The Strive For A Cashless Society: A Battle of Rich Vs Poor?

Many of the benefits from our new-found reliance on card and contactless payments have been welcomed with open arms – it seems the pink plastic of a Monzo card can grant a wealth of ease and opportunity that a £20 note simply cannot. However, it seems there are limits as to who can access these opportunities, a problem which may all too often lie outside of the student psyche.

It seems the days of queueing outside your local HSBC are long-gone, replaced instead by an infrastructure that is almost entirely digital: spending habits and direct debits are locked inside banking apps rather than paper documents. Such an infrastructure has transformed the way we spend money. In many ways for the better – realising you’ve forgotten your purse ahead of a day at the library is no longer a problem when a trip to Tesco for snacks can be facilitated merely by your iPhone.

As well, there have been links made between an increase in card payments and a reduction in crime – summer trips to the airport can be enjoyed worry-free, safe in the knowledge that cards can be cancelled in the event of theft. There isn’t even a need for a pre-holiday trip to the post office: Monzo allows for £200 to be spent abroad every 30 days, free of charge.

Contactless spending can, therefore, seem like the pathway to an easier, stress-free life. But it seems access to the simple life is only available to some, with Britain’s move towards a cashless society causing havoc for other, marginalised sections of society.

From a millennial perspective, a cashless society can seem like a natural evolutionary step; we grew up with the introduction of iPads and asking Alexa to update us on news stories is almost second nature. But for the 2.7 million Britons who still rely entirely on cash, this isn’t quite the case: a generational conflict is present as the elderly struggle and often don’t want to navigate a contactless payment system.

Many of us may snigger at grandparents or relatives who insist on storing cash in the safety of their homes because they ‘don’t trust the banks’, often dismissing their ways as over-cautious or downright stupid.

There is, though, another way to look at the rise in contactless payments which makes the concept of a cashless society seem less like an easy way to travel stress-free and more like a Margaret Atwood novel. With future projections suggesting that Visa and Mastercard will control 90% of the total UK electronic payments sector by 2026, it seems we are directly implicated in a consumerist world which is not controlled by ourselves.

With Ajay Banga, chief executive of Mastercard, declaring ‘my enemy is cash’, it seems that the war is also waged on those forced to rely only on cash. More than half of those who rely mainly on cash have a household income of less than £15,000, and often the gadgets that facilitate easy contactless payments are beyond their accessible reach. It seems ironic, then, that universal credit can be paid only into a bank account or building society, making the lives of the poor increasingly difficult in a digitalised world.

The same issue applies to the homeless: with an address being a pre-requisite for the opening of a current account in the UK, it seems they too will struggle to function as cash payments continue to decline. Recently arrived immigrants may also lack the paperwork necessary to open a bank account. It, therefore, seems that the section of society who are physically unable to open a bank account is much bigger than those who simply do not want to, allowing consumer companies’ war with cash to become a war with the poor.

The effect of a cashless society on marginalised groups is something we as students need to be aware of. However, this poses a further problem: with debit cards already the most popular form of payment in the UK, it seems there is little we can really do to stop it. To iterate Monika Halan’s question: ‘once the technology genie is out of the bottle, how do you put it back?’

Heidi Shepherd