Post-Liberal Futures: Implications for Children, Families, and Flourishing

Fixing what ails us, therefore, requires more than simply tweaking the current system; we must go beyond it.

by Jeff Bailey

When things are going badly, there is a tendency to double-down on familiar approaches: to do more of the same but with greater efficiency, or frequency, or effectiveness. And while sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed, occasionally poor performance is an indicator of deeper problems that no amount of efficiency-gains will fix. 

There is a growing sense that the West, and the U.S. in particular, has entered a period of stagnation. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of Americans “believe the country is headed for a dark future in which the middle class shrinks, the economy suffers, and life becomes more difficult for children, families and the elderly.” And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these concerns are not unfounded.

  • Life expectancy in the United States has declined for three consecutive years, a stunning development not seen in the U.S. for over a century.

  • Drug overdoses continue to set annual records. Since 1999, the number of drug overdose deaths has more than quadrupled.

  •  Mental health indicators continue to worsen. Loneliness is now considered by health professionals to be at epidemic levels, and deaths by suicide have climbed steadily over the past twenty years.

  •  Anxiety and depression in children, as well as other forms of psychological disorder, have increased continually and dramatically over the last several decades.

For those of us concerned about healthy children and flourishing families, such data raise important questions. Are these issues something that can be addressed simply by better treatment, or more comprehensive services? Or are their deeper trends at work in society, which must therefore be addressed at correspondingly deeper levels? 

In order to examine these trends, Capita partners with KnowledgeWorks to use futures thinking to develop ten-year forecasts focused on the well-being of children and families in light of current trends and future possibilities.  We look for non-obvious trends and signals on everything from data tracking to family configurations. We pay attention to the margins, in order to identify early indicators with future implications. Capita and KnowledgeWorks will release the first ten-year forecast next month.

A similar approach was taken in Capita’s recent white paper, Tomorrow is Now, which looks at five big ideas that focus on the future of children’s wellbeing. One of those big ideas is “Prepare for a post-liberal political future.” We argue that there is an emerging conversation – one that is moving from the margins to the mainstream – that questions many settled assumptions about how Western societies order their common life. 

These settled assumptions have commonly been referred to as “liberalism” – which does not, in this case, mean the opposite of “conservative”. Rather, liberalism refers to a cluster of shared agreements and laws across Western societies, such as individual rights, free trade, separate private and public spheres, and unregulated markets.

The liberal consensus has gone largely uncontested in recent decades, but emerging voices from left, right, and center are beginning to push back. While recognizing, and wishing to maintain, certain gains from liberalism (e.g., human rights and individual freedom), there is increasing concern about liberalism’s failures. Those on the left point to, for example, climate change and economic inequality; those on the right to the disintegration of family and community. And while the specifics in each diagnosis differ, there is agreement that what ails the West – from widening economic inequality to worsening mental health – are not simply flaws in the system known as liberalism. They are features. Fixing what ails us, therefore, requires more than simply tweaking the current system; we must go beyond it. A more flourishing future, it is argued, must be post-liberal. As British commentator Peter Franklin recently noted about post-liberalism, “a genuinely new kind of politics is tantalizingly close to breaking through.” 

To that end, our upcoming event in Washington, DC, “Post-Liberal Futures: Implications for Children, Families, and Flourishing”, will pay attention to this conversation. The aim of the workshop will not be to take sides in a theoretical political debate. Rather, in thinking about a more desirable future for children and families, the aim will be to better understand the critiques being leveled, to make the arguments accessible and tangible – and to consider in practical, interactive ways how we might work towards a more flourishing future in the imaginative space these debates open up.

Jeffrey Bailey, Ph.D. is Director of Strategy at Openfields. Previously he taught at Cambridge University, and was the Managing Director of the Centre for Social Justice, a policy think tank in London, England, where he advised government officials and nonprofit leaders on best practices related to poverty and economic opportunity. More recently, he has been a consultant to NGO leaders, school districts, and universities with a focus on strategic planning and performance metrics. He is a graduate of Duke University and Cambridge University, and lives with his wife and three children in Washington, DC.