It is not young people who are failing; it’s this society that does not provide for them.
First published April 2019 by Anne E Cooper, Peer Researcher Groundswell/The Pavement.
You’ve got your apprenticeship or degree and as Nina Simone wrote in the civil rights anthem, Young, Gifted and Black, during the heady and optimistic days of ’69, “There’s a world waiting for you/ This is a quest that’s just begun.” Yet for many young people today this “quest” means negotiating exorbitant rents, low pay and embarking on precarious employment and housing. A life which, for those with the “privilege” of an education, often begins saddled with debt.
With market rents in London at an average £748 pcm per room, the equivalent of 72% of income for a person aged 21-24 on the National Living Wage, or 68% for over 25’s (after tax based on a 35 hour week) it is hard to see how anyone can rent, pay the bills, travel and eat. If income is steady it can just be done but young people tend to be in part-time work, on short-term or zero hour contracts.
I attempted to meet young people in this position; to find out how they manage in these winds of misfortune. This proved more difficult than I’d hoped. Precarious work means precarious lives. It means sofa surfing and squatting, sometimes resorting to the streets, it means hunger and sleepless nights. Meeting to describe how hard it is, isn’t really a high priority for someone struggling to survive.
I began by speaking to Alice, a barista, asking, “Do you know anyone under 30 in low-paid or precarious work, struggling to find and keep a place to live?” Her frank answer was, “I think myself and everyone I know pretty much fits into that category.”
This is supported by available figures. Low pay, as defined by The Resolution Foundation is, “less than two-thirds of the national median across all workers.” According to their 2018 report 42% of 21-24-year old’s and 22% of over 25s are receiving below the N.L.W.
It’s not low pay alone that is an obstacle to securing a safe and permanent home. A report by The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in February of this year entitled, The Characteristics of those in the Gig Economy states, “Those involved in the gig economy were more likely than the population as a whole to […] live with parents, family or friends either rent-free or paying some rent…” 56% of those in the gig economy are 18-34, which may explain some of these trends.
Nor is it just practical difficulties that impede meeting people in precarious work and housing. There are feelings of guilt and shame. When I was talking to Siohban, (not her real name) she admitted she felt, “ Pretty depressed most of the time,” then burst into tears and said, “It’s so hard, either I have to work late in a bar or 16 hours a day in an office in a soulless company. Either way I can’t afford a room, I feel I’m getting it all wrong.”
I ran into Miguel, (not his real name) who works part-time at a market. He greeted me cheerfully until I said, “How’s it going?” Then, head lowered said, “I had to move back home.” He explained he couldn’t afford to rent and had tried squatting, but it became a full time struggle just to survive; no social life, no time for work or activism. He felt he had failed.
It is not young people who are failing; it’s this society that does not provide for them. There is no access to social housing while the Government target for the N.L.W. is to reach of 60% of median earnings by 2020, which would remain below the definition of low pay and little consolation for those looking at private rented sector.
Minimum wage jobs are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations. Half are in retail, hospitality and cleaning & maintenance, occupations held disproportionately by young people, according to the National Minimum Wage Statistics, House of Commons Briefing paper, February 2018.
There is reason for hope in these times where survival can feel like having a bit-part in a dystopian steam punk Sci-Fi film. It is precisely these workers that are getting organized and winning victories. While strike days for the economy as a whole was at an all-time low in 2017 according to the Office of National Statistics, precarious sectors have seen a rising tide of militancy.
On Thursday 8 June 2017 cleaners at the L.S.E. had an astounding victory, organised into the small independent union United Voices of the World they held seven days of strike action between March and June. The L.S.E. were forced to end outsourcing and bring their migrant and BAME cleaners onto equal terms and conditions with the in-house workers.
A series of actions have followed organised by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, the I.W.G. B. Struggles are taking place by cleaners at the Royal Albert Hall and the National Gallery. Cleaners’ outsourcing has been stopped at Kings College and Goldsmiths. On the 4th October 2018 TGI Friday, McDonalds, Uber, Deliveroo and Wetherspoon workers took co-coordinated strike action combined with dynamic street protests. They are demanding £10 an hour regardless of age. In the same week a three day all out, unofficial strike at the south London pub The Ivy House saw a victory with every one of their demands met.
On the 30th October a national demonstration, The Rise of Precarious Workers, took place as a challenge the gig economy. It coincided with a court case brought by the I.W.G.B v Uber at the Court of Appeal. A statement from the newly formed union reads, “This is not just about Uber drivers, but about all of us that are being forced into increasingly more precarious forms of work.”
These strikes and protests are characterised by energetic young, multi-ethnic workers, many of whom by virtue of precarious work are by definition precariously housed if not homeless. With an estimated 55% of homeless people in work, getting organised can be a route out of homelessness.
Anne was one of the peer journalists volunteering on the ‘From the Ground Up’ project, delivered by Groundswell in partnership with the Pavement magazine. This blog was written as part of the ‘working homeless’ feature edition; below you can read the magazine edition and listen to the podcast.