Why Can’t The Government Grasp That We’re All Renters?

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
I grew up hearing the axiom "youth is wasted on the young" trotted out by older people – family members, family friends and teachers – so often that I absorbed it by osmosis as fact. They’d say it to one another with a knowing look and a subtle eye roll that spoke of nostalgia and envy. I took it to mean then that I, then a young person but now "middle aged" at 32 according to my mother, lacked the perspective afforded by experience to appreciate the advantages of youth and, as a result, squandered them by getting drunk on Archers Aqua in the park. 
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Today, though, I struggle to accept that being young in Britain really has many advantages at all. It has always been the prerogative of older generations to think that everything has "gone to the dogs" but what will millennials, Generation Z and the Class of COVID-19 say when they grow old? Could things actually get any worse in our lifetime? 
They call us snowflakes – supposedly because we are entitled and...melt quickly in the sun (?!) – and Generation Rent just to really make the point that landlords own us. They blame our lack of options on expensive brunches but multiple studies and statistics confirm that millennials are poorer than previous generations. In fact, they were the first generation in a long time to be poorer than their parents
Anyone who is under the age of 39 has grown up in a society which has deteriorated in real time right before our eyes. Sure, we have smartphones but social mobility has gone into reverse, home ownership has become a pipe dream for many, house prices have risen, wages have stagnated, student debt has multiplied and, in some communities, life expectancy is actually falling for the first time in 100 years. 

Does the government have a blind spot when it comes to young people? Why don't they understand that many of them can't afford to buy a home, even with a cut to stamp duty?

The coronavirus crisis has taken all of this, put it in an economic pressure cooker and cranked up the heat. Young people, particularly young women, have seen their finances hardest hit by the pandemic. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies found back in April, young women are disproportionately likely to work in restaurants, retail and leisure, which have been worst affected by the lockdown.
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They’re also more likely to be renters than to own their own home, which means they’re already stretched financially because, as the Women’s Budget Group confirmed in its 2019 report about the gender housing gap, "A Home Of Her Own", there is currently not a single place – yes you read that right – in Britain where it is affordable for women to buy or to rent a home. 
As we enter what looks set to be the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, this is a huge problem. Not all young people are white, middle class, childless young professionals, as the stock pictures popped at the top of articles about us seem to suggest. A record 1.8 million families with children rent privately – for context, that’s up from 600,000 15 years ago.
The government either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about this. They keep announcing measures for homeowners – like mortgage holidays and stamp duty cuts – but when it comes to renters, beyond raising slightly the amount of housing benefit that people can access through universal credit and temporarily suspending evictions, they haven’t said much at all. In fact, they’ve said so little that the issue of private renters who can’t pay their rent is conspicuous by its absence in everything they do. 
Does the government have a blind spot when it comes to young people? Why don’t they understand that many of them can’t afford to buy a home, even with a cut to stamp duty? Do they not worry, both about how young people will pay their rent in the short term and what happens if the economy doesn’t bounce back quickly?
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If the government doesn't act now to protect the nearly 230,000 renters who have fallen behind with their rent since March, this country could see a surge in homelessness when the evictions ban lifts in August. This would be a catastrophe for Generation Rent.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive, Shelter
Experts are as stunned and concerned about this as renters are themselves. Polly Neate, chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, told Refinery29: "Our services are hearing on a daily basis that young renters have been particularly badly hit. If the government doesn’t act now to protect the nearly 230,000 renters who have fallen behind with their rent since March, this country could see a surge in homelessness when the evictions ban lifts in August. This would be a catastrophe for Generation Rent."
Private renters, particularly families and women, were already on the back foot when COVID-19 swept across the globe. They had fewer savings than homeowners and were more likely to rely on personal debt to get by because so much of their income was being handed over to a landlord each month. 
While our (mostly male) cabinet has been arguing about whether or not to wear face masks in public, young renters have been worrying about their future. They lie awake at night in bedrooms owned by someone else and wonder how long they will be able to afford it; they wake up every day and wonder what will happen when they can’t. 
In 1941, George Orwell published his essay The Lion and The Unicorn. He wrote that this country is like "a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family… A family with the wrong members in control." Looking around right now, it’s almost as though time has stood still. 
Youth isn’t wasted on the young, there just isn’t a chance right now to enjoy all the things that are supposed to come with it: freedom, opportunity, fun. If anything, it’s the older generations who are squandering the advantages of wisdom that supposedly come with age by failing to act to guard us against a future in which generations of young people are stuck and stressed because their life chances were squandered by political negligence, self-interest and short-sightedness. 

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