UNICEF: forget child poverty, children consume far too much

Imagine I conducted a qualitative, interview-based study enquiring into some social problem. Suppose upon reading my report, you realise that by an uncanny coincidence, my interviewees’ responses are 100% in line with what I have been writing on this blog for the last three years. Even the terminology was so startlingly similar that you felt like you were reading one of my blog pieces.

You would probably think: Niemietz, you’re not fooling anyone. You just pressed these people to tell you what you wanted to hear, and as far as they didn’t, you read it into their answers anyway.

So when UNICEF publishes a report subtitled ‘The role of inequality and materialism’, when people like Kate Pickett are among the ‘expert advisory group’, and when the report reads like just another chapter of The Spirit Level, a modicum of caution is appropriate. Unfortunately the media does not go beyond parroting the findings.

The report, Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden, is based on interviews with 24 families and 250 schoolchildren from the three countries. The gist: in the UK, materialism is rife and consumerism is rampant. These phenomena are moderated by a more traditional family structure in Spain, and by government largesse in Sweden. A sample:

[W]hilst children by and large would prefer time with their parents to heaps of consumer goods and had a rather balanced approach to consumer culture, UK parents seem to find themselves under tremendous pressure to purchase a surfeit of material goods for their children.[...]

UK parents almost seemed to be locked into a system of consumption which they knew was pointless but they found hard to resist, and found themselves “sucked in”. One mother in the UK ethnographies felt that she had bucked the trend because as she told us, “I don’t buy something for the girls every time I go out”. This is a telling statement which implies that she sees the norm in UK culture as making purchases each time you leave the house. [...]

'Parents and children alike knew that this sort of vicious cycle of consumption would not bring the happiness they intend but somehow they were compelled to continue.’

This is exactly what anti-consumerists and Happiness Economists have been telling us all along: consumption is like an arms race. We know how pointless it is, and nobody really wants it – but we cannot unilaterally end it. We need the help of an external coordinator.

I know that this is not a substantiated critique – it is hard to make one because the report is little else than a summary of what a bunch of kids are saying. But where the report does make more tangible points, it goes completely wrong. For example, it asserts that compulsive buying in the UK is partially a compensation for a lack of time that parents spend with their children, which is caused by ‘low wages, requiring parents to hold several jobs or work long hours to make ends meet.’

Unfortunately, the share of multiple jobholders is about twice as high in Sweden as in the UK. The length of an average working week, as well as the share of part-time employment in total employment, is almost identical in both countries. The one indicator on which the UK is most clearly an outlier in Europe is the share of children in households with no adult in employment. Lack of time is surely not among their most pressing problems.

When it comes to increasing child well-being, regulating people’s purchasing behaviour is not the most obvious starting point. 

Proportion of children in workless households, 2009

-Eurostat

I always wonder about people, bemoaning other peoples materialism and lifestyle, while sitting in their office, earning a good salary and having apart from moaning little to offer when it comes to improving society's wealth. These people feed on public money and tell others who contribute to their wages by paying taxes what they should do and what is wrong with their lifestyle. And what annoys me most is the invariability in themes, when it comes to children, consumerism or feminist issues, you can predict with 100% accuracy that the enemy will be found in materialism, consumerism, capitalism or liberalism... and rationalims of course.
You are right, Kristian. A nice piece by Jill Kirby on Conservative Home last week drew attention to a rather better study on The Modern British Family which led to very different conclusions.
I cannot disagree with the authors of the report on one point: There is pressure to buy "stuff" coming from our children (well, mine at least). Part of parenting is how you manage it. I was very surprised when my wife, very anti computer gaming, allowed my son to buy himself (by selling other toys) a PS3. Some months later, after much conflict, he is down to 1 hour a day, weekends only. Our mistake, but that is parenting. We learnt a lesson about boundaries. The authors would do better to highlight this element of materialism & parenting, with practical suggestions on how to handle it. For the record, my father, a farm manager, was not exactly time-short when it came to parenting, but, somehow, he was always busy (building boats and other projects) - it is what I remember from my childhood. But I don't believe that defined my view of my childhood. I think Unicef, as a lot of these non-gov organisations do, is creating a climate of anxiety which furthers their aims and strengthens their role as advisory bodies, but to the detriment of those of us actually providing the parenting.

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