Belfast Telegraph

Adult life isn’t difficult, it just takes a bit of common sense

By Fionola Meredith

Well, who'd have thunk it? It's just been reported that a hand-washing campaign in British hospitals, aimed at curbing the spread of superbugs, has saved an estimated 10,000 lives over four years.

It's been hailed as a ‘health miracle’; as one medical researcher said, “If hand hygiene were a new drug, pharmaceutical companies would be out selling it for all they were worth.”

Talk about stating the bleedin' obvious. Florence Nightingale insisted on rigorous hand-washing on the wards, as an obvious preventative measure against infection.

More than 100 years later, it seems that the message about the deadly risks of hand contamination is only just getting through to many of today's highly-qualified doctors and nurses.

It does makes you wonder about the value — or otherwise — of a good education. The numbers of people going to university have never been higher, but it often seems that simple common sense is in freefall.

Look at all those signs you see in offices (many of which are staffed by university graduates) like ‘Warning: this kettle is hot’, or ‘Please flush toilet after use’.

And then there are the packets of peanuts with the allergy warning, ‘May contain nuts’, or those little cartons of UHT milk which, guess what, ‘Contain milk’. Best of all is the hairdryer which comes with the warning label: ‘Do not use in shower’.

Of course, most of this derives from a corporate fear of litigation, which makes companies slap absurd disclaimers on everything in case a lactose-intolerant woman with a peanut allergy decides to save time by blow-drying in the shower with terrible results. (Shakespeare had a remedy for that: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers”; another useful lesson we have yet to learn.)

And we know these signs are daft. Nonetheless, they provide the backdrop for an over-regulated society, where people are not expected to be bright, are routinely addressed as though they are morons and so become dangerously accustomed to being told what to do.

Take the example of alcohol checks. In theory, that's a good idea — preventing underage youngsters from getting access to drink.

But then the checking inevitably gets out of hand, as in the case of a middle-aged woman who was prevented from buying a bottle of wine because her 23-year-old daughter couldn't provide ID.

In another case, a 17-year-old girl was not allowed to help her grandmother to carry her shopping, because there was alcohol in the bag.

A few over-zealous shop assistants, who should catch themselves on? Certainly. But it's also part of this worrying shift towards treating adults like wayward children, who must be kept under control.

No surprises that women are particular targets for this infantilisation — that's not new, it's been the case for millennia. In modern corporate culture, it often takes the form of characterising women as sickly, damaged little girls who need to be fixed.

Even our hair doesn't escape. Shampoos are sold to cure hair that is dry, frizzy, greasy, dull, brittle or even just ‘a little bit unhappy’. I don't know about you, but I don't have the time to stand in the chemist, agonising over the psychological state of my hair.

The trouble with being continually treated like a child is that it makes you more inclined to behave like one. If something goes wrong, we squeal like outraged piglets with the big bad wolf at the door, expecting the powers-to-be to sort it out immediately.

When the news broke that bmibaby flights from George Best Belfast City Airport were to be scrapped, I heard one guy on the radio, wailing that he couldn't get through on the phone to any other airline to book new tickets.

Now this is just wilful incompetence. Everyone knows you book flights online now. Do that, get your refund off BMI and all will be well. I promise you that the sky won't fall in.

The line between childhood and adulthood is becoming increasingly blurred in so many different ways. Slurping our sweet, milky takeaway coffees as we rush along the street, we're like addicted, overgrown babies who missed out on the breastfeeding stage.

Burbling away on Twitter, we fail to remember the complexity of life can't be reduced to 140 characters, or virtual friends aren't the same as real flesh-and-blood ones.

But this arrested development brings its own consequences.

Reduced responsibility makes us weak, dopey and vulnerable |to exploitation — whether it be from the state, or from big business.

Growing up may be painful, but it leaves us smarter and stronger in the end.

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