Talking about my generation

Mired in debt and a stagnant economy, Melissa Jane Knight tells us how the world looks if you’re in your late twenties – and urges all 16–30 year olds to put the case forward by entering the IF Film Competition

If you are like me and woke up on the first of January 2012 knowing that this is the year you will turn the magic three-zero, then looked around to find you are still in a second-hand bed, still renting overpriced and poorly insulated accommodation and as a result have a strained relationship with your boyfriend as the limited resources to your disposal mean it is just as reckless to conceive a baby now as it was at sixteen, you may understand why I am part of the Intergenerational Foundation.

Their very short manifesto spells out in clear bullet points how younger and future generations are being shafted at the expense of keeping older generations super sweetly satisfied. What I don’t want is to turn this into a granny bashing moment – I have just spent four months caring for an eighty-six year old man and it was the happiest I have been in a very long time. But just why I was so happy is also indicative of my generation’s situation. It was easy. Life, for four months, was super-easy.

Painful comparisons

This man had a lifelong career, low rent which enabled him to buy a property as an investment and continue renting; he bought that property at a time when it was not priced at the £450k it is now (a modest three-bedroom terraced house), and amassed a generous pension from his job at a time when jobs were in abundance, whilst never having to pay a penny for his own university education.

Please don’t detect any seething jealousy, because there is none. He is a wonderful gentleman who deserves an easy life. He worked hard; he paid his taxes and he is being looked after as a result. What you can detect (and if you don’t, let me spell it out for you clearly) is a very sobering thought that I am stuck. My only debt is my £16,000 student loan which once scared the crap out of me (still scares the crap out of my German boyfriend) but now seems nothing compared to what I need to cough up for a deposit on a poky South-East London flat (and a pittance compared to the £42,000 expected debt that future students will face after the £9,000 a year university fee increase).

I own no fixed assets (except perhaps what’s inside my bra and occasionally something squidgy lurking in my skull). With what personal attributes I do have – being prudent, never flashy and a grafter – I have managed to save a small amount, but when added to my student debt this still leaves me thousands of pounds in the red. Not to mention my freelance contractual jobs as a youth worker which don’t include things like sick pay, holiday pay, pension provision or maternity cover. This makes me sit back against the wall, slowly exhale, whispering the words: “It’s all a load of bollocks.”

What reward do I get for buying my clothes in charity shops and decking out my privately rented flat using only and what people leave outside their front gardens?

Passing the buck

Let me liken the situation given to us to that of a grandmother who takes her grandson into the sweet shop, picks out what sweets they will both share, then consumes three quarters of the bag after contributing for only a tenth of the sweets purchased, expecting him to pay the rest (because she’s retired now), with the pocket money his parents gave him for cleaning the car. He can afford to buy his grandmother the sweets in question, but proportionately he is giving far too much of his limited resources away to a woman he knows has a tin full of biscuits softening in her kitchen cupboard.

Welcome to the short-term thinking in politics: spend now, pay later. But who’s paying? Not us of the older generation: we’re retiring. Who’s accountable? Not us politicians, we’re becoming consultants. “So who’s paying?” cries the already tired and shrinking workforce. Them, there: the future workers.

For those of you lucky enough to have full time employment (which sadly does not include me), your taxes go towards paying for current pensions with no guarantee that you will ever receive, proportionally, the same amount of remuneration. Fair? Certainly not. Intergenerationally unfair? Certainly yes.

Now one problem I will hold my hands up to is that younger generations are not interested in paying into a pension pot, ever. What I won’t concede to is that it is because we are all pill-popping, alco-pop glugging consumerists living la vida loca for the day.

I would love to invest my savings somewhere reliable, but the markets are so volatile, and pension funds hold out only bleak prospects – and if I lose my savings, I really am in a twisted game of snakes and property ladders.

I get a pittance of interest, so much so that the longer I store the cash in my account, it will depreciate in value. Thanks for that, Bank of England. On that note alone, I wonder if I am actually real or am l really living inside a futuristic video game where perversions such as these exist.

And I am not saving for a diamond-encrusted iPhone 5 with Jordan’s signature on it. I am saving for a deposit on a modest (shoddy), cosy (tiny), integrated kitchen-living room (they’ve taken away the living room to bump up the number of “bedrooms” to increase value), three-bedroom (two-bedroom) property with masses of potential (needs total rewiring).

When I moved to New Cross to study at Goldsmiths in 2003, a two-bedroom flat was around £120k, and by the time I left university at the London School of Economics in 2008, those same flats were reaching £230k. I bet on education and used my savings to pay for a Master’s degree, hoping the designer label LSE would springboard me into some flashy cool job where I would get to wear suits other than at funerals and soon afford treats such as meat and real bras. But alas (violin busker begin lamentation now), I have been underemployed ever since, despite having a string of experience and top grades.

The worst thing is, I can’t even lick my wounds and think the world is against me because so many of my generation are in this situation: stuck renting, stuck with thousands of pounds worth of debt for doing a good noble thing: educating ourselves without any reward of secure full-time employment. We’re stuck in temporary contracts, with job insecurity and long hours, if paid at all.(A friend of mine had the worst internship at a huge firm who can certainly afford to have paid her; it knocked her confidence immensely.)

As the public sector is being slashed and the private sector hires each employee to do the work of five, the space for the swarms of annually replenishing graduates gets smaller. A first-class degree? Pah! Ten a penny these days. At least there was one truth our Chancellor and Prime Minister have uttered either side of the election: We’re all in this together. Well we are: the young, gifted and broke. You’re not, Mr Cameron or your baby-booming buddies. And we have to tell our politicians how it really is.

So are you un- or underemployed? Have crippling university fees? Live in poor housing, and unable to get on property ladder? Aged 16–30? Then the Intergenerational Foundation (IF) wants to hear from you. I volunteer for IF – a thinktank looking at the issues younger and future generations are facing at the hands of short-term economic policy.

Present and future generations

It is easy for IF to show how government spending doesn’t add up on a balance sheet, but what really counts is the emotional impact it is having on people’s lives. I yearn for a home. I want babies, I’ve wanted them for three years but with no maternity package and job applications telling me I am unsuccessful, how am I to provide a responsible future?

If I have babies now, I will slip into real poverty and be a bigger burden on the State. And if we all delay and end up having fewer babies, what happens to the older people who need looking after when there are fewer and fewer employees paying taxes. “State pensions” will become a historical term future children marvel ever existed, like when I tell current teenagers that when I was a kid you could smoke in the back half of an aeroplane.

Society should be a contract between those with grey hair, those grey-suited politicians, those with grey skinny jeans, and the eggs sat in my ovaries – working out resources over time and sharing accordingly. Not a grab-a-stash-of-cash and keep the spending hidden until the next party get elected.

Spreading the joy

We could be a generation that has it tough at every stage of our lives, but what I really want is that contented smile the elderly man I looked after has on his face every morning as he wakes and every evening as he dozes. We all do, don’t we? And it is possible; it just takes some long-term planning and better, more intergenerational-based, policy-making.

For example, giving a blanket winter fuel allowance of up to £300 to all state pensioners automatically means people like Sir Paul McCartney can receive one, or the hundreds of pensioners who go to their holiday homes in Spain to escape the British winter – “that’ll be sixty chilly margaritas por favor!” Meanwhile young families with small children, who also need to be warm, struggle to survive the energy bill increases.

On the face of it, we young people look like we have it all – new clothes, gadgets, trainers – but scratch that superficial consumer capitalist surface and, without a trust fund or rich parents, is the dark deep sobering hole of life long debt. And then you crack your iPhone.

IF Film Competition

Are you Young, Gifted and Broke? Want to share your story? Then enter the Intergenerational Foundation’s Film Competition, sending in a 3 minute film highlighting what it is like to be young in Britain today. You could win some top work experience at The Guardian or Island Pictures, plus £1000.

For more information, visit:


or contact: [email protected]