The North East needs to lead the way in ditching labels

It is time to celebrate the uniqueness individuals have. Newcastle is becoming home to many new students, starting the next exciting chapters of their lives, joining the eclectic mix of people who live and work here.

It is important, from a community perspective, that they are afforded the opportunity to become part of the local society, rather than being stopped at the first hurdle due to perceived differences.

From an evolutionary point of view, humans are not very good at managing communities over 150. Beyond that number, we don’t get to know or remember people as individuals and we tend to have to use some form of “pigeonholing” to make sense of who they are. We use visual indicators or limited knowledge to ascribe a trait to help us establish whether they are likely to be friendly or perhaps not.

This way of identifying large groups of people with similar life status washes out any sense of individuality and so we never see the hopes, dreams, aspirations and unique individual qualities of the person. We risk the danger of stereotyping, making often massive generalisations about what a group of people want or contribute whether they are “the elderly,” “students”, “northerners”, “scroungers” and the list goes on.

The problem of generalisation and stereotyping is that they are oversimplified, crude ways of seeing these groups and we develop psychological biases towards them in ways that are often not helpful. And as a multicultural, multigenerational city, we need to lead the way in making a difference.

Term such as “baby boomers” or “millennials” may be helpful in a crude analysis of the market and there may be some characteristic traits of those groups. For example, it is true that the over 50s command 80% of the wealth and so there are predominant economic considerations around that demographic. Equally, young people tend to be more technologically savvy and incorporate it readily into their lifestyles in real-time terms.

However, there are always contradictions. There are well-off young people and octogenarians taking computer courses. Take any segment of society, and for every positive attribute that is identified with them, there is either a counterbalancing contradiction or detraction. Young people, for example are often seen as community focused and less ego-based, yet are often tarred with allegations of hedonism and disinterest in others.

It is easy to make assumptions that all people behave as part of their given pack, but this is a dangerous assumption. For example, not every baby boomer voted for Brexit any more than every young person voted to remain. Not everybody voted to leave around sovereignty and immigration issues, some just voted because they had a sense it was wrong to remain and preferred to make our fortunes on our own. This is the problem of qualifying things in an information-based world. We often try to make sense of things by generating information that can be processed rather than appreciated.

In a planet 6 billion people, a national population in excess of 50 million, and even a city of 296,500, it is inevitable there will be some biases and prejudices. But when it results in the traumatic expulsion of people with sickness from a social security system that cannot see them as individuals but simply a government target to be achieved, then we have taken a step back in our humanity. We are all in danger to being reduced to a number, a statistic or a face in the crowd, relinquishing our individuality.

And once we do that, what’s next for us?