Income & consumerism


At the start of the twentieth century, the United Kingdom was the richest nation in the world as a result of following capitalist economic policies. Household items were mass produced relatively cheaply by privately owned companies. Rapid population growth meant that there was an expanding market for the goods produced. There was also a ready market for customers in the countries which made up the British Empire.
Although, as the twentieth century progressed, successive governments intervened more in the running of the economy, the United Kingdom essentially remained a capitalist country.


The twentieth century saw a massive growth in the number of advertisements to which people were exposed. The impact of the advertisements was to stimulate the appetite of consumers for the products being advertised. See There was also a growing range of formats in which the advertisements were produced:
  • The early years of the century saw the growth of popular newspapers and magazines. Advertisements in these publications could reach huge numbers of people
  • At the same time, the rapid growth of cinema provided a new opportunity for manufacturers to advertise their goods to potential customers
  • In the 1950s, the arrival of commercial television brought advertising directly into millions of people's homes
  • The development of satellite and cable television in the 1980s multiplied the number of commercial TV channels from a handful to hundreds
  • In the 1990s, the rapid spread of the Internet provided a completely new outlet for advertisers.
As the century went on, it became more and more difficult to avoid the message of advertisements. The influence of such marketing is reflected in Arthur Miller’s mid-century drama, Death of a Salesman, when Linda Loman says of her faulty refrigerator: ‘They got the biggest ads of any of them!’

Old & new money

Traditionally, in the United Kingdom, wealth was represented by the ownership of land and property, which had often been passed down through many generations of a family. This process of inheriting wealth was popularly referred to as 'old money'. However, in the aftermath of the First World War this landowning class declined sharply. To help pay off the debts which had built up during the war, the government introduced a tax called Death Duties. This often meant that, when a wealthy landowner died, his land estates had to be wholly or partially sold off in order to pay the tax bill.
By the start of the twentieth century, there was already in existence another class of wealthy people, who had prospered through the creation and ownership of industrial enterprises. Some members of this class had risen from quite humble origins, so their accumulated wealth was popularly known as 'new money'. 
As the century progressed, the owners of new money became more and more influential when compared with the owners of old money. Many ‘old’ families found they could only maintain their estates by marrying ‘new’ arrivals on the social scene. However, there remained an unspoken contempt for those who had to ‘work’ for their wealth. Furthermore, the ostentation exhibited by the ‘nouveau riche’ was often regarded as vulgar. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, this contrast is seen between arriviste Jay Gatsby’s parties and the established home life of the ‘old money’ Buchanans.

The Thatcher era

Margaret Thatcher 1981Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1990. She was notable for being a firm adherent of capitalism, believing that the nation would become wealthier if privately-owned businesses prospered. Employees of these successful businesses would have the money to buy the goods they produced.
As a result of these beliefs, several major industries (e.g. coal, steel and gas), which had been nationalised by earlier governments, were now returned to private ownership. Government regulations over privately-owned businesses were also relaxed.
Socially, popular culture depicted the benefits of aggressive wealth creation, seen in the high bonuses of workers in banking institutions and the financial markets. The ‘Greed is good’ slogan of the protagonist in the US film Wall Street, seemed to encapsulate the Thatcher era’s firm belief in consumerism.

Attitudes to property

Historically, in the United Kingdom, property ownership was a sign of wealth. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of people had to rent their home because they could not afford to buy. Growing prosperity in the years following the Second World War allowed more and more people to achieve their dream of home ownership.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher's government encouraged this trend. One important change they made was to allow council house tenants to buy their homes at a price subsidised by the government. The result was that the 1980s saw a sharp rise in home ownership.
By the end of the twentieth century, no longer was a house or flat regarded just as a place to live, but as an ‘asset’ which could be improved then sold at a higher rate, a status symbol which reflected the aspirations of each owner. Interior décor and ‘do it yourself / DIY’ shops proliferated, as did television programmes about property trading.

Plastic money and debt

Traditionally, British people feared going into debt, centuries of church teaching instilling the virtue of financial probity – the reverse was regarded as a sign of personal disgrace. However, attitudes changed during the second half of the twentieth century:
  • Manufacturers tempted people to buy expensive goods by offering hire purchase schemes. These allowed people to use the goods and pay the cost in regular instalments. The goods remained the property of the manufacturer until the full cost was paid.
  • Very few people could afford to buy houses for cash. So, the growth in property ownership was financed by people taking out loans called mortgages, which were paid back over a lengthy period of time.
  • From the 1960s onwards, the use of credit cards spread rapidly. These allowed people to buy goods and then pay for them from their income as quickly as they were able.
Credit cardsThe down-side of these opportunities were that people ended up paying far more than the original cost of the item as additional interest rates were frequently high. By 2000 living with debt had become the norm and many found themselves financially overcommitted.

Leisure shopping

In the first half of the twentieth century, food shopping was a daily occupation since people lacked refrigeration to safely store items for longer periods. Shopping for other goods, such as clothes and furnishings, was only undertaken when prompted by real necessity. Shopping as a leisure activity was only possible for wealthy people. 
However, growing prosperity from the 1950s onwards made consumer goods available to more and more people. The introduction of credit cards in the 1960s greatly accelerated this trend, since people were suddenly able to spend money which they did not currently possess. 
With increased car ownership, out of town shopping malls proliferated, and by the end of the century shopping came to be seen as a leisure activity. The decreasing price of textiles meant that clothing was regarded as more disposable, whilst continued technical developments meant that many electrical and electronic goods were soon superseded and regarded as obsolete. Both these attitudes fuelled the appetite for buying more.
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