Continental drift closes gap

European lifestyles are harmonising, particularly among the young. But there are still defining factors which make one country different from another

As the developed world slowly, but surely, shrinks thanks to increasing – and faster – modes of communication, the differences between consumers’ lives become smaller.

The latest TGI Europa survey of product, brand, attitude and media exposure in major European markets shows how harmonisation is occurring, and how some differences obstinately remain.

The British can look unsophisticated when you compare the consumption of products such as olive oil and bottled mineral water, although maybe the latter is because they trust what comes out of the tap. The British drink significantly more instant coffee than their continental counterparts.

If dining out is a sign of sophistication, the British come bottom of the league again. But there’s no doubt that if TGI Europa had been around ten years ago things would have looked relatively worse. And in ten years’ time its studies will tell a very different story. Using generation analysis, we can see how populations are harmonising over time.

When you examine the time past generations spent in further education, Spain is traditionally the “poor man” of Europe. Among Spain’s current population of over-65s, 85 per cent had left full-time education by the age of 14, compared with a mere eight per cent in Germany.

Over the generations, countries have increased their commitment to further education. Among Spain’s current population of 20- to 34-year-olds, only 15 per cent belong to the “early finish” group. In Germany it is virtually zero, but the education gap has undoubtedly closed.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this change is people’s understanding of foreign languages. Using English as the benchmark – being the most commonly used non-native language – the way in which the gap between countries such as Germany and Spain has narrowed becomes evident.

Using the definition “read or listen to”, 13 per cent of over-65 Germans claim an understanding of English; in Spain the figure is less than two per cent.

English ability rises as you go down the age groups, to just over 50 per cent of 20- to-34-year-old Germans and 28 per cent of the equivalent group of Spaniards.

The house tenure market varies across Europe, reflecting employment trends. In all age groups, the Germans are by far the most likely to rent their homes, and the least likely to be in the process of buying them or own them outright. In the rental market, France is easily number two in all age groups.

Interestingly, 93 per cent of over-65 Spaniards claim to own their home, compared with 76 per cent of Britons. In Germany, this figure drops to 45 per cent, which perhaps explains why six per cent of over-65 Germans have a part-time job, compared with one per cent in France and Spain. And when you look at perhaps the two most significant consumer purchases – cars and holidays – you find distinct differences between Europe’s elderly populations.

Across all age groups, Britons are by far the most likely to have bought a car in the past year, although this may stem from Britain’s thriving second-hand car market. This is just as true among the over-65s. Elderly Britons are 50 per cent more likely than the equivalent “retirement age” Germans to have recently purchased a car.

Propensity to take two or more holidays a year peaks among the very young in Spain and France, shows no age group bias or, indeed, particular strength in Germany, and is highest in Britain. In Britain, this peaks among 55- to 64-year-olds. Meanwhile, over-65 Britons are twice as likely to take two or more holidays a year than their French or German counterparts.

In nearly all age groups, Britons are the most likely to have a PC at home. In Britain, well over half of all 15- to 19-year-olds claim to have one, compared with only 38 per cent in France.

In this respect, France, perhaps because of its “Minitel” heritage, lags behind the other major economies in virtually all age groups. Indeed, over-65 Germans and Britons are more than twice as likely to have a computer than their French counterparts.

While many traditional lifestyle differences between countries, such as education and knowing a foreign language, are reducing, there are some aspects that remain a point of difference, even in the younger generations.

Factfile is edited by Julia Day. Richard Bedwell, target group index marketing executive at BMRBInternational, contributed

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