Genre: Non-fiction, social sciences, history, public health
The Life Project is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books that focuses serious non-fiction from different realms like history, politics, science and philosophy. I really expected a lot from this book and it didn’t deliver.
The Life Project is written by journalist and editor of Nature Helen Pearson and tells the story of several longitudinal studies of people in Britain who are followed from birth to later life. There are three cohorts of people in the study, the earliest cohort are born just after the end of WW2.
The studies show that there are vast differences in health, social and educational outcomes between babies born into money and those who are born into poverty. The data shows unequivocally that babies born into poverty are less likely to become successful later in life. However, the good news is that being born into poverty isn’t a complete indicator of failure in life – that there were personality factors and other extraneous factors that meant individuals could rise above their harsh early life to become relatively successful in adult life.
These epidemiological studies were so powerful that they drove a lot of economic and social reform in the UK. The results of these studies shaped the evolution of the NHS, early education services and other social services in the UK that were designed to even out the playing field between rich and poor in the 20th Century. Which was a great thing to read about.
This book missed the most compelling storytelling opportunities for me. It treated the participants in the study as data points and didn’t really delve into their personal lives enough to make the storytelling meaningful. The writing seemed a bit condescending and patronising in how it describes people who are poor. It’s written in a way that is too detached and depersonalised. It analyses poverty from inside of a comfortable ivory tower of academia and not from the perspective of a person who is actually living in those conditions and experiencing poverty and how it limits one’s opportunities in many areas, even the invisible hand of worthlessness and the feelings of low self-esteem poverty engenders. None of that lived experience was present in the book.
The Life Project focuses a lot of energy on the lives of the researchers who ran the studies, their personality traits, the boring minutia of their lives and their struggles to get funding. These parts of the book didn’t really add anything to the storytelling and they weren’t compelling at all. I would have liked more detailed information on the study findings as well as more personalised stories of the individuals in the studies.
For a book that promised insight into the lives of 70,000 people, it didn’t really deliver.