Farm Ireland

Saturday 22 October 2016

The real cost of our consumer free-for-all

Joe Barry

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Author John Steinbeck.
Author John Steinbeck.

When I was in my early twenties a friend and I got the bright idea of running a mobile discotheque. I mention this because it was so successful we found ourselves earning more money than we ever had before in our young lives. There wasn't much competition then and like so many things in life that succeed, timing was everything.

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Five years later and the novelty had gone from the business but in the meantime, we had what most young people might be better off without, lots of money.

And what do young single men with plenty of spare cash do? They spend it of course.

Eventually, however, sense prevails and there comes a time in life when you find you have pretty much everything you really need.

I should qualify that by explaining that when we get older, most of us don't actually long for a new car or a smart new suit or indeed, any of the trappings of ostentatious wealth.

As one elderly man I have known for years put it, "all you need is a dry lie". This immediately identifies his farming background but you do understand what he meant.

Once we have grown up and experienced a few hard knocks, it doesn't take much to keep us happy and satisfied.

A roof that doesn't leak, enough food, warm clothes and good books to read pretty much covers everything except for one other essential, a wood burning stove and plenty of dry logs.

My father often quoted a teacher who told him "Man doesn't reach the use of reason until the age of 35, if ever."

Unfortunately, it is generally only when you get to middle age that you realise the truth of this. I genuinely pity younger people when I visit their houses and see their lavishly fitted kitchens with the shiny new motor parked outside.

Many of them are heavily in debt but they consider appearances more important than a prudent lifestyle.


This consumer "free-for-all" began with the advent of hire purchase and bank loans for non-essential things like holidays abroad.

Economists will argue that this is what enables nations to become prosperous. They insist that if people are not spending, then manufacturers are out of business.

They do of course have a point, but the individual misery that can come from living a lifestyle you can barely afford just to keep up with your friends and neighbours is rarely mentioned.

Some young parents are asset-rich thanks to both of them putting in long hours of hard work, but they are also time-poor and have little space for the really important things such as going on walks and playing with their children.

When did the need for childcare arise?

It was never mentioned when I was growing up but then in those days grandparents were around and not tucked away in nursing homes. People in other societies who, in financial terms are far poorer than we are, tend to look in horror at the way in which we treat our elderly citizens.

In their societies, it is considered a privilege to care for your elderly parents who have decades of accumulated wisdom to share and, as an added bonus, they can also keep an eye on their grandchildren.

We are told by psychologists that children benefit greatly from growing up with older relatives present in the home or living nearby.

The elderly can keep an eye on youngsters when parents are away working while also helping them to learn from their life time experiences. You don't get this from Facebook.

Why not build a 'Granny flat' instead of buying a new car or kitchen or both? Life is short and one doesn't feel it slipping by to the point where your children have grown up and left home.

Suddenly you realise that they spent more time in crèches, at playschool and maybe coming home to an empty house than they did with their parents.

We cannot turn the clock back and time not spent with our kids can never be recaptured.

So forget the bigger house and the trappings of wealth. Maybe even get rid of the TV, but above all, concentrate on the important stuff.

A interesting side to this is that in Spain, where there is a genuine recession and no money for nursing homes, trade unions have advised grandparents to go on strike as they are spending too much unpaid time caring for grandchildren.

John Steinbeck's Nobel philosophy

Author John Steinbeck summed up the illusory benefits of a show of wealth and possessions when he quoted his gardener who had declared: "Boss, a man's got to be really rich to dress as bad as you do".

At this point Steinbeck was comfortably well off and clearly didn't give a toss for what anyone thought of his appearance.

This didn't stop him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and it is interesting that many great writers and artists preferred to live in small modest houses rather than the mansions they could well afford.

Most had realised that the trappings of wealth distract and prevent us from seeing life clearly.

Henry Thoreau's famous book Walden is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Over 150 years later it is still in print. One recent reader said: "Thoreau saved me from spending a large chunk of my life as an accountant. Walden had the approximate effect of a four by two thwacking me between the eyes."

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