Magazine

Why has everything become a costly milestone event?

  • 20 June 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Pictures of a baby shower, older woman celebrating, and teenagers going to a school prom

The average Briton spends about £500 on four milestone celebrations a year, from "baby showers" to 30th birthdays to ruby wedding anniversaries. But why have people started celebrating everything so lavishly?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that weddings cost the earth.

And they are not just expensive for the bride and groom and their parents. From the hen party in Brighton, to the new frock and the department store gift, guests are also forking out a fortune.

But what about all those other rites of passage and affirmations - the christenings, the 60th birthdays and the silver wedding anniversaries?

And they are just the traditional events. Money is also being spent on baby showers, 16th birthday parties and school proms (formerly known as the end-of-exams disco).

There are plenty of wildly extravagant tales reported in the newspapers, such as Topshop boss Philip Green spending £4m on a three-day bar mitzvah celebration for his teenage son, and Elton John wearing a £73,000 Louis XIV costume for his 50th birthday party.

This still represents an unusual level of effort for a birthday

But it is not just tycoons and celebrities who are pulling out all the stops.

Gone are the small gatherings at home and cheap keepsakes such as the 21st key to the door. Even granny's 80th birthday is more likely to be held in a posh hotel with guests travelling half around the world to be there, with everyone pitching in to buy her a cruise around the Mediterranean.

A survey by NS&I Savings suggests Britons attend on average four milestone events each year, spending £120 on each one. Almost a third said they were worried about the cost, while 50% believed such celebrations had become increasingly expensive.

Cultural historian Christopher Cook says the fundamental change is that these celebrations used to be family affairs, private and inward-looking.

"Now they have become huge public events. And this seems to have marched step in step with an increasing affluence and emergence of a consumer-led society".

He traces it back to the 1980s, or the "me generation" as he calls it, when "for the first time in British society, people thought money was intrinsically good".

Essentially people started flashing their cash as "spending money demonstrated one's status, worth and value", he adds.

Certainly there were big society parties in the 1920s and 1930s, he says, but they were the preserve of the ruling classes. The trend for huge celebrations has "extended socially from middle and top down to bottom" and "now we all expect these events to be big and lavish".

He believes the growth of the celebrity has also encouraged people to splash out on milestone events. "It gives you the opportunity to become as near a celebrity as you can in your own life."

'Bigger and bigger'

Cook does not throw the blame across the Atlantic and says Britain has developed its own distinct style of showing off. But there can be no doubt that some of the more recent milestones - baby showers, 16th birthdays and proms - have been inspired by America.

The 16-year-olds of bygone years used to celebrate finishing their exams with a disco in the assembly hall, drinking weak orange cordial and eating stale crisps, while dancing along to the tape recorder or gramophone in the corner.

Now it's all about spray tans, big dresses, even bigger hair and 16-seater limousines. Nine out of 10 secondary schools in Essex will reportedly be hosting a prom or graduation ceremony for their students in the next six weeks.

Justine Roberts from Mumsnet says the growing popularity of proms and 16th birthday parties is down to US TV shows such as My Super Sweet 16, Prom Queen and High School Musical.

Baby showers are also an American import, she says, and they split the parents who use her website.

"Some people think it is a nice way to mark a new beginning, while others think it's too commercial and don't like the idea of inviting a load of people around and demanding a gift.

"There's nothing wrong with these events in themselves but they are just another way of getting us to spend a lot of money. And in these cash-strapped times, there is a lot of pressure on families."

Most people love a bit of a party, but does it need to have such grandeur?

"Children start to expect bigger and bigger events and that means more and more outlay," says Roberts. "It's hard to be the parent who says no."

'Bit stingy'

An entire industry has been built around milestones and it used to be case that party planners were only hired by corporate firms or uber-wealthy individuals.

But Natalie Kiley, from Theme Traders, says their clients are on a range of incomes and she believes many people are using parties as a way of escaping the "doom and gloom" of the economic reality.

The whole package including marquee and catering will cost a minimum of £15,000 but schools, for instance, can hire red carpets and flames to make a dramatic prom entrance for £800.

Celebrating everything under the sun and spending more and more money on the parties throws up a dilemma for guests who cannot afford a decent gift, a new outfit or the cost of travelling to an event.

Etiquette expert William Hanson says the cost of the present depends on how long the guest has known the host and the occasion.

"If a lavish party is being put on then one is probably, unconsciously or consciously, going to spend more money on a present for the host."

He suggests anything below £20 for a milestone event is probably a bit stingy, whatever the relationship.

"If you really can't afford a decent present then it's probably best not to buy anything. If they are a close friend they should understand your situation.

"If you can't afford the travel costs etc then the only thing you can do is not go."

Despite these straitened times, the trend for bigger parties is unlikely to go into reverse.

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