Household debt and general wellbeing


By my reckoning, that is the answer to the question in last week’s post about Household debt.

Excluding income from lucky inheritances (and noting I’m open to correction), that is the number of households in Northern Ireland which actually have an income of £100,000 or more; and that is thus the number who can actually afford the standard “middle-class” lifestyle we are supposed to aim at.

If “success” is attaining a “standard middle-class lifestyle”, 4% of us can attain it. The vast majority even of “middle-class” people cannot. (Small wonder “rich people” always seem to come from households earning £20k more than ours, no matter what ours earns…)

The problem is the further you go up the income scale, the more you are expected to spend. If you live in a detached house you are “supposed” to have foreign holidays (probably plural), you are “supposed” drive nice cars (probably plural), and you are “supposed” to have children in grammar school (while paying the “voluntary” fees, buying all the kit, and so on).

4% can reasonably expect to do all of this on current income, without incurring debt.

An acquaintance posted a very brave article on depression just before Christmas (I will leave it up to him if he wishes to leave a link to it in the comments below). I hope I am doing him justice to pick out that broadly he noted the expectations of a grammar-school educated person in Greater Belfast – you are supposed to go to University (and probably get at least a 2.1), you are supposed to find a woman and get married, you are supposed to play club sport, and you are supposed to have children and support the standard middle-class lifestyle.

The lifestyle 4% of households can actually afford, leaving aside other grossly unfair social pressures around third-level education and marriage.

These totally unreasonable expectations of a “standard middle-class lifestyle” are leading to serious problems. They do lead to people buying things, not least around Christmas for children, which they cannot possibly afford. However, the problems are not just financial. They can lead to families pushing (and coaching) children into schools for which they are not really suited; they can lead to young people finding it impossible to cope as the rest of the world seems to attain a lifestyle which seems for them so far away; and they lead to social divisions, as people who are actually quite well up the income scale cling to what they have and indeed demand more rather than enabling any kind of wealth distribution. We should be honest enough to admit this is part of the reason we have such big lobbies for maintaining grammar schools (rather than enabling everyone to compete on the same basis); capping rates on mansions (meaning people living in houses valued at £1.2m pay only double what people living in a house valued at £200,000 pay), and keeping rates and taxes low (so we can keep the money to spend ourselves on winter holidays and new kitchens rather than have it redistributed potentially to aid those born into poorer circumstances who are left on below average incomes).

Unfortunately, this is intergenerational. Children of “middle-class” families (by which we really mean a small percentage of top earners) come to expect the latest of everything – not just the foreign holidays and so on, but the latest iPhone even pre-teens; a new car as soon as they have passed their test; and so on. This then trickles down so that all their classmates – regardless of parental income and wealth – expect the same. Remember: this is a facade! Almost nobody can actually afford this!

Many will not like reading this and will come to justify such expenses. What is wrong with wanting the best for ourselves and our children? Those on the political right would agree with the premise of that question, of course (but, by the way, those on the left should not). We should all at least admit what is going on, however.

A reader of this blog gave me the example (I trust he will forgive me if I misquote) that a test was done using the board game monopoly. Players were tested on their psychological reactions as the game progressed. There was a catch, however. One player was given £2,000 to start, and the other just £200. It is in fact impossible for the former player not to win in such circumstances [with apologies, I forget the precise figures, so let us just assume that is true]. What assessors found was that the former player began genuinely to believe he was winning on the basis of his own skill; furthermore, they in fact found that the latter player began genuinely to believe he was losing as a result of his own failures – despite the fact the outcome of the game was pre-determined by the amount given to each player at the start.

In other words, it is human instinct to believe good fortune is in fact our own brilliance; and indeed even to believe bad fortune is our own stupidity. I would posit the result is that those who have had good fortune come to believe they are entitled to the “standard middle-class lifestyle” given their own perceived brilliance; and perhaps also that those who have had bad fortune come to give up given their own perceived stupidity.

It is a facade. And it is not actually one we can afford. The impact is not just financial – it is educational and psychological. The pressure and expectation to attain a lifestyle which is in fact unaffordable even to very successful people is causing us serious harm.

Do we not all need to think again about what constitutes “success”?




4 thoughts on “Household debt and general wellbeing

  1. 416 says:

    Said it before, I’ll say it again.

    Some people (ahem Tories) equate having money with ‘hard work’. It’s a subtle trick of language, spinning one thing to mean another.

    Many people work like dogs all their lives and don’t get a break. Meanwhile some come into a generous inheritance and act like they’ve worked hard to earn it… like you say, as if somehow an entitlement is the result of some hard graft.

    • They are not totally wrong to say that. We do need to work harder (try getting a government press officer here on a Friday afternoon or Christmas Eve). Hard work is a good thing. We in NI are guilty of pretending there’s some way around that.

      But, without sounding like an appalling cliche, most of all we need to work smarter.

      We will get nowhere until we start innovating and exporting. We can’t keep relying on others.

  2. martyntodd says:


    I’m pleased to see you quote the article in New Scientist about the unfairness of a rigged Monopoly Game. I think you are raising one of the most important issues damaging community cohesion. According to “The Spirit Level” research, the wellbeing of the wealthy as well as the poor is less where there is widespread inequality. Therefore legislation to cap maximum earnings or tax them at 100% (if high income is to do with kudos) would improve the wellbeing of everyone.

    Regards Martyn


  3. martyntodd says:


    I have tried but failed to find the original article on the New Scientist website, but couldn’t.

    My recollection is that the starting amounts were 1,000 and 2,000, but the underlying message is the same

    Regards Martyn


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