Neoliberalism and the family: a question of ethics

by Pam Jarvis, Reader in Childhood, Youth and Education, Leeds Trinity University


Long before my university post, and even before I was a classroom teacher, I was a young mother in Thatcher’s Britain. In my mid-twenties, I had three small children, including twins, with less than three years between them, Thatcher’s policy for children under five was that they were their parents’ responsibility, so as we had no family close by to share childcare, I became a sort of stay at home mum until my oldest daughter was ten. I say ‘sort of’ because I started my first degree with the Open University, and began teaching adults in community education on a very part time basis directly after graduation.

It is difficult to communicate how different things were then; as L. P. Hartley says in The Go Between (1953)

‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’.

In 1980, Thatcher and her American contemporary Ronald Reagan began to introduce some culture shifting changes into Anglo-American society. There is evidence that Thatcher knew that seeding Neo-Liberalism was going to be a long process. In an interview with the Sunday Times in May 1981, she commented:

…it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Neo-liberalism is an attempt to purify and strengthen capitalism. Everything must serve the interests of big business. Its core philosophy is that all adults should be compliant, uncritical consumer/ workers within the national economy in order to stimulate national and international money markets to the maximum extent. This is the change that Thatcher and Reagan worked so hard to bring about: that human life should be primarily governed by economics, with human lives becoming subordinate to “capital”. As this philosophy advanced, mothers of the early 21st century became routinely expected to pay professionals to care for very young children whilst they engaged in paid labour.

In a recent review of academic research on parenting in the UK, I entered a ‘foreign country’ that was very different to the one that I inhabited as a young mother. Recent texts speak of ‘intensive parenting’ being an intrinsic part of the over-arching Neo-Liberal project. The implication is that professional carers might be better qualified than the parents themselves to provide much of this ‘parenting’. There must be a ‘responsibilisation’ of parents, in which their primary role is ensure that their children become school – and thereafter, employment market – ready.


George Monbiot comments in ‘The Zombie Doctrine’:

‘So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology….. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.’

In this then, he implies that Neo-Liberalism is a form of totalitarianism. The picture of modern parenting that emerged from recent research tended to bear out this analysis:

parents feeling torn between paid labour and parenting, worried that they did not have enough time to do a good job in either role;

being constantly weighed down by the prospect of being negatively evaluated by others through exacting performance targets at work and losing self confidence in their parenting skills through images of ‘yummy and slummy mummies’ carried by relentless media feeds.


As parents my generation felt under-supported by the state, but many of our daughters (and sons) feel over-controlled, surveilled and continually criticised, not only by the state, but also by faceless others in the social media hall of distorted mirrors. Monbiot concludes

‘perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe [where individuals]… blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.’

If Neo-Liberalism has had such an enormous effect upon the daily lives of contemporary families, is it surprising that it also dictates the way that we construct our education system? Titus Alexander argues that Neoliberal societies uncritically base their education systems upon a business model, seeing education as the programming of learners as quickly as possible, through a mechanical ‘transmit and test’ approach – yet again the dominance of the economy over humanity.

This is particularly damaging to our youngest children, who are rushed through a developmental period in the pursuit of ‘school readiness’. This may fit an economy-dominated Neo-Liberal model of ‘education’, it does not make any type of ‘human sense’. In 2015, I commented:

‘taking short cuts in early childhood in pursuit of processing human beings into units of human capital as quickly as possible risks the production of “damaged goods”’.


Guy Roberts Holmes has written about the ‘datafication of the early years’ that results from the Neo-Liberal obsession for formally testing performance in high stakes statutory assessments to ensure the ‘accountability’ of their teachers. In this way young children also quickly become immersed in the evaluation anxiety that constantly stalks adults within Neo-Liberal societies.

As Terry Wrigley comments this is ‘bullying by numbers… business sets the moral and organisational standard for all human activity… even nursery education is justified in terms of economic benefit rather than the welfare of children’.

In conclusion, I see my present self as living in a very foreign country indeed, torn between the EU’s internationalised and the US Trumpist nationalist-protectionist versions of Neo-Liberalism; a perilous rock and a very hard place. The question is, where do we go now?

At the beginning of Thatcher’s premiership, the satirical author Douglas Adams commented on human unhappiness:

‘many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy’.

Perhaps if we could focus more intently on our shared humanity, particularly the vulnerable, ‘under construction’ humanity of our children, and less upon the ‘little green pieces of paper’ we might begin to find our way out of the ‘zombie doctrine’ of neoliberalism, and into the light.


For another comment on the effects of neoliberalism, see Stephen Ball’s Neoliberalism – how it travels and how it can be resisted

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