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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.

16 comments:

Simon said...

I just spent the best part of the last ten years in large amounts of debt, thanks to an ex girlfriend and my stupid lack of the ability to say no to her at the time. I'm finally in the home strait, where I'm looking to be debt free by the end of the year. So the tightening of the belt that everybody is talking about has been my default setting for years. Some things simply aren't vital to your existence. I don't need a touch phone, hey, I'm of the opinion that I don't need a phone to talk to my mates as I'm walking down the road to meet them in the pub.

But that's the problem with luxuries, pretty soon they do seem like necessities...

Bright Ambassador said...

My dad, a Yorkshireman, when my mother would say "Ooh, look, THEY'VE got a nice car" would always reply with "I bet it's not paid for".

BLTP said...

DH: It has all just crept up on us. I was reading the other day for work a report on the privately rented property sector; one interesting fact was that the sector has the lowest level of central heating in the housing market, all except for student rented houses. The reasons were unclear but there seems to be reluctance by students(and their parents?) to go from GCH to the chilly icy student flats that were common less than a few years ago. You can’t blame students for wanting this but it all racks up the cost.
I have seen in my friends the “debt fatalism” you talk about, in that people’s debts are so high that taking the bus or making their own sarnies has no discernable effect on their bank balance so why deprive yourself in the short term of a new pair of shoes or a blow out weekend in Buda.

office pest said...

That's an excellent analysis DH, it ought to be a page in a Sunday newspaper somewhere.

Tim said...

Another excellent report. Your end of year bonus is surely a given.

"The ideal preparation for a life in the professions formerly known as glamorous was an upbringing of unrelieved dullness" made me think of Peggy Olson from Mad Men, her glam job at the agency and grey home life.

Incidentally, Peggy Olson Twitters, if you weren't already aware. Strange and slightly unsettling. But very compelling.

Archie Valparaiso said...

There goes next month's standout Word column thrown away on a weekend blog entry. (Not that I care particularly; I read both. But Mark Ellen might have good cause to be miffed.)

Joanne said...

I am only 20 years older than my brother's teenage daughters, but our life experiences are so different. My brother and I were brought up poor in the 1970s, while they were brought up middle-classed in the 1990s. They rarely travel on public transport and go abroad several times a year. I can't help but think they are going to get a terrible shock post-university when they have to fend for themselves financially.

Kirstie McCrum said...

Really enjoyable, informed piece on a subject with endless angles. Thanks so much.
The "something will turn up" ethos really strikes me - I work in a media office of young professionals with the same daily financial concerns as any of us these days - and with a weekly bill of over £20 on the lottery syndicate. Because, hey, earning your money's way too tough, right?
The attitude baffles me.

Richard Lowe said...

Interesting point about career expectations. One of the most demonised stock characters in British life is the old fashioned careers officer, particularly in comps and secondary moderns, who, when confronted with kids with (usually rather far-fetched and over-ambitous) plans to become racing drivers or film directors would remind them that it might be worthwhile to get the skills or qualifications needed to hold down a more modest and dull office or factory job. Or as Mrs Fisher says in Billy Liar when he announces his plan to jack in his job as an undertaker’s clerk to take up scriptwriting: “you can’t go chopping and changing Billy, you’ve got your living to earn.”
Obviously it’s wrong to discourage ambition, but you do wonder if things have gone too far the other way, with kids growing up thinking that they can “follow their dream”, that there’s nothing they can’t achieve if they want it enough. This simply isn’t true.
Then there’s the rather inflated idea of their value to employers - and grade inflation plays its part in this - that you see in (though obviously they’re the most extremme examples) Apprentice contestants.
I feel sorry for all these kids on Media Studies courses. The vast majority of them won’t get the careers in the “glamorous media” that they dreamed of; the ones that do may find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. And they’re paying money they don’t have to go on them. It’s as cruel as vanity publishing or those writing courses (“earn hundreds!”) that you see in the back of the papers.
The fact is most people don’t have glamorous, exciting, “creative”, “fulfilling” jobs. Most people learn pretty quickly that the primary criteria for a job is that it brings home the bacon. Particularly if you need a lot of bacon for all those “luxuries that are now necessities”. And bacon doesn’t, and never will, grow on trees.

BPP said...

Classy bit of writing, that. Compliments to the chef.

florence said...

Bang on blog. See also Affluenza by Oliver James.

On the plus side Spurs have just gone 2 nil up.

Clair said...

Triffic post, David. And as a back-up, I would refer readers to this jaw-dropper of an blog entry from ISBW.
http://ihouldbeworking.blogspot.com/2007/09/here-are-three-things-i-have-heard-this.html
It's the second one that really gets me.

Jon said...

Another example of the 'have it all without the hard work' generation: My uncle, a careers officer in secondary schools, is considering packing it in, even in these troubled times. He cites only having one or two 12-14 year olds per day with an idea of what they want to do for a living besides being - and I quote - 'either a superstar DJ or a footballer's wife'. Note the superstar prefix.
I work on a B2B magazine and was shocked at a work experience youngster who showed not a jot of interest or initiative over two days. This from an 18-year-old would-be magazine designer: I can't help going a bit Four Yorkshiremen thinking of the hand's I'd have bitten off to get mag experience when I were lad (sorry, I mean when I was 18).

londonlee said...

Hope you told him he'd be barmy to start a career in print now.

One of the most damaging things England seems to have imported from the US is this "you can be anything you want to be" nonsense. Encouraging a child's dreams is all well and good but they always seem to leave the hard work bit out of the equation, as if success happens in some magical wish-granting paradise with unicorns.

The Mothers of Inspection said...

I agree with the danger of Mr. Micawber's outlook but there's no need to shun positive thinking wholesale. The important thing is to ally a lofty ambition to knowledge on attaining the skills needed to achieve it.

It's not about lowering expectations - that'll just disenfranchise everyone. It's about restoring pride in hard work and re-establishing the idea of job-satisfaction.

I've said my piece, now I'm off to watch Trisha.

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