Consumerism: same old values, slower pace?

Mark Littlewood and Roger Scruton with Evan Davies on Radio 4\’s \’Today\’

Caged beasts that we are

Some perspective on our sufferings from Mark Littlewood (“Even after the recession and the cuts, we are about as affluent today as we were in around 2006”) and Roger Scruton (“What we are calling ‘austerity‘ now is nothing compared with austerity in the past.”) We are living through a dip, but we’re still high on the historical prosperity chart. They both seem to agree that “there is too much whingeing and whining.”

Scruton also said: “If you arouse expectations, then people resent it if you take them away.” He was making a broad point about why people are doing all this complaining, when things, as he sees it at least, aren’t that bad. Of course, he has a point (though I don’t necessarily think people’s current unease about the economy in Britain can be written off quite so easily). But are we not all adjusting our expectations?

My experience is, from discussion groups around the country on personal finance and on government policy issues, that people are more pragmatic and realistic at the moment than Littlewood and Scruton give them credit for. Yes many people made some optimistic decisions before the crash, encouraged by the financial services industry, about what they could afford. A lot of us, enabled to be “King For A Day”, were kings and queens for three or four days (and minor royalty the rest of the time). But I think the general misery out there is exactly because a lot of people have taken it on board that they have to rein back. They’ll have a go at the government and the City, but don’t take that for mindless scapegoating: in the many discussions I have had around Britain, people have been very willing to admit their own faults and the need to change.

But they do need some help and positive encouragement to do so. The Big Society idea is what people often mention when asked what they think the government wants us all to be changing about our lives.  I’ve found it does resonate at a certain level, in that it points to a less materially-driven view of what is important in life – people get that. Its problem is that it has something to say about the value of local social engagement, there is a less clear narrative about what a “reined in”, post- maxing out the credit card, post-consumerist life should feel like now. Is it still OK to aspire to earn more, go after the things we want, to consume? Well, yes it is, it seems – just less than before. So is this a shift in values we are all expected to have now – or just the same values, at a slower pace? Talking to Britain, we’re mainly taking it to be the latter.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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