Charlotte Young is a founding member, trustee and former chair of SSE. Writing here in a personal capacity, she shares her vision for how to improve conditions for people facing most challenges, as she publishes her paper on a different type of society.
There are close links between financial inequality and aspects of society such as health, education, violence, criminality, and, most importantly, trust. Regardless of our wealth and status, in a less equal society, we all suffer to some extent.
Inequality breeds societal tensions, stresses and anxieties that lead to significant loss of trust and negative social consequences.
It is of course most hard on those that are least well off. In his book Social Class in the 21st Century (2015), Mike Savage refers to those at the bottom of the pile with very little security or economic capital as the precariat, who account for about 15% of the population.
Their precariousness is based on society’s pace of change, lack of security in jobs and housing, pressure on communities through urban development and rent rises and heavy dependency on a diminishing pot of welfare payments; all of which lead to constant anxiety.
They are juggling all aspects of their lives in a battle for survival in which the best they can hope for is to avoid going any further backwards.
Denigrated by the media and by popular attitudes, they’re treated as the butt of jokes or worse and have almost no voice in the public sphere.
Government programmes using carrots and sticks are used to get people into work, change their behaviour and alleviate the most extreme poverty. But these cannot solve the problem the precariat face.
Their chances of obtaining secure jobs are remote. Their health, housing, educational attainment and likelihood of being involved with (or becoming victims of) crime are all a draining source of anxiety, instability and the worst of life chances. They are both stigmatised and seen as dangerous and consequently have little trust in the institutions of society.
And it is trust that is key if we want this situation to change.
Approaches adopted by central and local governments in the UK have had little or no impact in changing the fundamental dynamics that produce and sustain such failures in our society.
This is because people are viewed as essentially economic beings, rationally working to maximise their rewards. As a result, all institutions of society are seen as businesses to be managed for the benefits of their shareholders: the taxpayers.
But social ills cannot be managed in such a way. This attitude has led to extraordinarily inappropriate expectations, especially by governments, of how to manage all aspects of state-initiated provision or intervention. It is what I call financialised thinking.
We are familiar with the results when financialised thinking is applied to social issues. When large companies such as Carillion and G4S are used, rather than benefits to stakeholders, shareholder influence dominates and there is an obsession with scale and rolling out anything seen as successful.
Alongside this sit unrealistic expectations that social issues can be changed quickly. The resulting witch hunts, focused on blame, proliferate when interventions are quickly deemed unsuccessful.
At the same time society very often fails to fully understand the value of social networks and the cost reducing impact of building trust and self-belief. So long as this view dominates public thinking, it seems that progress and improvement will be significantly blocked.
The underlying assumption which needs to be seriously challenged is that the system is OK so everybody should just try harder.
Rather than addressing the root causes of social issues, financialised thinking tends mainly to treat specific symptoms, such as obesity, truancy or unemployment. Because the client’s other life circumstances stay the same, the problem returns or appears in a different form.
There is also an unwillingness to value unmeasurable factors like self-confidence, strong relationships, active learning, emotional commitment and a sense of purpose.
But where these are valued and developed, people develop trust which tends to sustain positive behaviour.
Where trust is absent, it is hard to avoid damaging responses from those accessing social services. These range from widespread frustration, resentment and anger to withdrawal, an inability to cope and greater evidence of mental health problems, criminality and low achievement.
Thus the cycle of deprivation is reproduced, with the result that inequality continues.
The way forward
So how do we restore trust, in order to challenge inequality?
Free from shareholder influence and acutely focused on the social benefits that can be manifested, social entrepreneurs put trust at the centre of their approach.
They trust that most people can be helped to solve their own problems given the right support and resources.
They understand and work to improve social fabric and individual capability, trusting human potential to improve wellbeing, creating the conditions for a sustainable future in doing so.
It is where the most exciting, positive aspects and potential of new technologies to create social benefits are being explored and could become a major influence in how our society is conducted.
But because awareness of social enterprise is still limited, the size and impact of the social economy is underestimated.
What is required to shift approaches to social challenges from financial thinking to thinking based on trust is a demonstration to the powers that be of its value.
The Trust Society is not understood as economically significant. Certainly it is almost never discussed as a powerful economic resource. But the reality is social entrepreneurs are building Social Capital which has, as its name implies, a very significant economic value.
Trust is efficient because it tends to create a more mutual relationship, with greater sharing of rights and responsibilities and more emotional reward. A more trusting society would lead to higher levels of satisfaction and more extensive capability to use local networks to solve everyday problems.
Most social entrepreneurs and community businesses, as well as many businesses who consciously seek to operate ethically, take all this for granted.
They place high value on interaction, dialogue, openness and transparency, simplicity, equal access, feedback, emotional intelligence, collaboration and explicit values. Trust develops as a by-product of these features.
The Social Enterprise sector alone accounted in 2017 for a £60bn contribution to the UK economy. It employs around 2 million people in 100,000 enterprises.
It is a highly significant part of our economy. But like an iceberg, a very large part of it is below the line of public sight.
The various manifestations of the Trust Society in the UK are fragmented and so far have nothing remotely like a collective intent, message or voice. In the face of extremely widespread acceptance of the financialised model, there does not seem to be a persuasive collective narrative based on all the evidence that now exists.
Even with a clear common message about effective and ineffective ways of running large parts of our society, it feels as though far more persuasion would be needed to create a revolutionary change of approach.
So those of us with experience and a strong body of evidence must begin to pull our perspectives together, speak with a common voice, collaborate in more ambitious ways and create a visible movement towards this far better way of doing things.
We need to create a movement that is big and clear-minded, so that we can accumulate incontrovertible evidence about what works in the civic sphere. We need to be able to explain why it works so well.
We need to be attracting more and more people and organisations into our way of operating so that we become so significant a force in society that our approach cannot be ignored.
The opportunity to establish the Trust Society is upon us; we must work together to grasp the opportunity.
Read Charlotte’s full paper.