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Sunday, March 15, 2009

The alarming rise in the number of things people can't live without

According to the financial wisdom of the moment, "it's only when the tide goes out that you can see who's swimming naked". I'm not sure about that. Sometimes you never get to see. Whenever my children would come home talking about how much wealthier other people were I'd always quote my father who would say, you never know how well-off people are, you only know how much money they spend. He first said that to me when I was about eight and I returned from tea with a school friend saying "They're so rich. They've got two TVs and a dog." There's your nineteen-fifties, right there.

Wealth is even harder to assess nowadays when credit, cheap or otherwise, is regarded as a human right. Everybody knows that they have to cut back. That should mean working out what things they couldn't do without. But in the last ten years that threshold of comfort seems to have been raised dramatically. My parents considered a washing machine a necessity and a TV a luxury. They would be shocked at the things many people regard as standard today. People on presumably average earnings have things even I would consider luxuries: plasma-screen TVs, Sky subscriptions, Premiership season tickets, top of the range phones, expensive foreign holidays, gym memberships and cars designed for amusement as much as transportation. The issue doesn't seem to be wealth so much as expectation.

We had dinner recently with friends living in a lovely house that won't be worth what they paid for it for quite a while, if ever. We were talking, as middle-aged, middle-class people do right now, about the prospects for our university-age children. While we all know about tuition fees, student rents and the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder, we are also aware that people born in the last twenty-five years have grown up with mobile phones, designer beers, night clubs, jeans that come in at three figures and a couple of trips abroad a year. Luxuries like these, which were once the preserve of the rich, are now, thanks to credit, available to everyone who wants them and is prepared to live with debt. The underlying cause of the current malaise is the dramatic growth in the number of people who can do just that.

When I was in my twenties none of those things had been invented so they weren't options. That was a blessing. I didn't take a taxi until I was thirty. When I left college and got a job I had no expectation that life would suddenly become any better. That's not the case anymore. I meet people in their mid-twenties now whose education and background and media consumption has led them to believe that life ought to be a bit better than it has turned out to be. Everybody who works in the media can reel off the stories of the work experience person who quit after a few days because "this isn't what I thought I'd be doing." It could be that the ideal preparation for a life in the professions formerly known as glamorous was an upbringing of unrelieved dullness. Well, it's too late to get that back.

We are where we are. You're not going to have soup kitchens and bread lines. You're not going to turn Jonathan Ross's audience into Wilfred Pickles's audience. A lot of people, the young and the burgeoning section of the population who still think like the young, may cut down on the luxuries. On the other hand, because they don't regard them as luxuries so much as the possessions that define who they are, they may just extend their credit in order to hang on to them. It's perfectly possible that they might get through this unpleasantness without making more than token cutbacks. They will simply extend the amount of their loans and the term of their payback and comfort themselves with the thought that "something will turn up". After all, it's only what the government are doing.