FFifty years ago, the average 24-year-old would have been married, living with a partner, and probably already a mother. Census data released last week shows that today they probably still live with their parents.
Welcome to the modern phenomenon called “extended adolescence.” It is a term that refers to baby boomers unable to get their twenties to leave the parental home. But this is to confer a ridiculous degree of agency on the zoomer generation. They are not choosing a Peter Pan lifestyle: harsh economic realities put them in a straitjacket. Who really wants to live with their parents into their 20s, struggling to save a deposit to rent, let alone buy?
However, those who have a child’s bedroom that they can continue to live in for free or subsidized rent while working a job with prospects are the lucky ones. How many of these under 25s are stuck living in a place where the only work available is low paying, with little opportunity for development and progression?
Intergenerational inequalities are often framed as a bleak economic equation. If the price of a supermarket chicken had risen at the same rate as house prices since the 1960s, it would cost over £50 today – Rising house prices have provided a huge windfall for homeowners at the expense of the tenants, who pay part of the highest rents in Europe.
The average graduate walks away with tens of thousands of pounds of debt that they’ll end up paying off for most, if not all, of their working lives; the changes introduced last fall mean that graduates with average earnings will end up paying significantly more, while those who earn more will pay less. Consider the increased taxes they will have to pay to cover the costs of an aging population, and how are Zoomers supposed to contribute to pensions that they will, in any case, pay out at much lower rates than they enjoy? today’s retired boomers?
These headlines do not begin to capture the scope of what we are asking more young people to give up. Those years of crazy social experimentation in your first home at age 20; the security of knowing you don’t have to move your kids every two years when it’s time for your tenancy; the guarantee of a place where you can live in retirement; not having to combine the impossible task of working full time and caring if your father has dementia. All the things that are being taken away from this generation, except for the cushy slice at the top, which will be able to depend on family wealth. The dampening effects of this wealth will multiply over time, so who your parents are will matter more, not less, where you end up in life.
Chin stroking about the right level for tuition fees or a little extra help for first-time buyers over 30 that drives prices up even higher for everyone else; the solutions offered by politicians, including the Labor Party, are nothing more than tinkering. The world has changed dramatically; so must the offer for young people.
There are a couple of ideas from the past that, with the update, could help address the crisis. The housing market needs fundamental fixes to lower prices: a painful readjustment that will take years. But there is a way to make an almost immediate difference for young people. In the 1970s, flats were cheaper, but access to mortgages was relatively restricted; women even needed a male guarantor. In order to open up jobs in the capital to a broader group of young people from across the country, big employers such as the civil service, the post office and the BBC funded hostels for single people in their early 20s.
Why can’t the government embark on a modern version of this, building and converting properties in job-rich and expensive areas into dormitory-like housing? They might be available at an affordable rent cap, with some spots reserved for youth from areas of the country where job market opportunities are limited, and might even include light-touch pastoral support. This could dramatically expand economic opportunities for some youth, and make possible a transition to adulthood in subsidized and supported communal living for those youth who do not go to college and are forced to fend for themselves.
The undergraduate education model is broken: a system whose justified expansion has come at the cost of young people incurring huge debts, sometimes just to get jobs for which a few decades ago you would not have needed a degree.
There is no data to find out if the skills developed while studying for a degree, as opposed to the degree certificate you need to get in the door with many employers, are worth these sums. By contrast, undergraduate apprenticeships allow young people to earn and learn simultaneously, earning a degree in three years without incurring any debt while developing skills in real workplaces. But there are only 30,000 degree trainee positions available each year, most of which are accepted by people over the age of 25 rather than school leavers, compared to more than half a million places on traditional university courses. .
If you were to redesign post-18 education to work for young people, not colleges, you would vastly increase the number of undergraduate apprenticeships and get more colleges to work with employers to offer them. That could result in fewer English and history degrees, and more vocational degrees in areas from law to nursing to technology development; but does it matter? I bet if there were more quality degree apprenticeships available, with a similar hosting offer to traditional degrees, young people would vote with their feet.
We have a history of great post-war government innovation in the UK: the creation of the NHS; the postwar expansion of social housing; the dream of the “Universidad del Aire” that became the distance education model of the Open University. Subsidized rental housing for young people and a huge expansion of undergraduate apprenticeships are not beyond the imagination of the State. But while politicians play in the weeds, things can only get worse.
It is hard to overstate the deadly consequences this political inaction will have for a generation for whom things will be more difficult than for their parents.