Hamish McRae: A time for giving with a difference

With the recession, there is a shift from giving people things to giving them services

Wednesday 25 November 2009 01:00 GMT

What is true generosity now? This will, for many people, be the toughest economic background to Christmas of their experience. The country had last year begun its slither into recession but the full scale of the disaster was not yet clear. Now the economy may be growing again but the debris is all around. People are still losing their jobs and their homes on a scale that has not occurred since the early 1990s and there is the certainty of some combination of public spending cuts and tax increases next year.

Set against this, the very idea of a great festive spending splurge is out of tune with the times. For many people that is not just out of tune; it is out of the question. Even the "haves" feel the need to be cautious, partly no one knows what nasties lurk around the corner but also because this is not the moment for conspicuous consumption. It is offensive, even if you have got the wherewithal to do so, to splash it around.

But this still the festive season. That is embedded in our human psyche, the long tradition, predating Christianity that there should be some form of celebration at this time of year. So how should we celebrate when the economic and social headwinds are so strong? At the simplest level is how to show affection towards our family and friends at a tough time. Christmas is about celebrating but it is also about giving. So do we give people the usual stuff but maybe a bit less than usual? That does not sound very brilliant. Or do we figure out other ways of showing our affection and what might those be?

There seems to something quite profound happening at the moment in response to economic pressures. Just as difficult times make everyone question their own values, people are giving much more thought to what they are giving and why. The data inevitably is still sketchy and anecdotal but we can glimpse several new trends in the way people spend their money, trends that are evident this season but which will I suggest endure.

The first and most obvious is the shift from giving people things to giving them services. That has been a trend for a while but this year it is more evident than ever before. So imports of the traditional present lines are down and a whole raft of service industries, especially theatres and restaurants, have developed ways of encouraging people to gift their service to someone else. It is a night out the recipients will enjoy rather than some stuff they didn't need.

There is a sub-section of these service gifts, those that have a charitable element, that have been growing particularly this winter. The most original present on this line I have come across was by a friend who sent a loo as a birthday gift: it was a payment to a charity that would use the money to built latrines in rural Africa.

But there is another even bigger trend, which is to give time instead of money. Many people, from choice or circumstance, have more time now than they did a year ago but less money. It is of course much more precious because time, unlike money, cannot be replaced. The gift could simply be a grandparent giving a young family some baby-sitting time. Or it could be a younger person taking an older one out for some experience they might not otherwise have.

A version of this trend is to give people a service that is in some way exceptional. The economist Fred Hirsch created a new concept in the 1960s, called "positional goods". They were goods that were, by their very nature, in scarce supply. For most goods, even luxury goods, the supply is flexible: you can build more Bentleys. But for some, such as an antique piece of furniture or jewellery, the supply cannot be increased. Fred Hirsch postulated that as the world got richer the price of positional goods would rise relative to other goods, as has indeed been the case.

Now the same thing seems to be happening to services. The price of seats at Covent Garden has gone up relative to the price of seats at cinemas. But – and this is the relevant element this Christmas – there are some services where money is not really the issue. What distinguishes these services is that access to them is limited not so much by money but by contacts – something that gives people a glimpse of another world, or an experience, that they could not otherwise have. That is what makes them so special.

There is a good example of this sort of rare service, which actually has been pioneered by this newspaper: the auctioning of services of people connected with the paper, which we do for charity every year. In this instance you can buy the service – you can buy lunch with the editor or have my fellow columnist (and cookery writer) Yasmin Alibhai-Brown cook you a meal. But the key point is that this is something that most people normally could not buy.

Now apply that to Christmas giving in general. We all have something special that we can do for others, something that only we can do for them (even if it is cooking a dinner less competently than would Yasmin) and those are the most valued gifts of all. They may cost some money, and they most certainly take time, but it is the rarity that is the gift's greatest quality.

The past year has for most of us been a time of re-calibrating our values. Economic uncertainty makes you think about what you really want to do. What we are getting is a manifestation of that change in values, expressed in the way we show affection to our family and friends. There are many other shifts taking place in the way we send money, including the shift to online purchasing – but it seems to me that the change in priorities is more significant than the change in mechanism.

What we buy is more important than how we buy it. And I think that this shift in values will outlast the recession. Just as it won't be back to business as usual for the banks or indeed the government, it won't be back to careers as usual for the rest of us. Of course we will still have to earn our livings – some things don't change – but we will do so in a way that values time, friends and relationships over stuff.

Watch what you get given this Christmas and think about the presents that give most pleasure. I suspect they will be the most personal gifts, not the ones that cost the most. And that is as it should be.


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