The pursuit of happiness, by Geoff Mulgan

10 Dec 09
GEOFF MULGAN | Britain isn’t broken, but it’s certainly brittle. Policies must now emphasise psychological wellbeing rather than material needs

Britain isn’t broken, but it’s certainly brittle. Policies must now emphasise psychological wellbeing rather than material needs

This winter, all eyes are focused on the spending cuts needed to restore public finances battered by recession and banking failures. But in the longer term, what will be the biggest areas making a claim for public support, and what will welfare look like as we come out of the recession?

A major study published this month by the Young Foundation, Sinking and swimming; understanding Britain’s unmet needs, suggests that a big change might be under way. The study – backed by a dozen of the UK’s top foundations and the Economic and Social Research Council – combined statistical analysis, surveys and case studies to show the UK’s most important needs.

It paints a picture of a society that is by most measures materially prosperous. There are plenty of exceptions – rough sleepers get by on very little and asylum seekers survive on £5 a day. But overall levels of material poverty, poor housing and fuel poverty have fallen.

By contrast, psychologically Britain looks rather less secure and rather more brittle. Between a quarter and a sixth will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. Prescriptions for antidepressant drugs have risen from 9 million a year in 1991 to 34 million now. Our forecasts suggest that anxiety and depression are on track to double in a generation.

Just as serious are our needs for company. Half a million pensioners spend Christmas alone, and isolation is becoming more serious for older people. One million have no-one to turn to and seven million say that they suffer a ‘severe’ lack of social support.

The study highlights new areas of focus for public policy. One is resilience. Many personal factors influence resilience, but some can be shaped by public policy: it can be learned in school, and the right kinds of support can make all the difference.

A second theme is transitions. The UK does particularly badly in helping people make the crucial transitions in their life – from childhood to adulthood, or out of local authority care or prison. Quite a lot is known about what works best to make transitions successful: good preparation, strong relationships that are there for you before, during and after the transition, and then some resources to help you afterwards.  Yet these are remarkably rare, making it unsurprising that so many young people come adrift after a period in care or prison. Get them right and it should be possible to save public money, as well as greatly improving the lives of many people. Reoffending, for example, is still appallingly high at over 70%.

A third theme is service design. Many people come to services with a problem that is not the real or underlying issue. Yet many services remain poor at assessing people and even poorer at referring them to the support they most need. Moreover, many of the groups in greatest need are not good at seeking help, or do all they can to keep away from public agencies.

In each of these fields, the details are all-important. But there are also some broader themes for the future of public finance. Our welfare state was created at a time when material needs were paramount: our need for sickness to be cured, for housing and for basic income support in old age.
Today there is still material need, but the focus is shifting on to wellbeing:  to what we need to live reasonably happy lives. Our focus groups confirm that helping those who are lonely or depressed is important for the public.  It might take time for politics to catch up, but this is where we are headed.

In the meantime, things might get worse before they get better. Even with fewer jobs now being lost, there is a period of high unemployment ahead of us. Almost 40% of people who’ve lost their jobs since the recession began have already experienced a mental health problem. It’s this link between the material world of the economy and the inner world of psychology that is now moving to centre stage, with implications for the public sector not just as a provider of services but also as an employer.

Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and a former head of the Number 10 Strategy Unit. Sinking and swimming can be found at

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