The bestseller list exposes a hole in Australians’ financial education

One book has dominated the Australian bestseller charts for the past year and a half since it was released.

Could it be Liane Moriarty, with her irresistibly readable books and relatable characters?

Or is the Stella Prize-winning The Museum of Modern Love?

Jane Harper’s The Dry, a crime novel set in small town Australia, which captured the attention of local and international readers alike, could be a contender, or perhaps the extraordinary true story, Lion: A Long Way Home.

You might be surprised that none of these books has held the top spot in the charts for anywhere like the time that The Barefoot Investor: The Only Money Guide You’ll Ever Need by Scott Pape has. While I have far more interest in the fiction that takes up other positions on the bestseller charts, I could not fail to notice Pape’s presence, or should I more accurately say, dominance.

Selling hundreds of thousands of copies, Books & Publishing reported Pape’s easy-to-follow finance guide remained at the top of the list of Australia’s bestselling books in August, 2017, after having been on the chart, if not at the top, since its release in November 2016. In the pre-Christmas period in 2016, it and Hannah Kent’s The Good People were the titles most often nominated by bookstores as the festive season’s bestsellers – were parents trying to provide a financial education that they could not?

The Barefoot Investor has even topped the Readings bestseller list, a bookstore which, I would have thought, has more of a literary than a financial leaning. It has also been shortlisted in the Australian Book Industry Awards general non-fiction book of the year category alongside Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl and Niki Savva’s political dynamite Road to Ruin, among others.

Pape’s book offers guidance on how to create a financial plan, how to invest and how to double your income. And clearly, it has filled a significant gap in the market, providing information that people are struggling to find elsewhere.

It is no surprise that young Australians are searching for information on how to build financial security. They are clearly worried, which was confirmed by a study conducted by social trend and researchers the KORN Group that revealed that being unable to afford a house ranks alongside terrorism as one of the two biggest concerns felt by young Australians.

The housing affordability crisis in Australia’s capital cities is something they read about in the newspapers almost every week, along with criticism of their generation’s spending habits or failure to take superannuation seriously.

For these young people, perhaps Pape is some kind of saviour. His proposition is a tempting one, promising to give readers ‘the skinny’ on saving up a six-figure house deposit in 20 months. And it is hard to look past a title that claims to be “The Only Money Guide You’ll Ever Need”.

Which makes me wonder, are there other ways for young people to gain this information, or at least, more voices to hear it from than one, however successful, investment advisor? Is it problematic that his, unavoidably subjective advice, is the only advice that I imagine some readers are getting?

The debate over what should be taught at schools – whether practical job skills or focusing on the traditional reading, writing and mathematics – is an old one. I am a strong believer in the value of the traditional skills and I think that there is great value in reading and understanding the world’s great works, both to the individual and society as a whole. Reading and writing are skills that are unlikely to lose their value, no matter how attractive emojis and text-talk become. And a strong grounding in maths is as important as it has ever been, with STEM careers seen as the way of the future.

But, the more I see the Barefoot Investor appearing on the bestseller list, week in, week out, the more I sense that money skills might be something young people might be missing in their formal education. But, is it up to schools to teach students these skills that might not buy them happiness, but could well offer a degree of financial security in the future? Sitting somewhere between the traditional lessons and employability skills, an education in personal finances could help fill the gap that young people (and their parents) are currently keen to fill.

Alternatively, some might believe that money skills should be taught in the home. However, that seems to me to be a path to inequality, as those who are financially literate, and likely to be the wealthy, pass down their knowledge, and thus their wealth, to their own children, while those with parents who are less financially literate, miss out.

No, we cannot rely on parents to provide young people with financial education, but should we risk crowding the curriculum with this kind of non-traditional education, or are we happy to leave it to market forces to see who captures their attention? Pape is sitting way out in front in that endeavour at the moment. I don’t have the answer, but I do know that while Pape’s book it might be a wonderful addition to Australians’ financial education, it would be a shame if it was the beginning and the end.

 

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