As the squeeze tightens, families all over Britain will be looking around for a little financial miracle to help them out. Some will be taking advantage of our newly liberated gambling laws. A few might dream of coming up with a clever invention which will triumph on Dragons' Den. Some might be looking wistfully to the older generation – surely there must be a few pennies there.
Increasingly, though, the answer to the prayers of mums and dads will be closer to home. In 2011, there is serious cash to be made from children.
The sweet-faced kid with the voice of an angel has become a staple of TV talent shows, reducing hardened celebrities to tears. A child sings, we all cry: it is the new rule. It seems that, in a world awash with sadness and self-pity, the sound of a piping voice (so pure, so innocent, so pathetically hopeful) is there to remind us of what is truly important in life – loving, caring, blubbing.
If you have a child who is moderately good looking, a bit musical and loves to show off, there are financial opportunities – but you will have to move fast. The career trajectory of the child pop sensation is starting and ending earlier than ever.
Justin Bieber, who will be 17 next month, is at the glorious peak of his career. By 21, he will be a pop has-been, eking out a living on talent and reality shows, living his romantic life on the front page of the tabloids.
The real hot properties of the moment are about six years younger than Justin. Ten-year-old Willow Smith has a hit called "Whip My Hair". Her contemporary Heather Russell, who has had a YouTube hit and been promoted by the man behind Lady Gaga, has been signed up by Simon Cowell.
Parents keen to promote their own little darlings should take a look at the videos which have set Heather on the path to stardom. "Simon will put his stamp on her," a record executive has said, rather chillingly, "but there is something rare about this child."
In fact, the Cowell stamp is already there, and the only thing that is rare is the brutal volume of Heather's 10-year-old voice. Her songs are harmless, childish parodies of pop clichés, her delivery a grim imitation of the vocal trick of the moment – warbling, bellowing and yodelling around a single note in the manner of a bad piano bar singer.
Ambitious mums and dads should try to ensure that their children are not too childish, not too real. What the record industry is looking for are mini-adults. The themes of their songs should not be about schools and home, but be set in the world of grown-up love and heartbreak. Any real originality, or attempt to sing in their own unforced voice – rather than the exhibitionist sub-blues manner of Mariah Carey, Leona Lewis and a thousand others – will cost them dear.
Whether any parent should want their daughter to play this dangerous game is another matter. There is something disturbing about the fashion for getting increasingly young children to sing in the manner of adults. It is a musical version of pole-dancing dolls or padded bras for nine year-olds.
Maybe there has always been a showbiz yearning for the girl/woman, from Shirley Temple to Britney Spears, but the new popularity of gyrating, warbling child stars, promoted by beady record producers, reflects a creepy cultural mindset. A celebrity version of childhood – sexy yet innocent, knowing yet pure – is being promoted. It is entirely unsurprising that a move, mid-teens, from cute kid to sex-bomb has become part of the process.
The parents of Heather Russell look thrilled as they pose with their little star, with the avuncular arm of Simon Cowell around mum and daughter. Her next six years or so are no doubt being planned and marketed already. There are millions to be made. An eager public is out there, ready to follow a new star through her teen years. What could possibly go wrong?