Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 11 August 2012

'Underclass arithmetic'

Without wishing to comment on current news stories - except to say that it seems to me the height of folly for online newspapers to give copious amounts of detail about the family of a missing person and then allow speculative comments from readers - I have a genuine question.

The inclusion of the ages of the people involved in legal cases, a standard feature of local papers and the grubbier end of the national press, allows the reader to spot some noticeably recurring patterns which give considerable food for thought.

The vast majority of recent criminal cases involving the lowest socio-economic groups (a difficult one to phrase, that - I can see the Urchin hovering, ready to blow his 'elitist whistle'; good job he hasn't seen the title yet), can be seen, with the use of some simple arithmetic, to involve at least one of the following:
  • a mother whose first child was conceived before she reached the age of 18 (or, in some cases, 16)
  • a man who, in his late thirties or forties, fathered a child with a woman under 20
  • a woman in her late thirties or forties living with a man at least ten years younger than she is
Now, what I should like to know is whether this is an accurate reflection of society as a whole, and if not, what causal factors are at work.

The mean age for first-time mothers in the UK is currently 29, yet the majority of criminal cases feature, directly or tangentially, a woman less than nineteen years older than her eldest child; does this mean that the chances of a teenage mother or her children being involved in a crime at some stage - as either perpetrator or victim -  are significantly higher than for the rest of the population?

And while we're familiar with the stereotype of a teenage pregnancy where both parents are barely out of childhood themselves, what attracts teenage girls to much older men? For a recent example, take the offensive tweets to Tom Daley; their author was the product of a liaison between a girl in her mid teens and a man in his forties.

That's an extreme example, admittedly, but there are plenty of cases where a quick calculation implies a woman under 20 moving in with a man over twice her age - or two women, in the case of the house fire in Derby. Why do these girls move on from relationships with their peers to live with men as old as their fathers?

It's not easy to imagine a social context in which a full-time mother barely past school age could build an equitable and stable relationship with a man so much older, though another feature of many criminal cases - and late-night road accidents - involving young mothers is the freedom given by relatives taking care of the child for extended periods.

Given that some of the youngest child-mothers, at least as portrayed in the press, display a startlingly casual attitude to cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, could these relationships be initially founded on the supply of one or more of these commodities? (In the context of court cases, it's worth considering here that maternal drug and alcohol abuse have been repeatedly linked with behavioural disorders in young people.)

Or is it a case of access to housing? In such cases, where the detail is given, it is almost always the man who is the householder, while the opposite seems to be true in the cases where an older woman is living with a younger man.

I appreciate that all this only seems odd through 21st-century Western eyes - up until the beginning of the last century, none of these situations would have seemed particularly unusual. However, with the changing role of women in society, freely available birth control and the higher expectations of compatibility and equality within a relationship, it seems odd that they persist.

Since much of our society now regards as normal a married or cohabiting couple of similar ages with interests in common, I wonder whether the controlling factor here is the benefits system, which allocates housing and financial support in ways that may well encourage certain types of behaviour.
There seems to be a life-cycle emerging from the statistics; a teenage girl goes out with boys her own age until she gets pregnant. Then as a single mother, she hooks up with a string of older men until, often because she now has a large number of children, she gets her own house and finds a younger partner to move in with her.

Meanwhile, her eldest daughters are already beginning the whole cycle again and her adult sons - well, they seem to be left out of the picture completely, liable for child support if they work, doomed to a life of benefits if they don't and, in any case, unable to provide suitable homes for potential partners so they can't settle down. 

So they hang around, battening onto a succession of single mothers on benefits or minimum wage in state housing until they, in their turn, get places of their own and become dominant males - it's pure Desmond Morris. It's not a situation that is going to bring out the best in anyone, let alone a young man with too much time and testosterone on his hands.

Perhaps, thinking about it, that's the answer to why families like this, however unrepresentative of the population as a whole, seem to make up the bulk of cases in Britain's criminal courts.


  1. "...until they, in their turn, can become dominant males - it's pure Desmond Morris."

    Indeed! If only they were more attractive, David Attenborough would be narrating whispered documentaries about them:

    "Here we are, in the wilds of New Addington, observing a family group. I'm careful not to make eye contact with the dominant male, as we observe his approaches to the female. Is she is season..?

    Oh, yes. I forgot. She's always in season..."

  2. Julia, I can't help wondering if some of the apologists for criminal behaviour who appear in your posts really think of their subjects in a similar way.

    In the 1960s, the progressives set about demolishing the educational structures that provided a way for children from a chaotic background to acquire what have come to be seen (and condemned) as 'Victorian values' - in other words, the strict work ethic and moral standpoint that once characterised the 'respectable working class' and are still upheld by countless thousands of normal citizens.

    Effectively left to sink or swim, many of those children seem to have adopted a lowest common denominator lifestyle so far removed from the world of the Guardian reader that they might as well be on a separate planet.

  3. We forget that "Victorian Values" had a lot to do with avoiding getting one or other of very nasty diseases that were perhaps incurable and thought to be congenital. The medical advances in treatments by the 1960's led many to believe that it all could be cured and helped trigger the change in ideaology.

  4. "However, with the changing role of women in society, freely available birth control and the higher expectations of compatibility and equality within a relationship, it seems odd that they persist."

    Presumably some girls and young women don't have those expectations because they don't see them within their social groups.

    Why this should be, I don't know, because they are common enough in the media.

  5. Good point, Demetrius; there's also the question of childbirth in an era before anaesthetics and modern medical techniques.

    There's also the financial angle; when a pregnant teenager meant that the family would suffer social stigma and the burden of another mouth to feed, there was a powerful incentive to parents to keep a close eye on their daughters.

    AKH, the question is one that vexes feminist journalists - in our age of unprecedented opportunity for women, why do some girls completely ignore what's on offer?

    One columnist, deploring the number of young girls who say they would like to be strippers or 'glamour' models, memorably said "If their horizons were any lower they'd be, technically speaking, ants".

    As for media, it depends, I suppose, on which you choose. A diet of tabloids might well convince a child that women exist only as sex objects or celebrity mums.

  6. Another obvious marker of these kinds of setups is that when a "family" incident occurs (fire in crowded small house, fight at wedding, outbreak of serious violence over TV remote, etc etc), all the people involved will have different surnames.


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