Generation Y is said to be the "want it now" generation. A new study takes a closer look at the spending priorities of these young consumers and reveals an attitude to debt that is very different from previous generations.

iPodThe study was designed by honours student Sarah Penman and Dr Lisa McNeill, a senior lecturer in marketing and consumption culture. Their qualitative approach included focus groups with university students aged between 18 and 25, followed by in-depth interviews with a selection of those same students. As a young consumer herself, Penman was the ideal person to conduct the focus groups, building an easy rapport with interview subjects who were, perhaps, more free and frank with their comments than they would be with someone outside their peer group.

One of the key findings is that young consumers engage in frequent, nonessential consumer purchasing which they see as "deserved" and often as a "reward" for behaviour like studying or working. Penman says she was surprised by the way respondents prioritised spending. "Mobile phones and fashionable clothes topped the list of 'essential' spending, followed by entertainment goods and hospitality," she says. "Students prioritised spending in these areas over 'non-essential' consumption on course costs, text books or even food. As one guy said, 'you can always ask a friend to spot you a pie, but when it's your turn to buy a round at the pub you don't have a choice'."

This comment touches on an idea that came through strongly in the study - that young people view consumption as part of establishing and maintaining relationships. "There is a perception among this age group that they need consumer items to be successful socially," says McNeill. "Spending is seen as part and parcel of establishing and maintaining relationships."

The study shows similar patterns of spending between males and females. "The only difference is that, whereas girls tend to go for volume, guys are inclined to spend on bigger ticket items - some happy to spend as much as $250 on a hoodie," says McNeill.

Young consumers engage in frequent, non-essential consumer purchasing which they see as "deserved" and often as a "reward" for behaviour like studying or working.

The study revealed a very relaxed attitude to high levels of debt. McNeill says it is difficult to blame this attitude on the easy availability of credit. "One of the interesting findings was that all the students we spoke to had part-time jobs," she says. "They understand how many hours it takes to earn the money they are spending, but don't seem to think through the consequences of getting into debt. One student even said he was prepared to 'go bankrupt' if need be."

Penman and McNeill hope to extend the survey to delve more deeply into the values that are driving young people's spending habits. "It would be interesting to explore the idea that consumption supports relationships. What drives it? Where does it come from?" says McNeill.

She adds that insights such as these are not only important in understanding today's youth market. "As Generation Y grows older, their attitudes and behaviours will have an enduring effect on the development of future societies," she says.