Just 60 years ago, the economy was rarely spoken about. Today, you can barely escape it. But has our economic literacy kept up? Moneywise explores the case for making it compulsory…
Every autumn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer poses outside 11 Downing Street with his ministerial red box, before being whisked away to Parliament to deliver his Budget speech.
This speech is his chance to tell the country how he intends to spend the billions of pounds gathered from us in taxes – and how he plans to collect more from us in the next year.
What he says affects all of our lives. It impacts how much we pay to fill up a tank of petrol, whether we can afford to buy a home or go on holiday.
But how many of us actually understand what he’s on about?
In his speech this October, Chancellor Philip Hammond used the word ‘economy’ or ‘economic’ 28 times.
But a charity called Economy, which campaigns for understandable economics, asked 5,000 people last year how much they felt they understood about the economy.
The answer? Not very much.
As Ali Norrish, the charity’s head of research and schools, explains: “Ask an adult to tell you what the economy means. Most will pull a horrified face and draw a blank. Almost none will give you a confident answer.”
Only 10% of us know what Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is, the measure the Chancellor uses to judge the size of the economy and whether it’s getting bigger or smaller.
Only 15% understand the definition of inflation, the measure of how prices are rising, which the Bank of England tries to control by doing things that cut or boost savings rates and make mortgages more or less affordable.
A growing movement is trying to close that knowledge gap.
It believes that economic arguments leach into all parts of our everyday lives. They are used to justify everything from freezing the wages of nurses to curbing immigration to building new roads. Therefore, everyone should have access to economic literacy to gain the confidence to engage in these issues and speak the language in which they are discussed.
At the first-ever Economic Literacy for Everyone Summit in October, teachers, students, public figures and national education bodies met to come up with a plan to make economic literacy widely available.
The event in London was organised by Economy. It points out that 76% of the UK public think we should receive a foundation in economics before we leave school, but that it does not have a single mention in the national curriculum.
The summit was not pushing for everyone to be taught the technicalities of economics – macroeconomics, monetisation or monopsonies.
Baseline of knowledge
Instead, it wants all of us to have access to a baseline knowledge of what the economy is, and how it functions and relates to us.
But does it matter that so many understand so little?
Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane says: “You could argue – and some have – this doesn’t matter much. There are all sorts of things in life where we’re not really literate. We’re not literate, most of us – certainly not me – in how our car works or how our hearts work.
“But those complex subjects are very different. When it comes to the economy and finance we cannot avoid those complexities. We’re reliant on some understanding to make everyday decisions every day of our lives whether it’s jobs or spending or saving or borrowing.”
He adds that on an individual level the cost of being financially illiterate is a “recipe for the three Ds, which are debt, default and depression”.
“The economy matters because it affects you and you affect it”
Collectively, a general lack of economic knowledge could even have an impact on the strength of our economy itself.
Mr Haldane continues: “Illiteracy economically gives rise to people making decisions, which if anything amplify bad outcomes in the economy such as recessions and depressions.”
“So the popular narratives people use about their lives and the economy have been found to be an important driver of the economy,” he explains.
Talk of the economy is a relatively recent phenomenon, but appears to be growing every year, making the case for economic literacy ever more powerful.
Economy chief executive
Joe Earle puts it like this: “Before the 1950s, the economy wasn’t mentioned in any winning party manifesto. Now it is central to society.”
He adds it was even used by a children’s charity recently as a reason why parents should read to their children before bed – because it would boost the economy. The same social issues were always discussed, but not using the economics jargon so prevalent today.
Economy is running economics crash courses with adults in marginalised communities, developing courses in schools and running a free teacher training conference next year to show teachers how to embed economic literacy in schools.
While it doesn’t teach A-level or degrees, some hope that by making economic literacy more mainstream it will pique the interest of – and create greater confidence among – a wider pool of students who will then go on to take the subject further.
This could also help address the imbalance whereby those who make decisions about the economy are far from representative of the people affected by those decisions.
At the moment, 0.8% of state-educated children go on to study economics, compared to 9.8% of those who are privately educated. Just 28% of economics undergraduates are women.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Britain has still yet to have a female Chancellor of the Exchequer or Governor of the Bank of England.
Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West, speaking at the summit explained that in her career as an economist and at the Bank of England her peers were overwhelmingly of a particular background.
She says: “The people who study economics, at school and then at university, then go on to be in the positions, either dominant in the City... but also in places like the Bank of England and the Treasury, are making policies that affect all of our lives... [There are] inequalities about who has access to those types of jobs and opportunities.”
Ms Reeves adds: “I wonder how many times people in communities like mine all around the country are asked for their views and input into economic decisions [made] on their behalf and that have such a drastic effect on their lives.”
Having a more diverse group of people talking about the economy may even help shape the language itself, making it more relevant to people’s lives.
It was Margaret Thatcher who said in 1985: “You and I come by road or rail. But economists travel on infrastructure.”
Of course, there are areas of economics that are technical, but there are times when jargon creeps in needlessly, making it harder for everyone to engage in issues that affect them.
It is easier for politicians to justify social decisions as ‘best for the economy’ when so many people don’t feel comfortable talking about economic issues.
What then is economics?
At the summit, a group of school children put the question to Andy Haldane.
He says: “They said ‘give me a one sentence description of what economics is. Now I’ve never been asked that question before and I didn’t have an instant answer. So, in true official style I threw it back to them and crowdsourced a solution. And Fatima and her team brought me, after an hour, their description of what economics is – and it’s brilliant.
“She says: ‘Economics is defined as how the decisions you make in everyday life impact the community and the community’s decisions impact you.’
“And that is exactly what the economy is about. The economy matters partly because the economy affects you and partly because you, the person, affects it.”
Tanya Gupta, 16, who studies economics at Watford Grammar and came along to the summit, says that lots of her friends don’t really know what she’s studying. “They think it’s all about money. I tell them economics is just about the decisions you make.”