Britain’s consumers are still suffering from the recession, despite the economy’s return to growth in late 2009. And new data from The Futures Company, presented at a briefing in London this morning, shows that people are being smart about adapting to this New Normal.
Savings rates have risen, debts are being paid down and the typical shopper is now more willing to compare prices to get the best deal and use discount vouchers. But the data also imply that a brutal generational wealth divide might force many Britons to lower their financial expectations permanently.
First, the good news: people recognise that the economic crisis had global, rather than local, roots. Outward-looking, interconnected Britons recognise that anything from esoteric financial instruments traded by international banks to China’s willingness to buy US government debt might ultimately have an effect on their household budgets. With people now eager to learn about economic issues, some financial journalists have even become celebrities.
With this new knowledge comes a new attitude. The Futures Company’s data suggest that 65% of consumers want to have more control in “every aspect” of their life, post-recession; 51% believe it is “important” to buy British products; and 37% say that doing business with socially responsible companies “makes a difference” in the world. Crucially, a slim majority (53%) of UK consumers also now agree that global consumer culture has “changed forever” following the recession.
Many large firms have already got the message and are rolling out new initiatives to reflect the mood. One example cited at the briefing was UK bank NatWest’s heavily promoted Consumer Charter, which responds to the desire for control by promising to make banking easier, and embraces corporate responsibility by pledging financial support to local communities.
But here’s the bad news.
Good financial habits do not necessarily lead to good financial health in the UK these days. Instead, your birth date could ultimately prove to be a much better indicator.
Evidence for this view can be found in The Futures Company’s own segmentation of UK adults, which - as consumers are generally “in the doldrums” these days, employs a nautical theme - consists of those experiencing “Plain Sailing”, making up the one-third of the population which is doing OK; those in “Choppy Waters” (40%), who are barely coping; and those with “All Hands on Deck” (25%), at risk of going under.
So, what are the shared characteristics of households in each group?
You might think that these groups are divided by household income, with the Plain Sailers insulated from the downturn by their high salaries or fat pensions.
But actually there is very little income variation between the groups.
Instead, a much bigger factor is whether or not a household owns their own home and has paid off their mortgage. Almost half (41%) of the Plain Sailing group own their own home outright. This shouldn’t come as a shock, as during the boom years the UK experienced a massive property bubble which is still yet to deflate.
So if you were lucky enough to buy cheap property and pay off your mortgage early, you are likely to be wealthy enough for the recession to be of little concern. But if you were still renting or paying off a mortgage when the downturn hit, you are much more vulnerable.
Unsurprisingly, of the Plain Sailing group - 70% of which have not even changed their spending habits in the recession - 42% are over 55 years old and 22% have already retired. The other two groups skew much younger - and are far more likely to still have children at home.
Generational conflict has been much in the news in Britain, which is facing swingeing cutbacks in public spending, increased university tuition fees, cuts to child benefit for higher earners and - perhaps most controversially of all - a radical overhaul of housing benefits that might see poorer people forced out of expensive areas.
That a book carrying the subtitle How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, written by a government minister, hit the bestseller lists in the UK earlier this year is unlikely to be a coincidence.
If anything, The Futures Company’s data suggest the generational conflict could worsen even as the recession recedes from memory.
But even if this does not happen, there is no going back to the pre-recession past. And brands that do not adapt to this new reality might not survive over the long term.