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Debts of despair

Chris Wearmouth on the prospect of being debt-laden from school to grave.

There are two inevitabilities about bleak winter evenings. One: that there will be one review of the year after another, and two: that every review will have, at some point or another, a montage of ‘in memoriam’ homages. The BBC Sports Review of the Year normally manages to exempt itself from the latter as there are few sporting personalities who become enough of our nation’s psyche that they warrant such treatment.

2005 though was different as it saw the passing on of a man who symbolised a generation. I am, of course, talking about one George Best. ‘Untimely’ is the word that normally accompanies the death of a 59 year-old, but not in this case, as the long slow toll of Best’s alcoholism became a regular fixture on the front pages.

So when he was at death’s door, every newspaper used the opportunity to bemoan the wasted talent, the effect an addiction to alcohol has on the body, and the contradiction of a man who lit up football but whose personal life imploded away from the game.

Not everybody appreciated the amount of coverage. Peter Cole, professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield, wrote in the Independent on Sunday: “Editors judge the space to record the death of famous people by their significance and the amount of reader interest. These are not the same thing, and the order should be reversed. Sometimes judgements can be awry.”

But when you think about it, it was inevitable that it should be George Best who would be the man to garner such attention, as it was he who had captured the imagination of a generation of football writers, no doubt inspiring them to take up the pen and follow their sport for a living.

Maybe Best’s death marked something more; the mortality of the very same baby boom generation in the position to write those many column inches: the very embodiment of “hope I die before I get old.”

The world has changed beyond all recognition since Best took his first footballing steps to iconic status, something we all acknowledge. But as he epitomised the ‘swinging sixties’, the question I find myself asking is: what is the lasting legacy going to be for my generation?

What are we, today’s twenty-somethings, going to be writing about as the defining aspect of our growing old?

My friend Angela came up with the answer a couple of weeks ago, saying over a beer or two. “Great news,” she said. “I’ve just cleared my debt.”

And it was great news, as careful financial management – she is an accountant after all – had seen thousands of pounds paid off, and all by her mid-twenties! A damn sight less time than the 15 years that the government admitted in August might become the norm in paying off an average of £15,000 of debt.

Let’s face it, those who will be leaving university in the coming years may be better prepared to take their place in the knowledge-based economy we will – apparently – have in the global marketplace, but the same hand that will have delivered that knowledge will have also taken away what the ‘Best’ generation took for granted.

Home ownership, for example. According to a survey by Scottish Widows Bank, two-thirds of graduates under 30 don’t own a house, and 44% of graduates between 21 and 35 cite their paying off of student debt as the biggest barrier to their buying a home. And according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the average deposit now being placed by those (now diminishing) first-time buyers is a mere 17%, and several lenders now offer 100% mortgages to those entering the housing market.

The result is that ever more graduates, instead of setting out on their own way, are coming home after university to live with their parents, get a job and set about ridding themselves of some of this debt. But with these payments, and saving for house deposits, something else has had to give – pensions.

The National Centre for Social Research’s ‘British Social Attitudes’ survey, published in mid-December, illustrates this perfectly, having found that half the nation believes that it cannot afford to save for retirement, and four in ten have made no provision whatsoever.

Furthermore, this long-term crisis will not be eased by the push coming from financial companies for equity release. Even though it might provide immediate relief, such a move also has the potential for inflicting thousands of pounds worth of more debt as part of the inheritance.

My generation is rapidly becoming one in hoc to the financial industry, and there is every likelihood that a high proportion of my peers will be in debt from the time they leave school until they die.

In this era of cultural regurgitation, maybe someone will have the wit to re-write that Who classic: “Hope I’m not bankrupt before I get old…”