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A report from the Social Issues Research Centre commissioned by Prudential


Think tanks and social commentators frequently describe the times in which we now live as the ‘age of fear’. Indeed, at the Social Issues Research Centre we have made this point ourselves. We have noted that in the Western World we are currently experiencing, by objective standards, the safest environments that we have ever had in our evolution and in our history. And yet, in spite of all this safety’ around us we seem compelled to worry — perhaps even to invent fanciful things about which we can fret and express anxiety.

We attribute this seemingly perverse pattern in part to the fact that we have not quite escaped from our Stone Age roots in hunter-gatherer communities. In these circumstances, where danger was ever-present, being afraid, coupled with a degree of intelligent risk-taking, were what kept people alive. Staying inside one’s cave or primitive hut were not options for survival, even though being eaten by a sabre toothed tiger when one ventured out might have been a real possibility. Acts of sheer hubris and unnecessary risk-taking were similarly counter-productive. And so we evolved and adapted a balanced response to the conditions that have accounted for the vast majority of the years that we have been on the planet. Our present-day so-called ‘civilised’ patterns of life have been with us for only mere seconds on the evolutionary clock.

Today, when we have little to fear and our lives are rarely at serious risk, we somehow still seem to need the experience of levels of anxiety and arousal that our brains have been ‘wired-in’ to expect. We worry about things we read in the papers or watch on television, and there is no shortage of scary stuff there to feed our needs — from asteroids hurtling to earth to the suggestion that taking showers regularly may cause brain damage (it’s all to do with manganese levels, apparently).

While much of this misplaced fretfulness might be fairly harmless, it does have its downside. Yes, life is safe in the sense that there are few equivalents of the sabre toothed tiger around these days. But there are threats to our lifestyles, rather than our lives, that we seem to ignore most of the time because our anxieties are directed elsewhere. We may fear getting fat these days because of all the talk about ‘obesity epidemics’ and choose to walk to work rather than take the bus. But the bus is much safer — ten times so in terms of the number of people killed per 1,000 journeys — than journeys on foot.

An obvious threat to our sense of well-being that we often overlook is the burden of financial debt. We now borrow more money than ever before — so much so the British population now owes over £1.13 trillion — £1,130,000,000,000 — and it is increasing by £1 million every four minutes. Well over a quarter of households in the UK have no savings at all. As a result of this combination 10,000 people were declared personal bankrupts in just the first three months of last year, and 15% of those were under the age of 30. While bankruptcy may not carry quite the stigma that it did in the past, it remains a painful experience for those who have to go through the process.

This situation might be made easier, of course, if we still had ‘jobs for life’ that would provide us with a sense of financial security. It is true that unemployment figures are comparatively low these days — just under 5% — but increasingly people are switching jobs or even entire careers more frequently than in the past. For most people the idea that you can expect a single, safe and progressing career throughout one’s life is unrealistic. Today, you have to adapt, to be flexible, to take some well-judged risks in order to progress or to achieve what you want out of working life.

In 1985, for example, young people could expect to be in their second job three years after entering the employment market. Today they are, on average, in their fourth job after that time. The effect is also evident among older workers. While this pattern of job shifting may have benefits for some people, allowing them to seek more rewarding or creative roles, it can also cause both social and financial difficulties.

Against this background of changes in attitudes towards money, work and lifestyles we set out to explore the things that people really worry about. What troubles them in their everyday lives? What keeps them awake at night? What will be their worries in the future? Are they worrying about the ‘right’ things — factors which may adversely affect their lives considerably? Or are people ‘displacing’ their anxiety by worrying, perhaps unnecessarily, about things that are less likely to affect them directly? To what extent are they taking steps to endure that their worst fears are never realised — that they have some defences against what modern-day patterns of life may throw at them?

These are the questions we posed to people in focus groups, interviews and in a national poll conducted by YouGov.

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