Quite a lot of the images we're likely to remember from the footage of the riots in the summer will be of young people out of control in the streets, walking off with looted property from shops, noisily confronting police and so on. It all feeds into the national habit of being suspicious and hostile when we see groups of youngsters on street corners or outside shops and bus shelters. We walk a bit more quickly and hope we can pass without some sort of confrontation.
The events of the summer were certainly horrific. They showed us a face of our society we don't like to think about – angry, destructive, lawless. But it's crucial to remember that what we saw on the streets in August was just one facet of a bigger and much more heartbreaking problem. The youngsters out on the streets may have looked like a big crowd, but they are a minority of their generation – the minority whose way of dealing with their frustrations was by way of random destructiveness and irresponsibility. Most people of their own age strongly shared the general feeling of dismay at this behaviour.
I've come to visit the charity Kids Company in London where today a lot of young people are joining together to pack food parcels for needy families in the neighbourhood. When you have a chance of talking to young people like this you really get a sense of how they feel about the society they're in and the challenges they face.
We have to ask, what kind of society is it that lets down so many of its young people? That doesn't provide enough good role models and drives youngsters further into unhappiness and anxiety by only showing them suspicion and negativity. When you see the gifts they can offer, the energy that can be released when they feel safe and loved, you see what a tragedy we so often allow to happen. Look at the work done by groups like the Children's Society or by the astonishing network of Kids Company here in London, and you see what can be done to wake up that energy and let it flourish for everyone's good.
One of the unique things in the Christian faith, one of its great contributions to our moral vision, is the way it has spoken about children and young people. Whether it's Jesus blessing children, or St Paul encouraging a young church leader, saying, 'Don't let people look down on you because you're young', or St Benedict in his rule for monks saying that you need to pay attention to the youngest as well as the oldest – Christian faith has underlined the essential importance of giving young people the respect they deserve.
Of course they're not infallible; of course they have a lot to learn. So do we all. But being grown-up doesn't mean forgetting about the young. And a good New Year's Resolution might be to think what you can do locally to support facilities for young people, to support opportunities for counselling and learning and enjoyment in a safe environment. And above all, perhaps we should just be asking how we make friends with our younger fellow citizens – for the sake of our happiness as well as theirs. A very happy and blessed New Year to you all.
The problem is that what Rowan Williams sincerely suggests (suggestions that have come out of the mouths of canvassing politicians many, many times in the past) is just treating the symptoms, not curing the illness. Respecting, encouraging and keeping occupied young people who are either unemployed or taken advantage of by employers, who have no money and, therefore, no dignity or hope for a "traditional" future, is no more effective in the long run as sucking a cough sweet when you are suffering from bronchitis.
Children and young adults are primarily influenced by three factors: family, peers and society and the greatest of these is society for the simple reason that society influences their families and peers as well as being a direct influence - the influence of society on a young person is a triple whammy.
There have always been, and will always be, good and bad parents with most parents aspiring to an acceptable average. Rich kids, sent off to boarding school and looked after by nannies, are just as abused as latch key poor kids. Working parents with little cash can be much better parents than a Hooray Henry who even farms out his sons and heirs during the school holidays. And, conversely, many rich parents do a better job of raising their spoiled brats than crackhead single moms and absent fathers.
Young people are always influenced by friends and youth culture. Although a caring family background where morality is well defined usually enables a young person to avoid going completely off the rails, there will always be children of the most loving, responsible parents who end up as junkies.
However, bad parents and the wrong sort of friends will always be the exception to the general rule if society doesn't work against the common decency which is inherent in the vast majority of us. And, yes, it is inherent as recent experiments involving toddlers have proved. We are born knowing the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately we are also born with a tendency for self-interest and, so, growing up is about learning to balance these two human traits.
The shit hits the fan when society becomes either predominantly immoral or amoral. We are all part of society. We are all influenced by it and we all contribute to its current nature. But some people have more influence than others. England became the sociopathic society it is today because of one person, Margaret Thatcher. Backed by her army of bobbies and her yes ma'am, poodle cabinet, she spouted out her Darwinian venom from 10 Downing Street, preaching dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, amoralism in a bid to turn Britain into Little America but without opportunity for all. She laid the rotten egg that was to give birth to the boom and bust, bail out the bankers, economy that is taking us all to hell in a handcart right now. Worst of all she gave employers permission to stop treating their workers as people and, instead, view them in the same way they would view a disposable asset. She changed the employment laws to make this possible. It was at this point that England stopped being a Christian country and became a machine without morality. Ironically, it was the young who jumped on her bandwagon from hell. The tragedy is that it is now the young who have no hope because of Thatcher's destruction of society.
Thatcher got rid of the concept of job security, a job for life, that had been part of English self-mythology for much of the Twentieth Century. This created an underclass of long term unemployed, poor people, many of whom did anything legal and illegal to stay alive or found temporary relief in promiscuous sex, drugs and drink. And these people started treating each other in the way employers treated them, as expendable. Couples split up as quickly and easily as companies downsized and sold off assets. There is no moral compass in England today because Thatcher brought her jackboots down on it and smashed it to smithereens.
It is the children and grandchildren of the working people Thatcher screwed who rioted in our streets last year. They are the young people joining gangs and killing each other. They are the drug takers and drug pushers. They are the thieves steeling lead of church roofs and mugging each other for cell phones. And why shouldn't they? We live now in a post-Thatcherism cesspit of of personal greed fed by new-atheists telling us that we are machines programmed with selfish genes. These young people have seen first hand that there is absolutely no point in being part of society because, as Thatcher said, there is now no such thing as society. There is no point saving for the future because when they throw you on the scrapheap the first thing they take off you is your savings. You might as well spend every penny you earn as soon as it hits your bank account and enjoy yourself now so at least you have some happy memories to look back on when you are queuing up outside the job-centre waiting for some patronising git of a civil servant to quiz you about how hard you looked for a job in the passed week.
No, respecting the young is not good enough. If we do not start respecting their parents and grandparents; if we don't start providing security of employment and decent wages for working people, if we don't stop rewarding the parasites and start rewarding the people whose sweat fuels the economy, then young people will just laugh in our faces because they are not stupid and they can see from what happened to their parents that there is no such thing as respect in our society anymore and no God-bothering, over-privileged schoolteacher, who would stab his best friend in the back and who obviously disrespects the whatever percent of our population who were born gay, is going to persuade them otherwise.
Oh, happy new year, by the way.