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Kent academic says soaring consumer debt runs deeper than just easy credit


The dramatic rise in the number of Britons going broke has been partly caused by a dangerous addiction to reinvention and ‘want now’ consumerism, according to Professor Anthony Elliott of the University of Kent.

Elliott, Professor of Sociology in Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, argues that consumers are so bewitched by seductive services, designer goods and hi-tech products that they become addicted to spending. This is an addiction that is blind to the economic and emotional costs of debt and the dangers of insolvency.

‘Like the United States, Britain has gone down the path of compulsive consumerism,’ says Professor Elliott. ‘Those addicted to shopping are increasingly reliant on easily available credit. But the explosion in the number of Britons now with serious debt indicates that the problem is one that runs much deeper than just easy credit. This goes to the core of our quick-fix culture, and it is something that the government needs to consider seriously if it wants to influence the way people now live.’

Early in November the Department of Trade and Industry released figures showing that Britons have accrued more than £1 trillion of debt. Personal bankruptcies have soared by almost 50 percent to record levels.

Professor Elliott says the root of the problem is caused by the impact of globalisation which creates new personal vulnerabilities. ‘Globalisation is bringing with it major changes to people’s lives, where employment is more fluid and everything moves incredibly fast, such that there is increased pressure on people to be seen to try to ‘improve’ and ‘transform’ themselves. Consumerism offers just such a road to instant change.’

He adds: ‘Britons’ personal debt is now increasing at £1 million every 4 minutes. The interest we pay on that debt is running at £6 billion every month; plus which there are 246 plastic transactions taking place every second in the UK. The figures are truly staggering.’

Drawing from research published in The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization (his recent book with American sociologist Charles Lemert), Professor Elliott further argues that the emotional costs of quick-fix consumerism are ruining lives. ‘Some of the stories we uncovered,’ he says, ‘are really quite disturbing. What we’ve found, in some instances, is that the reinvention craze centred on compulsive consumerism is actually eroding people’s inner lives.

‘It’s as if the increasing reliance on shopping as means of transforming oneself – from designer clothes to the latest techno-gadgets – is producing a kind of self-mutilation of the psyche.’

The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization was published by Routledge on 1 November 2005.

Helen Kirk | alfa
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