An opinion by Tony Orman
In February last year NewstalkZB reported New Zealand had the highest death rate for teenagers and young people among 19 of the world’s developed, wealthy countries.
“It also ranks poorly in terms of adolescent suicide, pregnancies and deaths related to cancer and respiratory illness,” according to British healthcare think tank Nuffield Trust.
Neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis told NewstalkZB’s Kerre McIvor that the results were concerning.
“We’ve got this idea that New Zealand is this wonderful, clean, green, beautiful nation that is a wonderful place to raise children, so this paints a different picture.”
There’s a combination of reasons, and it’s important not to only focus on one statistic, warned Dr Prudence Stone of Unicef New Zealand.
The high suicide rate ties in with other data, showing for instance child poverty, high rates of teenage pregnancies or families where neither of the parents have work.
New Zealand also has “one of the world’s worst records for bullying in school”, says Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundations New Zealand.
He explains there is a “toxic mix” of very high rates of family violence, child abuse and child poverty that need to be addressed to tackle the problem.
Frankly New Zealand has lost its way as a society ever since the no-liberal experiment termed “Rogernomics”, was unleashed on New Zealand’s 4 million people in 1984 when the David Lange-led government was elected.
The year “1984” was a remarkable coincidence, for George Orwell wrote his masterpiece novel of the same name in which people were subservient to Big Brother government.
Orwell’s prophetic novel may in detail, not have come about. But there is little doubt 2020 represents hard nationalism, a loss of democracy, frustration and cynicism with xenophobia, homo-phobia, hate speech and at times hatred adding up to confusion.
Today there is fragmentation and division—not necessarily excessive authority but a conflicting contradictory mess of fake news, true news and self interest groups baying for the biggest slice of the cake. Selfishness and greed are paramount.
Is it any wonder teenagers are confused and bewildered?
And why in New Zealand with just 5 million people and the “wonderful, clean, green, beautiful” image as Nathan Wallis put it?
It’s not just teenagers who have lost their way. People have, society has.
Allow me to explain. We’ve just celebrated Labour Day with a public holiday on Monday 26 October to celebrate the 40 hour working week. But here’s the really ironic twist – for many, the 40 hour working week now doesn’t happen – it’s been eroded – it’s history.
Yet I recall back about 1970, politicians said to prepare for earlier retirement and more leisure time in the Autumn of our years. However something has reversed that and it probably began in 1984 with Rogernomics.
And because of the burgeoning cost to government of superannuation, the occasional talk surfacing is to extend the retirement age to 67 or even 70. But it’s a double edged sword. At the other edge, for school leavers and teenagers, job opportunities will diminish because older people may be forced to carry on working.
Most politicians seem not to have comprehended that the State will have to pay unemployment benefits to youngsters unable to get jobs.
And the impact is not positive on many youngsters. The social impact can be devastating with the self-esteem of many teenagers plummeting. That then manifests itself in disgruntled bored youth and sometimes aggressive behaviour and crime – at great cost to the country. And tragically even suicide as shown by NZ’s abnormally high youth suicide rates.
Successive New Zealand governments have slyly eroded our standard of living in economic terms so that a household can no longer exist on one average income but needs at least two average incomes to sustain a living for two adults and two children. The situation is aggravated by a rampant consumer-driven economy spawned under the free market neo-liberal Rogernomics mantra.
And have the new wave of “liberated” mothers got it wrong? As a youngster my father worked, my mother was at home. Should today’s liberated mothers mock their mothers for being the vital home manager?
The trouble is while the modern woman may delude herself she’s alive and active being “busy”, the reality is she (and her husband) are in danger of being exhausted from being workaholics with inevitable burnout. Weekends can become recuperation rather than leisure.
I’m not against someone working if they want to, but if they put themselves under severe stress and have no leisure time and particular for the young family, what’s life really about?
And severe stress undermines health – down the track – more cost to the State.
Similarly the right to retire at age 65 (or 60 as it used to be in New Zealand) should be an option. Perhaps we need a massive culture shift not only collectively but individually??
What we need is to restore the 40 hour working week and then with a clear conscience, celebrate it honestly.
As We Once Were
Look at New Zealand today and compare it to yesteryear.
One of the paradoxes is that while our economic standard of living measured by GDP and material goods such as washing machines, television sets, mobile phones and cars is high, we have lost the art of living and attaining happiness.
In the 1970s New Zealanders had an empathy with the land, were outdoor people, the Kiwi face was weather-beaten and smiling, skills were muscular and the work ethic was overall high and productive. Our heroes were the likes of Ed Hillary and Colin Meads, Bert Sutcliffe and Yvette Williams.
Each household drew sustenance from the land or even the home vegetable plot.
Technology and changed social attitudes have eroded that. We are becoming a weaker society, fragmented by division and self interest, intolerance while physically people have succumbed to the weaknesses of an indoor society where weekend recreation is a trip to the supermarket.
People have developed the flabbiness of a sedentary society.
Teenagers lack confidence and self esteem.
It’s often disguised by a veneer of arrogance and aggressiveness and can manifest itself in teenagers stealing cars and even sadly and horrifically, committing murder.
The value of the outdoors is being neglected.
I did Compulsory Military Training (CMT) which almost every 18 year old undertook. I went into the three month course, grizzling but came out smiling. It had only positive benefits.
It instilled self esteem and made for better apprentice citizens and we were physically fit.
Why not reinstate CMT but adapt it to be like an Outward Bound course?
There are a multitude of tasks that trainees could undertake, tasks which bureaucracies seem unable to cope with. I think of the inept Department of Conservation and the need to maintain tracks and huts on public land, combat the invasion of wilding pines which DOC has sat on its hands over, the waste left after clear felling of pines which could be collected and cut into firewood for needy families and pensioners and a host of restoration projects of wetlands and native trees.
Along the way trainees – both male and female – would be taught firearm skills and safety and respect for firearms, instead of the phobic fear that politicians and even the prime minster seem to have.
Teach youngsters trapping of possums and the utilisation of the resource for meat and fur. Trap predators instead of using toxic, ecosystem poisons.
Teach fishing and bushcraft skills – and more outdoor related education.
But basically governments have failed because of their myopic pursuit of the dollar, based on GDP. Uncontrolled economic growth is a fallacy. Governments have pursued growth with a maniacal passion and no foresight or vision.
“Maximum growth – we need more people” has been the mantra. John Key’s vision as a tourism minister was short-sightedly “more and more tourists” instead of focussing on fewer but quality affluent tourists that give added value. That was his vision for dairying too with a favouritism to corporate farming with unbridled expansion into dry rainfall areas.
Consequently water quality suffered with dangerous increasing nitrate levels while irrigation demands depleted the aquifer and over flows.
The system is flawed concentrating under GDP solely on growth and more and more dollars. What is needed is ditching GDP and implementing Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that considers three factors – economic, social and environmental.
The youth of the country suffer more than any other sector.
We should be encouraging young New Zealanders into the outdoors. But sadly government priorities and policies don’t give incentive but even spawn disincentives by way of policies. One impediment to access to the outdoors is increasing foreign and corporate ownership of New Zealand farms resulting in locked gates in contrast to once when family farms willingly gave access.
Rivers that youngsters once swam and fished in, have had flows depleted by irrigation for corporate dairying. In turn, nitrates and other pollution have fouled water quality.
Alarmingly the majority of NZ’s lowland rivers are rated unfit for swimming.
New Zealanders are not getting outdoors. Young New Zealanders are losing their connection with the outdoors while youth obesity, mental health and suicide rates are unacceptably high for a country of just 5 million people.
For youngsters the outdoors used to be a readily available indispensable class-room. The sweet success of catching a trout or perhaps a kahawai, shooting a rabbit, climbing a mountain or canoeing a river were personal achievements which importantly built self-esteem in youngsters.
Besides tramping, fishing and hunting encourage observation, analytical reasoning and a respect for Nature. And often a lesson was that to achieve in the outdoors, you have to sweat and slog it out. It instills a work ethic.
In New Zealand’s egalitarian society, anyone can fish or hunt. It was a legacy the first European settlers instilled into the new colony in order to escape the feudal system of Britain where for example, the best trout fishing, deerstalking or pheasant shooting is the preserve of the wealthy minority.
In effect, in New Zealand the kid down the street may go trout fishing on equal terms and rights as the city’s top solicitor, doctor, baker and the candlestick maker or even the Governor General or Prime Minister. Indeed at least two former Prime Ministers have been keen fishermen. The late Jack Marshall a National government PM, was a very keen trout fisherman. The much respected Labour government PM Norman Kirk was a hunter in his younger days and an ardent fisherman.
New Zealand could do with a few more practical keen fishing-hunting persons – male and female – in Parliament.
A Horizon survey of sporting participation rates in 2012 showed fishing had more than five times more people participating than rugby. Twenty-six percent enjoyed fishing while just five percent played rugby.
A feeling of achievement for a youngster in catching a kahawai
Fishing v Rugby
When it came to “getting off the couch”, 25.5 percent of adult men and 18 percent of women fished while with youth, about 35 percent went fishing.
Yet government, society and media gave far more attention to rugby and its sedentary sofa spectators than active participation in outdoor recreation such as fishing.
The Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations chairman Andi Cockroft said New Zealanders were being duped by an “imagined Godzone self portrayal”. He said the outdoors is a great playground for youngsters to learn observational and outdoor skills, to get physical exercise and mental stimulation and good values, but were being eroded by development, exploitation and bureaucratic policies.
“The fact is we are not serving young people well and government policies are blocking access for the public to the outdoors,” he said.
Policies of government often are factors. There are now dirty rivers where rivers like Canterbury’s Selwyn once a fully flowing, clean clear river full of trout is now algae infested and virtually biologically dead. Many other rivers have summer warnings of toxic algae due to depleted flows and nutrient leaching.
Other government policies adversely impacted directly or indirectly on the public’s outdoors. The widespread use of poisons such as 1080 was not only unjustified but ecologically disruptive and poisoning public lands. Who wants to tramp, fish or hunt in an area top dressed with toxic baits and smelling of death?
An open door policy of successive governments over decades to encourage foreigners to buy farms and in particular high country and farm land often results in locked gates and denials of access. Saltwater fisheries mis- management gave commercial fishing companies interests far higher ranking than recreational fishing.
Yet in economic terms, recreational fishing stimulates over a billion dollars a year in economic activity.
The list goes on and on, where governments out of ignorance, have let the public and particularly youngsters down by policies allowing the despoiling of the outdoors.
The solution to helping young Kiwis out of their predicament is a recognition of the priceless value of the outdoors whether it be fishing, hunting, tramping or other recreation, to youngsters.”
From once being an outdoor-minded people, New Zealanders have become sedentary, stressed, uncertain and often lost. The youth statistics mirror that.
It should not be forgotten that today’s youth are tomorrow’s adult citizens.
Investing in the well-being of youth makes for a better society in the years ahead.
Below:- A wild pig success! “Often a lesson is to achieve success in the outdoors, you have to sweat and slog it out. It instills a work ethic in youngsters.”
Footnote: Tony Orman is a Marlborough based retiree, part-time journalist and author and still an active keen outdoors Kiwi.