If you’re not a regular to pages five or six of Switzerland’s German-language dailies you will have missed the domestically significant report about a government plan that will soon allow unaccompanied six-year-olds to travel for free on public transport. The background to this was the front-page story a few months earlier about a youngster who was issued a hefty fine for not having a ticket for her school commute. While it didn’t cause a huge stir, it did seem a bit heavy-handed and fiddly to issue a 100 Swiss-franc fine to an unwitting five-year-old. This being Switzerland, rules are rules and after a small fuss the regional transport operator dropped the fine to 50 francs. This being Switzerland, it’s also the norm that children as young as five or six navigate their way around cities and the countryside to travel to school, the shops or to visit friends. When a visiting colleague recently asked about this phenomena (“I couldn’t believe I saw these tiny kids crossing in front of trams and walking down busy streets!”) someone in our Zürich office explained that going it alone at a young age is part of the education system: you learn to be independent early on and finding your way to school and around your neighbourhood is very much a part of Swiss society.
On Friday public schools wrapped up for the year and they will resume in mid-August. As I did my morning circuit students were walking, cycling and scootering to schoolyards around the district – not a parent or chaperone in sight. While many Swiss cities are enjoying a boom in expat arrivals with their various talents and tax contributions there’s increasing tension around the bad habits many bring with them – particularly driving or escorting kids to school. As the Swissies see it, neighbourhoods shouldn’t be clogged with SUV shuttles and children should learn to think for themselves and function independently.
Also on Friday UK prime minister Boris Johnson decided that social media might be a good platform for a digital version of a town hall to take questions from the public and push across some key points that are nagging No 10 and many of the nation’s business leaders. Thanks to a combination of legislation, scare tactics and homegrown nannying, UK Inc is struggling to kick into gear as millions of people are either too scared or comfortable to go back to work. With some polite coaxing Boris used his Q&A format to suggest it was time his countrymen got back to their workplaces and resumed normal life. Unfortunately his message lacked much in the way of force (or support for working parents whose childcare arrangements have been scuppered by the pandemic) and rather than interrupting regular programming to make a proper appeal it was wedged in between myriad other topics posed by the public.
Make no mistake – the UK has a serious problem with getting its workforce back to office, shop, factory and studio floors. Over the past week the topic of getting people into the office has come up with business leaders of enterprises large and small. The founder of one of the UK’s most respected design businesses told me less than 10 per cent of his staff had returned to their London office while his offices in other countries are functioning with anywhere from 70 to 100 per cent of employees back on site. An advisor to one of Europe’s biggest retail groups said his client had just conducted an HR survey and they found 21 to 28-year olds were the most worried about their safety and the most resistant to going back to an office environment. And a woman in communications said her Asia teams were functioning just fine but the London team were scared of the office and didn’t want to travel for client meetings.
All of this brings us back to those six-year-olds making their own way to school and thinking for themselves. If you can function on your own from a young age, chances are that you’ll become reasonably resilient and know not only how to act responsibly but also to take appropriate action when things go wrong. What we’re witnessing in the UK and other pockets of the Anglosphere is the result of too much coddling of not just a younger generation but also grown-up citizens. Should anyone be all that surprised that millions are paralysed when they’ve lost the ability to think for themselves and are spoken to like children? Societies are looking for quick fixes and silver linings from this pandemic – one simple solution might be allowing for a bit more risk in daily life and letting the kids find their own way back to class come autumn.