowly focused, as the public domain seems increasingly dangerous.
  • It is harder to help others than it used to be, and doing so in any structured way has become fraught with bureaucracy and barriers, so that where altruism still exists it is harder to express.
  • We increasingly devalue older people, while we live in an increasingly ageing society.
  • Ideas of mutual obligation have taken a considerable battering. We are not sure who we ought to be responsible for, nor who our ‘neighbours’ really are or who we want them to be.
  • We are seriously risk averse whenever we offer help or care professionally, and that leads to unkindness as it is easier to do nothing than to run the risk of blame.
  • We tolerate high levels of human misery, at the same time as we are shocked by appalling scandals in care.
  • The more fearful we are of allowing our children out, or our older relatives to be visited by strangers, the more we look in at ourselves and take our own emotional temperatures. Our obsessions then become how we feel instead of worrying about the welfare of others.
  • Part of our fear comes from a deep distrust of our politicians, and doubt as to whether they can do anything about it or, even if they could, whether they are to be trusted to get it right.
  • The solution lies in trying to rebuild trust and encourage altruism; opening up our institutions so that communities can own them; stopping blaming people when things go wrong by recognising systems failure rather than personal failure; and reassessing the value of concentration on the self, encouraging a sense of purpose in life by getting people involved in doing things for others in their communities.