x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The View From Here: Better standards raise cost of living

Tesco boss Richard Brasher recently lamented the "squeezed middle" – the professional classes who can no longer afford anything more than basic necessities. What happened?

Whether shopping for necessities or luxuries, the world’s middle class is deparately trying to stay afloat as standards of living rise. Amy Sancetta / AP Photo
Whether shopping for necessities or luxuries, the world’s middle class is deparately trying to stay afloat as standards of living rise. Amy Sancetta / AP Photo

It's the right of anyone entering old coot-dom to gaze at the past through rose-tinted glasses.

But it's true life was much cheaper in my youth, if only due to the fact that there was so little to buy.

Growing up in the 1970s was an Amish-like experience, compared with what children have today. We were a typical middle-class family, with one car, one telephone and one television set. And Dad's monthly salary, unadjusted for inflation, was probably the equivalent of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

Somewhere between then and now, something has gone wrong. Salaries have gone up, but then, so have the lengths to which we must stretch them to get by. Tesco boss Richard Brasher recently lamented the "squeezed middle" - the professional classes who can no longer afford to buy anything more than the most basic necessities.

So what happened?

Today, a typical middle-class family is likely to have two cars, if both parents commute. And once children reach the legal age to drive, chances are more vehicles will join the crowded car park so many suburban homes have become.

Back then, a house was a house. A place in which you lived, not a quasi-ATM that could be leveraged for cash. Even the word "leverage" was only used by the science geek down the road. Today, it's the word of choice for bankers and estate agents.

Food was something different too. My mothers' cooking could easily have been rescued from a vat in Chernobyl. It was tasteless, somewhat nutritious, and undoubtedly cheap. Dinners out were unheard of and there were no pizza deliveries, no overpriced delis or Jones the Grocer that sold sandwiches that cost the equivalent of the Zimbabwean GDP. If we had a sandwich, it was from a brick of brown bread and spread with peanut butter. And maybe once a year, if we were lucky, Dad brought home a barrel of chicken from KFC. For modern families, takeaways are a regular part of the diet. You can almost hear the coins tumbling from your wallet as you stand in line for a Big Mac.

If something broke, my dad fixed it. The car, a leaking pipe, a dangerously sparking toaster. It would take a real emergency for a professional to be summoned. Nowadays, men's primary technical skill seems to be mastery of a universal remote.

Grocery shopping was a chore my mother handled. Today, it's a family activity with a trip to the mall, a visit to Toys R Us and inevitably, the food court. From shopping for necessities to shopping for entertainment, the middle classes have spent their way into penury.

And because unlike in my parents day, most women stayed home to look after kids, parents now also spend out of guilt. We buy them stuff because we feel we have to show we care as we leave them home with nannies.

Holidays too were spartan excursions. International leisure travel was, before the 1980s, the activity of rich playboys. The middle classes would pack the kids into an estate car and head for the coast, preferably to bunk with an elderly relative for a week or two.

Children's fashion was non-existent. You bought what the local store sold, usually solid, boring and hard-wearing clothes. They had to be, because each shirt or frock would be passed down to the next child, and the next, and the next, until they fell apart.

As for gifts, the most expensive item a child could hope for, was a bicycle. Now games consoles and their never-ending churn of map-packs and new releases drain thousands from household incomes.

Of course I don't really want my children playing in the yard with a stick and a couple of old tins. And who wants to drag around a transistor radio, with its hissing tubes and short battery life, when MP3 players fit snugly into the ear?

But you can see how all these little things add up. It makes no difference that I earn a vastly greater amount than my father did a generation ago. I also have a vastly bigger choice of stuff to buy. And of course, I have credit.

Before the age of consumerism landed, manufacturers had no incentive to sell us what we could not afford. People paid cash. Before 1980, very few salary earners had access to debt other than a mortgage.

But once we had access to those innocent bits of plastic, the gates were open. Manufacturers could sell us whatever they could make, whether we could afford it or not. Our lives have improved immeasurably since 1970. But there is no free lunch. We have to pay for it.

Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.