Once upon a time

Florence and Alexandra share Florence’s house. Their 70 year age gap and the warmth of their friendship captured people’s imaginations: 18 million people so far who have viewed a 2 minute film. Following Homeshare’s inclusion in a report on intergenerational approaches by our friends at United for All Ages, they told their story on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Homeshare is on the radar like never before and people are talking about the scourge of loneliness as far away as Canada. We’ve been on numerous national media channels and approached by potential partners, a funder, politicians and even a possible celebrity supporter.

Stories have never had so much power to change the world. A single person’s story can reach millions in moments. A single story can become scores, then hundreds of stories, then a social movement, almost overnight. It can mark the point at which a whole society changes how it thinks and feels about some of the most fundamental aspects of life: the way we relate to each other, the way power is distributed and used.

Meanwhile, the economic forces of our modern world can feel as pitiless as they ever had, excluding increasing numbers of us from the jobs, or housing, or education we need for a good life.

In recent months and years, we have seen our political systems, with all their supporting apparatus of bureaucracies and services, fail to manage and control both those kinds of forces. Social movements, based in people’s life experiences and how they feel about things, have caused election upsets and ended powerful careers. Those forces have shifted politics rapidly rightwards in some places and rapidly leftwards in others. Globalised economic forces have changed the housing and career expectations of a whole generation. Brexit could be read as the clash between economic prosperity as measured at a national level, and many people’s dissatisfaction with how they felt about their own life stories, their own power within that globalised economy.

Nowhere are the economics of modern life more brutal than in the economies of our long term care and support services. Nowhere is there a greater gap between the national stories government can tell about increased funding and people’s personal stories of greater crises and vanishing support. The translation of those stories into a social movement could be moments away. Everyone connected with public services is worried about them collapsing under the economic pressures of austerity. Those pressures are exacerbated in some parts of the system by the ability of large corporations to continue to extract profits from even the most broken economic models. It is equally likely though, in my view, that what breaks the settlement we have between voters and welfare state is a social movement, born out of personal stories of unacceptable care, miserable living, or unacceptable working conditions.

Our public service systems and organisations could not be less well prepared for that possibility. The courage and determination of the Justice for LB campaign, and others like it, have started to show us what can happen when people refuse to have their individual experiences dismissed by those who seem to feel the immediate interests of public service organisations are more important than the welfare of the people those organisations were set up to serve.

There is a chasm between what the public are told their public services are there to do, and far too many people’s experiences of them. We have a choice: to bridge that chasm or see our public services tumble into it.

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