Debt and Financialization of Childhood (Oxford Bibliographies)

The following text is a not-yet copy-edited draft of Max Haiven. 2022 (in production). “Debt and Financialization of Childhood” in Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies, edited by Heather Montgomery. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Image is of Darren Cullen’s Pocket Money Loans project.


Financialization denotes the growing power, wealth and influence of the financial sector of the capitalist economy, usually since the early 1980s. The financial sector is often identified by the acronym FIRE: Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. In recent years, scholars and activists have shown that financialization is not only a matter dramatically affecting business and government but society and culture at large. It even affects children, even though they are often conspicuously excluded from economic and financial life by law, custom and morality. Hedge funds and other major financial players are deeply invested in the privatization of education. Insurance companies routinely speculate on systemic and environmental risks to young people. And the movement of real estate, including urban displacement, has significant impacts on children’s wellbeing.The FIRE sector is, essentially, built on the manipulation of various forms of credit and debt. Today, the world has roughly $225-trillion US of outstanding debt, much of it owed by governments who must increasingly borrow from financial institutions to operate, giving the latter profound influence which tends to encourage if not necessitate neoliberal and market-friendly policy. The period of financialization has also seen a massive explosion of consumer debt, not only in the Global North, where education, housing, healthcare combine with stagnant incomes and rising prices, but also in the Global South, where microfinance lending has encouraged the world’s poorest to borrow. While not incurred by children directly, these debts have a major impact on children’s lives. Ona. More abstract level, financialization and debt both necessarily imply a relationship with the future, something often associated with children and childhood. Notions of intergenerational debts are a key feature of almost every culture. In finaniclaized societies, fears about government debts and deficits are often cast in terms of over burdening future generations, usually as a means to justify austerity in the present (including, ironically, cutting funding to health, education and social provisioning that benefit children). The rhetoric of education being a private “investment in the future” has in many places become a dead metaphor, reflecting the pervasiveness of financialization as a process of sociocultural transformation. For all that, the connections between financialization, debt and childhood have not yet been fully explored by scholars: no single book and only a handful of articles or book chapters exist. Given that the impacts of debt and financialization are almost exclusively negative, even fewer approaches have explored how children might be active or creative agents amidst these social forces.

General Overview

Mader, Mertens and van der Zwan’s 2020 edited Handbook offers a comprehensive interdisciplinary overview of financialization as a phenomenon must be viewed as at once economic, political, social and cultural. Most authors agree that financialization describes an accelerating not homogeneous worldwide process since the 1980s that occurs in tandem with the rise of neoliberalism and corporate-led globalization, and thanks in part to the rise of digitally interconnected global communications networks.

But several authors also identify financialization by the more insidious ways the FIRE sector’s codes, metaphors, measurements, priorities and ideologies have come to influence a vast diversity of public and private social institutions and have dramatically impacted society and culture. Martin’s 2002 landmark study focuses on the way a financialized mindset is expected of citizens of financialized states, including, notably, an increasing emphasis since the 1990s on educating young people to gain financial management skills and, more broadly, adopt an appropriate financial disposition, seeing the increasingly unforgiving world as a series of assets to be leveraged and risks to be managed. Walker, Squires and Goldsmith 2021 detail many of the ways that, in a “competitive” global economy, policymakers and educators have encouraged children to embrace financial ideas at a young age. This work builds on a foundation set by Schor’s 2005 investigations of the commercialization of childhood, though commercialization and financialization are distinct if entangled concepts. Under financialization, as Gill-Peterson 2015 argues, it has become commonplace to hear these same actors speak of children as “investments in the future” of the nation or the economy, and indeed parents are encouraged to see their children’s curricular and extracurricular cultivation as worthwhile investments in the name of improving their capacity as bearers of human capital. As Cooper has argued, neoliberalism’s ideological architects were fixated on the nuclear family as the elemental and proper unit of economic life and on questions of intergenerational wealth, human development and the power of financial obligation. For Morris and Featherstone 2010, this neoliberal fixation on family and children as a site of literal and metaphorical investment has produced economic contexts marked by uneven and unjust rewards and punishments, which frequently represents a crushing burden for adults and children alike. Meanwhile, a 2015 report by The Children’s Society outlines many of the specific harms to youngsters, as do Walker, Squires and Goldsmith 2021. We know less about the impact of debt and financialization on children’s ideas and approaches to the world. Haiven 2014 has drawn on Martin’s work to explore how children “learn to learn” about financialization through their play with the globally popular Pokémon brand, especially the associated collectable trading cards.

Cooper, Melinda. 2017. Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. New York: Zone.

An investigation of the way the family is concieved by the ideological architects of neoliberalism, including a discussion of the way their work enabled the unlikely alliance of, on the one hand, free-market capitalists and, on the other, conservative religious communities.

Gill-Peterson, Julian. 2015. “The Value of the Future: The Child as Human Capital and the Neoliberal Labor of Race.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 43 (1): 181–96.

Drawing on theorist Lee Edelman’s rejection of the way the “figure of the child” has been manipulated to reproduce hegemonic social relations, Gill-Peterson notes the importance of the child to Gary Becker and other neoliberal thinkers as a potential bearer of future human capital. Speaking back to Edelman and Foucualt, the author demonstrates the role of anti-Black racism in this process in the United States.

Haiven, Max. 2014. Cultures of Financialization: Fictitious Capital in Popular Culture and Everyday Life. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Haiven argues that financialization not only affects economics and politics but also society and culture, and indeed that it relies upon the transformation of the social imagination which makes each social actor into an active financial subject. Chapter four focuses on the way financialization affects children’s play.

Mader, Philip, Daniel Mertens, and Natascha van der Zwan, eds. 2020. The Routledge International Handbook of Financialization. London and New York: Routledge.

A comprehensive and multifaceted interdisciplinary handbook featuring many of the leading scholars of critical finance studies sharing state-of-the-field essays.

Martin, Randy. 2002. The Financialization of Daily Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Martin’s first book has become a classic in critical studies of financialization, advancing the argument that financialization represents a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between the system of capitalism and social actors towards a logic of speculation. Chapter two focuses on financial education and the targeting of young people.

Morris, Kate, and Brid Featherstone. 2010. “Investing in Children, Regulating Parents, Thinking Family: A Decade of Tensions and Contradictions.” Social Policy and Society 9 (4): 557–66.

A critical analysis of how neoliberal social policy and discourse more generally frames “the family” as a site of certain forms of intervention aimed at “investing” for the benefit of children. The authors show that this mobilization of “the family” often erases complexities of the people and relationships to which the term refers and creates punitive pressures and expectations whereby the development of children is downloaded as a personal or familiar responsibility, rather than a social good.

Schor, Juliet B. 2005. Born to Buy. New York: Scribner.

Considered a classic of public-facing economic sociology, Schor details the ways that, over the past century, children have been systematically targeted as consumers through advertising and the integration of corporate interests into public education. While it is beyond the scope of her study, the techniques and processes Schor details help us understand how childhood is being financialized.

The Wolf at the Door: How Council Tax Debt Collection Is Harming Children.” 2015. London: The Children’s Society.

A report on the impacts of household debt on children, based on a survey and interviews with indebted adults and the children who lived with them in the United Kingdom, revealing the material and psychological toll. The report focuses in particular on tax debt owed to municipalities and features testimonies from adults and children.

Walker, Carl, Peter Squires, and Carlie Goldsmith. 2021. “Learning to Pay: The Financialisation of Childhood.” In Growing Up and Getting By: International Perspectives on Childhood and Youth in Hard Times, edited by John Horton, Helena Pimlott-Wilson, and Sarah Marie Hall, 193–209. Bristol: Policy Press.

The first and only overview of research into financialization and childhood with a focus on formal financial literacy programs targeting children and social impact bonds that have come to reshape public funding for youth programs and transform them into vehicles for speculative investment.

Debt, social reproduction and the family

While the subject of financialization and childhood has not yet been fully explored, it is of concern to a slowly growing range of scholars, most of them working in feminist traditions, who are studying the influence of finance and debt sphere of social reproduction: those typically unwaged activities, usually performed in the home and typically be women, that reproduce labour power in the capitalist economy. Care and cultivation of children is a quintessential part of this process. Montgomerie and Tepe-Belfrage 2016 demonstrate that household debts are a pivotal element of modern financialized economics, and also how profoundly damaging debt is to encumbered poor, working and middle class families. In the global North in the neoliberal/financialized period, significant productivity gains have not been matched by rising real (i.e. inflation adjusted) wages, leading households to borrow heavily, a pattern exacerbated by increases in user fees for public services (such as university tuition) and rising levels of consumerism. Debt has in many ways become compulsory. Such tensions are vividly illustrated and analyzed by Zaloom’s 2019 in her anthropological study of American family’s financing of increasingly costly university education. Gago and Cavallero 2021 explore financialization and financial crisis in Argentina and in Latin America more broadly, arguing that debt functions as a capitalist intervention in social reproduction with particular impacts and implications for women. Reasons include the extra burden placed on women as schools, childcare and community organizations are cut or privatized as well as the way the stressors of debt and precariousness infiltrate the domestic sphere, leading for instance to increased domestic violence and family breakdown. Dowling’s 2021 more comprehensive investigation of the “care crisis” explores similar topics with a focus on the United Kingdom. Throughout all of this literature, debt is often offered and sought as a means by which households can make an investment that will, ultimately, benefit their children, for instance in a business, housing or education. In this way, finacialization offers individualist solutions to the very problems it helps create by hailing social actors as “investors” in their and their households’ betterment. But as Milburn astutely notes, youngsters today in the Global North are emerging into a world where they are frozen out of access to financial assets (e.g. financial investments or housing) and where returns on investments in their own human capital (i.e. education) are failing to provide a pathway beyond precarious employment and economic uncertainty. He sees this as at the root of a leftward turn in youth political sentiment in the past decade.

Dowling, Emma. 2021. The Care Crisis: What Caused It and How Can We End It? London and New York: Verso.

A critical overview of the way neoliberal financialization has systematically undermined those aspects of the welfare state crafted to care for people and downloaded the work of caring onto individuals either formally (and usually precarious) employed to do so, or onto families (typically women). The book also discusses the financialization of care, including social impact bonds and other mechanisms.  

Gago, Verónica, and Lucí Cavallero. 2021. A Feminist Reading of Debt. Translated by Liz Mason-Deese. London and New York: Pluto.

Based on case studies in Latin America, notably Argentina, the authors demonstrate how modern forms of financial debt emerge from the convergence of capitalism and patriarchy and become vehicles for the renovation of capitalism and patriarchy in financialized times.

Milburn, Keir. 2021. “Generation Left after Corbynism: Assets, Age, and the Battle for the Future.” South Atlantic Quarterly 120 (4): 892–902.

A foresnic analysis of young people in the United Kingdom’s strong support for the left wing stance of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn from 2015-2020 based on a political-economic analysis of the particualr financial pressures that impact youth. Denied access to appreciating assets (notably housing), and finding their “human capital” (university degrees) to be worth less than anticipated, many of a yuoung a generation expressed its frustrations through electoral politics until Corbyn was defeated in the 2019 general election.

Montgomerie, Johnna, and Daniela Tepe-Belfrage. 2017. “Caring for Debts: How the Household Economy Exposes the Limits of Financialisation.” Critical Sociology 43 (4–5): 653–68.

Typically, discussions of financialization concern the elite and usually highly masculinized realm of banking, but here the authors show how dependent the financialized economy is on household debt, and the profound expectations that are placed on households under financialization.

Zaloom, Caitlin. 2019. Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

An anthropological investigation of how American families negotiate the ever-increasing cost of university education, which is seen (with some merit) to be the best investment in securing children’s middle class futures or personal success. 

Financialization and education

With trillions of dollars spent annually around the world on public education, it should come as no surprise that it has drawn the attention of the financial sector. This is especially so in the United States and United Kingdom where neoliberal policies have undermined the public system’s capacities and protections. A wide range of scholars have explored how the FIRE sector and its advocates have sought to invest in, reorient and take control over public educational institutions at all levels, from primary to tertiary. Saltman 2018 provides a damning catalog of the way that, operating under the guise of “innovation,” corporations and financial firms have targeted the American public school systems, often in partnership with various levels of government eager to save costs as well as powerful (typically right wing) think tanks. He explores the role of social impact bonds, pay for success schemes, “philanthrocapitalist” support, student loans and the branding and financing of semi-privatized charter schools. Likewise, Eaton et al. 2016 explore many of the ways in which American universities and colleges have become “financialized,” including more corporate-style management, increasing reliance on investment endowment funds, increased student loan borrowing and increased integration into the private sector. The financialization of society and social institutions has been accompanied by an enthusiasm for “financial literacy” education (sometimes also reframed as financial fitness). Bestselling author and media personality Suze Orman in particular has stressed the importance of young people becoming financially literate. But as Lazarus 2020 notes, data about the results of financial literacy education on young people’s future financial outcomes are inconclusive, and such programs almost invariably ignore the wider economic and political contexts of wealth and poverty, contributing to a neoliberal sensibility which reduces such complexities to personal triumphs or failures. As Haiven 2017 argues, this ideological dimension is even more damning when it also erases historical and ongoing forms of systemic and structural oppression such as settler colonialism’s impacts on Indigenous people in Canada in his case study. Activist initiatives like the US-based Debt Collective (Strike Debt 2012) or Spain’s participatory debt auditing network (Montgomerie and Tepe-Belfrage 2019) have dedicated themselves to providing alternative educational resources aimed at revealing how debt operates as part of a system of financial oppression and exploitation.

Eaton, Charlie, Jacob Habinek, Adam Goldstein, Cyrus Dioun, Daniela García Santibáñez Godoy, and Robert Osley-Thomas. 2016. “The Financialization of US Higher Education.” Socio-Economic Review.

A multidimensional review of how universities in the United States have been financialized in terms of increasingly corporate-style management, increasing reliance on investment endowment funds, increased student loan borrowing and increased integration into the private sector.

Strike Debt. 2013. “The Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual.” Second edition. Brooklyn: Common Notions.

A guide to how the American consumer debt system works and how it can be challenged from an activist initiative that emerged from Occupy Wall Street. Strike Debt was succeeded by the Debt Collective, which uses similar and new methods to mobilize debtors to take collective action against creditors and calls for the cancellation of many forms of debt.

Haiven, Max. 2017. “The Uses of Financial Literacy: Financialization, the Radical Imagination, and the Unpayable Debts of Settler-Colonialism.” Cultural Politics 13 (3): 348–69.

This essay takes as its case study financial literacy materials that target Indigenous people in Canada. The author critiques them as reinforcing a settler colonial economic worldview which also erases the profound debts owed to Indigenous people by the Canadian government and society for the theft of land and for genocidal policies.

Lazarus, Jeanne. 2020. “Financial Literacy Education: A Questionable Answer to the Financialization of Everyday Life.” In The Routledge International Handbook of Financialization, edited by Philip Mader, Daniel Mertens, and Natascha van der Zwan. London and New York: Routledge.

An overview of critiques of financial literacy education in the context of the financialization of everyday life, focusing on how and why this form of education became a popular “solution” to problems of debt, poverty and precariousness whose origins go well beyond the actions of individuals.

Montgomerie, Johnna, and Daniela Tepe-Belfrage. 2019. “Spaces of Debt Resistance and the Contemporary Politics of Financialised Capitalism.” Geoforum 98: 309–17.

Explores a range of debt resistance movements, including in the UK and Europe. In particular, it focuses on movements where citizens mobilize to audit public debts (such as those owed by nations or municipalities) to discover their origins and develop a political discourse around their legitimacy.

Orman, Suze. 2007. The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke. New York: Riverhead.

Orman is one of the most famous financial advice commentators in the United States, known for her witty but uncompromising insistence on personal responsibility. This book is written for young people and both participates in and challenges stereotypes about spendthrift Millennials, but shies away from discussing the wider political economic  conditions in which that generation finds itself.

Saltman, Kenneth J. 2018. The Swindle of Innovative Educational Finance. Forerunners 26. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

A short, incisive critique of the involvement of the FIRE sector in American public primary and secondary education, exploring social impact bonds, pay for success schemes, “philanthrocapitalist” support, student loans and the branding and financing of semi-privatized charter schools.

Art, finance and childhood

In part because of the methodological difficulty of studying financialization and children, in part because the topic of children and money is surrounded by some degree of opprobrium, scholars seem reluctant to explore the theme. Yet contemporary visual and performance artists, many of whom are contending with the financialization of their own field of activity, have been more eager. In La Berge’s 2019 exploration of what participatory can teach us about contemporary capitalism, she analyzes the work of several North American artists who “employ” children as workers for the duration of a public art project. Because children are supposed to be exempt from work and financial worry, this artistic technique provokes profound and unsettling questions in audiences who are themselves habituated to financialization’s mundane but relentless pressures. Similarly, Haiven’s 2018 investigation of art and money discusses the work of several artists who have engaged similar tensions. These include Mel Chin’s Fundred Project, which asked children to design new money as a form of protest about lead content in US schoolyards and UK artist Darren Cullen’s shocking and ironic Pocket Money Loans installation, which commandeered high street storefronts to advertise high-interest debt to children. The German theater artist Sybille Peters 2013 is well known for her work with children, especially through the Fundus children’s research theatre in a migrant and working-class neighbourhood of Hamburg. She has, for many years, focused on working with children to explore “adult problems,” notably related to money, debt and financialization. In the Kinderbank project Peters worked with young children to establish and run a bank that minted its own currency exclusively for use by children.

La Berge, Leigh Claire. 2019. Wages Against Artwork: Socially Engaged Art and the Decommodification of Labor. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.

This book explores the critical artwork of artists seeking to understand and contend with financialization. Chapter four, “The Artwork of Children’s Labor: Socially Engaged Art and the Future of Work,” details the work of several contemporary artists who have (literally or figuratively) employed children as workers to explore these tensions.

Haiven, Max. 2018. Art After Money, Money After Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization. London and New York: Pluto.

This book investigates how contemporary artists are responding to financialization by integrating money, financial instruments and related themes into their work. Chapter three, “0 Participation: Benign Pessimism, Tactical Parasitics and the Encrypted Common”, covers Darren Cullen’s Pocket Money Loans and Mel Chin’s Fundred Project, both of which involved children as financial actors to make a critical comment on financialization.

Peters, Sibylle, and Fundus Theatre. 2013. “Let’s Make Money! Kollektive Geldforschung Mit Der Kinderbank Hamburg.” In Das Forschen Aller: Artistic Research Als Wissensproduktion Zwischen Kunst, Wissenschaft Und Gesellschaft, edited by Sibylle Peters. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

An account of and theoretical reflection by Hamburg-based theatre artist and theorist Sibylle Peters whose work has for many years focused on working with children on “adult problems” and on money, debt and financialization. The two come together in the Kinderbank project where Peters worked with young children to establish and run a bank that minted its own currency exclusively for use by children.