Monday, 21 February 2011

The Roots of Empathy; Antidote to a CareLESS Society

Today's Montreal Gazette reports on a disturbing trend in Canada and elsewhere - we are less caring and more individualistic. Read the artice:


Poll paints a self-absorbed, less-caring Canada of the future

Younger Canadians are more concerned about themselves and money

By HENRY AUBIN, The Gazette January 22, 2011
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What will the Canadians of tomorrow be like? We've heard a lot about Canada's changing ethnic and racial makeup. But what about its evolving values and aspirations?
An ambitious poll by a Paris-based think tank provides hints. It probes the values of tomorrow's ruling generation -the 16-to-29 age bracket -in 25 countries.
The poll suggests that Canada's up-and-coming generation could be more individualistic and materialistic than the preceding one. Retirees, take note: This generation could be less committed to Canada's social safety net.
The poll for the centre-right Fondation pour l'innovation politique surveyed 1,000 young people in each country last summer. For comparison's sake, it also polled 300 people aged 30 to 50, which includes the last several years of the baby-boom generation -sometimes called the "Me Generation."
The results suggest that the self-centredness characterizing many baby-boomers has intensified among the generation that comes on their heels. The poll finds that 47 per cent of young respondents in Canada feel that it is more important for society to reward individual performance than to share prosperity more equitably. That compares with 39 per cent of their elders.
Indeed, 54 per cent of young people in Canada (about the same as in the U.S.) say they want to "earn a lot of money" -only in China and India is the eagerness for wealth greater.
Having children takes the back seat: Only 29 per cent of young Canadians want them, down from the preceding generation's 45 per cent.
As well, 62 per cent of young Canadians say an ideal society should be characterized by the lowest possible taxes rather than by the optimal social benefits (exceeded only by the Americans, at 72 per cent). And 44 per cent of the Canadians say they are not ready to pay for retirees' social benefits. Only in the U.S. and countries with economic crises such as Greece, Japan and Italy is this sentiment stronger.
To be sure, these samplings of opinion are too small to be authoritative. Still, the results do tend to be consistent with other research.
Take, for example, studies on "empathetic concern" - an emotional response to another person's distress. A researcher at the University of Michigan, Sara Konrath, recently wrote that university students today are "about 40 per cent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait."
This coincides with a rise in narcissism, or self absorption, across North America. The popularity of social networks such as Facebook, with their culture of self, might be one factor, says Konrath. She also says that empathy suffers when parents drill into children the importance of success in a hyper-competitive world -getting into the best schools, making the team, winning the game, getting into top universities. More than ever, it seems, beating out others determines worth.
What are the implications of this societal change for public policy?
It's good news for the right.
The idea that the affluent have a duty to help the less fortunate is on the wane. The next generation of political leaders might lack motivation for giving generous social benefits to the poor and old folks (as well as lack money, thanks in part to the public debt the old folks helped rack up).
Don't expect armies of volunteers to compensate for the cutbacks in personnel in health and social services. Growing self-centredness could mean that the current decline in volunteerism will continue. (Governor-General David Johnston's excellent plan to encourage volunteerism is going against the current.)
Don't expect today's Canadians to start producing more children. (Indeed, Quebec's
eight-year upswing in births ended in 2010, and demographers predict we're entering a plateau period.) More than ever, population increase would have to come mostly from immigration.
The poll's most sunny finding is that young Canadians are more satisfied with their country's "general situation" than are their peers in any other country. The satisfaction rate here stands at a robust 68 per cent, well ahead of the runner-up Australians and Chinese (both at 61 per cent). Americans, coping with joblessness, are way back at 35 per cent.
There's an irony in this contentment. The values and ambitions of this rising generation could do much to alter the fundamentally caring, generous character of today's Canadian society -the very society with which this same generation finds such satisfaction.
haubin@montrealgazette.com
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My sister posted this article on Facebook along with the status update, "Does anyone have ideas about how to turn this ship around?" Well, I answered, "Yes I do. And it's a Canadian programme called Roots of Empathy. Mary Gordon, an educator and social entrepreneur, recognized this selfsame trend in 1996 and decided to create a schools programme that would teach young children to be caring, kind and confident. Fifteen years later, the evidence is overwhelming. Roots of Empathy works and word is spreading. With the impetus of the Ashoka Globalizer Award, Roots of Empathy and its sister programme for even younger children, Seeds of Empathy, will be in most G20 countries within the next ten years.

Canada has a long and distinguished history of international consensus building and peacemaking. I am proud that my fellow Canadian Mary Gordon is building on this great tradition.
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