My heart sinks. It always does as Christmas approaches. I see the tinsel and trappings appearing in the stores, the job adverts for this year’s Father Christmases, the craft, cookery and home magazines appear with their recipes and ideas for home decorations, and so on. I know the loan sharks will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the extra income as poor families struggle to keep up with the false expectations of the happiness they can bring by buying things they can’t afford, and in reality don’t need, just because that is what the media circus is telling them.
When I was first starting out in social work, nearly 20 years ago, I remember a young mum telling me with great excitement that the Provie man had lent her £200 to spend on toys for her young son that Christmas. My heart sank. The best I could manage was a wan smile – she was just trying to do the best for her son in the only way she knew how and it was too late to undo the loan. I knew it would take her all year to pay that back and it would cost her way more than £200 by the end of that year. And no doubt by then most if not all those toys would have been broken and discarded.
Since then there has been the credit crunch or banking crisis, a world recession and a downward pressure on the poor under current political austerity measures. With the threat of tax credit cuts still looming (although there might be some shifting on that) the outlook is bleak for whole swathes of society. Pressure to be jolly and spend hard-earned money on things you can’t afford and don’t need is just as great, but the gloom and doom that follows as the bills stack up along with the extra debts in the new year will be even more crushing.
At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.
As a society we have been spun the lie that we need to keep consumerism high in order to keep the manufacturing industries going and the money flowing. At the time of the 2008 financial collapse the economists were saying ‘we need to get the Chinese to consume more’. But none of that is true – as this blog explains more fully: Sure, if we all suddenly stopped buying the latest cheap fashion rip offs, changing our home decor every year because some fashion has changed or because we are enticed by some new decoration we see, if we all turned to the charity shops to replace our furniture, if we all bought fewer clothes but chose instead those of higher quality and wore them for longer, if we worked together and shared as a community more, then there would be an impact on manufacturing industries. But entrepreneurs will find other ways of making money. If we all bought less ‘stuff’ we would have more to spend on leisure, art, beauty, travel and the ‘stuff’ we buy would be of better quality, and those who remain employed in manufacturing could be paid more. This was the vision of the early pioneers of technology: little did they realise then that we would chose instead the path of the materialism. At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.
The poorest communities have always been better at the economies of reduce, re-use, recycle, restore, remake. We’ve not seen it for generations in the West, although in the poorer Latin American countries this lifestyle is still thriving. We need to re-learn these values. We need to be able to teach our children to value what they have. That’s not to put on them the pressures of adult money worries, but to teach them the lost skill of appreciating the value of things, instead of succumbing to the pressures of advertising, to always be wanting the next new thing. And we have to model that for them.
And we need to learn these things ourselves so we can encourage those we work with to see through the lies that tell us to buy our way out of unhappiness.
It won’t solve the problems of a ruling elite that appears to have no concept (or care) of the impact of their policies on poorer and middle income earners. We have to look after ourselves and we have to recognise that if there is to be change it will have to be from the bottom up. Two recent (and still current) events may well spur that on: the migration crisis as refugees and asylum seekers pour out of war-torn Syria, bringing the reality of their situation to the shores of Europe and the attention of Europeans where it is the less-well off who are the most heart-broken and responsive to the sight of their suffering; and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, showing that politics is not necessarily the preserve and interest of the elite.