The goblins that stalk us

We worry about losing our jobs when the risk is low, we fear crime even as the figures fall. But the costs of living in a scaredy-cat society are huge.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'm not afraid, insists the young apprentice. 'You will be,' replies the wise mentor, 'you will be.' Yes, it could be Alan Sugar. In fact (as the older, nerdier reader will have instantly spotted), the advice is proffered by an even more wizened survivor, Yoda, to earnest pupil Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

The exchange is a pithy summary of the British and American labour markets. Way back in the innocent, Keynesian, free-love, full-employment '60s we were not afraid. Now fear stalks the workplace. Since 9/11, it also hovers over every airport and Tube station. Parents are wracked with worry about paedophiles, speeding cars and playground bullies.

It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. At a point in history when we are richer, healthier and safer than ever before, we tremble. We apply the force of reason to science, medicine and engineering but tremble before the gods of joblessness, disease and death. Jeremy Bentham, the ultra-rationalist philosopher, was so afraid of night-time goblins that his assistants were made to sleep by his door (an unenviable task, given Bentham's prodigious snoring). Today, we are all Benthams. By any sensible, rational yardstick, we should be luxuriating in our extraordinary fortune. But still the goblins stalk us.

Fear of job loss has risen through the past three decades, with blue-collar workers becoming more anxious in the '80s and their white-collar colleagues getting the shivers in the '90s and continuing to fret ever since. The difference is that the shop-floor workers were right to be scared in the Thatcher years, when millions were thrown onto the dole. The management classes were wrong to get panicked in the '90s and are wrong to be biting their nails today. Psychotherapists describe middle-class clients without real problems as the 'worried well' - and a very lucrative pool they are too. In labour market terms, senior managers and professionals have no more to worry about, in terms of job loss, than their baby-boomer predecessors. They are the 'scared secure'.

Between 1986 and '97, fear of job loss among the professional class rose by 28%, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Other surveys show that concern has not abated since, even through unemployment has dropped significantly and the amount of time the average employee spends in a job has not altered. At the end of last year, one in four British workers thought it 'very probable' or 'somewhat probable' that they would lose their job in the next 12 months - a higher proportion than in any other leading economy. And this was after a decade of strong employment growth, low inflation and rising pay.

The mismatch between real and felt risk in the workplace puzzles researchers. Why do levels of fear remain so high when the factual evidence suggests little or no change in actual risk? There are a number of possible explanations. The media are inevitably much more interested in middle-class than blue-collar job losses, and news editors are disproportionately interested in higher education and London schools. It is also possible that the impact of a redundancy is greater, even if the risk of its occurrence is not. There is some evidence that the average length of unemployment has increased. It may be that people derive more value from their job now - socially and emotionally, as well as professionally - so that the prospect of its loss looms larger.

But job insecurity is simply part of a much bigger problem. Even as crime falls, the fear of crime rises. Even as healthcare improves, health fears increase. Even though the risk of child abduction or paedophile assault is unchanged or decreased, fear of them has soared. We stop flying in the wake of a terror plot, even though the risk remains almost incalculably small - certainly compared to getting behind the wheel of a car. Our level of fear is no longer a reflection of the risk level. What we see is not the true risk but our own goblins, refracted and enhanced by a sensationalist, innumerate media.

About half a dozen child abductions take place each year, and have done since accurate records have been kept. For each of the affected families the pain is, I am sure, beyond description. The odds of being one of these families are microscopically small. But in the absence of a terror plot, horrific abduction stories fill the pages of copy-ravenous summer newspapers. And the visual image of Jamie Bulger's abduction is imprinted on every parent's retina. But the truth is that the costs of trying to keep our children out of this danger - keeping them locked up indoors, teaching them that all strangers are a danger, watching them grow fat and fearful - are greater than the danger itself.

The costs of living in a scaredy-cat society are huge. Our children don't play in the woods for fear of the pervert, and so are incarcerated indoors to be perverted themselves by television and video games. The economy suffers because of a lack of entrepreneurialism. And managers and professionals pay the price for their own paranoia, hanging on to unsatisfactory jobs for fear of the unknown, toeing the corporate line rather than cutting their own path for fear of rejection, and avoiding risky initiatives for fear of failure. Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in 1933 that the only thing to fear was fear itself. The words ring truer today.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail:

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