I spent my 20s racketing around doing (generally) fun, creative, astonishingly poorly paid jobs, living in hovels. The flat I rented in Brixton had no heating. In the winter, getting dressed to get into bed often involved putting on more layers than getting dressed to go out. It did have lots of cupboard space but none of it was usable because of the mould on the inside. If you pulled the bedroom curtains too hard you dislodged the curtain poles, which were tied with string to nails knocked into the wall.
It was the last in a long line of shared houses and bedsits which took me from leaving university to buying a place of my own; which I did when I found someone I wanted to settle into domesticity with. Fortunately, this happened at the end of the last recession – at just about the last time in the history of London when it was possible to buy a house in Zone 2 on one person’s salary (he was out of work at the time) without robbing a bank first.
They do things differently now – they have no choice. I was in a meeting yesterday with a successful 28-year-old professional who lives at home with his mum. He’s saving for a deposit on a flat and could probably just afford it now, but doesn’t want a 90% mortgage, because he wants to be sure that he will have paid his mortgage off before he’s 55. This is alien on so many levels.
Apart from anything else, when I was 28 it never occurred to me that one day I would be 55. I’m not sure I was unusually feckless, maybe I was, but planning – for mortgages, middle age, retirement wasn’t something I ever thought about. I would have been horrified by the idea of having to go home after university and live with my parents – however much I love them, and however comfortable their home was. There were places to rent when I needed them and if I ever thought about the future at all, I had a vague expectation that when I was grown up enough to want to buy a house, I’d have scrambled far enough up the jobs ladder to be able to afford it.
My timing in life has always been impeccable (I claim no credit for this). Among the first generation in my family to be able to go to university, I had a grant and supportive parents and came out with an overdraft which seemed monstrous at the time, but was laughably small compared to a student loan of £9k pa. I left university at a point when there were jobs for graduates to do and affordable (if scuzzy) places to rent and be independently foolish in ‘til something better came along.
There’s a thought-provoking piece in today’s Guardian about demographic change and what it means for universities which includes this:
Commenting on patterns of immigration in the US, Jack Donaghy, in the TV comedy 30 Rock, puts it this way: “The first generation works their fingers to the bone. Second generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation goes snowboarding and takes improv classes.”
I feel like I’m part of Donaghy’s third generation. My colleague – and my children, although they’re a lot younger than him – aren’t so lucky. They’re so much more grown-up than we were at their age. So aware that life is hard, so much more constrained. Thank God I’m not 28 any more.