They want it all...and they want it now

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
Brenda Despontin President of the Girls' Schools Association and head of Haberdashers' Monmouth school for girls

When the late, great Freddie Mercury sang "I want it all, and I want it now", he articulated the anthem for our consumer age. Getting and spending is our 247 obsession in the insatiable quest for the newest gadget, latest label and best bargain. Like Sisyphus, we can never complete the mission, and shopping is now the national hobby.

Clever TV marketing informs us nightly of what is missing in our lives, from yet another new sofa to the latest flavour of ice cream. Huge supermarkets satisfy our every whim day or night, so that few of us ever stop to ask ourselves whether we actually need what the hidden persuaders have told us we want. So we should not be surprised to learn that recently the Insolvency Service showed a 25 per cent rise in the number of Britons declared bankrupt.

We are pound;1.25 trillion in debt, with banks and building societies reporting a significant rise in legal proceedings. A "nation sleepwalking into a debt crisis" is how the Liberal Democrats' economics spokesman described the situation. With supermarket aisles promoting Christmas goods from mid-October, and the plastic poised for overdrive, the result will be misery.

Caught in this consumer pandemic are young people at the start of a career, a university course, an independent life, a relationship. Expectations have changed enormously since the days when a couple saved and waited for their home, and saw independence from parents as a distant dream. Like Freddie, they want it all, and expect it now - mortgage, car, fully-fitted lives and foreign holidays. They've studied those ubiquitous makeover programmes on TV and have an image of what "home" has to mean. Items are desirable, acceptable, fashionable, but "affordable" rarely gets a mention because companies are at the ready to offer credit.

Last month, a major building society said it aimed to make mortgage availability five times that of a customer's salary; another is likely to increase this to a staggering seven. We are consumer junkies, and our habit is out of control. Unless those now in school are made more aware of financial matters and the dangers of overspending, we are destined for a serious financial meltdown.

So what can be done? Parents and teachers are not powerless to change all this. Money management is as much a key skill as literacy or ICT. But in reality it will take courage to re-focus such a powerful materialistic attitude. Before Christmas, obscene amounts of money will be spent on unnecessary, overpriced objects of desire, irrespective of disposable income. It is a brave parent who resists the relentless pressure and the commercial bullying, and a brave child who says, "I won't be writing to Santa. I've got all I need."

In our schools, the curriculum must embrace personal finance as an important life skill, nurturing its development in as many imaginative ways as possible. There is little point in acquiring qualifications that open doors to a college or a career, or provide access to a lifestyle, but then neglecting the skills necessary to avoid bankruptcy and homelessness.

Young people need an opportunity to manage their own expenses from an early age, but one that is implemented firmly, without the easy option of the ad hoc cash top-up from a harassed parent seeking a quiet life. Let's talk openly in school about saving, interest rates, credit records and blacklists, APRs, mortgage pitfalls, debt collection. Let's build in role-play for pupils about to inherit instant university debts or live independently on a starter salary. Let's be clear in the message: you might want it all, but it can't all be now.

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