16/03/2014 18:29 GMT | Updated 16/05/2014 06:59 BST

Adapting to the Needs of Young Consumers

They say youth is wasted on the young - but how easy is it to be a young person these days? Many are struggling to find employment and for those who have jobs, they face falling wages, rising prices and a struggle to get on to the property ladder.

Which? has been looking in to how economic and social trends are affecting young people and how we, as the largest consumer organisation in the UK, can be better equipped to help them deal with life and all the complicated decisions it throws up.

It's a fact that people aged between 18 and 29 years old are significantly less well-off compared to previous generations. It takes them several years longer to reach average income levels than when their elders were in this age bracket.

Because of the economic pressure they face, it's more important than ever that young people know their consumer rights. Our surveys suggest that in the last year, young consumers failed to return goods to the value of around £500m because they didn't exercise their consumer rights.

Our analysis also suggests that this problem is generational.

Just one in five young consumers would know where to go for information if they had a problem with a purchase, compared to nearly half of the general population. It's probably no surprise that around half of 18-24 year olds are reliant on their parents to assert their consumer rights but the fact that around a third of 24-29 year olds are still relying on them should cause some concern.

Consumer skills are traditionally developed through experience as we get older. However, for today's young consumers, 'milestone' events like marriage and buying a home are deferred until much later in life. There is less 'learning by doing' upfront.

Young consumers are spending longer relying on their parents for finance and for help in negotiating consumer markets. Four in ten parents say they are surprised by the extent to which their adult children still need their financial support and a third are worried their children make bad decisions about money.

If we don't adapt to these trends then we're storing up problems for the future.

Which? represents all consumers, so we also need to find ways to help younger people with the difficult decisions they face. Understanding consumer rights is not always straightforward, and major transactions like buying a house can seem very daunting.

So Which? is developing new services to help.

Our consumer rights website provides free, detailed advice about many areas where young consumers are currently struggling, like online shopping rights, digital downloads and mobile phone contracts.

One in ten 18-24 year olds say they're not confident to use their consumer rights when something goes wrong, particularly if they're complaining in person in a high street store. This is compared to just 5% of the general population.

Deciding whether or not to go to University has enormous implications for today's young consumers, firstly in terms of their career prospects and future earnings power, and secondly in relation to the financial burden that they face. In 2012, we launched Which? University, a service designed to help young people make informed choices about their future education and career. It's already had more than three million visits and is set to grow further in the next year.

It's those key life decisions, like higher education decisions and buying your first house, where young consumers need the most help.

We also provide an independent service for first time house buyers. Which? Mortgage Advisers search the market to help people find the best deal for their needs, and our advisers don't have incentives to push one provider over another, so borrowers can feel assured that we are putting their needs first.

Businesses need to respond to changing needs and ways of engaging younger consumers. In the face of negative economic trends, which show no signs of abating, it's more important than ever that young people have the tools they need at their fingertips.

We're doing our bit to develop products and services that put young consumers' needs first.