HWave prices were experiencing a mini-boom last July, fueled by what felt like the windfall from a stamp duty holiday and stifled demand from the first close. By fall, prices were still rising, but don’t worry, experts said: They will collapse again when people start losing their jobs. With that foot still to fall, things are still looking very optimistic, if you are a house. For everyone else, a crazy situation has only gotten worse.
The latest UK figures for December show that house prices are now 8.4 times the average annual income. The only time that number has been marginally higher was just before the global financial crisis in 2008. Those who have managed to climb the ladder think they are the winners in a diabolical game of skill and chance. Compared to tenants, who pour their wages indefinitely down the drain of the rentier economy, mortgage holders appear to be well blessed.
Yet the scale of debt places mortgage holders in a state of contract bondage to which, if we could stop blinking at our own good fortune for a second, we might object. The ideal citizen for his age is the one who bought his house in January 1958, paid off his mortgage decades ago, and now has millions. This is why we are all supposed to criticize boomers (although technically people in this position, now in their 80s, are part of the “silent generation” that preceded the boomers), but you can bet they are spending everything – leisure earned by caring for your children and grandchildren. The world we are accelerating to is working for homeowners and banks. Or to put it more simply, just for capital.
Of course, there are solutions to all of this, there are answers that worked in the past, otherwise we would all be paying rent to the Duke of Westminster, and answers for people with a supply-side fetish (build more social housing) . There are answers that solve other economic and environmental crises (energy neutral home bonds, cooperatively owned housing) and answers that may sound radically and dangerously redistributive, if you are an overlord in 1691 (the land value tax).
It’s not beyond our collective ingenuity making safe, affordable, quality housing accessible to all, but our political culture is putting up one last defense against seriously thinking about change. Yes Politicians can inflate what is essentially a rather laborious earthly struggle between capital and labor in a clash between generations, and keeping that balloon in the air long enough, they could distract us from the possibility of any practical solution.
But pitting one age group against another has a strict limit, a point where this stalemate simply offends the natural sense of justice. The aftermath of the pandemic may be that limit. Throughout 2020, pointing to the enormous sacrifices young people were making for the elderly tended to be an anti-blockade position. Since the alternative to confinement was mass death, it was simply not a very fruitful line of investigation. However, we are now in the stage of reconfiguring the old rules and we still have debates about housing and much more, as if the under-35s are irrelevant.
We talk about going back to the office as if the debate were simply about balancing the interests of the worker who would rather be at home with those of the CEO of Pret a Manger. Our new word for any engagement that may come up is the “agile” workplace, which sounds great. Middle-aged people love agility – it reminds us of the ’90s. But there is no obvious consideration here of what the office represents to those early in their careers. It’s not just a commute and frothy coffee. It’s where you learn, progress and develop your skills, hard and soft, and walk away from your shitty floor where you’re working on an ironing board.
Meanwhile, the debate over the vaccination passport plays out as a question of civil liberties: can the state force you to get vaccinated, with the rewards of everyday freedoms? This does not recognize the generation that has not yet been offered a vaccine. Housing, work, and health seem like disparate themes, but once a generation is removed from one of these spheres, they can constantly be erased from others.
When you are no longer considered a stakeholder, it is a hassle. The pigeons have become the pigeons of the public sphere, only commented on for their poor mental health or when they leave garbage in a park. As a speech, it is untenable and ridiculous: but only from a middle-aged position can I admire its absurdity. If I were 20 years old, I would be ready for a revolution.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism