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Why we need a cultural shift for a humane, productive, and sustainable future  

Professor Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard

A child in a red uniform sits on a carpet in a nursery and plays with blocks of LEGO whilst another child does the same in the background.

Early childhood development represents one of the best investments we can make for the long-term health, wellbeing and happiness of society.

The benefits of investing in young children and their families are well documented – for the here and now, as well as for their future life outcomes and society as a whole. Early childhood development lays the foundations for educational achievement, responsible citizenship, and life-long physical and mental health. Beyond the individual benefits of investing in young children, recent research indicates that prioritising early childhood investments in the UK alone could generate £45.5 billion in value added for the national economy each year. That said, we also know that widespread public knowledge about the vital importance of the early childhood period is limited, and much work needs to be done in the UK to change how the public views and treats the early years.

Bold change requires effective leadership

No single sector can shoulder sole responsibility for improving the lives of all children, particularly because prioritising early childhood development requires the alignment of multiple interacting influences, including public opinion, a complex economy, and a lively political environment. Businesses have much to gain (and potentially contribute) by supporting greater societal attention to the early childhood period—particularly as it affects their ability to recruit and retain a productive workforce that includes parents of young children. Progress in achieving larger positive impacts on the current well-being and future life prospects of all children would be enhanced by using advances in the science of early childhood development to stimulate fresh thinking. Ambitious goals also require the bold leadership of change agents who can work across sectors to drive a shared vision for the future. Business is an exceptionally well-positioned and relatively untapped source of creative ideas and “can-do” leadership that is vital to accomplish lasting change.

Ultimately, we need a cultural shift

The change that is necessary to achieve this vision begins with thinking about how to better support families with young children, building (and valuing) the skills and relational competencies of early childhood professionals, redesigning the systems of services that children and families receive, and assuring the effective leadership that significant changes require. Stated simply, understanding the fundamental importance of the early years needs to become deeply embedded in the basic fabric of society if we are going to achieve truly transformative change in attitudes and behaviour. We need to move toward a society that recognises how investing in its youngest members benefits not only the children themselves but all of us together. And as our knowledge about the process of early development grows, each one of us can find our own role in nurturing the emerging capacities and skills that create a strong foundation for a humane and prosperous society.

Culture change typically moves slowly but there are times when it can happen quickly. The dramatic impacts of rapidly changing technologies on how we think and behave as a society are one clear example—how we see ourselves and others, how we communicate, how we learn, how we work, and how we use our leisure time. Embracing the importance of early childhood development with the same speed will require vigorous leadership from all corners of society – including business – to work actively and intentionally toward common goals, to align agendas and resources in support of both short-term outcomes and long-term impacts, and to build broad public will to address the nature and magnitude of the challenge.

For me personally, caring about the well-being of young children began (and continues) as a moral responsibility. Over time, that mindset evolved to acknowledge the added value of also addressing the financial returns to societies that invest in the early foundations of human capital. Now, my work is focused on the untapped potential of aligning cutting-edge science with the lived experiences of families with young children and providers of essential early childhood services to enhance opportunities for young children who are left behind at the starting gate.

Ignoring the power of these three motivations for investment places the lives of millions of young children in jeopardy. Mobilizing a diversity of perspectives and interests around a shared vision for everyone’s children holds the key to a flourishing society.