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Frugality, cheap chic and a poor Count

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Meritocracy is the new watch word for the Irish public sector

Meritocracy is the new watch word for the Irish public sector

Meritocracy is the new watch word for the Irish public sector

We tend to class ourselves as spendthrifts here in Ireland but that trait is not set in stone.

Some generations have been thrifty, while others have been feckless. Nations do not simply become progressively more irresponsible; lessons are learned and forgotten and attitudes fluctuate. In the United States, the generation that grew up during the Great Depression probably has more in common with the generation that has just come of age than the baby boomers who were born in between.

Here in Ireland, 18-year-olds who can hardly remember a time that pre-dates austerity have little in common with people just 10 years older. Growing up in an age of plenty and excess creates a template for expectations that appears to last a lifetime, while the reverse is also true.

While deep-seated frugality probably depends on when you were born and your family's situation, the evidence shows we are all tightening our belts these days.

Our changing habits can be starkly seen in our supermarkets.

Kantar Worldpanel, the independent research company which tracks where and how we shop, said last week that four out of five supermarket shoppers visited either Aldi or Lidl in the past 12 weeks.

The company behind the euro shop Dealz said last Wednesday that its 34 stores serve 250,000 people a week. Ryanair and Penneys (Primark) have conquered Europe; two great success stories built on frugal foundations.

We have, in short, changed the way we shop for good, despite all that nonsense a few years ago about how the Irish love their brands and would never stoop to frugality.

As the country gets a little richer, it seems that we are not returning to our spendthrift ways.

One country that has gone through a similar transformation is Germany. While people often think of Germany as a country of fiscal rectitude, Germany has the distinction of being the only country in western Europe to default on its bonds since the war, other than Greece. It is also a country that gleefully embraced a gaudy form of consumerism in the 1980s before repenting and returning to the thrifty ways of the immediate post-war era.

Today, Germany is probably the most frugal country in Europe. Germans may be rich, but they simply don't spend, to the despair of other countries. A potent combination of the Protestant work ethic, post-war poverty for almost every family, communism in the east and recession in the west has conspired to turn frugality and genteel poverty into an art form.

One of the best-selling books in recent years was a guide by an impoverished aristocrat on how to live in genteel poverty.

Count Alexander von Schonburg-Glauchau published The Art of Stylish Poverty nine years ago to celebrate a lifestyle for "nouveau pauvres chic" or new poor chic.

Over 220 pages, he urges readers to dump "a few things you once thought necessary" such as the family car and mobile and begin darning socks and replacing gym membership with walks through the park. In true German fashion, the Count rents a flat rather than owning a house. He also quotes his billionaire sister Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis who says "it's uncool to possess an original, rather than copies of handbags and watches. It shows that you're better travelled because you can only get them in Hong Kong and Bangkok . . . she says originals are for Russian oligarchs."

He also recommends"shopping interruptus" - or going through the entire process of choosing clothes and trying them on, before abandoning them at the cash desk.

Back home, we seem to be following much of this advice. Parks are full at weekends. Pavements are clogged with joggers and roads teem with cyclists as we embrace cheap methods of getting a bit of exercise.

Simple pleasures are back in fashion. Long may it last.

Sunday Independent