Bringing up neoliberal baby: post-austerity anxieties about (social) reproduction

Neoliberalism eats its young, requiring higher and higher ‘attainment’ for diminishing reward. The relentless individualisation of late neoliberalism reads structural failures as failures of character.

Ruth Cain
14 July 2016

Flickr/woupa02. Some rights reserved.

Sentimentality, moralising and anxiety about children and childrearing is hardly new, but in post-austerity neoliberalism, childhood (including child safety, child nutrition, child health, mental health, and education) has become increasingly politicised. Child welfare (safety, nutrition, education, physical and mental health) is deemed of vital public importance, despite the increasing privatisation of responsibility for families and children precipitated by the neoliberal asset-stripping of welfare states and social infrastructures. Child welfare has thus become something of a ‘crisis’ discourse, with experts, politicians and public seemingly uncertain whether to blame parents for being ‘overanxious’ or simply incompetent. As financial language creeps into the terminology of our closest relationships, the middle class child is a parental investment - while others, such as migrant children and the children of benefit claimants, even working parents claiming tax credits - are treated as social costs only. The terror behind the frantic aspiration of ‘intensive’ middle-class parenting is a fall into the social abyss reserved for ‘losers’.

Children of ‘losers’ are easy to identify by recognisable markers of low social status and poor parenting: obesity, low educational achievement and ‘antisocial behaviour’. The ‘chav mum’, memorably stereotyped as Vikki Pollard in the reactionary British comedy show Little Britain, purports to represent wasteful lower class proliferation at its consumption-obsessed worst. The anxious cultural focus on children and young people is replete with blatant, often class- and race-based contradictions; for while states appear to be opting out of the work of social reproduction, allowing youth unemployment to spiral and child poverty to deepen, the achievements and wellbeing of wealthier children are fetishized

One locus of child-focused social and cultural anxiety is the panic and mourning around certain missing, neglected or abused children, who are selected above other victims by the media for attention. Madeleine McCann has become the primary recent example of this ‘preferred’ victim type, the ‘missing white girl’ - an attractive, white blonde child whose disappearance crystallised a number of anxieties around affluent middle-class parenting. The body, habits and culpability of her mother, Kate, were obsessively and often viciously scrutinised after the McCanns left a holiday apartment unlocked at a Portugal resort while they went to eat with friends. The contemporaneous case of Shannon Matthews in Darlington, Yorkshire, highlighted child value and culpable parenting in a different class setting. When Shannon was officially reported missing the UK’s Sun tabloid newspaper launched a passionate appeal on her behalf; while perceived to be a victim of violence, she was rendered temporarily valuable. Once the kidnapping was discovered to be fake, her mother Karen was vilified as the embodiment of ‘Broken Britain’, with her dependence on benefits a particular feature of the scandal stories.

Neoliberal parenting anxiety mixes traditional fears about the decline of nations with dashes of new terrors. A revitalised eugenics claims that the poor and immigrants are breeding too many offspring requiring increasingly authoritarian forms of control. Simultaneously, the concept of the valuable/high-achieving child is entwined with up-to-date fears of increasing global competition and the economic threat from Asia. Thus Amy Chua, a Chinese-American Yale law professor writing about bringing up two ultra-accomplished daughters in an Ivy League University town, emerged as the poster girl for anxiety-inducing ‘elite’ parenting. The primary battle for the ‘Tiger Mother’ was her daughter’s refusal to continue playing orchestral violin. Chua was alternately feted, notably by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in a speech on ‘life chances’, for her tireless brilliance in pushing her daughters to heights of achievement, and accused of child abuse.

In the same speech, Cameron emphasised traditionally Conservative, private family values, such as ‘good’ parenting, marriage, stable households with a father in place, and the inculcation of a Tigerish work ethic, and de-emphasised the role of the state in maximising childrens’ ‘life chances’. He noted that elite schools such as Eton, which he attended, have higher expectations of their pupils than many state schools; funding and other economic disparities between private and state schools were not mentioned. Neither was the specific microsystem of social reproduction which assures that the majority of elite-educated British children (particularly sons) transition smoothly from Eton or Harrow to Oxford or Cambridge Universities, and thereafter to the City or positions of major responsibility. The infamous Bullingdon Club photograph, featuring Cameron and former Mayor of London Boris Johnson in formal wear, posing arrogantly during their years at Oxford University, has been withdrawn from copyright; but in 2013 the Daily Mail reproduced it, in an article profiling the current Club members, symbolising the self-reproduction of a British corporate and financial elite secured though access to ‘top quality’ education and the increasingly unequally distributed social and economic capital which begets ‘success’.

A powerful case for increasing public investment in child welfare, education and health, conceived of as existing beyond the family unit, has begun to be made. Nonetheless, the relentless individualisation of late neoliberalism, in which structural failures are read as failures of character, continues to emphasise privately-managed, privately-funded education and intensive childrearing. Widespread precarity and the growth of a low-paid, highly-educated ‘cognitariat’ - knowledge has never been so cheap - also devalues education into a preparation period for employment. Neoliberalism eats its young, requiring higher and higher ‘attainment’ for diminishing reward. As the Bullingdon photograph symbolises, the reproduction of increasingly enclosed, self-protective elites is deeply imbricated in the recent decline of social mobility and rising inequality. Places at the table of the super-rich are limited; the ‘good’ and aspirational children of the less wealthy must presumably compete to enter a ‘service class’ of financiers, lawyers, consultants and other wealth-protectors. Following the financial crash and the dubious ‘recovery’, and while the egregious mistakes and greed of the financial sector are still state-funded, it is hard to envisage a peaceful and prosperous future even for these luckier, harder-working future citizens. Until investment in the social future is urgently prioritised, the current social crisis of permanent austerity will continue to be reproduced.


This contribution was part of the Beyond the Zombie Economy conference hosted by the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, and funded by the ESRC, for more details visit

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