I’ve been speaking to Benjamin Perkins, a 23-year-old graduate whose experiences are symptomatic of what looks increasingly like becoming a lost generation. He’s been turned down for every low-level admin job he’s applied for despite, or maybe because, he’s well educated and highly intelligent. After finishing at Goldsmiths in 2011, he says he couldn’t afford to carry on living in London, so he had to move back to North Lincolnshire.
He says: “I’m competing with thousands of others for a dwindling amount of poor quality positions – zero hours, part time, no fixed contract. My local jobcentre is in Scunthorpe, a town that is hurting, and where there have historically only been semi-skilled jobs anyway.
“The jobcentre is packed every time I visit. The staff varies greatly between asinine and helpful. Every month they give the same advice: you should undermine your degree, consider taking it off your CV. After a decade of being told the virtues of university – the extra £250,000 you'll earn in a lifetime is one that sticks in my head – it's a rather rude awakening.”
So because he couldn’t afford to live in London, he’s gone from top of the class to top of the scrapheap. That’s where so many young people now reside and where a lot more are headed.
Here’s why: Housing benefit has already been reduced by 40%, which means it no longer covers the cost of a room, let alone things like electricity or water. It was one of the first things the coalition did upon taking office, to slash benefits. Then at the Tory conference, George Osborne announced (to huge cheers) that he’s drawing up plans to scrap housing benefit entirely for under 25s. The answer? You’ll just have to live with your parents and work in whatever industry is nearby, regardless of what you’re trained to do.
Let’s not pussyfoot around here: unless you think the creative industries should only be a pursuit of the privileged or fortunate, housing benefit is a resoundingly good thing. It gives opportunities for educated people from less privileged backgrounds to work, and look for work, in industries which routinely expect people to work for free or pay such low amounts that they still can’t afford rent even when they’re employed. Even when I was on staff at a magazine, the boss would pay me in cash and tell me to keep claiming the dole and housing benefit. He drove a big car and lived in a penthouse while I couldn’t afford to take the tube.
When we talk about creative people claiming the dole and/or housing benefit, we’re not talking about a generation of bimbos moving to Hollywood and expecting a grace and favour mansion in Beverly Hills. We’re talking about people who have kicked their arses into gear, lumbered themselves with student debt, got themselves educated, graduated with good degrees, got specific industry training and work experience but still can’t make ends meet due to circumstances largely beyond their control.
We’re talking about young people working in music, publishing, PR, media, photography, journalism, charities – basically a huge chunk of the economy – who have done the right thing by getting their foot in the door, and who shouldn’t have to quit their profession just because the cost of living rises while the economy retracts like a pair of bollocks in a blizzard. Go to most magazines, websites, newspapers, galleries, charities – even the biggest ones – and you will see brilliant, innovative work produced by people who rely on benefits to do that work.
Whether we like it or not, these are effectively government subsidised industries. Whether this is a good thing or ought to be changed is a different debate, but it’s empirically true. Ironically, a lot of people on benefits are actually wealth creators, albeit creators of wealth for other people (see the anecdote about my old boss, who now has an even bigger car and an even bigger penthouse, and still uses unpaid labour). Young people are propping up the creative industries which make London such a cool, vibrant, desirable, whatever – ultimately very expensive – place to live. So expensive that they can’t afford to live there, even if they’re working, which is why they have to claim benefits.
I was fortunate to be able to move to London before the housing-benefit cut. I could afford a roof over my head while I first did unpaid work, then paid work, and now teeter on the cusp of something which seems both distant and very close. This may sound mad, but my life is in a whole lot better shape for not only being able to go to university, but having opportunity to move to London afterwards and live on the breadline. (I’ve probably learned more from the latter than I did the former.) It’s put me in a position not only to better myself, but to contribute to society in ways that wouldn’t be possible if I had to live with my parents.