ONS Wealth and Assets Survey: Young people, North East fare badly

PEF economist Michael Davies warns against false optimism off the back of the latest ONS Wealth and Assets Survey results, and highlights the particular challenges faced by young people and the North East.


Today (1 August 2018) the ONS released their early indicator estimates from the Wealth and Assets Survey (WAS) – preliminary estimates about people’s attitudes towards their financial situation during the period from July 2016 to December 2017.

We need to remember that these results are based on survey data. As such, there might be some tension between the picture given by individuals’ reported answers and, say, quantitative data on household income and expenditure.

For instance, the WAS survey found that 12% of respondents frequently (“always” or “most of the time”) ran out of money by the end of the week/month. Though the figure is still worryingly high, this is a fall from the ONS’ findings in July 2010-June 2012, when 16% of respondents chose these options. Even if the level of financial precariousness is worrying, we might be optimistic about the direction of the trend.

However, data from the ONS released last week tell a different story. For the first time in thirty years, households are spending more than they earn in income – the average household is a net borrower, which wasn’t the case even in the credit boom before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). As a result, consumer credit – including credit card debt and pay day loans – is at record levels.

These data present a starkly different picture than the WAS results. At this stage, then, it would be reckless to take the latter as a reason for optimism about UK households’ financial health.

Moreover, the data on young people and the North East are cause for concern, especially in light of the UK’s persistent and stark regional and intergenerational inequalities.

1. Young people are in a particularly precarious situation

Unsurprisingly, young people reported much higher levels of financial precariousness than the average respondent. One way of measuring financial precariousness might be how well someone can deal with an unexpected loss of income. When surveyed, 44% of respondents said that they would not be able to make ends meet for longer than three months if they lost the main source of income coming into their household.

But if we zoom in on 16 to 24 year olds, this figure rises to 68% of respondents – 71% if we look at 16 to 24 year olds not living with family. Perhaps even more worryingly, 50% of 16 to 24 year olds living independently wouldn’t be able to make ends meet for more than a month if they lost their main source of income.

Though our employment levels are high, the UK has seen a rise in ‘insecure work’ and young people are disproportionately likely to be in these insecure jobs. As a result, we should be particularly concerned by what the WAS survey says about their vulnerability to income shocks.

2. The North East has fared particularly badly

Accordingly to the WAS results, most regions have seen a decline in the percentage of people frequently running out of money at the end of the week/month since 2010. This has not been true for the North East; 20% of respondents from this region reported that they were in this situation, up from 19% in June 2010 – June 2012 and, alarmingly, from 15% in July 2014 – June 2016.

The North East fared similarly when it came to respondents’ ability to deal with a loss of their household’s main source of income. While 74% of respondents as a whole could make ends meet for longer than a month in this situation, only 61% of respondents in the North East could say the same.

Photo credit on previous page: Flickr / Low Jianwei



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