We're Living In A New Class System And It's Depressing As Hell
The Debrief: One of the knock on effects of the so-called 'Great Recession' has been the reduced economic power of young people, here's how that's shaping society
The Great Recession began in the US in 2007 and spread throughout the world. That’s now the best part of a decade ago. The International Monetary Fund have since called it the worst global recession since the Second World War, i.e. in living memory.
Our economy has been slowly recovering over the last few years. However, unbeknown to us in our teens, as we watched TV news reports about the collapse of the bank Lehman Brothers which showed employees leaving their Canary Wharf offices, the contents of their desks packed up in with cardboard boxes - the late 2000s would mark a point at which the narrative that young people (particularly those of the upwardly mobile middle classes) had been told growing up ceased to match up to the economic reality we would face when they grew up, graduated and stepped out into the adult world.
This was, also, a point at which it became apparent that our generation would be divided. We live in a society which tells you that 'you are what you have'. However, today, despite your own achievements, you are what your parents have/had. Surely the proof of this is that the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ is behind 25% of British mortgages today. If your parents can help it’s easy to collect your £200 winnings, pass go, leave your shared house and exit Generation Rent. In recent years, think tanks have warned that Britain risks becoming ‘permanently divided’ as social mobility in this country has, in fact, begun to reverse. As things stand today, it’s harder than ever to progress.
Never had it so good?
One of the knock on effects of the so-called 'Great Recession' has been the reduced economic power of young people - millennials, Generation Y, Generation Rent, the Jilted Generation, the first generation to be worse off than its parents – or whatever you want to call it. For those of us born in a time of economic boom between the early 1980s and late 1990s, who embarked upon adulthood just as the global economic crisis we had watched unfold as we signed on the dotted lines of our student loans and left school for university, really set in, life would not be quite as we had expected. It has been well documented that the traditional markers of adulthood have become unachievable for many millennials: a job for life, saving for a pension, moving out of your parents’ house, buying your own house and having children. They say it's because we're perpetual teenagers who refuse to get it together and grow up, but many of us are forced by economic circumstances beyond our control to rent as opposed to buy property, get married and postpone starting families of our own.
This autumn it will be 6 years since student protestors filled Parliament Square to protest the rise in tuition fees which were announced by the Coalition Government in 2010. They were protesting against cuts to funding and increases in tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year. They held banners and placards which read things like ‘fund our future’ and ‘R.I.P Education’. It was the promise of a very particular future that those protestors were referencing that was being said goodbye to in the final months of 2010, the year I graduated. It was the aspirational narrative fed to middle class millennials like myself, that if we followed the prescribed steps of ‘work hard, go to university, get a graduate job, buy a house and start your own family’ we would be better off, more well educated and happier than our parents had been. This was progression, this was aspiration. The reality, for those of us whose parents can't help, is that our expectations of life, of what would be possible if we worked hard, have failed spectacularly to match up to reality.
Not all millennials...
The problem with labelling an entire generation, as 'jilted' 'millennials' flooding the private rental market en masse is the reductive implication that we are simply one giant homogeneous iPhone-wielding, Airbnb-ing, Tindering, Netflix-watching lump; all in the same boat, worrying about the same things and experiencing the same struggles. We aren't. At university (if you go which not all millennials do, believe it or not) there’s a sense that you’re all equal, all in it together (even though you aren't). In the years that follow it becomes clear very quickly that what you really have in common with the people you met there is your degree and little else. This is manifested by the slow and creeping divisions which appear between those who can afford to intern for free and those who can’t, those whose parents buy them a flat and those who get locked into rented flat shares, by those who can afford to rent and those who move home, those who dutifully pay off their student debt and those who you realise never had any in the first place. As someone said to me recently when I was speaking to them about The Debrief’s #MakeRentingFair campaign, ‘what do you mean you can’t afford to buy a house…you went to Oxford.’ Yes, I did go to Oxford. But, I was the first person in my, albeit relatively affluent, family to go to university. I got into debt to do so, which I'm paying off. And I’ve been spending so much on rent since I graduated that I can’t afford to save for a deposit. Nobody is going to buy me a house and that was never something I expected. I thought I’d be able to do it for myself, as my parents did for themselves. I want to be able to do it for myself.
England, your England
In 1941 George Orwell wrote in an essay titled England Your England that this country was the most class-based society under the sun. ‘England’ he wrote ‘is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly. He’d find himself at home here in 2016.
This country remains as class bound as it ever was, if not more so. But we don’t like to talk about it, that’s not really the done thing is it? Many have offered suggestions about how class has changed, with one study suggesting there are, in fact, seven different cultural classes.
However, class today is purely economic and has nothing to do with culture. With more people than ever going to university it’s less about how you speak, whether you say ‘serviette or napkin’ or know how to pronounce things on menus, less about which university you went to, very little to do with how ‘cultured’ you are, how much you know about music and literature and more about how much money you have – specifically whether or not you own property.
Traditionally you were middle class if you owned your own home, had a stable job, a savings account or two and went ahead to put down roots and buy into the 2.4 lifestyle. Within that middle class there were Hyacinth Bouquet style suburban subsets defined by whether or not they had a swimming pool, how large their garden was and whether they went on long or short haul holidays.
Now, there are many people in their twenties who, despite having multiple degrees, a smartphone and being able to get a flight to Berlin in the RyanAir sale for as little as £14 return have no substantial savings, no stable employment and rent property which means they move frequently. The Great Recession, as they now call it, dissolved traditional middle class markers and life milestones.
Whether you like it or not middle class millennials fall into five categories now, defined by their housing status. Generational inequality is not, as many headlines suggest, so much about the young versus the old, but rather, as news about the growth of the 'Bank of Mum and Dad' makes clear, whether you come from a wealthy family or not:
The ones who have inherited property, perhaps through unfortunate circumstances such as the premature death of a loved one or because their parents were well off enough to hook them up from the off.
The (Share to) Buyers
Those who went into the city, were very good with their money, don’t live in London and/or got on the share to buy bandwagon as soon as they possibly could.
Those whose parents had enough equity in their own homes to do some savvy jiggery pokery and remortgage in order to give their kids enough for a deposit which they expect back at some point.
Those who went straight back to their parents’ house after university if they went, or never actually left.
The Flatshare Spareroomers
Those who did what they were told went to university/left home/got a job but spend a hefty percentage of their take home pay on every month, meaning they’re locked into the cycle of renting (often in flatshares) because they can’t afford to save enough for a deposit or go it alone.
This has a knock on effect for communities as well, with young people moving frequently and not settling. Today areas where so-called middle class millennials are being priced out are likely to also be places where what would traditionally have been conceived as ‘the working class’ cannot afford to live either. Last month the Guardian reported that figures now suggest 'soaring rents make having children prohibitive for young couples in South England...' Arguably, the plight of the middle class youth of today might be getting air time because issues like high housing costs in the private rental sector and relatively low wages have started to affect the previously untouched middle classes, but we can use that as a catalyst for a much needed conversation about how to make our society fairer for everyone.
The millennial stereotype goes something like this: a generation which is apathetic and feckless, too busy tweeting, going on holiday and mucking about with all of the cutting edge technology at their finger-tips to do anything worthwhile. Successive governments and political parties on both the left and right have overlooked us. No particular political party really seems to align itself with this generation just as no policies seem to reflect the economic reality we face, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the rise of multiple issue-specific political parties like the Greens, UKIP and the Women’s Equality Party. Help to Buy, for instance, is all very well and good but it’s based on the idea that you can afford to save £200 a month in the first place.
The thing is class never went anywhere, nor did inequality, the middle and upper echelons just conveniently forgot about it (stopped writing and making TV programmes about it) for a while, because things were good. According to the Office for National Statistics around a third of the UK’s population fell below the official poverty line at some point between 2010 and 2013, that’s 19.3 million people, or 33% of the population, with single parents and pensioners struggling the most. Across the rest of the EU the figure was 25%.
Renting, as opposed to owning your home, for example, is no new phenomenon. At the turn of the last century it was how the majority of people lived. That changed slowly as we became a nation of homeowners but it was always the reality for the very poor and most vulnerable in society. Now, post-recession, it has become the norm for the middle classes too. It might be uncomfortable but the unfulfilled expectations of a generation of middle class people who grew up being told that anything was possible, that they could be whatever they wanted to be remind us that class is very much alive and well, that things can change in a generation.
What we need is a conversation and, ideally, a unified voice that can speak seriously about the challenges, of which there are many, which lay ahead for our generation as we get older – particularly for those who will never own property, whose parents can’t secure their future - and propose solutions.
You might also be interested in:
Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating