The explosion of riots in the United Kingdom this week has been alarming to observers around the world. The polite, stoic “keep calm and carry on” sensibility is a dated stereotype of British culture, of course, but so engrained in the collective unconscious that watching the nation’s young quite literally rip cities to shreds is nothing sort of shocking.
The conversations the riots have ignited, however, have become almost as uncomfortable to face as the images of looting sprayed across news channels. The UK is now being forced to address fundamental social problems that have, until recently, been studiously ignored. Although government and law enforcement officials have been quick to label the disorder as gang-related criminal activity that has simply escalated in this one instance, the reality is much harsher: in the UK, as in all Western nations—including Canada—a large subset of the population feels the system has failed them. They’re mostly young people, often immigrants or first generation, who have been held back by unemployment, lack of access to education, or other socioeconomic hurdles. They have watched the generations before them drive the world’s economy to the brink of disaster through greed and mismanagement; outsource or eliminate jobs with concern for nothing but the bottom line; and undermine the social net they themselves benefitted from and now refuse to extend to the next generation.
Although they are now in the spotlight, such problems aren’t limited to the UK. Despite what its government leaders desperately repeat ad nauseum in the media, the United States is clearly in the middle of a full-blown economic disaster. Years of political infighting and ignorance of the plight of average Americans have left the nation with crumbling infrastructures, finances in shambles, and a soaring unemployment rate. From the highly educated to the poor illiterate, more and more American youth are finding themselves struggling to obtain work, and it is taking a psychological toll on a national level. As in the UK, a generation is suffering the results of decades of corruption and incompetence among elected officials, and a social welfare system that eroded almost to nothing.
Even with the relatively strong economy Canadians still enjoy, problems are simmering here as well. For instance, one of the current government of Canada’s most scrutinized new mandates has been to propose tough, new crime legislation, particularly for youth. This plan has been quite publicly denounced both at home and abroad—and our government’s refusal to listen to experts on the subject of crime and punishment has become baffling and embarrassing. The general consensus amongst statisticians and crime analysts is that crime rates in Canada are dropping and have been for some time. Yet in the face of overwhelming evidence, the government does not propose investing in education or programs to improve employment accessibility. No, they’re drawing up plans to spend billions of dollars on new prisons. Sadly, it’s clearly part of the plan that young Canadians, who would have been subject to rehabilitation instead of prosecution under the old system, will end up filling a significant portion of these new prisons. As in the US and UK, a growing proportion of the population is falling through the cracks in Canada—and the cracks are still widening.
Studies have shown, time and time again, that prevention is key to lowering the youth crime rate, not harsh punishment that is supposed to serve as a deterrent. Such a deliberate disregard for facts presented as government policy is troubling, and does not bode well for what Canada’s next generation will become.
It is becoming more and more apparent that the problems faced by the large Western nations today run much deeper than random riots and petty youth crime; tough talk and crackdowns by government cannot solve them. The leaders of these countries need to face reality and tackle these long-simmering social problems directly: prevention, education, funding and support for programs that encourage and foster a more prosperous young generation. They need to examine the fundamental flaws in economic and social policies to improve accessibility for those in need. The political wrangling, greed and mismanagement that have left young people with no future must end.
Until the people in charge come to understand that they must help all level of society— and not simply look after their own interests—there will be more anger, more violence, more riots. This will quickly become a catastrophe of their own making.