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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2006, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
Unplugged generation
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Younger people lack basic DIY skills, claims a survey. How did the nation lose its ability to use a screwdriver?

At times, with makeover programmes wallpapered all over the television schedules, you might have imagined the UK was a nation of compulsive decorators, planning to spend the Bank Holiday weekend up a ladder.

But a survey suggests we're becoming more like Andy Pandy than Handy Andy with a paintbrush, more of a menace with a screwdriver than monarchs of the DIY manual.

Almost half of under-30s wouldn't know how to put up wallpaper - and a quarter of them wouldn't be able to change a plug, claims the survey.

Rhiannon Lennon-Smith, a PA in Notting Hill, who successfully showed she could change a plug

The older generation, the over-50s, put these cack-handed youths to shame, claims the survey, with almost all of them - 94% - confident of being able to wire a plug without blowing the electrics.

So what has happened to the basic household skills of young people? Why are so many left feeling helpless by the sight of a piece of wire and plastic?

According to Direct Line, the insurance company that commissioned the survey, it's not about ability, it's about time. Young people don't want to spend time repairing household goods, they'd rather be repairing to places of leisure - and then pay someone else to do the fixing.

"They're too busy to carry out these repair tasks - and some of them blame their parents for not teaching them how to mend things," says spokeswoman Carmel McCarthy.


"It's surprising to see how many skills that were commonplace a generation ago, such as wallpapering, needlework and household maintenance appear to have fallen out of favour.

"But younger people are more adept at other skills - such as being more likely to be able to assemble flat-pack furniture," she says.

They might be able to knock up the Ikea, but it will still mean a long cold night for the young, with almost half of them unable to bleed a radiator. Such skills are almost second nature to the over-50s, with a warming 90% able to fix the heating.

More grimy problems such as unblocking a drain also show that the older generation are first round the bend and into the winning straight - with only a quarter of the grey foxes troubled by the prospect of wielding the plunger, compared to a third of the new kids on the blocked.


In financial terms, young DIY failures pay for their inadequacy - spending an average of 1,700 per year on basic repairs, while the thrifty over-50s only spend 330 per year on similar tasks.

It could also be that people have become more accustomed to chucking stuff out than repairing it when there's a fault.

I'm not sure about how to change this type of plug. But people in Poland are much more likely to repair things than in London, where people don't have time, they can't be there when the repair man would come.
Maciek Kolodziejski, photographer from Poland, unsuccessful in the plug test

Even if you can find a traditional repair man - wearing brown overalls and a knowing expression - there's also a suspicion that appliances are designed to break down the day after the warranty expires and cost as much to fix as to replace.

That's the conversation that begins: "It'll cost 100 for the parts, 200 for the labour, mind you, a new one would only cost 350, entirely up to you, mind you they'd have to ship the parts from China, and I mean 'ship' ..."

The lack of interest in DIY has already sent an icy wind blowing through the aisles of home-improvement retailers, with B&Q recently warning of a contracting market.

And Wickes, wanting the public to rekindle its fondness for its lost paint brushes, this week reported that four in 10 households have DIY jobs that have been started and then fizzled out unfinished.

These bodged couldn't-do-it-yourself jobs have knocked 35bn off the value of the nation's properties, claims the shop.


But where one self-assembled door closes, another opens. And there are people now trying to develop businesses that take advantage of the skills gap.

I'd get a friend to help, because I did it wrong once and blew the lights, so I wouldn't risk it. I learned how to do it once on a course and I recognise the wires, but these days most things come with a plug already on them.
Susan Lambert, east London pensioner, who declined the plug test on safety grounds

If we're too idle and incompetent to change a plug, then you can pay someone to come and carry out the jobs that were once part of the daily routine.

Bruce Greig is managing director of a "handyman service", which will despatch someone to householders struggling with basic repair tasks, such as changing a tap, hanging a picture (or plasma television) on the wall or fitting lights.

"It's partly that people don't have enough time - but it's also that people are less likely to know a neighbour or a friend who could help them. And there are fewer people who have these type of skills, as everyone seems to be studying media studies instead," he says.

And the extent of their work reveals how much help some people need - as he says that it's far from unknown to be asked to send someone round to change a lightbulb.

So how many people does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, as long as they're over 50.

I remember the wires as thinking of the blue being Conservatives and the brown Labour (I'm colour blind) - then I think of their respective political positions and swap them. Easy. Ummm, except now Labour and Conservatives are probably now the other way round now, so you don't need to swap.......oh forget it.
Matthew Harding, Penzance

When I was younger, my dad taught me the trick of wiring a plug was bLue to the Left, bRown to the Right and yellow/green up the middle.
Samantha Hoggarth, Oxford

My own weird rhyme "Never Eat Llama's.. But..." Stands for "Neutral, Earth, Live" with a B for Blue to remind me which of the blue and brown goes in the neutral - (I always remember the green is earth on my own).
Sam Judson, Newcastle

The LIVE BROWN bear, walked over the GREEN AND YELLOW EARTH under the NEUTRAL BLUE sky - that's how you remember to wire a plug.
Sherilyn, Edinburgh

My father taught me that 'George BROWN was a LIVE WIRE'. I can't remember how I was meant to remember the other two, but at least I'll get one right.
Judy Napper, Broadstone, Dorset

Samantha's dad almost had it spot on - the second letter tells you where; bLue Left, bRown Right and sTripe Top
Chris Higginbottom, Belper

How do you change a plug? Simple. Google "how do I change a plug" and click the first link.
Colin, Luton

When I was young and was naughty, my mum used to take the plug off the TV so I couldn't watch it as punishment. Then she made the mistake of telling me how to wire a plug....she had to come up with a new punishment after that as I kept putting it back on. I haven't forgotten how to do it 20 years later.
Dave G, London

I'm 20 and have re-wired the upstairs of my parents' house (I'm not an electrician) and installed a toilet and washbasin into our new garage (I'm not a plumber either). I've also helped one of my workmates double glaze his new extension (I'm not a window fitter). Not all youngsters are lacking in DIY skills.
Rob, Hull

We interviewed a dozen candidates last year for the post of apprentice electrician. Only two made a decent attempt despite us leaving the wiring instruction card on the plug.
Len Paget, Kilmarnock

Having moved to the UK from Australia, I'm slightly surprised that rewiring electrical plugs is seen as a common skill. In Australia, I believe it is illegal for anyone who is not a qualified electrician to do so, ostensibly for safety reasons. If ordinary people in Britain can change plugs without recourse to professional help and somehow not end up burning down their houses, then perhaps human beings are more intelligent than we give them credit for.
Andrew, London

If this survey is accurate, I'd say it reflects how the family unit has changed in the last generation or so. I know how to do all of the DIY tasks mentioned above and more; we never had the money to hire people to do things so my parents became experts at DIY, and taught me everything they learned.
Mary, London

Twenty years ago, most electrical appliances were sold without a plug. Therefore, most people needed to know how to fit one. Now electrical appliances come with the plug already fitted. This means most young people have never needed to know how to fit a plug.
Simon, Poole

Are we losing so many skills these days? Unbelievable! People will soon start asking where eggs come from and be surprised it's not the local supermarket. I have known how to change a plug since I was about 14 years old, nothing to it really, it's perfectly safe.
Jeremy, London

I can safely say that I'm one of the under-30s who has next to no DIY skills, although ask me to partition a hard-drive or install new software on a laptop and I'm as happy as Larry. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago, I attempted to change a lightbulb on my own for the first time. I thought I had achieved the task, only for the room to be consumed by a funny burning smell, followed about 15 minutes later by the bulb going out. I've no idea what I did wrong, although I do admit to asking my brother to do the job properly.
Graeme, Dundee

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? First you need to know if the lightbulb really wants to change...
Jake, France

How many country and western singers does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, one to do the job and another to write a song about how good the old one was.
Bazza, Sheffield

How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light bulb?
Michael, Oxford

How many sound engineers does it take to change a light bulb? One... two... one... two...
Ian, Putney

How many Conservatives does it take to change a light bulb?
One..... After reflecting in the twilight on the merit of the previous bulb.
Paul B, Tyneside

How many Microsoft engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. Darkness will be the new industry standard!
Paul B, Tyneside

How many Tottenham fans does it take to change a lightbulb? Both of them.
Chris Binns, Haworth, West Yorkshire

How many Man Utd fans does it take to change a light bulb?
Three. One to change the bulb, one to buy the commemorative 2006 light-bulb changing football strip, and a third to drive the other two back to Torquay.
Jon Parker, Wimbledon

How many students does it take to change a light bulb?
None, they'll be moving out next term.
Kaz, Havant

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