There's nothing grown up about being shackled by debt

Bank managers, financial advisers and credit sellers hover over the young like horse-flies
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The Independent Online

It is time to pass on a brief but heartfelt word of advice to those who have just opened an envelope revealing the ABC or worse of their exam results, and indeed to their contemporaries who have chosen life in the outside world rather than further education.

It is time to pass on a brief but heartfelt word of advice to those who have just opened an envelope revealing the ABC or worse of their exam results, and indeed to their contemporaries who have chosen life in the outside world rather than further education.

A conspiracy exists to convince those in their late teens and early twenties that they are already, or are just about to be, adult. This is almost invariably untrue. There is nothing to be embarrassed about here - some of the very best people never quite emerge from childhood - but the fact is that anyone who, before the age of 25, thinks and behaves in an entirely grown-up way is either behaviourally dysfunctional (and probably heading for a life in politics), or has been fooled by the conspiracy.

The reason why so many adults are eager to persuade the young that they are more grown-up than in fact they are is predictable and depressing. It a matter of money.

Most of those who reach the age when they are facing up to university or a first job have been raised by the sensible principle that it is a good idea to be dependent upon oneself. The reason often given by parents as they send off their children off to boarding-school - that it will "help them stand on their own two feet" - may be woefully inaccurate in that context, but is one that all parents will understand. We all want our children to grow up to be able to stand on their own two feet.

Then, almost overnight, we put shackles on them. We remove what independence they have by cheerfully putting them up for full membership of the indebted, credit-card society.

If they are going to university, there is no choice in the matter - indeed, one of the more pernicious side-effects of the student loan system is that it inculcates the idea that debt is inevitable, almost a normal function of citizenship. The bank managers, financial advisers and credit sellers who hover over the vulnerable young like hungry horse-flies tell the same story. Students represent the future, and the more they can be persuaded to spend now and repay at advantageous rates, the happier those who snare them early will be.

But something more insidious than mere money-making happens when both government and business encourage younger citizens to build their future on debt. The message being conveyed is straightforward and seductive: it is that owing money is part of being a successful, evolved adult. Anyone with reasonable worldly ambition, it is implied, should have a wallet full of credit cards, and should know how to skip from one advantageous loan scheme to another. The property market, the lives of entrepreneurial role models, confirm that to borrow today can bring wealth and happiness tomorrow. Debt, the story goes, makes you free.

Thus the manacles are closed. Far from standing on their own two feet, most people reach their mid-twenties utterly dependent on others. Decisions that will affect the rest of their lives are made from a position of panicky indebtedness. Their highest priority is not to take a job that will enhance their future lives but to earn a living that will help to pay back those borrowings. That fake symbol of maturity, a string of plastic cards, weighs them down and holds them back.

Debt, of course, has some persuasive advocates. In his book American Sucker, an account of how he became an obsessive and unsuccessful investor, the New Yorker critic David Denby recalls advice given to him by a successful magazine editor in the 1980s. "More work, more obligation, more debt than you're comfortable with," was the secret of success. "You've got to take on 10 to 15 per cent more." That way, the argument went, you would expand your capacities to repay the debt, at which point you should borrow another 15 per cent, and start the process once more. Denby ended up blowing a million dollars on the stock market.

Even the stories of those who play the debt game more successfully contain a warning for the young and inexperienced. In America, a multimillionaire called Zell Kravinsky has been in the headlines and has shared the secrets of his financial success. "Most people think the more you borrow, the riskier it is," he has said. "In my system, the more you borrow, the safer it is."

This philosophy has led Zell to a peculiar position. He has not only given away over $45m, but has obsessively started to donate his organs to anyone who needs them. So far part of his liver, a lobe of his lung and some bone marrow have gone, and more seems likely to follow. Searching for the moral life, he says that he cannot have two kidneys when there is someone somewhere who only has one. He cannot help himself paying back in any way that he can.

It would be excessively alarmist to tell young students and employees that, if you play the debt game too readily, then one day you might end up with a compulsion to give away parts of your own body. On the other hand, the terrible fate of the master-borrower might be worth their remembering the next time a smiling huckster of credit comes to call.